The story of the birth of Jesus brings to mind any number of fond, familiar images: Mary and Joseph trekking to Bethlehem; the baby in the manger; the angels and the shepherds; the Magi with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

What it likely doesn’t bring to mind are the genealogies of Jesus recorded by Matthew and Luke. Truth be told, these lists are puzzling to many modern readers, who tend to skim over them and insert mental “bleeps” for all the names they can’t pronounce. In any event, most of those names belong to obscure figures who appear to add little to the Nativity story, at least from a modern perspective.

For the earliest readers, however, the biggest puzzle would’ve been the inclusion of four women in Matthew’s genealogy, along with Mary: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba (the unnamed wife of Uriah). In a culture that traced lineage almost exclusively through men, these women would’ve stood out like beacons in a stream of male names – and they still do. Their presence fairly shouts the questions: Who were these women? And why did the Holy Spirit single them out as ancestors of the Messiah?

Tamar: Hope

Tamar is the first woman mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy, and hers is a story about hope – or more accurately, desperation born of shattered hope. She was the daughter-in-law of Judah, married in turn to his two oldest sons, both of whom were evil men who died under God’s judgment. Judah then promised to give Tamar to his youngest son once he came of age – a promise he never intended to keep, hoping instead that Tamar would just go away and die a widow’s death.

In a world where women had almost zero prospects outside of marrying well and bearing children, Tamar’s plight was desperate. Taking matters into her own hands, she disguised herself as a prostitute, slept with her father-in-law and bore him twin sons. One of the twins, whom she named Perez, would become an ancestor of Jesus.

Once the entire sordid affair came to light, Judah publicly admitted that Tamar was more righteous than he was – an accurate assessment given his cruel, callous treatment of her. And yet for all that, Tamar’s actions aren’t justifiable either, although they’re certainly understandable. Tamar (to say nothing of Judah) was a complicated person with a messy life, whose presence in the lineage of Jesus shows precisely the kind of people he came to save. In place of desperate acts and broken hopes, the coming Messiah would bring real hope into the world.

Rahab: Peace

There’s an old Latin proverb, si vis pacem, para bellum, if you want peace, prepare for war. The story of Rahab, the second woman in Matthew’s genealogy, gives that ancient adage a unique twist. Unlike Tamar before her, Rahab was an actual prostitute, not just pretending to be one. She lived in the doomed city of Jericho, destined to be overrun and destroyed by the armies of Israel.

Recognizing the God of Israel as the one true Sovereign of heaven and earth, Rahab made a separate peace with the people of Israel, and with their God. She sheltered the Israelite spies during their reconnaissance mission and helped them escape, asking that she and her family be spared in return. As a public token of her new allegiance, she hung a scarlet cord out of the window of her house, in plain view of her own people, so that everyone within her house would be spared by the advancing armies.

To an outside observer, everything would’ve seemed to be against Rahab. Not only was she a prostitute but also a Canaanite, the member of a people group marked by God for wholesale judgment. And yet, not only did she save herself and her family, but she joined the faith community of Israel, married into the royal tribe of Judah, and became the mother of Boaz and a notable ancestor of Jesus. Her place in the Lord’s lineage is a powerful reminder that even in the face of certain judgment, peace with God is available through faith in the coming Christ.

Ruth: Joy

In contrast to Tamar and Rahab and their respective shades of grey, Ruth is one of the brightest and most appealing figures in all of Scripture. A young Moabite widow who had married into a Jewish family, she had lost everything with the deaths of her father-in-law and her husband. When her mother-in-law Naomi decided to return from Moab to the land of Judah, Ruth was determined to accompany her. Despite Naomi’s best efforts to dissuade her, Ruth clung to Naomi – as well as to Naomi’s people and to her God – with fierce loyalty.

Back in Bethlehem, the prospects were bleak for the two widows, bereaved of their husbands and facing dire poverty. Nevertheless, Ruth remained unswervingly positive and energetic in her efforts to find work and take care of her mother-in-law. Via those efforts and by God’s grace, she met Boaz, a rich, kindly landowner who also happened to be related to Naomi. In due course Ruth and Boaz were married, thereby securing Naomi’s – as well as Ruth’s – future prospects. They also had a son, Obed, who would be an ancestor of King David and of King Jesus.

The story of Ruth is saturated with kindness, expressed by the Hebrew word hesed – the kindness of Ruth to Naomi, of Boaz to Ruth, and of God to all of them. But there’s also a constant, palpable joy radiating from Ruth herself, driving everything she does, even in the worst of circumstances – a joy born of her faith in the God of Israel, under whose wings she had come to take refuge. Like Boaz’ mother, Rahab, she belonged to a race excluded from the commonwealth of God under the Old Testament. And yet by faith, she became a woman of God whose character put most of the men in Israel to shame. As the women of Bethlehem remarked, she was better to Naomi than seven sons. Her place in the Lord’s ancestry speaks volumes about God’s kindness in redeeming outsiders, and the joy which that redemption brings.

