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Mary's foremothers.

We really know very little about the historical Mary, the mother of Jesus. If you bring together what the four evangelists report about Mary that is historically reliable, about all we know is that she was a simple young woman in Palestine who was betrothed to a carpenter.

As her firstborn son began his public life, it seems she and other relatives considered him "crazy." It is only in John's Gospel that Mary stands at the foot of the cross, and the author of Acts mentions her presence in the community of disciples in Jerusalem after the "ascension."

Mary's role in the gospels is described in very different ways. While Mark and John are inclined to present her as a disciple of Jesus and underplay her role as mother, the point of Matthew and Luke is to bring out that Mary is the mother of the Messiah, and so they give an important place to the infancy narratives that act as a kind of "overture" to their gospels.

I want to draw attention to the genealogy of Jesus at the start of Matthew's Gospel. In these verses, the evangelist has provided a sort of "birth announcement" of Jesus in which his origins are traced back to Abraham by way of David.

Whereas Luke builds his genealogy out of 77 male forbears to reach Adam himself, Matthew divides the ancestors of Jesus rather artificially into three groups of 14 -- from Abraham to David, from David to the exile and from the exile to Christ.

Most people skip this boring list with its repeated "X begat Y." Yet it deserves a closer look. For in the midst of all these men, four Old Testament women appear who disrupt the pattern and are not explained.

Three of them, Tamar, Rahab and Ruth, are mentioned by name. The fourth is Bathsheba, who here is presented as "the wife of Uriah." How did Matthew come to make precisely these four women the ancestors of Jesus?

He cannot have been moved by "historical" considerations, for genealogies in that period had nothing to do with "what actually happened." Rather, they were fictional, variable images by which resemblances and relationships could be conjured up and authorities legitimated.

If Matthew wanted to give Jesus the most distinguished and respectful ancestry, why did he not choose Sarah, Hagar, Rebecca, Rachel or Leah, who were the real foremothers in Israel? Let us look a little more closely at Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba.

Tamar, the widow of Judah's firstborn son, resorts to a trick so as not to die childless. Dressed as a prostitute and unrecognized, she sleeps with her father-in-law, Judah, becomes pregnant and bears twins.

She cleverly secures the legal recognition of the children through a pledge from Judah. In this way Tamar exploits her in-laws well beyond the customary limits to help her dead husband to have offspring who will bear his name.

The Moabite woman, Ruth, in another daring action, prompts a relative of her mother-in-law, Naomi, to a "saving marriage." It was with Boas the "nullifier," and his and Ruth's child saves the line of Naomi from extinction and assures both women of provision and security in old age.

The Canaanite prostitute Rahab uses her courage and intelligence in quite a different way. She saves her Israelite clients and her entire family. As the king of Jericho seeks to arrest the two clients who are in her house, she helps them to flee and thus her whole clan is spared in the conquest of Jericho. But the Old Testament texts know nothing of Boas being the son of Rahab and Solomon.

The story of David's adultery with Bathsheba is well-known. Bathsheba is the wife of Uriah the Hittite. David can marry her only by ensuring that Uriah is killed in battle. The first child of this adulterous liaison dies, but the second, Solomon, becomes the most glorious king in Israel.

Commentators have puzzled over what these four women have in common. Certainly, it is not their "immodesty" for, in the Jewish tradition at the time of Jesus, they were highly regarded. Tamar and Ruth certainly put their honor in jeopardy, but they act according to the ancient law of the Israelites.

Rahab is honored as "the first proselyte" and the prime example of faith. Bathsheba is never blamed for David's adultery. It is noteworthy that Rahab and Ruth are not Israelites, while Bathsheba is married to a pagan.

Perhaps Matthew wanted in this way to announce a theme that runs through his entire gospel: The message of Jesus is also for the pagans. But it seems that with these four women the evangelist was trying to make another point.

With three vigorous strokes, he sets the history of Jesus, the Messiah, in the vast context of salvation history. And in this salvation history from Abraham through David, not everything is so neat and tidy as we are accustomed to expect.

That God's involvement in the history of Israel and humanity should be continued in Jesus is thanks to the risky and unrespectable enterprises of Tamar and Ruth, to a prostitute like Rahab, and even to an act of adultery.

All these women are "mothers of life" because they fight for the continuity of the generations and are ready to stake their lives and reputations for that end. God's history on earth, we can say, gives offense. God can so dispose things that he can renounce the luxury of a "squeaky clean" ancestry.

Matthew now sets "Mary of whom Jesus was born" in this tradition. True, the line of descent is traced through Joseph, but perhaps uncertainty about Joseph's paternal role leads to the highlighting of the relationship of Mary to the Old Testament women.

With his infancy narrative, Matthew wanted to prove that Jesus was indeed a son of David and a son of Abraham, but also that courageous women and bold undertakings play their part in salvation history.

Like her foremothers in faith, Mary took the risk of God, the risk of life and perhaps even the risk of causing offense. God needs such women to be with us, to be "Emmanuel," and he needs them today as much as then.

Mary's Old Testament background, found in the Bible itself, has been too little noticed when not completely ignored. It is important for us women in the church to discover this other biblical Mary.

For she doesn't so much console as inspire to courageous action. She is less Queen of Heaven and more one of us. She is no new Eve, but a new Tamar, a new Rahab, a new Ruth and a new Bathsheba.
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Title Annotation:Christmas
Author:Shroer, Silvia
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Dec 25, 1992
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