The Wicked Grandmothers of Baby Jesus

[From the archives, a post concerning the gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth.]

Quick quiz #1: Who was Jesus’ mother?

Answer: Mary.

Quick quiz #2: Who were Jesus’ Grandmothers?

Answer: ?

The Bible never gives the names of Mary and Joseph’s mothers, although it does tell us the names of four of the geat-great-etc.-grandmothers in Jesus’ ancestry.

  1. Tamar (Matthew 1:3)
  2. Rahab (Matthew 1:5)
  3. Ruth (Matthew 1:5)
  4. Bathsheba (Matthew 1:6)

Some say that including these women among the dozens of men named in Jesus’ ancestry shows God’s grace and redemption in the women’s lives. That is true, just as the list  shows the same for the men named there. Yet there is a temptation to oversimplify God’s grace in redeeming these four women. More than one writer or preacher has narrowly taught that:

  1. The inclusion of Tamar shows God redeeming her from her sexual immorality and deception in bedding her father in law Judah (although Genesis 38 clearly shows she acted morally and righteously, and that Judah is the one who was in the wrong).

    Judah and Tamar, by Aert de Gelder (1667)

    Judah and Tamar, Aert de Gelder (1667)

  2. The inclusion of Rahab shows God can use even a prostitute to build his kingdom.

    Rahab Receiveth and Concealeth the Spies, by Frederick Richard Pickersgill (19th C.)

    Rahab Receiveth and Concealeth the Spies, Frederick Richard Pickersgill (19th C.)

  3. The inclusion of Ruth shows that God can use penniless widows on the extreme margins of society, honoring their faithfulness just as Ruth was faithful in caring for her equally poverty-stricken mother in law.

    Ruth in Boaz's Field, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1828)

    Ruth in Boaz’s Field, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1828)

  4. The inclusion of Bathsheba shows that God will use children of immoral relationships (although to suggest, as some do, that Bathsheba was a willing participant in an adulterous tryst denies the reality that she had no choice in the matter; her husband was away at war and the king summoned her to his bed).

    Bathsheba at Bath, Paolo Veronese (ca. 1575)

    Bathsheba at Bath, Paolo Veronese (ca. 1575)

It is not that these four aspects are completely untrue. Rather, it is that these are superficial matters for preachers to point out when it comes to understanding the most significant aspect of the women’s lives.

The most significant aspect they shared is that they were all evil.

Bad People

Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba are not actually described as bad people anywhere in Scripture. It’s just that they all are tainted by the nation they are identified with. In ancient Israel, this taint was considered as personal as the nose on one’s face.

The tainting nation is not Israel, especially not for Tamar, Rahab and Ruth. They are foreigners: Tamar and Rahab were Canaanites, and Ruth is a Moabite. As for Bathsheba, her nationality of birth is not mentioned but she married a Hittite and by virtue of that marriage took on her husband’s identity.

Each of those nations – Canaan, Moab and Hatti (the homeland of the Hittites) – was abhorrent to God’s people and that abhorrence extended to each person of the abhorred nation. To understand fully, look at the circumstances God’s people faced when he brought them out of Egypt to the land that would become Israel’s home, a territory already occupied by other nations.

My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out. Do not bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practices. You must demolish them and break their sacred stones to pieces. (Exodus 23:23-24.)

Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. (Deuteronomy 20:17.)

The Israelites did not follow God’s command, but rather:

The Israelites lived among the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. (Judges 3:5.)

The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness. (Ezra 9:1-2.)

Notice that one addition to the list in that last passage is Moab, a nation subject to a special prohibition.

No … Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation. (Deuteronomy 23:3.)

Ruth was a Moabite born and bred, and is not only listed as Jesus’ ancestor but also King David’s great grandmother. Since David was only three generations removed from her, he was automatically disqualified from entering God’s assembly. Yet he not only joined the assembly but led the procession. (2 Samuel 6: 12-16.)

Tamar’s marriage into the nation of Israel was not explicitly prohibited at that time, since she lived centuries before God brought his people out of Egypt. But her people had the same detestable practices as later Canaanites. Ruth and Bathsheba certainly lived in the time of prohibition for marriage between Israelites and Canaanites or Hittites.

