Buried in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew chapter one is a gospel treasure. That treasure is five women. Their inclusion in the list is notable because it’s a patrilineal genealogy — a record of fathers and sons. Their inclusion is also notable because they were among the most notorious women in biblical history.
The first mentioned is Tamar (Matthew 1:3). Remember her? Tamar entered the royal bloodline of the Messiah by disguising herself as a prostitute and seducing her father-in-law, Judah, so he would make her pregnant. Honestly, Judah had it coming because he had denied her justice, but it was an ugly affair all around (see Genesis 38).
The second is Rahab (Matthew 1:5). She didn’t have to disguise herself. She had been a prostitute. And a Gentile! A Canaanite, no less. Not a desired pedigree. She and her family were the only survivors of Israel’s conquest of Jericho because she hid the Jewish spies and helped them escape. Once integrated into Israel, she married Salmon (wouldn’t you like to know that story?) and became King David’s great, great grandmother.
Ruth is the third (Matthew 1:5) and she too was a Gentile. A Moabite. Her ancestry had its origin in the incest committed between Lot and his oldest daughter. Ruth’s people were polytheistic pagans, occasionally offering human sacrifices to idol-gods like Chemosh. Through personal tragedy and loyalty she wound up at Bethlehem and in the arms of Boaz.
We simply can’t move on without mentioning the staggering fact that Ruth has a book of the Bible named after her! How did that happen? Jews were prohibited from intermarrying with Moabites (Ezra 9:10–12) — unless a Moabite renounced all that being a Moabite meant and became all that it meant to be a Jew. In the fact that one of the canonical books of the Old Covenant is named after a Moabite woman, God is shouting something about his grace.
The fourth woman mentioned in the list is “the wife of Uriah” (Matthew 1:6), Bathsheba. This woman suffered sexual abuse and the murder of her husband by Israel’s greatest king. And as a result she became an ancestor of Jesus.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the fifth (Matthew 1:16). She became pregnant with Jesus before her wedding, and the Child’s father was not her betrothed, Joseph. This scandal would have lingered like a cloud in the whispers and suspicions of her wider family and fellow Nazarenes for many years.
Highlights of Grace
All five of these women share something in common: disgrace. These women either committed or suffered disgrace. They had tainted reputations. They likely would have endured the contempt of others. And at least the first four would have struggled with very painful, even sordid memories.
And here’s the thing. Most of us want to conceal the more disgraceful events and people in our families. But not Jesus. He goes out of his way here to draw attention to these women whose very names call to mind scandalous things. Why? I think to remind us, before Matthew even begins the story of his birth, why he came.
Even in the genealogies God weaves his grace. He loves to redeem sinners. He loves to produce something beautiful out of sordid family backgrounds. He loves to make foreigners his children. 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).
Each of these women are beautiful Old Covenant illustrations of what God would later say to Peter when clarifying that his grace is extended to all peoples: “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 10:15).
And that’s his word to you and me. The amazingly good news of Christmas is that Jesus came to make notorious unclean sinners and foreigners like us — people with disgraceful pasts who believe in his name (John 1:12) — clean.