Though far from over, the 2016 election in the United States has thus proven to be one of the most memorable (and significant) in the country’s history. While there is the obvious tendency to get swept up in the spectacle and antics of the trainwreck that is Donald Trump or get excited about the fervor and revolutionary potential of Bernie Sanders; there something more important at play in this electoral debacle that is worth further exploration. This system is broken. While the cracks have been showing for a while now, the near fanatical popularity of both Trump/Sanders is a good indicator of just how damaged it truly is. On the one hand we have this progressive socialist who seems to be tapping into the cry for systemic change from the margins. On the other we find the very embodiment of the entrenched white American, capitalist myth; frantically lashing out in order to grasp their control. Let's not forget the crowds that support these candidates. The country is basically tearing itself apart and yet right smack in the middle of this fractured, waring electoral system we have Hillary Clinton, the US’ first woman nominee.
Regardless of who wins - whether socialist, megalomaniac, or woman, it will be an historic event; but in the face of that eventual outcome we cannot avoid a conversation around gender. For, in spite of this monumental achievement - or perhaps directly because of it - Clinton has managed to become an even more polarizing figure than Trump or Sanders in this whole race; exposing the ugly truth of a patriarchal system that is still very much alive in North American politics and culture. While many prefer to avoid or deny this truth; Hillary Clinton forces it to the surface.
This system can make room for both radicals and bigots in the race for the presidency; but a woman?
This is the tragic irony of Clinton’s success. She took advantage of the system to her advantage, as well as any man (perhaps better), and yet she has been widely criticised for it. Despite this, history will not allow us to miss the significance of this woman nominee. Her very presence is subversive even if her politics or values might be up for discussion.
However, this paper is not meant to be an analysis of Hillary Clinton. Rather, this anecdote was meant to serve a greater purpose in addressing an underlying question as it relates to the topic of this study: Politics play a significant role the telling of the narrative of culture and the dominant narrative of our world’s culture throughout history has been the patriarchy. So what happens when a woman is inserted into this narrative? What place can she hold in a system so heavily stacked against her? And how are we to interpret such an event?
These are the very questions that shall transition us towards the focus of this particular essay - the inclusion of the names of four (five including Mary) women in the Gospel of Matthew’s genealogical account of Jesus the Messiah. Emerging from a patriarchal culture, using an historically androcentric form, these named women have undoubtedly created a hermeneutical challenge for scholars over the past two millennia. Multiple lenses of interpretation have been applied in an attempt to make sense of this seemingly problematic inclusion. Yet, we must acknowledge that much of that study has been carried out from within a similarly patriarchal stream of interpretation. Over the last few decades however, there has been a steady rise of feminist criticism that has called into question much of our previous hermeneutical foundations by rightly challenging the patriarchal nature of both the text and the history of interpretation through which we have come to understand it.
However, as Elaine Mary Wainwright points out, this can create a problem when addressing texts such as this:
Thus, what is needed is looking at these five women named in the genealogy, not merely as passive objects, but by taking them on their own terms as active subjects in the unfolding story of God leading up to the Messiah. This can be done by applying a feminist critique to the patriarchal system that produced both their stories and our understanding of them. Like Hillary Clinton’s inclusion in this 2016 election, there is something inherently revolutionary simply with their presence in the genealogical list. Whether intended by the Gospel writer or not, their stories disrupt the very system that was so heavily weighted against them and frame the Messianic work of God in something extraordinarily counter-cultural. It is the aim of this study to suggest that the five women on this list offer a subversive reading to a Biblical narrative that has been so often controlled by a dominant patriarchal system.
Perhaps at this point it would be helpful to clear up exactly what we mean by the patriarchal system. It is hard to talk about subverting a system if we’re unsure exactly what that system looks like or how it operates. It also becomes a bit complicated since there are those who deny the existence of such a system. However, as this study will be adopting a strong feminist critique, we affirm it as a real thing.
As Bell Hooks defines it, the patriarchy is "a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence."
It is a term that has come to replace other, softer terms such as ‘sexism’ or ‘male chauvinism’ as these previous terms do not capture the all encompassing effects of this system. Those advocating the use of this term want to make it clear that this is a system that all of us, male and female, are born into and participate in, often without knowing. It is a system that promotes male privilege, meaning unearned advantage. Within these systems, the male experience becomes the universal norm. Allan Johnson writes that “patriarchal societies are male identified in that the core cultural ideas about what is good, desirable, preferable or normal are associated with how we think about men and masculinity.” Men and women are born into these systems with an advantage gap that they may not even be aware exists. Consider the common narrative in our culture; men are the main characters, the heroes, the perspective we experience the story through. Women on the other hand are side characters, love interests, often nothing more than plot pieces to serve the main narrative - the advancement of the male protagonist. American poet and feminist scholar, Alicia Ostriker, makes the observation that this is the general pattern of women in the Biblical narratives as well; they are active agents in the foreground of a story at the beginning and then disappear by the end of it. She writes,
It is important to see the way in which scripture itself exists within the patriarchy; both in its written form and it’s history of interpretation. This requires a re-reading of the text through a different lens, one that we are not generally accustomed to. Noted Catholic feminist, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza suggests that it is “only when we have listened to the many voices of women's experience in patriarchy will we be able to articulate how and through which Biblical texts God speaks to us today.” Bell Hooks writes something similar, stating that the patriarchy is maintained through “collective denial” and that we need to give voice to what goes on within patriarchal families in order to break this silence.
