A Line of Scandalous Women

by frankbeswick

Preachers might emphasise Jesus' descent from David, but he had certain women among his ancestry whose reputation was not for good moral behaviour.

The Middle East is an honour based society, in which a family or a person's reputation is extremely important. Jesus grew up and lived in this kind of society, but he was a radical who challenged conventional systems of status, favouring the poor and outcasts over the rich Sadducees, and criticizing the religious status system. While preachers rightly emphasise his descent, albeit distantly, from King David they overlook the scandalous women in his genealogy and the religious implications.

The genealogy.

There are two genealogies of Jesus, in Matthew's and Luke's gospels respectively. There is much overlap between them, but Matthew departs from Jewish custom by mentioning the name of some of Jesus' female ancestors. This was a peculiarity, as at that time when people knew not sperm and egg, they thought that the man contained the seed and the woman was merely the soil in which it grew, so why did you need to mention women? In fact, the Greek Aristotle had thought that women are humans who were defective, so a foetus becomes a female if it is "defective in species", a view held by Aquinas in the Middle Ages.  Nowadays we know better, but we only found out about the sperm and egg quite late in human history.

Furthermore, the women mentioned were not totally respectable. In fact there was some scandal attached to each one of them: Tamar guilty of adultery; Rahab, the harlot; Ruth, got  man by bedding him; and Bathsheba, adultery with king David. Then there is Mary, whose conception of Jesus gave cause for suspicion. In fact, Matthew is deliberately leading up to Jesus' conception by Mary,as he wants to show that God works through people who were not always regarded as fully respectable by society, though he emphasises Mary's innocence and asserts the belief in her virginal conception. Note that the Bible teaches the virginal conception, that Mary had not had sex when she got Jesus. This is sometimes confused with the immaculate conception, a specifically Catholic doctrine that Mary was conceived without stain of original sin, which is not taught in the Bible but is a doctrine developed by mediaeval Franciscans, particularly Duns Scotus,a leading Scholastic thinker.

The whole thrust of this passage is that being chosen by God does not depend upon an unsullied line of high social status or upon social status itself, but on the generous gift of God's grace, which sweeps aside human status systems like the dross that they are.

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This is a tragic woman whose tale is told in Genesis 38. Judah, one of Jacob's twelve sons, had  a son called Er, who had been married to Tamar, but he died leaving no heir and Tamar childless. Levirate law was clear. In these circumstances his brother Onan was to take the widow and give her children to preserve his brother's name. But he was a nasty character, who did not want children that were not his, so he practised coitus interruptus, so Tamar had no children, even  though she wanted them, and his brother's name was not preserved. God was annoyed, so he killed Onan. Judah, the patriarch,sent Tamar back to her father as a widow and promised that she would marry his even younger son. But he forgot to arrange the wedding, and some time passed.

By now Tamar's biological clock was ticking and she was becoming concerned. So she was forced to hatch a plan. She veiled herself and sat at the crossroads as a prostitute, waiting for Judah to pass. Judah passed and saw his chance for a quick sex session. She stayed veiled throughout the encounter. He then promised her a kid from the herd as payment, and she asked for his ring and staff as surety. He did so.When his servants brought the kid, she was gone, along with the ring. But by then she was pregnant.

The penalty for adultery was death, and it was adultery as she was betrothed. Judah found that she was pregnant and ordered her execution, but then she showed the ring and staff. She must have been back with the clan by that time. Judah realized the horror of his actions and to give him his due, withdrew the execution and ordered the marriage. Nine months later she had twins, one of whom became the distant ancestor of St Joseph.

Holiness does not depend upon social  factors, but on closeness to God.Tamar was a good woman driven to desperate straits. Matthew is showing that a holy person can come from a line that has something dispreputable in it

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There are doubts as to where she fits into the genealogy. Matthew makes her a few generations before David, but The Book of Joshua suggests earlier than that. She was a harlot at Jericho, like many harlots at that time either a desperate widow or a slave forced into prostitution. But she seemed to have been quite alienated from her society.

Joshua, Moses' brutal successor, was preparing to attack Jericho, and sent spies, who stayed in the house of Rahab the harlot. They took a liking to Rahab, and she to them. So the spies hatched a plan with her, As a reward for her hiding the spies she and her family were spared when Joshua conquered the city. This was lucky, as the thuggish Joshua massacred everyone except the favoured harlot and her family.They had identified her house by the scarlet cord tied to the window, as agreed in the plan.

Let's face it. We are dealing with  harlot's revenge here. She was probably a slave girl forced into prostitution, and she hated every encounter.She might even have been a Hebrew, as there were many Hebrews in the Middle East at that period, socially deprived people on the edges of  society. She might have been a Hebrew woman taken as a slave and regularly raped. But the society that misused her paid heavily for their misuse.