None of them – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba –  should have been allowed to marry as they did, yet they each had marriages that led eventually to the birth of the Messiah, the hope of Israel.

Qualifying the Disqualified

When I read those four names in Jesus’ genealogy I do not focus on their personal shortcomings. Everyone God redeems has fallen short. (Romans 3:23.)

When I read their names I am instead struck by God’s audacious grace. The Israelites had these instructions:

  • Don’t marry Canaanites; don’t marry Hittites. Wipe them from the face of the earth!
  • Don’t let Moabites anywhere near God’s assembly. Don’t let their children near, don’t let their grandchildren near, and don’t let anyone else related to them near even if they are ten generations removed!

And yet that’s exactly what God did. He allowed Canaanites and Hittites and Moabites and many others into his family, marriage and birth and on through generations, and then he joined them when he was born in Bethlehem. This is who God is,

Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own wealth? Or are you envious because I am generous? (Matthew 20:15.)

and who he has always been.

I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. (Deuteronomy 23:3.)

Tamar and Rahab and Ruth and Bathsheba are us – all of us – every woman and every man God has brought into his family. All are disqualified from entering his assembly, and yet he has qualified us through the gift of his Son. (Ephesians 3:12.) It is because of his grace in using those four women and all the women whose names are left out that we now enjoy fellowship in the Lord’s assembly, a gathering that includes those shepherds in the fields 2000 years ago.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:8-11.)

Good news and great joy. That’s what Tamar and Rahab and Ruth and Bathsheba gave us in their grandson (many times great).

That’s what comes with the gracious gift of Jesus our Savior at Christmas.


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8 Responses to The Wicked Grandmothers of Baby Jesus

  1. Nicky Lock says:

    Tim, this is the second time in this advent season I have been faced with a male preacher/theologian continuing to name the women in Jesus’ genealogy as ‘wicked’ or ‘dodgy’, and whilst hear the point of your blog is to highlight even the inclusion of women and Gods mercy, it would be great to see a male writer talk of how these women, whilst admittedly participating in sinful acts, were largely forced to do so for survival by the social mores of the time, which the unfettered sexual desire of men, as shown by David when he used his position of power to force a sexual union on Bathsheba. I struggle with labelling women first as ‘wicked’ when they likely had little choice in the matter.

    • Tim says:

      Nicky, my post does not further that point. Instead I use the word wickedness in a formal sense: they were associated with neighboring cultures that were labeled eicked. As for their own lives, reread the post and you will see I actually criticize the preachers who condemn the women as wicked.

  2. roscuro says:

    Yes! The national associations of these women are what always stands out to me. If you take the case of Ruth the Moabite, and go back in Genesis 19:30-37 to the origin of the Moabites, you find that the tribe was descended from Lot’s eldest daughter, so that God is even redeeming the end of that awful story. In Jeremiah 48, God spends a long time telling of the coming judgement of Moab, but He ends his list of punishments with a promise “Yet I will restore the fortunes of Moab in the latter days, declares the Lord.” (vs. 47) When God told Abraham that all nations would be blessed through Abraham’s seed, He meant all nations.

  3. Jamila says:

    That’s a wonderful reflection. Thanks!

  4. Marg says:

    “The inclusion of Bathsheba shows that God will use children of immoral relationships . . . ”
    While there is no doubt that God uses all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds, I don’t believe Bathsheba proves this point. Her first son with David died. Solomon was conceived after she was widowed, had mourned for her first husband, and then became David’s wife.

    Also, I don’t think Tamar was immoral. She was perfectly within her legal rights to get a son from Judah. (Judah was illegally withholding his youngest son from her.) It even seems that Tamar waited until after Judah’s wife had died, and he had mourned for her, before implementing her scheme. The fact that her scheme went off without a hitch, when it could have easily gone horribly wrong, perhaps indicates that God helped her. The fact that she had twin boys with Judah is seen as a blessing from God (cf. Ruth 4:12).

    • Tim says:

      I agree. Those characterizations were meant to reflect what I called in the introduction the narrow application some preachers give to these passages.

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