Life + Culture

Prostitutes, Mistresses, and the Messiah: Seven Great Women of Ill Repute

Prostitutes, Mistresses, and the Messiah

A strange thread runs through the most prominent women associated with Jesus: they are all women of, shall we say, ill repute. Most of their notorious reputations spring from sexual scandals. What does this say about Christ? An awful lot.

If your habit is to skip over the genealogies in the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, you may have missed a treasure buried in this list of forty fathers who comprise Jesus’s ancestry (if we count Joseph), stretching as far back as Abraham. The hidden treasure is the five women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Jesus’s mother, Mary. Why are they listed? And what makes them as valuable as any man mentioned? That’s precisely what Matthew wants us to ask.

Five Women of Ill Repute

First, Tamar (Matthew 1:3). Tamar is the sort of ancestor most of us wouldn’t mention when recounting our family history. Do you remember her story (Genesis 38)? She entered the messianic bloodline by disguising herself as a prostitute and seducing her father-in-law, Judah. The scene and story are complicated. Given the cultural mores of the time, she acted more righteously than he did, since he had treated her unjustly and she had little recourse. Still, there’s no denying how horrible a mess it was.

Second comes Rahab (Matthew 1:5). She didn’t need a disguise. She was a prostitute (or at least had been prior to her marriage). She was also a Gentile. And not just a Gentile, a Canaanite and a resident of Jericho, the first city Joshua set his sights on in the Promised Land. So, how did Rahab manage to become Jesus’s great, great, great, great — add another 24 greats — grandmother? She hid Jewish military spies and helped them escape, so Joshua spared her and her family (see Joshua 2 and 6). Once she was folded into Israel, Rahab married Salmon, which resulted in the genealogical appearance of . . .

Ruth, the third woman in our list (Matthew 1:5). She wasn’t personally embroiled in sexual scandal, but she came from a people that was. Ruth was a Moabite, a nation which had sprung from the incest between Lot and his oldest daughter (Genesis 19:30–38). Ruth’s people were polytheistic pagans, occasionally offering human sacrifices to idol-gods like Chemosh. Through personal tragedy and great loyalty, she wound up at Bethlehem and in the (lawful) arms of Boaz and also joined Jesus’s family tree. How did that happen, given that Jews were forbidden to marry Moabites (Ezra 9:10–12)? You have to read Ruth — an entire book of sacred Jewish Scripture named after this Moabitess! But catch this: Matthew records Boaz as the son of Rahab and Salmon. If that’s true (ancient genealogies sometimes skip generations), imagine how Rahab might have prepared young Boaz to see in a foreign woman a wild branch God wished to graft into the Jewish olive tree.

The fourth woman is “the wife of Uriah” (Matthew 1:6). We know her as Bathsheba, the woman Israel’s greatest king couldn’t — or better, wouldn’t — keep his hands off of. The account in 2 Samuel 11 doesn’t tell us Bathsheba’s side of this adulterous story. But given the fact that David wielded nearly absolute power as king, this was multilevel abuse, plain and simple. But its result was anything but simple. This single immoral “meal” (Hebrews 12:16) produced a cascading sequence of tragic events. Bathsheba became pregnant. Her husband was murdered in a major cover-up. David brought upon himself, and his entire household, a curse that resulted in horrifying suffering for many, particularly Bathsheba (see 2 Samuel 12). And yet there she is, foregrounded in Jesus’s background.

Last on the list, but certainly not least, is Mary, the mother of Jesus (Matthew 1:16). She became pregnant with Jesus before her wedding. The child’s father was not her betrothed, Joseph. The shadow of this “illegitimate” pregnancy would have lingered over her reputation (and her son’s) for their entire earthly lives.

Jesus’s First Women

Two more women figure prominently in Jesus’s life and are worth mentioning here. Both their reputations made them, in human wisdom, unlikely people to experience two astonishing firsts of Jesus.

In John 4, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman from Sychar at midday at Jacob’s well (John 4:6). Like Rahab and Ruth (and perhaps Tamar), this woman was not Jewish. And like Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba, this woman had known numerous men — five husbands and at least one uncovenanted “significant other” (John 4:17–18). And yet in John’s Gospel, this woman is the first person to whom Jesus explicitly discloses himself as the Messiah (John 4:25–26). The first person: this woman.

And then there’s Mary Magdalene. The Bible tells us little about Mary other than that she had seven demons cast out of her (Luke 8:1–3), was present at Jesus’s crucifixion (John 19:25), saw where Jesus was buried (Mark 15:47), and saw the resurrected Jesus (Matthew 28:1–10). History, however, has tended to remember Mary as a woman with a sordid sexual past. We’re not sure why. Perhaps it’s because she (likely) came from the disreputable town of Magdala. Or maybe those strange early Christian apocryphal writings are to blame. Or maybe Mary really did have a past (which is where I lean). It seems reasonable that a vague, lingering remnant of what was once her public shame clings to her reputation to highlight her Savior’s grace.

What is so astonishing about Mary Magdalene is that she was the first person Jesus appeared to after being raised from the dead (John 20:11–18). The first person! Jesus did not appear first to his mother, nor to Peter, but to a formerly immoral, formerly demonized woman.

A Gracious Sorority

Why Mary Magdalene? Why the woman at the well? Why unwed Mary of Nazareth? Why Bathsheba, Ruth, Rahab, and Tamar? Why did God choose to make these women of ill repute so prominent in redemptive history?

In order to place the emphasis of history on redemption.

All of these women share this in common: a disgraceful past. They either committed or suffered disgrace. Whether they deserved them or not, they each had a tainted reputation. They endured the contempt of others and felt the pain of very real shame. At least four of the six would have carried extremely painful, sordid memories.

But God no longer sees them as disgraceful, but grace-full. God changed their identities. Instead of women of ill repute, he made them ancestors or disciples of the Messiah. They are archetypes of what he does for all of his children. God is saying loudly through each woman:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:17–18)

The Old Has Passed Away

In Christ the old has passed away! Jesus takes away the old reputation. In Jesus, your past sin or the abuse and injustice you’ve suffered, and the ways you’ve viewed yourself and others have viewed you because of it, is not who you are. In Jesus, your heavenly Father says,

You are my child (Ephesians 1:5). I have washed you and made you holy (1 Corinthians 6:11). You are clean, and no one has authority to say otherwise (Acts 10:15). And you are my beloved (Romans 9:25). I have removed all your scarlet letters (Psalm 51:7).

God has thousands of reasons for everything he does. One great reason he founded this gracious sorority was to remind us of his lavish, unmerited grace to the undeserved and unlikely and despised. It’s another way to tell us that he loves to redeem sinners, he loves to produce something beautiful out of something horrible, he loves to make foreigners his children, and he loves to reconcile his enemies. He loves to make all things work together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28), even for prostitutes, mistresses, and men like me.

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