The Gospel of Matthew is often compared with the Gospel of Luke in such a way where, to many contemporary readers, the Gospel of Matthew comes off somewhat poorly. Luke is, quite accurately, known as a writer with a focus on women and outsiders, and in our contemporary age this tendency is valued very highly. In contrast, the Gospel of Matthew is known for its focus on Jewish law and prophecy, citing examples of the prophecies that Jesus Christ fulfilled, and the general lack of interest that many Bible readers have in those materials has meant that the Gospel of Matthew has not received the credit due to it. In particular, today I would like to comment on the often-neglected significance of the four women listed in Matthews genealogy, a significance that has several layers of importance.
The Bible’s genealogies often have not attracted a great deal of notice, and the genealogy of Jesus Christ (through his stepfather Joseph) given in Matthew is no different. The genealogy given in Matthew is given as follows in Matthew 1:1-17: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham: Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot Judah and his brothers. Judah begot Perez and Zerah by Tamar, Perez begot Hezron, and Hezron begot Ram. Ram begot Amminadab, Amminadab begot Nashon, and Nashon begot Salmon. Salmon begot Boaz by Rahab, Boaz begot Obed by Ruth, Obed begot Jesse, and Jesse begot David the king. David the king begot Solomon by her who had been the wife of Uriah. Solomon begot Rehoboam, Rehoboam begot Abijah, and Abijah begot Asa. Asa begot Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat begot Joram, and Joram begot Uzziah. Uzziah begot Jotham, Jotham begot Ahaz, and Ahaz begot Hezekiah. Hezekiah begot Manasseh, Manasseh begot Amon, and Amon begot Josiah. Josiah begot Jeconiah and his brothers about the time they were carried away to Babylon. And after they were brought to Babyon, Jeconiah begot Shealtiel, and Shealtiel begot Zerubbabel. Zerubbabel begot Abiud, Abiud begot Eliakim, and Eliakim begot Azor. Azor begot Zadok, Zadok begot Achim, and Achim begot Eliud. Eliud begot Eleazar, Eleazar begot Matthan, and Matthan begot Jacob. And Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ. So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations, from David until the captivity in Babylon are fourteen generations, and from the captivity in Babylon until the Christ are fourteen generations.”
Few people read genealogies in the Bible without their eyes glazing over. It might be the initial tendency of people not to pay close attention both to what is included and what is not included in this table. Unless the reader knows, for example, the succession of the Davidic kings in Jerusalem, it may not be easy to recognize that several generations have been elided in the account when we read that Joram begot Uzziah. The truth, if one reads 2 Kings, was a bit more complicated. 2 Kings 8:25 tells us that Joram begot Ahaziah by Athaliah the granddaughter of Omri (and the daughter of the wicked King Ahab and his even more wicked wife Jezebel). Azariah was killed in the maelstrom that brought Jehu to power in Israel, and in revenge, Athaliah sought to destroy the kingly line of David. Young Jehoash, her grandson, was saved by the high priest, and he later fathered Amaziah, who foolishly challenged Israel to battle and was taken captive while Jerusalem was sacked. It is Amaziah’s son Uzziah, also known as Azariah, who is the next name recorded in the genealogy. The fact that names, for one reason or another, are omitted in this genealogy ought to make us particularly attuned to the names that are included, and especially the women. It should be noted that the omission of the names of more women is not because the names of these women are not known. The books of 1 and 2 Kings record, at least for the kings of Judah, the names of their mothers, who are otherwise not generally known. To take an example at random, 2 Kings 14:22 tells us that Amaziah’s mother was Jehoaddan of Jerusalem, and 2 Kings 18:1 tells us that Hezekiah’s mother was Abi the daughter of an otherwise unknown Zechariah. For whatever reason, though, the names of these immensely obscure but important queens is not included in Matthew’s genealogy. That should signal us that the women who are named is of the utmost importance to Matthew, and that they are being included for a reason.
Matthew gives some hint of the importance of the women included in his genealogy in the story that immediately follows the genealogy, recorded in Matthew 1:18-25: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.” Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name Jesus.”
An understanding of the context of this passage requires that we know something about Jewish marriage law. Typically, Jewish engagements lasted about a year, and at the beginning of the engagement the man and woman were considered to be husband and wife, although they were not to have conjugal relations until the year was up. During this time there was an agreement of the marriage contract and the various business of preparing for marriage took place before the wedding supper and the beginning of marital relations took place in earnest. It was during this period that Mary was found with child, and Joseph not unnaturally suspected her of immorality, since the two of them had not been together and he knew he was not the father of the child. It was only divine intervention in the form of communication by a dream that gave Joseph the encouragement he needed to marry his pregnant fiancé. Yet this story signals us that the women included in the genealogy of Jesus Christ likely have some similar concern about sexual immorality as that presented by Mary herself, and that is precisely what we find. Just as Joseph was being a generous man by thinking to put his wife-to-be away rather than having her stoned for adultery, so too we ought to expect that the women included in Matthew’s genealogy are worthy of investigating in terms of what they have to say about identity and morality, and we find both of those concerns represented with these women.