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Ruth was a widow driven by desperation into sex for security.She was a Moabite, but her mother- in-law was Isaelite. During a bad time in Moab, adjoining Israel, the men of the family died. Her father-in- law, her husband and her sister's husband all fell and died, leaving the women bereft fo support. Naomi, the mother-in-law, decided to return to Israel, and her two daughters-in-law went with her. 

Desperately poor, they went into the territory of Judah, in the south of the country, where they found earnings as gleaners. In biblical law you could only reap crops once and then any grain that had fallen to the ground was for the poor. Ruth was doing backbreaking farm work folllowing the reapers, gleaning for grain. Night fell and they were to sleep in the fields. But Naomi hatched a plan. She told Ruth to lie besides Boaz, the landowner. The Bible is generally quite prim its talk of sex, but the meaning is clear. She went for sex and got it. Boaz took her to wife and gave a home to the other two, as Naomi had planned. Ruth, it is said, was the grandmother of king David. That king David's grandmother  had bagged his grandfather by sex was a bit disreputable.

Her story is told in the Book of Ruth. There is a political agenda behind this book. Written in the period after the return from exile, it was penned when the scribe Ezra was promoting his anti-racial intermarriage policy, that Jews should marry only Jews, and non-Jewish wives should be put away. He was a cruel and insensitive racist. But there was massive opposition, and the writer of the Book of Ruth penned the tale to show that Israel's greatest king was himself the result of a mixed marriage, a marriage with a low status woman who had to use sexual wiles to survive. Ruth is in many ways a nice little tale with a happy ending.


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Generally classed as an adultress, she probably had no choice. She was the wife of King David's general, Uriah the Hittite. But while he was away giving battle to David's enemies, king David, sitting in his palace, saw Bathsheeba sunbathing on her  roof and fancied her. She was sent for. At that time when a king demanded sex from a  woman he got it, and her choice was very limited. This is what happened to Bathsheba .But David did worse. He had her husband sent to the heart of the battle where he was eventually killed. David could then take the woman into his already large harem. Again, she had no choice.

But David reckoned without the prophet Nathan, who challenged him about his behaviour. This was a key moment in political history, when a religious figure told a king that he was subject to the same moral law as anyone else was, and that God was not happy with what had gone on. David was slated for adultery and murder, and did penance. But Bathsheba gave birth to Solomon eventually, who became David's heir and was the ancestor of the royal line of Judah after David.

Bathsheba was a woman forced into an affair with the man who had her husband murdered, yet she is condemned for adultery. Note,however, that the prophet Nathan never condemns Bathsheba, he roundly condemns David. The prophet knew where power lay in the relationship.


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The genealogy leads inexorably to Mary. Jesus was sometimes known as the Son of Mary, as there were always  doubts cast on his legitimacy. Mary had conceived him before she was finally married. In those days a woman who was betrothed was accounted wed, but the wedding was finalized when the man took her into his home. The Bible tells how Joseph, following his receipt of  dream, realized that the child was of the Holy Spirit and quickly took her into his home, thus providing the child with status in the eyes of the honour based society in which they lived.

The Bible is not condemnatory of these four women predecessors of Christ. It sees them as victims. Each of the disreputable women has a key place in the salvation history of Israel and was an ancestor of Christ. Matthew's gospel is showing that one's position in God's eyes depends not upon your social place, race or ancestry, but on divine gift and willingness to respond to God.

Updated: 01/31/2014, frankbeswick
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JoHarrington on 03/31/2014

This sounds fascinating, but I've got part way through and had to admit defeat. It's 3am and I'm brain dead. I'll be back tomorrow to read it properly.

Mira on 02/05/2014

Nice read, Frank! I enjoyed the tales and your comments around them.

frankbeswick on 01/31/2014

Christians have always regarded Mary very highly, and the term ark of the covenant is properly hers, as the ark was the bearer of God's presence, as was she. As Israel was represented as a virgin awaiting her groom, Mary represents the virgin Israel in the scheme of salvation. Her conception by God was therefore a key part of salvation history.

Yet she was not free of suffering, the sword of sorrow---- Her reputation was attacked, as I pointed out in the article, and slanderers spread the rumour that she had had an affair with a soldier called Panthera, a pun on parthenos, the Greek for virgin and that she had got Jesus thus.

ologsinquito on 01/31/2014

HI Frank, Mary was absolutely perfect in every way, but the other woman of the Bible were not. I'm always shaking my head in amazement at some of these Old Testament stories and all of the bad behavior. But God is so merciful He still sent his only Son to be Our Savior.

frankbeswick on 01/31/2014

You are absolutely right about Onanism, but to take the story as an attack on contraception is the wrong intepretation. The sin of Onan was denying his brother the perpetuation of his name, which was his means of immortality, in the view of the Semites of that period.

KathleenDuffy on 01/31/2014

Very interesting and sympathetic article. Now I understand where the word 'Onanism' came from!

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