The five women named in Matthew’s genealogy each represent a different story, an experience within a patriarchal system that needs to be told in order to subvert the dominant narrative of which they are embedded within.
In order to understand what’s going on in Matthew’s genealogy it is important to know a bit about the genealogical form itself. Matthew is utilizing a familiar tool for his audience. Robert R. Wilson describes the role of a genealogy as being “a written or oral expression of the descent of a person or persons from an ancestor or ancestors.” It is important to note, however, that genealogies do not function primarily as historic evidence. As Wilson further writes,
"As a rule, Ancient Near Eastern genealogies seem not to have been created specifically for the purpose of writing history. They seldom have strictly historiographical functions, but they usually function sociologically… [and] usually reflect the domestic, political, and religious perspectives of the people who used the genealogies. Even though the genealogies may be fluid and tendentious, they are still valuable historical sources provided their nature and functions are taken into account."
The point is that one should not read an ANE genealogy with the sole purpose of creating an historic timeline. Rather, one should approach this sort of genealogy with a sociological and perhaps theological lens. In a sense, a genealogy is an answer to a question. Marshall D. Johnson suggests that for the Jews, the genealogical form was “best suited for apologetic purposes accomplished by midrasnhic exegesis.” In the Hebrew Scriptures, one of the dominant ways that genealogy was used (particularly in the J-Source) was to reflect the closeness Israel’s tribes felt to their neighbours at different points in their history. This means that there is a narrative structure within a genealogy; it is telling a story. For the writer of the gospel of Matthew, this story is a response to “the charge that Jesus was the illegitimate son of Mary.” The writer is using a familiar Jewish form to respond to Jewish questions of legitimacy in order to lend credibility to Jesus as the Messiah. Yet, while it gives us a sense of why the genealogy is there, it only intensifies the lingering question of why include the names of these four women? If the goal is to establish legitimacy, how is the inclusion of these names helpful? To say that they create a bit of a hermeneutical challenge is an understatement. Johnson notes,
"Names of women are rare in Jewish genealogies, and that exceptions occur only in the case of irregularity of descent or where there is something noteworthy about the woman’s name.... Most often women are mentioned in the OT genealogies when it was desired to distinguish among different groups (tribes, clans, families, individuals) who were traditionally traced to the same figure in the past."
So, with this in mind, we now turn to a feminist-critical hermeneutic in order to hear the subversive importance of the inclusion of these four (five) women.
How to understand the inclusion of these names has been of great interest to interpreters and scholars over the centuries. Until recently, there have been several dominant theories. We will briefly introduce a theory and then demonstrate its shortcomings through a feminist-critical lens.
One. The first view goes back all the way to the early church fathers; that the women are included because they were sinful. Jerome articulates this interpretation most clearly in his commentary on Matthew,
Heinrich A.W. Meyer, in his commentary makes this point a bit more subtly, ultimately drawing out that the women are included so as to reveal Christ’s sinlessness against the contrast of sinners. Daniel M. Doriani in his Reformed Expository Commentary on Matthew also uses the women to illustrate the sinfulness of Christ’s own family. This view can seem appealing in the way that it attempts to demonstrate Christ’s grand saving action as reaching even ‘prostitutes’ and ‘adulterers’. However, it fails to mention that a) the men in the genealogy are also equally sinful and b) to suggest that the inclusion of women play no other role other than as objects of sin. Sadly, a quick google search reveals that this view is still alive and well with many [male] Christian bloggers and some pastors. It is a strong reminder that we cannot deny the patriarchal context in which this passage is both written in and interpreted from.
Two. A second view is sort of an extension of the first and is best articulated in Edwin Freed’s explanation; that the women are included as a direct response to Jewish questions of legitimacy in Jesus’ birth. Freed points out that despite these women not being “shining lights of moral integrity”, they had actually come to be seen as heroines within the Jewish tradition. He writes,
As we have seen, genealogies are centred on giving a narrative or theological account, often in response to something. The idea in this theory was to respond to any Jewish objections of Mary’s sin by recalling sexual sin in David’s own lineage. While this is a much more balanced understanding of the inclusion of the women’s names, it still falls short. Although it moves away from placing the guilt of sin on the women, they are still objectified - serving no other purpose than to make a point. In a sense, their ‘sin’ is still the focus. Elaine Mary Wainwright notes,
Both of these first two interpretations represent both a shallow reading of the entire story and a strong patriarchal obsession with women’s sexuality as sinful. They narrow each of these women’s lives down to a single action and fail to make them active subjects in the story of God.