In fact, it is striking that all four of the women listed in Matthew’s genealogy of Joseph the carpenter, the legal genealogy of Jesus Christ are women of foreign birth where there are questions or concerns of sexual immorality. Later we will take a brief look at each of their stories and examine how both of these concerns were present. In the one case where the woman herself was not a foreigner, she is known as a foreigner because she is named as the wife of Uriah the Hittite, whose foreign identity as one of David’s converted mercenary soldiers is highlighted. In all of the cases, however, the stories that are hinted at by Matthew’s mention of the names is meant to provoke a question as to how these particular women came to play such an important role in the genealogy of the savior of all mankind, who came to save us from our sins. These questions of identity as well as morality are an important aspect of our reflection of who Jesus Christ is, since in the Bible our identity is very frequently tied up with questions of ancestry. We are all dramatically shaped by our background and personal origins, not only in the way that genes pass from one generation to the next, or stories about our ancestors by which we understand ourselves, but in our upbringing as well as through the aspect of blessings and curses that fall upon generations. For we are reminded in the Decalogue itself in Exodus 20:4-6: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water below the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands [of generations], to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” Let us therefore take a study, with digressions, of the four women listed in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus Christ and reflect upon what those names and their stories mean for us when it comes to moral behavior.
The story of Judah and Tamar is given in Genesis 38, but I will summarize most of the story here for brevity’s sake. After Judah and his Canaanite wife Shua had three sons, Judah went looking among the Canaanites for a wife for his eldest son Er, whose name was Tamar. Er was apparently wicked enough for God to smite him dead (the Bible is silent on the nature of his sin), and Tamar then sought to marry the next oldest brother, Onan, to raise up an heir for her deceased husband. Onan was willing to sleep with the lovely Tamar, but did not want to raise up a son for his dead brother, and was struck down by God as well. Judah, thinking that Tamar was a sort of “black widow,” refused to let her marry his youngest son Shelah, and so Tamar took the drastic measure of dressing like a prostitute to seduce her faithless father-in-law and taking his signet and staff as a pledge after their assignation. What happened next is a moment of high drama that also has a great deal of biblical importance, in Genesis 38:24-26: “And it came to pass, about three months after, that Judah was told, saying, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has played the harlot; furthermore she is with child by harlotry.” So Judah said, “Bring her out and let her be burned!” When she was brought out, she sent to her father-in-law, saying, “By the man to whom these belong, I am with child.” And she said, “Please determine who these are—the signet and cord, and staff.” So Judah acknowledged them and said, “She has been more righteous than I, because I did not give her to Shelah my son.” And he never knew her again.”
Digression: The Long Delay
We may rightly admire Tamar for her resourcefulness despite being in the position of a poor widow to whom justice had been denied, namely the right to bear up a child who would take care of her in her own old age, which was one of the few rights that women had in the ancient world, and one of the reasons why barrenness was viewed with such visceral horror. Yet Tamar’s decision and Judah’s refusal to obey the laws of levirate marriage and allow for Tamar to marry Shelah had serious consequences. We may remember in Genesis 49:10 that the scepter was promised to Judah. However, the scepter was long in coming, and it is worthwhile to examine why, because it has to do with a law of God that is nearly entirely unknown, and one which we will have cause to return to when we examine the case of Ruth. Deuteronomy 23:1-8 gives a list of those who are to be excluded from the congregation of Israel, and it is a revealing list: “He who is emasculated by crushing or mutilation shall not enter the assembly of the Lord. One of illegitimate birth shall not enter the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the Lord. An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the Lord forever, because they did not meet you with bread and water on the road when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. Nevertheless, the Lord your God would not listen to Balaam, but the Lord your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loves you. You shall not seek their peace nor their prosperity all your days forever. You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were an alien in his land. The children of the third generation born to them may enter the assembly of the Lord.”
