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Why Did God Forbid and Bless Interfaith Marriages in the Bible?

While Deuteronomy 23:3 forbids interfaith marriages, it’s also true that if a spouse converts to the Lord, she becomes a Jewess (especially through marriage) and is richly blessed by the Lord as we see in the genealogy of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Wedding between man and woman

The beginning of the New Testament’s Christmas story answers one of the most pressing questions in the Old Testament: Why did God both forbid and bless interfaith marriage between Israelite men and women from surrounding countries?

Then again, the beginning of the Christmas story in Matthew 1 raises four other substantive questions for today’s readers. Rest assured, however, that interfaith marriage is right in the middle of it all.

1. Genealogy

Why does Matthew start his two chapters of the Christmas story with a genealogy? Luke pushes his listing of Jesus Christ’s genealogy half a chapter after his Christmas stories. Why didn’t Matthew?

Matthew’s Jewish readers expected any discussion about the birth of the Messiah to begin with a genealogy that traces his lineage from Abraham to David to the Babylonian captivity to the Messiah’s birth.

Matthew does just what his readers expected, and the Early Church saw that as the best way to start the New Testament scriptures. It doesn’t appeal to most contemporary English readers, who want action, action, action, but that’s okay. Again, Matthew was writing to a largely Jewish audience.

2. Women Named

It’s one thing for ancient Jewish men to value genealogies, but Matthew breaks tradition in a big way by naming five women. In a patriarchal society, men were named. True, sometimes wives were named, especially if a man had more than one wife during his lifetime.

Still, why does Matthew name any women in Jesus Christ’s genealogy, let alone five of them? The five are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, “the wife of Uriah” (Bathsheba), and Mary the mother of Jesus.

3. Interfaith Marriage

Of the five women named in Matthew’s genealogy, two were not from Israel. What in the world are a couple of non-Jewish women doing in the Messiah’s lineage?

After the fall of Jericho, Rahab became a convert to Judaism, lived as a Jewess, married Salmon (one of the two spies?), and became the mother (or grandmother) of Boaz.

It is the same thing for Ruth the Moabitess. She became a convert to Judaism, lived as a Jewish widow, remarried a kinsman-redeemer from within her first husband’s family, and she and Boaz had at least one son, Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David, the father of Solomon.

What Matthew doesn’t mention is that Solomon’s first wife, Naamah, was a righteous convert to Judaism. Rabbinic tradition calls her one of “two doves.” They say these “two doves” illustrate God’s providence in adding both a Moabitess and an Ammonitess (descendants of Lot’s two daughters) to the Messiah’s lineage.

To me, the other “dove” is Rahab the Canaanite.

Together, these three “foreign” women, who all converted to Judaism, illustrate God’s wondrous mercy and grace.

True, Deuteronomy 23:3 says, “No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, not even in the tenth generation.” But it doesn’t prohibit women from leaving their nation and its gods and embracing the one true Lord God.

What’s more, Scripture clearly shows the Lord Himself saving Rahab, redeeming Ruth, and welcoming Naamah into the lineage of His Son, Jesus Christ. What beautiful “doves,” indeed!

So, while Deuteronomy 23:3 forbids interfaith marriages, it’s also true that if a foreign woman converts to the Lord, she becomes a Jewess (especially through marriage) and is richly blessed by the Lord.

4. Scandals

Four of the five women Matthew names have scandals associated with them. In reverse order:

1. Mary the mother of Jesus was pregnant out of wedlock. All fingers pointed to Joseph (Matthew 1:16-24; Luke 1:26-38; Luke 2:1-7; Luke 3:23; Luke 4:22; John 1:45; John 6:42).

2. Bathsheba was taken by David while she was still married to one of David’s mighty men, Uriah. The prophet Nathan confronted David for breaking half of the 10 Commandments in one fell swoop (2 Samuel 11:2-27; 2 Samuel 12:1-25).

3. While living in Jericho, Rahab was an innkeeper. It’s possible (probable?) she also was used as a prostitute. If so, all fingers point to the men who passed through her pagan city (Joshua 2:1-24; 6:1-25).

