Reflections on Come Follow Me 2: “Be It unto Me according to Thy Word” (Matthew 1; Luke 1)

Mary and Elizabeth,
from the LDS Media Library
This week for Come Follow Me, we focus on Matthew 1 and Luke 1. The manual for Sunday School invites us to pick one of the four main characters in these chapters—Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, and Zacharias—and learn more about them and their experience. I decided to focus on Mary.
One thing I find interesting about both of these chapters is that they both put emphasis on Mary in different ways, and both bring other women into the story to do it.

Matthew’s Genealogy of Christ (Matthew 1:1–17)

Matthew does this with his genealogy. Like most genealogies of the time, Matthew’s genealogy of Christ consists predominantly of a string of male names, going from father-to-son until arriving at Joseph, husband of Mary (1:16). And yet, unexpectedly, Matthew makes periodic mention of four women (besides Mary):
  1.     Tamar (1:3)
  2.    Rahab (1:5)
  3.  Ruth (1:5)
  4.    Bathsheba (1:6, “the wife of Urias”)

(Note that the KJV renders the first two as Thamar and Rachab. I am following the Old Testament spellings of their names.)

Almost every commentary I consulted—from both Latter-day Saints and non-Latter-day Saints—pointed out not only the unusual inclusion of women, but the unexpected nature of which women were included.
  •     Tamar was the daughter-in-law of Judah, who—after being snubbed by Judah the right to levirate marriage and children through his third son, Shelah—tricked Judah into thinking she’s a prostitute and got pregnant with twins (see Genesis 38).
  •     Rahab was the Canaanite prostitute living in Jericho, who was allowed to live when the Israelites attacked the city because she aided the Israelite spies (Joshua 2 & 6).
  •     Ruth was a Moabite (i.e., non-Israelite) women living in Bethlehem during the time of the Judges, who waited until Boaz was drunk, then tricked him into thinking he slept with her before revealing that he was her next of kin (see Ruth 1–4)[1]
  •     Bathsheba was the woman David committed adultery with, and then sent her husband to certain death to cover it up (2 Samuel 11).

These probably aren’t the women that come to mind when wanting to emphasize the noble lineage of the Messiah, nor are they (with the exception of Ruth) probably the women we tend to hold up as heroines for our young women today. It wouldn’t necessarily be fair to characterize these women as “sinners,” but many of their stories are certainly scandalous.

But so was Mary’s, if you don’t know it’s miraculous nature. Imagine you are a young woman in the late-first century BC, you are engaged to be married, and you are pregnant—and the child isn’t his.
Oh, and you live in a culture where fornication and adultery are punishable by death (Deuteronomy 22:20–21, 23–24).

That’s Mary’s situation, and before Gabriel explained things to Joseph (1:18–25), she was the only one in her hometown of Nazareth who that knew she’d done nothing wrong. Modern readers probably don’t always appreciate that when Joseph sought “to put her away privily”—rather than “make her a publick example” (1:19)—he wasn’t just trying not to embarrass her. He was saving her life.

Even after Joseph married her, folks no doubt talked, and Mary probably endured a certain amount of shaming. The seemingly scandalous nature of Jesus’s conception was later a point of criticism for the early Christian movement. Perhaps Matthew is trying to respond to these by not only setting the story straight—explaining the miraculous birth and angelic annunciation—but also by highlighting other apparently scandalous births that were part of the Messianic lineage.

