Today we begin a new series that I’ve been excited about for some time: The Women of the Gospels. Whenever I read the stories of Jesus, I am struck afresh by his radically inclusive treatment of women. They were his disciples, his benefactors, his conversation partners, and his friends. When nearly all of Jesus’ male disciples abandoned him, the women remained, and for that they were rewarded with being the first to witness his resurrection.
For the weekly series, I’ve invited some truly top-notch writers and scholars to retell the stories of these fascinating women. And today’s post comes to us from the brilliant and prolific Carolyn Custis James. Carolyn is the author of many books, including The Gospel of Ruth, Lost Women of the Bible, andHalf the Church. Her ministry organization, WhitbyForum, promotes thoughtful biblical discussion to help men and women serve God together. Carolyn founded and is president of the Synergy Women’s Network, and is a consulting editor for Zondervan’s Exegetical Commentary Series on the New Testament. She blogs here. I'm such a fan Carolyn's writing, it's a huge honor to welcome her here to launch the Women of the Gospels series. (Look for these posts on Fridays.) Enjoy this inaugural post!
You don’t hear many sermons on the genealogy of Jesus, but a few years ago, in what can only be described as a moment of madness, a pastor sallied forth. At the time my life was being turned upside down by what I was discovering about Ruth, one of the women Matthew names in his genealogy. The Ruth I had come to know was not a passive woman as traditionally portrayed, but a gutsy risk taker who embraces the gospel by breaking all the conventional rules.
Her story was unraveling mine and forcing me to rethink my whole life. So I was understandably disturbed when the preacher assessed Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba, and my hero Ruth and blurted out, “Women corrupted the line of Christ!" Strangely, he made no reference to the male "corrupters" of the line of Christ.
May I humbly suggest the pastor bungled the text and insulted the women in the pews. These four women listed by Matthew were not corrupters, but the Ancient Near Eastern version of the "Fab Four." There may well have been some misogyny in the pastor's glancing blow, but the real issue for him was the perceived sexual immorality in all of the women's stories. Rahab was a prostitute. Tamar impersonated one, incestuously entrapping her father-in-law into impregnating her. Bathsheba bathed in view of King David's palace, luring him into an adulterous affair. These R-rated women corrupted the line of Jesus—or so the pastor thought.
Surely Matthew has more in mind than airing Israel’s dirty laundry or denigrating women. It is worth noting that women are rarely if ever listed in ancient Jewish genealogies, so it’s a big deal for these women to be named at all. A little more digging into the text and a closer look at these women within the cultural context of their world (not ours) surfaces reasons why Matthew intended to honor these women, not to shame them.
Here’s what I mean:
All four women advanced God's kingdom purposes for the world.
Both Tamar and Ruth battled on behalf of husbands who died without a male heir. The worst calamity in the ancient world was for a man to die without a son to perpetuate his line. Tamar acts out of honor. Ruth is driven by hesed (loyal love) for Naomi. Both think and act outside-the-box because the normal way of doing things is not an option for them. Their efforts preserve the royal line of Jesus.
Rahab must choose between her native Jericho and Yahweh when Jericho is threatened by the approaching Israelites. She chooses Yahweh and protects the Israelite spies. She only asks that her family be spared. “Give me a sure sign that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters . . . and that you will save us from death.” Rahab sounds like some of the trafficked women we hear about today, whose families are their main concern and who become entrapped in their quest to support them.
King David’s promise that Bathsheba’s son Solomon would succeed him as king was jeopardized when Solomon’s older brother violently seized the throne. The Prophet Nathan instructed Bathsheba to fight for Solomon’s right to the throne by reminding the ailing David of his oath.
All four women risked their lives.
In the Ancient Near East, a bride remained the property of her husband’s family, even after his death. So Tamar’s father-in-law, Judah, has complete power over her. When he discovers she is pregnant out-of-wedlock, he self-righteously sentences her to be burned to death. If you look up the word “hypocrisy” in the dictionary, the name Judah is written large in the margin.
Rahab commits treason by protecting the Israelite spies and lying to Jericho authorities regarding their whereabouts. Despite the risks to her life, she casts her lot with Yahweh and his people.
Impoverished and barren, Ruth proposes marriage to Boaz—a powerful Israelite man of stature and wealth who is completely out of her league. Her actions are as outrageous as a homeless woman proposing to Bill Gates. Without a male protector and in the dead of night, Ruth is completely at Boaz’s mercy.
Bathsheba gets caught in a political battle for Israel’s throne—the kind of battle where blood runs in the streets and those who lose the throne also lose their heads. She and Solomon are already in danger. Nathan urges her to “save your own life and the life of your son Solomon.” By approaching King David on Solomon’s behalf, she doubles the risks to their lives if David fails to keep his word.
The Bible exonerates all four women.
Even Judah acknowledged that Tamar’s actions were “righteous.” And God blessed her with twin sons to replace her two deceased husbands. Generations later, Tamar’s descendants proudly invoke her name in a wedding blessing honoring Boaz and Ruth.
The New Testament hails Rahab as a woman of exemplary faith, and she is called “righteous” for welcoming and protecting the spies. Her unflinching faith contrasts sharply with Israel’s unbelief. Boaz praises Ruth as a woman hayil (of valor) and describes her advocacy for Naomi as hesed—a radical, self-sacrificing love.
The prophet Nathan confronts King David for adultery, describing Bathsheba, not as a seductress, but as “a lamb,” exposing David’s abuse of power.
The four leave a courageous legacy for a fifth bold risk taker, for Mary will also face suspicions and danger for agreeing to be the mother of Jesus.
Rabbi Julia Neuberger was right to say of Scripture, “Women’s story is there written large, though it may be hidden in the text, and finding it may be like digging for gold.” That gold gives us reasons to stand a little taller and strive a little harder to cultivate the same radical brand of risk-taking courage for the battles God is calling us to fight.