Jesus’ ancestry may surprise you. His genealogy includes some names you might be shocked to find in the royal line of the King of kings. Looking closely at the royal lineage as Matthew records it, we note a striking anomaly. Four women are named in this genealogy. The typical Hebrew genealogy excluded women. To find four women’s names in a single, brief genealogy is remarkable.
Even more extraordinary is that none of these four women epitomizes the kind of person we would expect to find in the royal heritage of the King of kings. All of them were outcasts, yet they made it into Jesus’ family album. They are a strong assurance of God’s grace to sinners like us.
The first is Tamar: “Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar” (Matthew 1:3). What kind of woman was Tamar? Her story, if you want to read it in its entirety, is in Genesis 38. It is a sordid tale of incest, prostitution, and deception.
Judah had chosen Tamar as a wife for his firstborn son, Er. Er was evil. We don’t know what he did, but God struck him dead for it (Genesis 38:7). Er’s brother Onan then became Tamar’s husband, as the law at that time required. When he spitefully refused to father children by Tamar, God struck him dead too (v. 10).
Frustrated at being childless, and unwilling to wait on the Lord’s timing for the right husband, Tamar concocted an evil scheme to become pregnant. She dressed up as a prostitute, put a veil over her face, and waited by the road until Judah, her own father-in-law, came along. Not realizing who she was, Judah committed a sinful act of fornication with his own son’s widow (v. 18). Twin sons were conceived through that shameful act of harlotry and incest. Their names were Perez and Zerah. Perez, who was born first, carried on the messianic line.
That is a shocking tale! Did you realize a woman like Tamar was part of Jesus’ ancestry? Don’t bother looking for her redeeming virtues. Almost nothing more is said about Tamar in the Old Testament account. Scripture records no happy ending to her life. She’s really just a footnote in the early history of the Jewish nation, but she stands as a classic illustration of the frailty and utter sinfulness of humanity.
Perhaps that is the very reason Matthew mentions Tamar so prominently in this genealogy. If God would continue the Messianic line through Tamar’s offspring—the product of incest, harlotry, fornication, and deception—He must surely be a God of grace.
The next woman Matthew mentions may be more familiar to you. She’s referred to in Scripture as “Rahab the harlot” (Joshua 6:17, 25; Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25). The name Rahab itself means “pride,” “insolence,” “savagery.”
Rahab was a Canaanite, a mortal enemy of God’s people. When we first encounter her in the biblical account, she is nothing more than an idolatrous, outcast Gentile woman, a professional prostitute. Her most memorable act was telling a lie.
Joshua 2 records that part of her story. After forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites were finally preparing to enter the Promised Land. Joshua had sent spies to scout out the city of Jericho. They happened upon Rahab, who hid them in her home. When city officials came looking for the men, Rahab lied to protect them. Knowing that the Israelites would destroy Jericho and everyone in it, she bargained with the spies to save her family. They agreed to spare her and them if she hung a cord of scarlet thread from her window to let the attacking Israelites know which house was hers.
She did, and the Israelites spared Rahab and her family. Rahab abandoned the gods of the Canaanites for Jehovah. She became not only a convert to the true God, but also a part of the Messianic line. She was the great, great grandmother of David.
Rahab was the mother of Boaz. Matthew’s genealogy continues: “Boaz was the father of Obed by Ruth” (Matthew 1:5). Here, just one generation later, is another Gentile woman in the Messianic line. Unlike Rahab or Tamar, Ruth was not a prostitute or fornicator. But like them she was a Gentile.
Ruth was a Moabite. The entire Moabite race was a product of incest. The incident is chronicled in Genesis 19:30-38. Lot was living in a cave with his two daughters after the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah had been decimated. The daughters were fearful that there would be no one to marry them and carry on the family. So the eldest of the two suggested a scheme to get their father drunk and have sex with him.
Lot, Scripture says, had no idea what was happening, but his daughters on two successive nights each took a turn at getting him drunk and luring him into incestuous fornication. Both girls became pregnant. Scripture says,
Thus both the daughters of Lot were with child by their father. The firstborn bore a son, and called his name Moab; he is the father of the Moabites to this day. As for the younger, she also bore a son, and called his name Ben-ammi; he is the father of the sons of Ammon to this day. (Genesis 19:36-38)
Thus Ruth was from a tribe of people who were the product of incest. Their very existence was repugnant to the Jewish people. Deuteronomy 23:3 is one of the laws that governed worship in Israel: “No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the Lord; none of their descendants, even to the tenth generation, shall ever enter the assembly of the Lord.”