Whatever the purpose of their inclusion, the lives and circumstances of these women deserve careful, studied attention as important figures in the Messiah’s origins.[2]

The Meeting of Elizabeth and Mary (Luke 1)

Luke tells the annunciation of Christ’s birth to Mary (rather than to Joseph), but also tells the story of Elizabeth (KJV spelling, Elisabeth), the mother of John the Baptist. New Testament scholar Richard Baukham outlines the chapter chiastically,[3] based on whose experience or point-to-view each part of the story is told from:

(A) Narrator (1:5–7)
                (B) Zacharias (1:8–20)
                                (C) people (and Zacharias) (1:21–23)
                                                (D) Elizabeth (1:24–25)
                                                                (E) Mary (1:26–38)
                                                                                (F) Elizabeth and Mary (1:39–45)
                                                                (E’) Mary (1:46–56)
                                                (D’) Elizabeth (1:57–61)
                                (C’) people (and Zacharias) (1:62–66)
                (B’) Zacharias (1:67–79)
(A’) Narrator (1:80)

The key thing to notice here is that the experiences and voices of women—Mary and Elizabeth (D-E-F-E’-D’)—are at the center of the story. The angelic annunciation to Mary (1:26–38) and her song (commonly called the Magnificat) (1:46–56) form the center-flanking wings of the most central element—Mary’s time with Elizabeth (1:39–45). Even here, the focus remains on Mary and her status as “the mother of [the] Lord” (1:43). Here in this focal point of the chiastic pattern, Elizabeth becomes the first witness of the miraculous child in Mary’s womb (1:43), and of Mary’s important place in history.

Beloved of God

Given this focus on Mary in Luke’s opening narrative, it’s interesting to note that Luke is writing his gospel to someone named Theophilus (1:4)—a Greek name meaning “beloved of God.”

Mary’s own name (the same as the Hebrew name Miriam) likely derives from the Egyptian mr(y), meaning “beloved.”[4] If we assume that Mary is a shortened theophoric name (i.e., a name with a deity in it), her name would literally mean “beloved of God/the Lord.” This should immediately bring to mind Nephi’s vision, where he first sees the tree of life, then is shown a fair virgin from Nazareth, bearing a child, and immediately understands that the tree represents the “love of God” (1 Nephi 11:8–22)—the very meaning of the virgin’s name, known by Nephi’s later descendants (e.g., Mosiah 3:8; Alma 7:10).[5]

In Luke, the point is also made that she’s espoused to Joseph, from the “house of David” (1:27). This is mentioned, of course, because of the expectation that the Messiah be from the house of David. But it’s nonetheless interesting that the name David also means “beloved” in Hebrew, and he was known for being loved of the Lord.

So in Luke 1, we have mention of three names which all mean “beloved [of God/the Lord]” in three different languages (Greek, Hebrew, and Egyptian), and the central character in the story is bears one of those names. The point here being is that, as often is the case in scripture, Mary’s own name conveys a lot meaning, reflected in other scriptures about her—especially in the Book of Mormon. It’s certainly interesting that Luke begins his gospel written to the “beloved of God” with so much emphasis on Mary, who was herself the “beloved of God/the Lord.”

Anyway, I hope these rough musings are enough to show that there’s potentially more to learn about Mary and what her experience was like here in Matthew 1 and Luke 1 than might initially meet the eye. I hope I’ve given you at least something interesting to think about as you read these chapters. I’d encourage everyone to consider and reflect on Mary’s experiences themselves this week, or on that of Elizabeth, or Joseph, or Zacharias.  

[1] On this there is some debate, but some scholars believe the references to uncovering and lying at Boaz’s feet in Ruth 3 are a euphemism. On this, see Adele Reinhartz, “Ruth: Introduction and Annotations,” in The Jewish Study Bible: Torah, Nevi’im, Kethuvim, 2nd ed., ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), 1577–1578.
[2] For well-informed insight on these women, and ideas as to why they are mentioned in the genealogy of Christ, from the perspective of Latter-day Saint women, see Julie M. Smith, Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2014), 255–259; Camille Fronk Olsen, Women of the New Testament (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2014), 41–107.
[3] This is pointed out in Smith, Search, Ponder, and Pray, 53.
[4] See James K. Hoffmeier, Ancient Israel in Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 225.
[5] Alma’s prophecy in 7:10, I’d just like note, also uses very similar language to Luke 1:35.