Our small group Bible study watched another Andy Stanley video recently. (I made the joke that we should join his church since we watch so many of his videos.) I am not one to agree with everything I watch or read when it comes to interpretation of the Bible. In fact, Stanley’s description of how history used to be written by those with power and money is reminiscent of how some people over the years have attempted to interpret the Bible for personal gain, and it might even be used to question some translations of the Bible, but that’s for another time. I question when anyone, even a pastor, adds elements to the story or predicts why certain parts of the text exist. In the video we watched, the part I questioned was the reasoning for the genealogy as presented in the first chapter of Matthew and its inclusion of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.
Personally, I want to agree with Stanley’s hypothesis that Matthew wrote the genealogy to reflect and foreshadow his own story of joining Jesus in Chapter 9. However, there are some questions that I had, some likely unanswerable today, that leave me wondering if Matthew’s intent and the original reader’s response lined up with the analysis of the text, specifically when it comes to the use of foreshadowing.
I agree that Matthew uses the genealogy to make a point targeted at Jews who were expecting the Messiah to come from the line of David. Matthew listed all kinds of people in the genealogy, including sinners. He also included women, and this is where Stanley makes the connection that since the women were not Jewish, were mostly sinners, and were not necessary in a patriarchal genealogy, it made sense that the coming of the Messiah would be for sinners, Gentiles, and tax collectors. Basically, the addition of the four women into the list was, in part, to foreshadow the events of Chapter 9, in which Matthew and his tax-collecting buddies dine with Jesus. Like I said before, I WANT this to be the case, but I’m just not sure that it IS the case.
First off, I had to wonder if foreshadowing in this manner had been done in other parts of the Bible or in other works of literature at the time. We’re talking about several specific choices in Chapter 1 that relate to a story in Chapter 9 and are never spelled out for the reader in either chapter. Yes, I know Jesus talked in parables (metaphor) and that the prophets predicted events, but was it common for writers of the Bible or other texts of the time to do exactly what Matthew appears to have done? In my experience, I have not run across such an intricate literary technique, but I also have only read sparingly Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Old English, and other texts from around the time. And the Bible itself, of course. If it’s there, I’ve missed it. And assuming it does exist in literature and the Bible, does it happen in any other genealogies and without an obvious allusion to the pre-stated clue? What I mean is, let’s assume foreshadowing was a viable literary technique of the age. Is Matthew the only writer to have ever used such a technique in such a way, or can the same kind of hidden meaning be garnered from other Books of the Bible?
Next, one has to wonder that, assuming Matthew is using this method on purpose, does the mere fact the added names are women mean something as well? Is he making a statement about non-Jews AND women? Based on the Gospel, I’d say one could make the argument that women played a fairly important role, including women who were of questionable virtue. Further, I’ve read that many of the early Roman converts were women, and you could certainly go there with the interpretation, if you’re looking to do so.
Backing up a bit, let’s assume Matthew had the intent to do just as Stanley suggests, but would the audience have received it in this way? It’s been established he was writing to Jews, especially relating to the inclusion of the genealogy. Would the audience have made the connection the same way we might today? Could they have seen past the scandalous stories of the women mentioned and applied it to their following of Jesus? Were they meant to? One could argue including the women was done more for the effect of shock or disbelief, like the teasers you see for the upcoming soap opera episode. Mentioning these women might have simply been to capture the reader’s attention, not unlike how the first line of a parable may do the same. I’ve also read that Matthew was the most reluctant to include Gentiles as part of his message, not that I have studied the book closely enough myself to make that statement. However, if he was reluctant, how could the argument be made that his inclusion of the four women had another purpose? Perhaps it was sneaky and subversive, but at the expense of his own audience?
Another reason for the inclusion of the women might be familiarity of these women’s stories for the reader. Stanley states that plenty of Jewish and good women were not mentioned in the list of names, but what we really can’t know is which women from the Bible were the most popular with the intended audience at the time Matthew was writing. For example, if I was going to write a story about the royal family in England, I’d include Queen Elizabeth I and II and Victoria, but which other queens would I discuss? Anne Boleyn and Bloody Mary, perhaps, since recent movies have alluded to their sordid stories, but would I mention Queen Anne or Queen Mary II? And if I was writing in the last quarter of the 20th century, how could I not mention Princess Di, even if she was never a queen? With a frame of reference in popular culture, readers would be able to identify with certain queens and not others. Again, there is no evidence that the four women in Jesus’ genealogy were more popular to the general reading public, but there’s also no evidence they weren’t. In fact, it brings up the question of who the reading public would have been. Matthew may have been writing for the Jews, but he would also have had a specific audience in mind. I read that the Pharisees were more prevalent and more of a threat to Matthew than Jesus, so Matthew made them the main opponent of Jesus. Not that they didn’t exist, but the argument is that events in Matthew’s world affected how he presented the story to the specific audience he needed to convince.
When I was discussing the meeting with my wife, I came up with another possible reason after reading my study Bible a bit and making a connection of my own. Assuming everyone reading understood that Jesus was not really born of Joseph, for whom the genealogy was included, then Jesus is not really part of it to begin with. So all the sinners, men and women, Jews and Gentiles, normal everyday guys and evil ones, were not technically related to Jesus, since He was outside of the hold of human original sin, yet those are the people he came to save. Of course, if we assume Matthew’s audience needs a male heir (through Joseph) to David’s throne, then my argument falls apart, as does Stanley’s, probably.
One of the reasons I enjoy reading the Bible is to see if the words mean more than others have thought, but I know we have to be careful with a lot of extra interpretation that simply has no basis in fact or precedence. Stanley, for example, rightly points out that the Bible never says that Matthew drops everything and follows Jesus, though many preachers will use the “Follow Me” line to assume it was the same as those who dropped their nets and literally followed Jesus at that moment. Of course, right after Stanley points that out, he’s back to giving his audience imagined dialogue between the disciples and onlookers. I also noticed in my research on this topic that many of the top Google results are from bloggers, often not even posting on official church-sanctioned websites. Many of them, like me, are not preachers or scholars at all. The Bible would be simpler to understand if a translation or adaptation could answer all of our questions, but there are probably many examples of this being impossible. Fully explaining the inclusion of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba might be one of those moments.
Please do not hesitate to share your thoughts below. I know my research was very basic on this topic, and I am sure someone would be able to shed some more light on the subject. And if you have a lot to say on religious subjects, you should probably start your own website with Luthernet. If your church could use a website facelift, Luthernet is the place to go.