4. Tamar acted like a prostitute to snare one customer and only one — her unrelentingly deceitful father-in-law, Judah. Even Judah pointed out his far worse guilt in every way (Genesis 38:6-26).

5. Missing Generation

As a tax collector, Matthew was brilliant with numbers. Why, then, does he end the genealogy the way he does? He says, “Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah” (Matthew 1:17).

The problem: 14 times three equals 42, but Matthew names only 41 men from Abraham to Jesus Christ, the Messiah.

Then again, “men” isn’t identical to “generations.” Remember Tamar snaring her unrelentingly deceitful father-in-law, Judah? Judah represents the fourth generation in the genealogy, but Tamar represents the fifth generation. So, 42 generations, after all!

The Good News

When skeptics, agnostics, and atheists point out the issues discussed above, that’s often all they’re doing — pointing out the issues. What they’re missing, sometimes intentionally, is the beautiful way the Good News of the gospel message is woven throughout the genealogy of Jesus Christ.

That Good News is for women. The Good News is for everyone, especially as sinners. The Lord God loves us, doesn’t want anyone to perish, wants all to repent from our sins, wants all to turn to Him and be converted, and wants all to become part of His family here and now, and for eternity.

What Good News, indeed!

Biblical Marriages

Abraham took Hagar (an Egyptian slave who worshipped the one true Lord God) as his concubine at the recommendation of Sarah, his first wife (Genesis 16:1-16; Genesis 21:9-21). Later, after Sarah’s death, Abraham married Keturah (Genesis 25:1-4).

Abraham’s grandson, Esau, “took his wives from the women of Canaan: Adah the daughter of Elon the Hittite, and Oholibamah daughter of Anah and granddaughter of Zibeon the Hivite — also Basemath [Mahalath, Genesis 28:9] daughter of Ishmael and sister of Nebaioth” (Genesis 36:2-3).

A generation later, Pharaoh married Joseph to Asenath, daughter of an Egyptian priest (Genesis 41:45-50; Genesis 46:20).

Centuries later, a Midianite priest who served God, Reuel [Jethro, Exodus 3:1], married Moses to one of his daughters, Zipporah (Exodus 2:21).

A few more centuries later, Samson married an unnamed Philistine woman from Timnah (Judges 14:1-20).

Around that time, brothers Mahlon and Chilion married Moabitess women Orpah and Ruth (Ruth 1:1-4). Unlike Orpah, Ruth worshipped the one true Lord (Ruth 1:16-18).

Three generations later, Solomon married Naamah (cited above) the year before his ascension to the throne. That was good. Solomon married Pharaoh’s daughter (1 Kings 3:1-2). That was historically unprecedented (a very big deal), yet definitely not good.

Much, much worse, Solomon continued to marry dozens, scores, possibly hundreds of women from other countries who worshipped and continued to worship and implement their “gods” (1 Kings 11:1-2).

Bible Passages on Interfaith Marriage

Patriarchs married women in Abraham’s family tree (Genesis 24:1-4; Genesis 27:46; Genesis 28:1-5).

Dangers of unconverted spouses (Exodus 34:16; Deuteronomy 7:3-4; Joshua 23:12-13; Judges 3:5-8; Psalm 106:34-42; Ezra 9:1-15; 10:1-44; Nehemiah 13:1-3; 13:23-31; Malachi 2:11-12; 2 Corinthians 6:14-18).

Solomon’s unconverted wives (1 Kings 3:1-2; 1 Kings 11:1-2; 1 Kings 14:21).

Gentile men could convert and become fully Jewish (Isaiah 56:3).

Converted Jews and Gentiles become one in Christ (Ephesians 2:14-19).

For further reading:

Why Will Interfaith Marriages Be Harder?

What Is the Biblical Definition of Marriage?

Is it Important to Know Jesus’ Family Tree at Christmas?

How Ruth Was an Absolute Trailblazer in the Bible

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Vershinin


headshot of David Sanford new 2020 David Sanford’s book and Bible projects have been published by Zondervan, Tyndale, Thomas Nelson, Doubleday, Barbour, and Amazon. His newest book is Life Map Devotional for Men published concurrently with his wife Renee’s new book, Life Map Devotional for Women.