Bathsheba: Love

If Ruth’s is the most heartwarming romance recorded in Scripture, then Bathsheba’s is surely the most heartbreaking. Instead of being built on kindness and respect, it’s more like a modern cable TV love story, rooted in lust, rape and infidelity. Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of King David’s most trusted military officers. But then one day, David spotted Bathsheba bathing from the roof of his palace, slept with her, got her pregnant and had her husband murdered to cover up the affair. The baby born of their union died as a consequence of God’s judgment on their illicit relationship.

The text makes no suggestion that Bathsheba was doing anything wrong or unusual in bathing the way she was. Rather it appears that David was where he shouldn’t have been, allowing his eyes to linger and his heart to follow. Moreover, the Scripture is silent about any supposed complicity on Bathsheba’s part and lays the blame squarely on David. Given the times and the culture in which she lived, Bathsheba almost certainly had no power to refuse the advances of an absolute monarch.

The entire incident is unsavoury and troubling on several levels. After the affair, Bathsheba became one of David’s wives and gave birth to Solomon, David’s chosen heir and a precursor of the Christ to come. In later life, she reappeared as the queen mother whose influential voice secured the succession of her son. While David is the most significant name in the genealogy of Jesus, the inclusion of Bathsheba prevents him from being put on an unwarranted pedestal. Indeed, her presence insists upon the grace of the coming Messiah, who would redeem people caught in relationships of unequal power and tainted love and restore them in the true love and freedom offered by God.

Mary: Fulfillment

More than the other four women in Jesus’ genealogy, Mary’s place would have been obvious and incontestable, even in a culture prone to contest it. She was, after all, the virgin who had given birth, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to the Son of God made flesh. In fact, since both Mary and Joseph were descended from David through different family branches, Luke traces the Lord’s biological ancestry through Mary’s branch, whereas Matthew traces His legal lineage through Joseph’s branch.

Luke devotes a fair bit of attention to Mary, even before the birth of her Son. He records her visits and conversations with the angel Gabriel and with her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. He portrays Mary as a humble young woman of faith who saw herself as God’s servant and God as her Saviour. Luke also preserves a sample of her notable poetic talent in the form of her spontaneous song of praise, known as the Magnificat:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
 For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
 and holy is his name.
 And his mercy is for those who fear him
 from generation to generation.
 He has shown strength with his arm;
 he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
 and exalted those of humble estate;
 he has filled the hungry with good things,
 and the rich he has sent away empty.
 He has helped his servant Israel,
 in remembrance of his mercy,
 as he spoke to our fathers,
 to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
 (Luke 1:46-55)

Clearly Mary had a sense of her place in history, as the final step in the fulfillment of God’s promise to send his Messiah into the world. Indeed, the angel Gabriel underscored Mary’s role in that promise by alluding to her royal ancestry and reassuring her that her Son would sit on his father David’s throne with ultimate authority, ruling over an everlasting kingdom.

Of women, genealogies, and the themes of Advent

Hope. Peace. Joy. Love. In Western church tradition, they’re the themes of the four weeks of Advent that anticipate the coming of Christ. They also happen to mesh remarkably well with the lives of the four women commemorated in the genealogy of the Messiah. In both cases, the sequence finds its fulfillment in the Son of God who enters the world, born of a young virgin named Mary.

In the ancient world, genealogies served a vital function, confirming the legal status of important persons. As such, the genealogy of Jesus forms an integral part of his Nativity story. It establishes his credentials as the heir of David, and thus as the true King of Israel, and of the entire world.

But the women in Jesus’ lineage speak of other things as well. In the first place, they’re real women with complex and sometimes messy lives that can’t be reduced to stereotypes. They ground the Christmas story in an authentic earthiness. Their presence counteracts the tendency to idealize the Lord’s male ancestors as shiny, perfect heroes. Instead, they draw the focus back to the Messiah, where it belongs. Perhaps most important, these women are reminders that Jesus came into the world to save all kinds of people – women and men, pagans and Jews, prostitutes, immigrant widows and queen mothers.

The Apostle Paul wrote that because of the coming of Jesus, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:28-29).

In light of this, the women in Jesus’ genealogy form an Advent theme of their own. They point to the moment when this promise of the Messiah became a glorious historical reality offered to all people.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2017 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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