Recently, I heard a sermon preached almost entirely on Jesus’ genealogy in the book of Matthew.
I was visiting a church I attended in my youth, a place where I learned a lot of what I’ve needed to unlearn about theology of women. I was delighted to see that the pastor immediately picked out the women in the narrative, a little disappointed to realize that he did so only to point out that they were all foreigners, with the exception of Mary. But this got me thinking in another direction, as sermons so often do. I began to think through these five women, to question what else they might have in common.
Right there, as the pastor continued with his sermon, I realized something I’d never noticed before. Each of the women in the genealogy was either single (in the case of Tamar, Ruth, and Rahab), or sort of relationship adjacent (Bathsheba’s husband was away at war, leaving her vulnerable, Mary was betrothed, but easily sentenced to death for being pregnant at a word from Joseph).
The very things that made women safe in the cultures of their day: marriage and children, were missing from their lives.
This affected me especially because those things are also absent from my life. I don’t know what’s it like to be a widow. I can imagine that the process is made worse by unfair treatment from a frightened father-in-law, who watched two sons die after coupling with Tamar. Still, that doesn’t excuse the fact that he sent her home to her father’s house, making her present and future uncertain. Without children to carry on her husband’s line, there would potentially be no one to care for her. She might be worried about where her next meal would come from, or how she would continue to live.
It might also be especially hard to be a widow in a country you’ve never been, where you are treated with suspicion because of your race, while trying to care for your also widowed mother-in-law. Ruth performed hours of hard labor in a field where she could easily have been taken advantage of and robbed. Giving up everything she’s ever known to stay with the family she married into.
Rahab heard the rumbles of the coming of the people of God, even from a distance. As a prostitute, she made herself vulnerable for a living. Yet, she became the protector of her whole family (and the Israelite spies).
Women are left alone for many reasons.
Bathsheba’s husband was at war, fighting for the king. It is ironic and heartbreaking that it was this very king who took advantage of his absence to completely alter Bathsheba’s life, taking her from a long-distance wife to a bereaved wife (and then bereaved mother).
Mary harbored the Messiah within her, risking a lot more than her reputation. Although Joseph could have had her killed, it was also his presence that ensured her safety (once the angel intervened).
When I tug at this common thread of vulnerability I find women who were met by God in the very heart of their aloneness.
Singleness did not disqualify Ruth, Rahab and Tamar from taking care of their families (and themselves). It was God who granted them favor and protection. Bathsheba and Mary were guarded and brought to safety by God even in circumstances of disgrace, when I’m sure they felt most isolated. Not only was marriage not a precursor to the instrumentality of these women in the redemptive story God is telling with the world, their lack of marital covering is central to the narrative.
Many of these women did not remain single and none of them remained in the heightened place of vulnerability they are known for.
Tamar became the mother of twin sons Zerah and Perez. Perez’ descendant Salmon married Rahab and she became the mother of Boaz. Boaz married Ruth and her son Obed had a son Jesse who was the father of David. David took Bathsheba by force, making her the mother of a king and the last mentioned female link in the chain until an angel appeared to Mary many years later to announce the birth of another kind of King who grew among His half siblings.
I don’t know exactly how the story of God works. But peering into these lives through the small windows we’ve been given, I can’t help thinking that God was intentional about elevating these most vulnerable women in the genealogy of Jesus, not only because they were well suited to take risks and work with urgency, but because the vulnerable, the alone, the overlooked are precious and important to God, then as well as now.
To learn more about the women in the genealogy of Jesus download our free e-book The Women of Advent. This 33-page devotional features chapters on each of the five women named in the lineage of Christ recorded in Matthew 1 and includes reflection questions and suggestions for further study.