Three. A third interpretation is a popular one that suggests that the inclusion of the women has to do with their ‘Gentile’, or foreigner status. Tamar and Rahab were both canaanites, Ruth was a Moabite, and Bathsheba named the wife of a Hittite.
This view suggests that the writer of the Gospel is using the genealogy in response to a crucial question of the early church. Andrew D. Heffern writes,
The strength of this view is that it demonstrates that Christ’s saving action is extended to the whole human race, even outsiders. It does not base the inclusion of women solely in a moral framework but rather in an ethnic framework. There are also a vast number of noted theologians throughout the centuries who have held this view giving it a strong degree of support including Origen, Ambrose, Luther, Stegemann, Luz, and many others. It seems to be the dominantly held view; however applying a feminist-critical lens challenges a few of its assumptions. For instance, Janice Capel Anderson writes that one of the problems with this view is that it “does not take up the issue of gender, explaining why the persons included are women.” She further notes that it fails to connect what the four women have in common with Mary, neither a Gentile or a sinner. Wainwright similarly pushes against this view suggesting that this understanding of the women as Gentiles “reflects an androcentric perspective which sees women as outsiders to the patriarchal world and culture.” Again, the problem with this view is the way in which the women become passive objects rather than active subjects.
The problem with all three of these views is that the women are reduced to nothing more than a status.
While it may be tempting to ask why a feminist-criticism of a generally accepted interpretation is acceptable, it is once again important to remember the patriarchal influence on both our history of interpretation and the context of the text itself. Ostriker makes the point that both Judaism and Christianity have been, from their beginnings, “self-revising” traditions. She writes,
We cannot allow a patriarchal worldview to dictate the only acceptable hermeneutic. A feminist-criticism of both the text and the interpretation forces us to ask questions that challenge certain long held assumptions - even when it is uncomfortable. An important aspect of this feminist-critique is liberation, that is to liberate these stories from the dominant patriarchal narrative and hear them on their own terms. Yet, this cannot be done without challenging their captors. For Wainwright this means deconstructing the whole framework.
"Like androcentric grammar and narrative strategies, patriarchal constructs also function to marginalize or to obscure women. But the patriarchal text is not a product of an all-male culture. Women have been part of the history that has given rise to the text. They have participated in the making of traditions even if those traditions were intended to suppress, silence or caricature them. Hence a feminist reading must attend to the silences, the gaps, the omissions, the partial truths and the mythologies. A feminist reading against the grain must therefore extend beyond androcentric language and grammar to patriarchal constructs as well."
In this way, these names become truly subversive. They force us to take them seriously as active subjects in God’s story of redemption rather than just place holders to make a simple point within a patriarchal telling of the story.
By reading fully the stories of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba we discover that their inclusion in this list give us an even more powerful understanding of God’s messianic activity. Amy-Jill Levine, in her commentary on the gospel suggests that these women are “models of higher righteousness… and participants in salvation history.” Each of them are socially and culturally powerless and yet their faith stands out from the powerful men who fail to fulfill their role. As Levine says, “each - from a relatively powerless position - seeks justice not through violence but through cleverness." Each of them utilize the patriarchal framework to their advantage for their survival in a system rigged against them; in a sense beating the men at their own game. Understanding the role of the patriarchy in each of their stories is important. This is a androcentric world in which a woman is understood only in her relation to the men in her life (father, husband, son). If that connection is lost, a woman is powerless and left with very few options for survival. Each of the four women leading up to Mary provide us with a story of subverting that system, their very presence in the genealogy disrupts the patriarchal narrative as it typically plays out.
Tamar, seduces Judah (her father-in-law) after he failed in his duty to care for her and is then labelled, “more righteous” than he.
Rahab deceives the Kingdom of Jericho and hides Israelite spies in order that she may survive the coming destruction because she recognizes the God of Israel as the true God. With both of these stories, “we have a double-edged story of wom[e]n whose actions provide a powerful critique of the patriarchal worldview as well as its familial structure, but who [are] incorporated into that worldview and structure.”
Ruth cares for her widowed mother-in-law and then herself finds a husband to protect and provide for them. Ruth’s story serves as a critique of a society in which women are always under the protection of a man. It subverts that narrative by telling a story in which three women who are “childless widows, anomalies within the social structure, make independent choices.”
Finally, Bathsheba, after being sexually exploited (some might suggest raped) by a man of great power and influence, goes to David to tell him that she is pregnant. Wainwright notes that Bathsheba is “a danger to the patriarchal family structure.”
One can hear the subversive power in their stories only after naming the patriarchy for what it is and the extent to which it dominates our culture. This is why a feminist-critique is so important, it calls us to re-read the story through a different lens, one that challenges many of our long standing assumptions.
For a feminist-critique to be truly subversive, it must challenge the dominant patriarchal worldview that exists within the text and in our history of interpretation and call us to re open these familiar stories with a new set of eyes and ears. The significance of the four(five) women being included in Matthew’s genealogy can only be fully appreciated through this level of understanding.
We must allow their voices to be heard from within their proper context in order that they might liberate us from our oppressive readings.