The significance of this passage here is that the children of Judah and Tamar, since they were illegitimate, were forbidden from the assembly of the Eternal for ten generations. If we look at Perez to Hezron to Ram to Amminadab to Nashon to Salmon to Boaz to Obed to Jesse to David, we have ten generations, meaning that David was, at least as recorded in scripture, the first generation of his family that was eligible for the kingship of Israel because none of his ancestors going back all the way to Judah along that line were eligible to sit in the assembly of the Eternal. For all of those generations, the promised scepter was not given because of the sin of their ancestor Judah in bearing illegitimate children by his daughter-in-law. And it should be noted that this sin occurred because Judah had failed to provide Tamar with the husband that had been promised to her through the law of levirate marriage. Tamar’s longing for a child, a longing in this case supported by God’s law, led generations of her descendants to be ineligible for the throne of Israel even though it was prophesied to Judah’s family. Only the children of Shelah were eligible for the throne during all this time, and there appear to have been none of them thought worthy for the kingship. Our actions can have repercussions that extend for hundreds of years, as is the case here. Few of us give thought to the consequences of our behavior to the extent that they course through history. [/digression]
The story of Rahab, the second of the women named in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus Christ, is told in Joshua 2. Let us focus on the first nine verses of the chapter and summarize the rest of the material: “Now Joshua the son of Nun sent out two men from Acacia Grove to spy secretly, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” So they went, and came to the house of a harlot named Rahab, and lodged there. And it was told the king of Jericho, saying, “Behold, men have come here tonight from the children of Israel to search out the country.” So the king of Jericho sent to Rahab, saying, “Bring out the men who have come to you, who have entered your house, for they have come to search out all the country.” Then the woman took the two men and hid them. So she said, “Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from. And it happened as the gate was being shut, when it was dark, that the men went out. Where the men went I do not know; pursue them quickly, for you may overtake them.” (But she had brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax, which she had laid in order on the roof.) Then the men pursued them by the road to the Jordan, to the fords. And as soon as those who pursued them had gone out, they shut the gate. Now before they lay down, she came up to them on the roof, and said to the men: “I know that the Lord has given you the land, that the terror of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land are fainthearted because of you.” Rahab received a promise of protection if she collected her family together in her house (significantly, it does not mention a husband; she later married Salmon and was the mother of Boaz) and the spies were able to escape safely back to Israel thanks to her help. The chapter as a whole demonstrates an unusual and striking example of faith, enough to be listed in Hebrews 11, and there has been a great deal of debate as to whether Rahab was wrong in lying to the king of Jericho about the spies’ whereabouts and misleading them in their search.
Digression: Why Does Everyone Think Of Rahab As A Harlot?
In many ways, the translation of the Hebrew zonah as harlot or prostitute for Rahab has led to a great deal of attention being focused on the wrong areas. There is considerable debate as to whether Rahab was truly guilty of harlotry or whether the word was synonymous with an innkeeper. Some argue, after all, that the ancient Middle East knew no such thing as a modern inn , but only caravansarais, where various camp followers of more or less dubious moralities plied their trade for merchants and wayfarers. Whether or not Rahab was an innkeeper of a sort in the important city of Jericho or whether she had been an actual harlot, it is important to remember two things about her. One is that whatever her behavior prior to being converted, she showed herself an example of faith and was not guilty of harlotry after her conversion. As far as God is concerned, she was forgiven of her sinful past and her sins were not held against her. It is important to know, though, that her sins were never forgotten by anyone who wrote at her, as she is continually considered to be a harlot whenever she is mentioned in scripture. She likely lived far more of her life as a loving and attentive wife and mother in Bethlehem, but those efforts are barely remembered, because her prior profession is brought up over and over again. This reminds us, as unpleasant as the reminder is, that even when our sins are forgiven, it is not always easy to move on from the strength of our past reputation before conversion. [/digression]
The story of Ruth, told in detail in the book of Ruth , reminds us of the importance of several laws as well as the importance of reputation and honor in women’s dealings. Ruth’s behavior throughout is motivated by obedience to God and a kindly respect for her mother-in-law Naomi. After making a dramatic confession of faith, she asks permission to glean, is given favor by Boaz in a way that does not shame her, and when she goes to Boaz to propose levirate marriage, she is praised for not having chased after young men, whether poor or rich, like many lovely young widows would have been expected to do. She manages to sleep at Boaz’s feet, but there is no hint of sexual impropriety here, and Boaz sends her back home while it is still dark with a lot of barley to demonstrate his seriousness in pursuing marriage with her and his honor in seeking to protect her reputation. Tamar herself is mentioned in Ruth 4:12, a reminder of the history of which Ruth was a part. The way in with the divine providence of God in bringing Ruth and Boaz together through fortunate coincidence and the fact that both obey God’s laws and show remarkable generosity of spirit is an inspiration for many people, particularly those of us of a rather diffident nature who feel as if certain matters like courtship tend to pass us by.
