Four Women to Ponder on Christmas Eve - Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba

In Matthew's genealogy of Christ, he blends in five women among the many male ancestors listed. Mary's inclusion is easy to understand, but what about the other four?

If you have ever gone to a Catholic Christmas Vigil mass (or a weekday Dec. 17 mass), then you have heard the genealogy reading from the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, a reading that seems to take on a touch of rhythm, perhaps causing one to fall into a bit of a trance while listening to many generations of who was the father of whom in the ancestry of Christ.

Intriguingly, there are a handful of moments during this reading when the tempo is interrupted. For some unknown reason, Matthew chose to intertwine among the many male ancestors of Jesus a handful of female ancestors - a rare concept for Biblical authors. Mary is one of those kinswomen included, an addition that is reasonable and easy to understand. It is the other four women listed that makes the passage puzzling. Over the centuries, Biblical historians have offered possible reasons for the inclusion of these women; still, only guesses can be made.

Tamar and Judah
The first kinswoman Matthew lists is Tamar (1:3). Tamar’s fascinating story can be found in the 38th chapter of Genesis, a time when Jacob’s favored son, Joseph had already been sold into slavery and was living in Egypt.

Judah, one of Joseph’s older brothers, already had a growing family and arranged for his oldest son, Er to marry this ancestress named Tamar. Sadly, Er was struck dead, and Tamar was left alone. Judah then ordered his son Onan to marry Tamar according to Levirate law, hoping he would produce a son on behalf of the deceased brother. Onan disgracefully avoided conception with Tamar and then was struck dead as well.

Fearing the life of his third son, Shelah, Judah attempted to brush Tamar aside by sending her to her parents' home, reasoning that Shelah needed to grow older before taking her as a wife. As the years went by, Tamar grew discouraged, knowing that Shelah had grown into manhood.

One day she heard news that her father-in-law was soon to travel to the town of Timnah. Hoping to overcome her shame of being childless, Tamar came up with a plan. She veiled her face, put a shawl about her and then sat near a spot she knew Judah would pass during his journey. When Judah reached the location, he saw Tamar. Not recognizing her as his daughter-in-law, he thought she was a prostitute - and propositioned her! She agreed, but demanded his seal and staff as a pledge for a payment to be made later on.

Months later, Judah heard news that his widowed daughter-in-law was with child. Assuming disloyalty, he became infuriated and commanded that Tamar be burned. As the sentence was about to be carried out, the abandoned daughter-in-law presented Judah’s seal and staff, proving the identity of the father of her unborn child. Judah was stunned to learn the truth of his paternity and then felt remorse for his treatment toward Tamar. Later, Tamar gave birth to twins: Perez and Zerah. It was Perez who became a direct ancestor of Christ.

Two kinswomen are named in Matthew 1:5, Rahab and Ruth. Although it is not certain, most sources consider Rahab to be the same woman who helped the Israelites conquer Jericho following their exile from Egypt.

The second chapter of Joshua tells that Rahab was a prostitute who hosted two spies sent by Joshua to size up the city of Jericho for a planned take-over. The king of Jericho heard about these Israelites spies, and knew they were at Rahab’s house. He sent word to Rahab asking for the men, but Rahab deceived the king, telling him that the spies had already left.

Believing the Israelites had special protection from God, Rahab hid the two men under some stalks of flax that were drying on her rooftop. She gave the spies valuable advice on how to avoid capture by the king’s men, then asked for safety for herself and for her family during the upcoming assault.

When the time was safe, Rahab secretly let the spies escape from Jericho; they held on to a rope she let down from her window which opened to the outside of the city wall. During their getaway, the spies told Rahab to tie the red cord in the same window, promising her safeguard. Later, as the attack began, the two Israelite spies found the window with the red cord and swiftly saved Rahab along with the members of her family. It is believed that Rahab later married an Israelite named Salmon. The couple had a child named Boaz who grew up to be a prosperous farmer in Bethlehem.

Ruth Comforting Naomi
Ruth’s story is a beautiful one found in the Biblical book bearing her name. Not an Israelite by birth, she married into an Israelite family who had gone to Moab during a famine. When Ruth’s husband died, she accompanied her mother-in-law, Naomi, to the family’s hometown of Bethlehem. While in Bethlehem, Ruth provided for her and her mother-in-law by walking behind hired farm hands, gleaning crops from the fields of a wealthy farmer named Boaz (Rahab’s son).

Boaz was struck by the kindness and goodness of Ruth and gave her special protection and privilege in his fields. Boaz was delighted to learn that he was related to Ruth’s deceased husband - as the kinship ultimately gave him Levirate marriage rights to marry the Moabite girl himself. The two were happily married and Ruth gave birth to a son named Obed, who became the father of Jesse and the grandfather of King David.

The fourth of the women listed as ancestors of Christ is labeled as “the wife of Uriah” (Mt. 1:6), yet her actual name was Bathsheba. Bathsheba’s story involves a grave sin of King David. The Second Book of Samuel shares how David found himself profoundly attracted to the wife of one of his very loyal army officers - Uriah the Hittite. Unable to control himself, David secretly had relations with Bathsheba while the captain was away at battle, and the illicit couple conceived a child.

Worried over the pregnancy, King David deceitfully arranged for Uriah to spend a night away from battle and at home with his wife, hoping to make Uriah appear as the father. Unfortunately, Uriah’s loyalty to David and his fighting troops kept him from going to his comfortable home and beautiful wife. David, full of dread, had the good officer put in an extremely dangerous battle zone, assuring his demise. After Uriah’s death, David took Bathsheba as his own. Sadly, their first child died. They later had another son named Solomon who eventually succeeded David as king.

Why These Four?
Why Matthew decided to include these four women into his genealogy of Christ is compelling and thought-provoking. It seems a struggle to find strong parallels among them. While their situations reveal some similarities, there seems to be even more variation. Whatever Matthew’s reasons may have been, perhaps knowing the stories of these women helps some to consider that even when we feel like we are feeling overwhelmed, or experiencing a time of trouble, we may still be in the process of producing a much greater fruit than we realize.

*This article was originally published as Singled Out: Four Mysterious Women in the Ancestry of Jesus in the Sept./Oct., 2009 issue of Canticle.)