Yet Ruth became the wife of Boaz. Like Rahab, she converted to the truth and found grace in the eyes of God. Her great-grandson was David.
There’s more. Matthew 1:6 mentions a fourth woman: “David was the father of Solomon by Bathsheba who had been the wife of Uriah.” Her story is not pretty either.
Bathsheba, according to 2 Samuel 11, was on a rooftop bathing herself when David saw her and lusted after her. He had his servants bring her to him, and he had a secret sexual relationship with her. It wasn’t secret very long. Their union produced a child.
When David learned that Bathsheba was pregnant, he tried to cover their sin by bringing Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, back from the front lines of battle, where he was loyally serving David. David assumed that Uriah would have normal relations with his wife. Then no one would ever know that the baby was not Uriah’s.
But David’s attempts to cover his sin with Bathsheba failed. Uriah was more a man of integrity than he. As a matter of principle he refused to spend the night with his wife while his men were sleeping in tents on the battlefield. David wouldn’t give up. He even got Uriah drunk, but Uriah would not compromise.
When David realized he could not cover his sin by making Uriah think he was responsible for Bathsheba’s pregnancy, he sent a note to his commanding generals ordering them to put Uriah on the front line and fall back in the thick of the battle, leaving Uriah to be killed. In effect, he murdered Uriah.
Worse, he took Bathsheba to be his own wife. The child conceived by their fornication died shortly after birth. David ultimately was confronted with his sin and repented. Bathsheba conceived again and bore a son, Solomon. Solomon became the next link in the Messianic line. And thus Bathsheba, though guilty of an act of sinful adultery, also became part of the line that would culminate in the birth of Jesus.
What a genealogy Matthew gives us! It’s almost as if he is nominating people for a Hall of Shame. Here are two harlots, one cursed Moabite, and an adulteress. These are the only four women mentioned in the entire genealogy, and every one of them was an outcast. Add Jeconiah and all the evil kings of Judah that preceded him, and it begins to seem like Jesus’ royal genealogy was filled with sinners.
But that’s just the point. Matthew, writing his gospel for an expressly Jewish audience, must have realized that by deliberately emphasizing these four women, he was confronting the self-righteous arrogance of the pharisaic tradition. The reality that the Messianic line was populated with Gentiles, fornicators, adulteresses, liars, cursed kings, and other sinners was something most of Matthew’s readers would have preferred to ignore. That’s the kind of truth men’s writings frequently gloss over, but the Bible—because it is the inerrant Word of God—consistently refuses to obscure what is truly important.
Why? Because the people in the Messianic genealogy are not on display; God’s grace is. Bathsheba and Rahab, for example, are memorable not because of their sin, but because of God’s mercy in forgiving them. Rahab is mentioned two other times in the New Testament, in Hebrews 11:31 and James 2:25. Both times she is cited as an example of genuine faith. Whatever her background as a Gentile and prostitute, she will spend eternity in heaven, not because of anything she did, but because the God she turned to is a God of grace and mercy.
Jesus Christ is the friend of sinners (Luke 7:34). He Himself said, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13). He came to live among sinful men. He experienced what we experience. He was tempted in every way we are tempted, yet He was completely without sin (Hebrews 4:15). Nevertheless, He took on Himself the punishment for our sins. That’s the grace of God.
How devastating this genealogy is when we see it for what God intended it to be! It strikes a blow in the face of legalism, self-righteousness, and human religion. It underscores the truth that Jesus identified with sinners. It puts a holy spotlight on God’s grace.
You may skip the genealogy when you read the Christmas story aloud. But don’t overlook its message of grace, which after all is the heart of the Christmas story: God in His mercy doing for sinners what they cannot do for themselves. That’s why He came—to save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).
Here’s the best part: the same grace that was evident in the genealogy is active today, and the same Jesus is saving His people from their sins. No sin, no matter how heinous, puts sinners beyond His reach. “He is able to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25, KJV).
(Adapted from The Miracle of Christmas.)