It is important to recognize, though, that a great deal of importance with the case of Ruth is placed on her identity. She is known for her place of origin, as a Moabitess, yet as we have seen earlier in Deuteronomy 23:1-8, it was strictly forbidden for Israelites to marry Moabites and their descendants were forever excluded from the congregation of the Eternal. As we have also seen, it was the end of the prohibition at the tenth generation that allowed David, at long last, to be crowned king over Israel. If Ruth had been counted as a Moabitess, it would have forbidden any of her seed from ever inheriting the throne over Israel, including Jesus Christ as well as David. Clearly, this was not so, as Ruth was the great-grandmother of David. How are we to account for this? The answer is that by confessing her faith in God and in living in accordance with His laws, that Ruth was no longer counted as a Mobaitess, but was counted as an Israelite.
Digression: A Question Of Ethics, Not Ethnicity
This is not an idle matter. It has been speculated by some, including the author(s) of Great People Of The Bible And How They Lived, that the Book of Ruth was written and disseminated during the early second temple period as a way of encouraging the leaders of Judea to be merciful with the foreign wives of Israelites. Alas, the Bible shows no such merciful account from God’s faithful servants. Malachi 2:10-16 records the situation as follows: “Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously with one another by profaning the covenant of the fathers? Judah has dealt treacherously, and an abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem, for Judah has profaned the Lord’s holy institution which He loves: he has married the daughter of a foreign god. May the Lord cut off from the tents of Jacob the man who does this, being awake and aware, yet who brings an offering to the Lord of hosts! And this is the second thing you do: you cover the altar of the Lord with tears, with weeping and crying; so He does not regard the offering anymore, nor receive it with goodwill from your hands. Yet you say, “For what reason?” Because the Lord has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, with whom you have dealt treacherously; yet she is your companion and your wife by covenant. But did He not make them one, having a remnant of the Spirit? And why one? He seeks godly offspring. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth. “For the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce, for it covers one’s garment with violence,” says the Lord of hosts. “Therefore take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.””
We read of similar accounts, for example, in Nehemiah, where those who had married the daughters of foreign gods were told to put away those wives and to refuse in the future to engage in interfaith marriages. Yet it is unclear how the Book of Ruth would have urged people to disobey godly leaders like Nehemiah and divinely inspired prophets like Malachi, or that God would have blessed such disobedience masquerading as sympathy anymore than He does to such efforts in our own times to disobey God or encourage others to disobey it by pathetic appeals to the suffering of the ungodly and the cruelty of those who point to God’s unchanging moral standards. After all, the point of the discussion of Ruth’s origins is to show that she left such heathen worship behind. Her profession of faith is not one of tolerance for the intermixing of God’s people with heathens, but a model of conversion, of someone from a pagan background being converted to God’s ways, and no longer being counted as a foreigner but one of God’s own people. That point is underscored over and over again as Ruth’s faithfulness in obeying God leads her to be recognized as an Israelite and places her in the genealogy of our Savior Himself. Ultimately, it is a question of ethics and not ethnicity. Ruth’s Moabite origins, rather than barring her and her seed from the congregation of Israel forever, show her nation of birth to be of no importance when compared with her identity as an Israelite by covenant. God’s grace trumps the problems of race, but God’s grace is shown to those who repent and turn from their ways and seek God when He may be found, as Ruth did. [/digression]
The fourth and final woman of Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus Christ is Bathsheba, who is not named directly but is referred to as she who had been the wife of Uriah. This elegant description is a reminder of David’s most famous sin. In stark contrast to Tamar and Ruth, whose longing to marry as godly widows is praised, Bathsheba is almost certainly an inspiration of Proverbs’ continual warnings against the adulterous woman and the destructive fury that result from that particular sin. Given the destruction wrecked in David’s own life as a result of his affair with Bathsheba, it would be unlikely that Solomon would fail to receive numerous warnings about these matters. The story of David and Bathsheba is full of high drama (one can read 2 Samuel 11 and 12 to discuss most of the story, while its aftermath continues for the rest of David’s life), including Bathsheba’s longings as a lonely and neglected wife, Uriah’s devotion to serving David while being a terrible husband when it came to showing affection and care for his wife, and David’s cold-blooded murder of a loyal soldier to vainly try to cover the tracks for his own sin. It features one of the bravest prophets of all time telling a king that he was the man David had condemned to death for his lack of pity and David writing among the most moving psalms of repentance from sin and a restoration of God’s grace, albeit with a heavy cost. And while many people look to David’s story as a sign that godly leaders can commit all kinds of wickedness and remain godly, it is worth remembering that a thousand years after Bathsheba’s sin, she is still known in Matthew’s Gospel as she who had been the wife of Uriah. God may have forgiven David and Bathsheba for their sin, but the sin was never forgotten.
