Matthew’s #MeToo

For the last year I have been slowly working on a book project about Jesus’ early years (I’m keeping my fingers crossed that one day I will bring it to completion!). One of the earliest chapters I wrote was on Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.pexels-photo-208278.jpeg

I realize to the average person, reading a chapter in a book about Matthew’s genealogy  might sound painful, but it is actually fascinating and relevant.  I believe in his creative Jewish style, Matthew is telling us a story about the four women he mentions by name. In the chapter I proceed by unpacking Matthew’s story.

However, once I completed multiple chapters of my book, I was able to see the big picture a little better, and realized that 1) the chapter on Matthew’s genealogy was too long for my target audience (over 5,000 words), and 2) the scope of the chapter was too narrow for what I am trying to accomplish with my book. Therefore, I had to make the difficult decision of omitting it from the project.

Nevertheless, I think what I wrote is too important to simply throw away. In all the research I have done on Matthew’s genealogy, my interpretation appears to be somewhat original. Therefore, I am either way out in left field, or I might be on to something.

I figured my blog was the best way for me to share my ideas about Matthew’s genealogy and also talk a little about my forthcoming writing project “Growing Up in Galilee.”

Because of the length of this chapter, I will be sharing in shorter installments. I hope it is helpful in some way and makes Matthew’s genealogy seem more exciting.

I begin today with an introduction to the genealogy and discussion about the story of Tamar.

Matthew’s #MeToo:

Introduction and Tamar

If you’ve ever been inspired to read the New Testament you may have noticed that it gets off to a pretty slow start. The first chapter in Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy of Jesus, which includes lots of strange names (e.g. “Zerubabbel”) linked together by the antiquated verb begat. But beneath what seems to be a monotonous rhythm there is something important happening.

Some of the names Matthew mentions in his genealogy are intended to evoke stories recorded in the Old Testament. Stories about people like David, Hezekiah, and Josiah, but also stories about four named women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.[1] Although it was not unheard of for women to appear in a Jewish genealogy,[2] it was certainly uncommon,[3] especially since these women had gained a negative reputation for being involved in sex scandals.

For decades biblical scholars have been puzzled by why Matthew includes the named women in his genealogy, and as a result, many explanations have been offered. For instance, some have suggested that because Jesus included women in his ministry, Matthew wanted to continue to emphasize their importance in the Church.[4] While it is true that Jesus valued women more than any other Jewish teacher of his era, it doesn’t explain why Matthew chooses these women, opposed to the more popular female figures, such as the wives and mothers of the patriarchs (Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel).

Others have suggested that Matthew includes the named women, because, like Mary, they all have somewhat unusual pregnancies that end up being a part of the divine plan.[5] One interpretation that is similar but slightly more nuanced is the idea that there was suspicion of illegitimacy with each of these women’s pregnancies.[6]

Currently, what seems to be the most popular view, is the argument that Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba were all gentiles.[7] The rationale is that gentiles are incredibly important to Matthew’s overall theology, and Matthew includes gentile women to point out that they are a part of Jesus’ ancestry.

It doesn’t seem like any of these explanations are mutually exclusive; in fact, it seems that each of the proposed interpretations could be related and pointing to a more unified theme. My personal interpretation is that the women are mentioned because they are prime examples of individuals who have been subjected to a broken system of social injustice in order to survive. I believe Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba represent Matthew’s version of #MeToo.

Women in the Ancient World

In the ancient world, women were treated as property. A man had to pay a “bride-price” to purchase his fiancé from her father, and if he died, his wife was treated as an item in his estate.[8]

If a married couple could not conceive, it was assumed that it was a result of sin in the woman’s life. One biblical scholar says, “Most people assumed that barrenness was a defect of the wife, and Jewish teachers generally insisted that a man divorce a childless wife so he could procreate.”[9]

Furthermore, if a man divorced his wife in the ancient world, there were no laws or systems in place for the woman to be supported financially—she would become destitute.

In essence, it was believed that the primary purpose of a woman was to give birth to children—especially male children. If she could not deliver on this expectation, she was cast aside like an old shoe.

Unfortunately, the women that are mentioned by Matthew are known historically as being scandalous, but if we dig a little deeper, it appears that they are merely trying to survive in a world dominated by men who use force to get what they want. As we will see, Matthew tells a redemptive story about how even in his birth, the Messiah came to break chains, “for the slave is our brother” and sister.

Tamar

The first woman Matthew mentions is “Tamar,” who is noted because she conceived Perez and Zerah by Judah. Tamar’s story functions as an aside in the larger narrative of Joseph and his brothers, in Genesis 38.[10]

At the beginning of the story, Tamar is married to Judah’s son, Er, but before they are able to conceive and bear a child, Er dies. Although the “levirate law” was not legally constituted in Israel at the time of Judah, the concept was already commonplace in the Ancient Near East.[11] This practice simply gets its name from the Hebrew verb levirate (“יָבָם”) which appears in this passage,[12] and is thus translated, “to perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her.”[13]

The levirate concept grew from a more generic practice to a codified law for the Hebrew people prior to their entrance to the Promised Land.[14] The basic premise was that if a man died without conceiving a male heir, it was his father’s responsibility to select one of his brothers to become “a surrogate for the deceased husband who posthumously gained a child, socially acknowledged to be his progeny and heir.”[15]

In the story of Tamar, after the death of Er, she marries Onan, the next brother in line. But the Bible says, “Onan knew the children wouldn’t be his so when he slept with his brother’s wife, he wasted his semen on the ground, so he wouldn’t give his brother children.”[16] In all likelihood, Onan did not want to have a child with Tamar because this would ultimately reduce his own share of the inheritance;[17] therefore, the Lord found Onan’s behavior displeasing and Onan died.

