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The God Who Doesn’t Read Labels

Listen to this song, "Rahab," by Rhonda Louise as you read this reflection.

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon. And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, who bore Jesus, who is called the Messiah. (Matt. 1: 1-16, NRSVUE)

If you are ever lucky enough to travel to Cape Breton, you may well be asked “Who’s your father?” In a place where many people share the same surname, family backgrounds are important in identifying and maintaining connections. (Note: if, like me, you’re not from there, the welcome is no less warm!)

In Jewish tradition, genealogies point to a person’s ancestry, role within society, and geographic origin. In a patriarchal society, genealogies often followed paternal bloodlines, yet Matthew deliberately chose to list five women in Jesus’ lineage: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Uriah’s wife (Bathsheba), and Mary.

During Advent, we often focus on the male members of Jesus’ genealogy, their critical evidence of his connection to Abraham and David, and fulfillment of God’s covenant promises as the legitimate Messiah. We most overlook the women included in Jesus’ genealogy, which is a mistake. Their message is equally important for Christians.

First, let’s look at the stories of four of Jesus’ female ancestors, and we’ll leave Mary for a separate devotional.

Tamar (Genesis 38) was twice-widowed, childless, and in an increasingly vulnerable position. She disguised herself as a prostitute, tricked her father-in-law Judah into sleeping with her, and got pregnant. Only by craftily obtaining evidence that Judah was the father saved her from certain death. The elder of Tamar’s twins, Perez, carried on Judah’s line.

Rahab (Joshua 2) was an actual prostitute who housed and protected two Israelite spies in Jericho, and helped them escape capture. Spared during the invasion by Joshua and his troops, Rahab wed Salmon, a descendant of Perez, and bore Boaz, who continued the male line toward Jesus.

Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi (Ruth 1) were widowed, childless, and destitute. Loyal Ruth followed Naomi to her ancestral home, where she gleaned leftover grain to subsist. Boaz, Naomi’s distant relative, noticed Ruth in the field, offered protection, and came to admire and respect her. They married and produced a son, Obed, the grandfather of David.

The fourth woman, “Uriah’s wife” is Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11). Struck by the beauty of Bathsheba, David acted on his sinful desire, resulting in her pregnancy. David’s attempts to convince Uriah to spend some “quality time” with Bathsheba, muddying the paternal waters, failed. He schemed to have Uriah conveniently killed in battle, wasting no time marrying the widow. God was not pleased, and their son did not survive. David’s heartfelt repentance and reconciliation with God granted them a second chance in Solomon, who continued David’s line.

All four women came from Gentile heritage and were outsiders to the Israelites. Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba bore children under questionable circumstances and their actions could have brought about their deaths under Jewish law. While Ruth was not in the same situation, she was impoverished, childless, and open to abuse by other men without a kinsman protector.

These women’s stories contain a wonderful and encouraging message this Advent season.

They remind us that God loves and uses broken people to fulfil his plans! There are many examples in the Bible: Moses was a murderer, Elijah battled depression, and Paul persecuted early Christians. These women in Jesus’ family tree were also imperfect, but they played important roles in bringing about the coming of the Messiah. What imperfections have held you back, making you think that God can’t use you? Take courage and be open to God’s leading in your life!

Jesus’ female ancestors all bore derogatory labels: Gentile, childless, widowed, poor, prostitute, and adulteress. Jesus, however, ignored human labels and societal norms. He spoke to women; he ate with tax collectors, and he healed lepers. He didn’t condone sin, but his message of hope, healing, and salvation was for everyone. We, too, need to stop carrying labels that hold us back from accepting and acting on Jesus’ redemptive love.

Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba were named and acknowledged in a place as important as Matthew’s opening genealogy of Jesus. This carries important meaning for how Christians should be treating everyone around us. Are we doing everything we can to erase labels? Do we value individual dignity and worth of every person? Are we speaking out against poverty, homelessness, racism, gender-based violence, and other issues of social justice? If not, we’re missing significant pieces of the radical love of Jesus, which he called his followers to continue in his name.

Something to reflect on this Advent season.

Lori Errington is a student in the Master of Divinity program at Acadia Divinity College. She works for the Province of Nova Scotia and holds a License to Minister with the African United Baptist Association at Victoria Road United Baptist Church. Lori lives in Dartmouth with her octogenarian roommate (mom) and two overly entitled cats.

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Thank you, Lori, for such a beautiful devotional—assuring us of the significant role of women in the divine story, but also challenging us to live out its provocative truth in our own lives. Carol Anne Janzen

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