Digression: Making The Best Of A Bad Situation
The marriage of David and Bathsheba was in some ways a cover-up, where David sought to make the best of a bad situation by marrying the woman he had made an adulterer as a result of his lust and her longings. The Bible presents numerous cases where less than ideal situations are to be redeemed through actions. 2 Samuel 13:12-20 gives a vivid picture of how the evil of rape and incest is made even worse by the rejection that comes from projection: “But she answered him, “No, my brother, do not force me, for no such thing should be done in Israel. Do not do this disgraceful thing! And I, where could I take my shame? And as for you, you would be like one of the fools in Israel. Now therefore, please speak to the king; for he will not withhold me from you.” However, he would not heed her voice; and being stronger than she, he forced her and lay with her. Then Amnon hated her exceedingly, so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her. And Amnon said to her, “Arise, be gone!” So she said to him, “No, indeed! This evil of sending me away is worse than the other that you did to me.” But he would not listen to her. Then he called his servant who attended him, and said, “Here! Put this woman out, away from me, and bolt the door behind her.” Now she had on a robe of many colors, for the king’s virgin daughters wore such apparel. And his servant put her out and bolted the door behind her. Then Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore her robe of many colors that was on her, and laid her hand on her head and went away crying bitterly. And Absalom her brother said to her, “Has Amnon your brother been with you? But now hold your peace, my sister. He is your brother; do not take this thing to heart.” So Tamar remained desolate in her brother Absalom’s house.”
Understanding Tamar’s predicament is helped by understanding relevant biblical law . In particular, Deuteronomy 22:28-29 says: ““If a man finds a young woman who is a virgin, who is not betrothed, and he seizes her and lies with her, and they are found out, then the man who lay with her shall give to the young woman’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife because he has humbled her; he shall not be permitted to divorce her all his days.” There are some who see this as a double condemnation of a raped woman, first in the act itself, and then in condemning her to be married without the possibility of divorce. As is often the case with misguided and inaccurate feminist critiques of God’s laws, though, this interpretation fails to recognize that the law was designed to protect the woman, since it did not permit the man who had humbled her from divorcing her and thereby defaulting on his responsibility to take care of her. This prohibition on divorce was not meant to enslave women, but rather to provide that they be taken care of, and not simply seduced and abandoned. After all, that is precisely the fate that Rahab faced. The Bible only infrequently deals with the cases of raped women, but when they do there is always the attempt to bind the rapist through marriage, turning an act of violence into a lifetime of providing and caring for someone who would otherwise be abandoned and desolate, because there appears little evidence that biblical society would view a survivor of rape or incest as a marriageable partner, at least from the biblical evidence that we possess in the stories of Dinah  and Tamar.
What does this have to do with Bathsheba? In the same way that Tamar sought to make the best of a bad situation by encouraging her half-brother to seek her hand in marriage, as horrifying as incest would have been, we can see David making the best of a bad situation by marrying the woman that he had humbled by having made her a widow. This ought not to be an encouragement to adultery, but rather a recognition that marrying, even under less than ideal circumstances, is to be preferred to committing a sin and then seeking to leave behind the consequences of it. Even if such actions are not preferred, at times we find ourselves in the midst of situations where we must choose the lesser of the evils. Even if we choose the lesser of the evils, we should never forget that it would have been wiser not to have chosen any evils at all. Sometimes we are not wise, though, just as David and Bathsheba were certainly unwise in their affair. [/digression]
What are we to take away from a brief examination of the four women of Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus Christ? For one, we can recognize that they are all associated with outsiders, with Canaanites or Moabites or Hittites, a reminder that God’s salvation is not only offered to people of Israel, but to all who will hear Him and follow Him of any people. Yet it is also a reminder that the ancestors of Jesus Christ were not only the instruments by which grace came to mankind, even somewhat remotely, but that these people were the recipients of God’s grace, even as their behavior brings to light the importance of God’s laws for the people of the Eternal. In reading the names on a list, we are reminded of their stories, and the way that their behaviors and reputations continue to be of relevance for believers today, long after their own lives, and long after they were recorded in Matthew’s account of names. Let us, in reflecting upon these names, not forget the context of their identity as part of the people of God, and therefore models from our own practices, and reminders of the sins that so easily ensnare us, and the way that societies seek to channel behavior, even sinful behavior, into the most beneficial possible ends, even if there are sometimes long-term ramifications of the choices we make. Sometimes these consequences remain with us still.
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