According to the levirate law, Tamar would marry the next brother. (Perhaps now the question that the Sadducees ask Jesus, “whose wife will she be in the resurrection?” makes a little more sense!).[18] But Judah only had one more son (“Shelah”), and Judah was unwilling to arrange a marriage between him and Tamar. Instead, Judah told Tamar that she should just go back to her father’s house. The implication is that Judah is washing his hands from any legal obligation—Tamar already had a shot with two of his sons and missed it.

According to Hebrew scholar Nahum Sarna, Tamar “was not free to remarry but could return to live with her parents, although still subject to the authority of her father-in-law.”[19] In other words, Tamar was being subjected to social limbo, and without some kind of intervention, she would be forsaken.

Although what Judah was doing was technically legal, it was not just. In the words of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, “In ways apparently congruent with popular morality, Judah had spurned the claims of his daughter-in-law. By his indifference, he has violated her right to wellbeing and dignity in the community.”[20]

But this isn’t the end of Tamar’s story; instead, she returns to her hometown where she takes on the identity of a widow. Meanwhile, Judah’s wife dies, and as a result of his new-found freedom, he decides to go on a business trip which just happens to be near Tamar’s hometown.

When Tamar catches wind of the news, she changes out of her widow’s clothing and into the attire of a prostitute. And just as Tamar suspected, when Judah comes through town, he propositions her to sleep with him.

Tamar and Judah agree that the payment for her services would be a kid goat from his flock, but since the goat was not with him, Tamar demanded some form of collateral. In the heat of the moment, Judah made the unwise choice of leaving his seal, cord, and staff with Tamar for good measure—all of which would have been like a modern person temporarily entrusting a prostitute with his driver’s license, debit card, and social security number. In essence, the seal, cord and staff were Judah’s primary forms of identity.

After they sleep together, Tamar takes Judah’s property and escapes.

Later when Judah returns with Tamar’s payment and to collect his property, he can’t find her so he leaves. In fact, he says, “Let her keep everything so we aren’t laughed at…”[21] In other words, Judah is willing to forget his incredibly valuable property because he is afraid that if he digs too deep, his indiscretions will come to light.

But three months later, someone tells Judah that his daughter-in-law, Tamar, has become a prostitute and is now pregnant. Judah’s response is to bring her out so that she can be publically executed by burning.[22] But when Tamar is brought out she is clinging to Judah’s seal, cord, and staff and announces that she is pregnant by the man who owns them. Immediately taken back by the surprise, Judah confesses that Tamar is more righteous than him.[23]

Conclusion

There is no doubt that what Tamar has done is deceitful…but did she have any other choice?

If we give the entire narrative much thought, it doesn’t seem that Tamar seduces Judah in order to have her way sexually with her father-in-law. Rather, Tamar is simply trying to survive. By conceiving male children by Judah, it means that she has provided legal heirs for her deceased husband, Er. Now she is entitled to a portion of the inheritance and can live out her days without being a rejected piece of property.

Perhaps there is a tinge of poetic justice in the story since she conceives twins. Not only does Tamar provide one male heir, but two. Therefore, it is assumed that Judah would be responsible for including double provisions for Tamar and her sons.

As we will read each of these accounts in light of the birth of Jesus, we will see that neither Tamar nor Judah did what was right, but it seems that Tamar’s hand was forced in order to survive. This story, along with the stories of Ruth, Rahab, and Bathsheba, all raise ethical questions. In each scenario we might be prompted to ask, “Was there a better way?”

For now I will say that it is too messy to provide a simple answer. We have to read more. I hope you will tune in next time.

[1] Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 77

[2] According to Brown, Matthew’s sources for his genealogy are Ruth 4:18-22 and 1 Chronicles 2:5, and both include women (Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 69-70).

[3] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 36

[4] Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, 42

[5] Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 73

[6] Blomberg, Matthew, 56

[7] Luz, Matthew 1-7, 83-85

[8] Sarna, Genesis, 266

[9] Keener, Bible Background Commentary, 188

[10] Judah was one of Joseph’s brothers

[11] Sarna, Genesis, 266

[12] Speiser, Genesis, 297

[13] Genesis 38:8, New Revised Standard Version

[14] Deuteronomy 25:5-10

[15] Speiser, Genesis, 297

[16] Gen. 38:9, Common English Bible

[17] Walton, Bible Background Commentary, 69-70

[18] Matthew 22:28

[19] Sarna, Genesis, 267

[20] Brueggemann, Genesis, 311

[21] Gen. 38:23, Common English Bible

[22] Gen. 38:24

[23] Gen. 38:26

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