In an online essay, New Testament scholar James Boyce makes the following statement as he reflects on the Christmas story as it is told in the Gospel of Matthew:
“If we do not anticipate the Christmas event both with hope and with just a bit of anxious fear, then we are not sufficiently tuned to the implications of God’s presence among us.”
This might strike us as a bit odd. “Hope” we are okay with, but why would he say that the Christmas story should inspire “anxious fear”? When is the last time you received a Christmas card wishing you “love, hope, and fear this holiday season”?
But if we take a closer look at the story from Matthew, especially in its historical context, we might start to understand a little something about the anxiety Dr. Boyce is talking about.
Let’s start at the very beginning…
If you’ve ever heard Matthew’s version of the Christmas story, most likely the reading began with verse 18. (“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way…”) But I’d like to go back to the beginning and look at Matthew’s story from verse 1.
Matthew chooses to begin his Gospel story with Jesus’ genealogy. It traces Jesus’ ancestry from Abraham, through David, and to Joseph, the husband of Mary. The main purpose of this genealogy is to identify Jesus as the “son of David” and the “son of Abraham.” Why this is important for Matthew to establish is a topic for another time, but today I want to draw our attention to a specific, very unique feature of this genealogy.
For the most part this is a very traditional father-son genealogy: “Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah…” etc., all the way down to Joseph the husband of Mary, Jesus’ parents. But there is one thing that makes this genealogy unconventional: the inclusion of women. In addition to ending with a mention of Mary, four other women are included in this genealogy: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (the wife of Uriah).
“3…and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron…
5 …and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of King David. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah…”
In a typical biblical genealogy, the mothers are not mentioned at all. So, the obvious question we want to ask is: Why does Matthew include these women? Is he just being progressive and inclusive? If so, then why these four women and not the ones we’d expect, like Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel? If these great matriarchs are not mentioned, then something more must be going on besides a simple desire on Matthew’s part to include some women in his list.
If we ask ourselves what these four women have in common, a surprising answer rises to the surface: all four of these women were involved in some kind of activity that was considered sexually scandalous.
Matthew and his shady ladies
All four of these women played an active part in continuing the lineage that led from Abraham to David, but not in a manner we’d call traditional. Rather, in a manner we might call unconventional, to put it mildly. There isn’t space to retell their stories here, but I encourage you to look them up:
Tamar (Genesis 38): Dresses as a prostitute and seduces her father-in-law in order to produce an heir.
Rahab (Joshua 2): A prostitute who hides the Israelite spies coming to scope out Jericho before they attack it. According to Matthew, this prostitute is David’s great-great-grandmother.
Ruth (Ruth 3): People are still talking about what happened out on that threshing floor.
Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11): A married woman bathing on her roof. King David sends for her and gets her pregnant, and later has her husband killed in battle so he can marry her.
Then, at the very end of the genealogy we get one more woman’s name: Mary. But if what these women have in common is some kind of scandal attached to their stories, why put Mary in their company?
I think what Matthew is trying to remind us about is that God operates without being bound by our expectations and our cultural norms, even the norms of traditional patriarchal marriage in the biblical era. These four women operated outside of these patriarchal norms in ways considered scandalous, and in doing so they were achieving God’s purposes in the world.
This is a timely reminder, considering what Matthew tells us in the very next verse after the genealogy:
“Now the birth of Jesus the messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”
Now, it’s all well and good for us to be told that the child is from the Holy Spirit—as readers we are “in the know” so to speak—but such would not have been the case for Mary and Joseph’s neighbors.
This is the first of two scandals in this story.
The scandal of Mary
Mary and Joseph are engaged. Mary is pregnant. The child is not Joseph’s. Here we certainly have the makings of a scandal.
The scandal of an unwed mother is not so sharp in our society as it once was, but you can bet it was sharp in first century Palestine. Right or wrong, the stability of patriarchal society was viewed as dependent on the purity of its women. Women who produced children outside of marriage were seen as a threat not just to what we might call family values, but to the whole social and economic system. Hence the death penalty in Deuteronomy for an engaged woman who sleeps with another man. Which, from the perspective of the neighbors, is exactly what seems to be going on with Mary.
But Matthew has already put Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba in the forefront of the minds of his readers. He is saying to the reader, “Don’t give up too quickly on this story with a scandalous and unconventional beginning—remember that the story of God’s relationship to the people of Israel has always progressed through unexpected means such as this.”
That is the scandal of Mary—the scandal of a young, betrothed woman becoming pregnant before she marries her husband. But from the point of view of the neighborhood, there are actually two scandals going on here, not just one.
The scandal of Joseph
Just as scandalous as Mary showing up pregnant is the fact that Joseph goes through with the marriage.
From the point of view of their neighbors, Mary, already joined to Joseph through betrothal, has committed adultery against him, the ultimate sin in the patriarchal system. The fact that he would marry rather than divorce her would have been unthinkable—you can bet that would be talked about in the town.
And in fact, divorcing Mary (breaking their legally binding betrothal) is Joseph’s original intention. This is not at all surprising, considering the fact that, from the perspective of their society, she had already been unfaithful to him and dishonored him. That he should not only accept her, but also her child as the firstborn son of the family was surely a scandal.
But of course, we are not left with only the perspective of the neighborhood. Matthew gives us the inside story. We’ve already been told that the child is from the Holy Spirit, and now we find out that Joseph changes his mind because an angel visits him in a dream. The angel says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Then, Matthew tells us quite simply that, “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife.”
The righteousness of Joseph was earlier manifested in the fact that he planned to dismiss Mary with as little public scandal as possible. He could have dragged her into the streets, publicly shamed her, even demanded the justice that the Deuteronomy law prescribes. But being a righteous man he resolves separate from her as quietly as possible.
But now Joseph’s righteousness is manifest in his willingness to take Mary as his wife in obedience to God, no matter how great the public scandal becomes. Did he struggle with this decision? Did he waver in his resolve? Did he ever doubt the validity of his dream? Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t. Matthew doesn’t tell us. He only tells us of Joseph’s obedience and of his willingness to accept not only Mary, but her son—this boy who would have the place in the family that Joseph had surely imagined would belong to his own offspring. Joseph’s righteousness consists both in his willingness to be shamed in the eyes of the world, and in his willingness to give up his own rights and aspirations to serve God’s plan of salvation for the world.
Sometimes righteousness looks like scandal.
And that is why Matthew introduced this story by reminding us about Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba—so that we would not confuse righteousness with respectability.
Often the bible has a different definition of righteousness than the one we are comfortable with, especially if the likes of Tamar and Rahab qualify as righteous. And they do. Tamar and Rahab were righteous, and so was Joseph. Joseph was willing to risk looking unrighteous in the eyes of the world in order to pursue the true righteousness of obedience to God.
So now the question come to us: When obedience to God’s will and work in the world put us at odds with what our society values and approves of, are we willing to break convention and risk shame in order to be obedient to God’s call? Or will we confuse righteousness with respectability?
Maybe now we begin to see why this Christmas story of Matthew’s might inspire in us a bit of anxious fear.
We see what God asked of Mary and of Joseph.
What might God ask of us?