Chances are, when you are meditating on the birth of Jesus this Christmas season, you are not spending a ton of time perusing the list of names in Matthew’s Gospel. But you should, for Matthew didn’t include these names at the opening of the New Testament simply because he needed a clever introduction. He’s making a point that Jesus of Nazareth is the long-awaited promised one, of whom the prophets spoke and to whom the symbolism and sacrificial structure of Israel pointed. Jesus is the rightful Son of David, the forever and true King of Israel.
What’s also important is the message God is communicating even in the way Matthew arranged this list of names. Typically, Jewish genealogies didn’t mention women. They only ever listed men as the heads of their households. Women in the ancient world had little agency and had virtually no voice. So in telling the Christmas story through women like Mary and Elisabeth and Anna, God is telling us that his Kingdom is a different kind of kingdom. And even in this small and seemingly insignificant detail of listing four women in Jesus’ family tree, Matthew is communicating something powerful.
To fully grasp this, we have to understand how poorly women were regarded in the first century. A woman had no legal rights and was completely subject to her husband’s power. According to New Testament scholar Michael Green, a Jewish man “thanked God each day that he had not been created a slave, a Gentile, or a woman.”
To put it bluntly: it would be scandalous for Matthew to put these women’s names in here. And these weren’t just any women. Each one of them carried with them a stigma and asterisk next to their name every time a faithful Jewish person heard their name read out loud in the temple or the synagogue. Here’s a look at what they can teach us:
Tamar is a name most Jewish people likely wanted to forget. And yet here she is as the wife of a man named Er, one of two sons of Judah. These sons were the result of an adulterous relationship Judah had with another Canaanite woman. Er was not a good husband and was killed by God. When he died it was, according to the custom at the time, up to his next oldest brother, Onan, to marry Tamar and continue the family line. But in a greedy attempt to set himself up for a richer inheritance, he refused to conceive a baby with Tamar. As a result, God struck Onan dead as well.
The world may forget your name, but you can be known and named, by the one of whom it is said is the “name above all names” (Phil. 2:8-11).
The next brother was much younger, so Tamar waited and waited for Judah to give his youngest son as her husband. This never happened. Judah was reluctant, believing Tamar was somehow cursed by God. So she took things into her own hands and dressed up like a prostitute along a main roadway. Judah propositioned her and as a result of their liaison, they conceived. In an interesting twist, Judah, when he discovered she was pregnant, sought to put her to death for violating the oath to stay chaste until she remarried. But she proved to him that it was his children she bore. And yet, one of their two sons, Perez, would be an ancestor of King David and, eventually, King Jesus.
Judah and Tamar’s place in the family of Jesus shows us a kind of interesting juxtaposition between the powerful and the powerless: Judah the hypocritical leader who covered his sin, who exploited his daughter-in-law to satisfy his passions, and the helpless, forgotten Tamar. In Jesus’ new family, both the religious hypocrite and the exploited mistress find their need for grace.
Rahab’s story is similarly sordid (Joshua 2:1-7). When the Jewish spies came to scout out the land of Jericho, she was the one who hid them in her home and protected them from prying eyes of the government police. She had heard of the miracles God wrought with Israel in Egypt and in the wilderness and, unlike the rest of her country, turned to faith in Yahweh. But her profession, Joshua tells us, is a prostitute. She sold herself for the pleasure of men. We recoil even at that word, prostitute, but we should know that in ancient times this was often the only way for a vulnerable woman, without a family or husband, to survive. This doesn’t justify her lifestyle, but it reminds us that she was exploited for her body.
Because she provided critical intelligence that helped Israel defeat Jericho, Rahab was given safe harbor in Israel and grafted into the Jewish nation (Heb. 11:31). James, the brother of Jesus, says that her actions were evidence of her newfound faith (James 2:25). Her life is evidence that Jesus is always bringing in outsiders, those seen by religious institutions as too damaged by exploitation and sin.
As we gather this Christmas to worship, we are tempted to think of ourselves as more righteous than the Rahabs in our world, but in a sense, every human being is as unclean in God’s eyes as a prostitute. Paul, once an observant, faithful Jew recognizes that there is none righteous before God (Rom. 3:10) and saw himself as the “chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15 KJV). But the good news is that Jesus, by his life and death and resurrection is bringing Rahabs into his new family.
Even if you don’t know the Bible, you know what happened when King David first looked at a naked Bathsheba, bathing on her rooftop (2 Sam. 11-12). It was the biggest scandal during the reign of Israel’s greatest king. Most of us think of this story in terms of what it means for David. Often it is used as a sloppy apologetic for our own sin. David sinned and still was a man after God’s own heart. David was repentant, and so when we are repentant, we will find grace. God still used David as a leader after his sin.
But let’s think about Bathsheba. The Bible never really seems to bring judgment on her for her place in David’s life. It’s likely that when David summoned her from her home, she had little choice but to comply. If you are a woman in the ancient world and the King summons you, you comply. The story gets even more complicated when you realize that Bathsheba is the young granddaughter of one of David’s closest advisors Ahithophel (2 Sam. 11:3).
The magnitude of David’s gross sin cannot be overstated. He exploited Bathsheba. He used his power to get from her what he wanted. And not only did this result in the death of Bathsheba’s husband, it was one of the pivotal events that divided David’s family, causing the death of one of David’s children by Bathsheba and a catalyst for an ugly, father-against-son civil war.
Bathsheba’s life was one of difficulty and sorrow. She was likely a very unpopular woman in Israel and in David’s family. She suffered the loss of a son and became the wife of an unfaithful husband. And yet here she appears in Matthew’s retelling of the story of Israel and the promise of the Redeemer. She is named, by God. A victim of exploitation. And so it is that God sees and knows all of those who are often exploited and abused. In Jesus, the forgotten can find a new family and a new identity.
Perhaps the most scandalous name in Jesus’ genealogy is Ruth. Unlike the other three women, she doesn’t have the sexually sordid backstory and she isn’t the victim of abuse. And yet to the Jewish person hearing Matthew’s account, her appearance would be offensive. Why?
Like Rahab and Tamar, Ruth wasn’t Jewish. But not only was Ruth not Jewish, she was a Moabite. Moabites were not simply Gentiles, they were one of Israel’s sworn enemies. They weren’t even allowed to enter the worship gathering of Israel. They were idolaters who had refused to help Israel as they made their way from Egypt.
But a famine in Israel sent a Jewish family—Naomi and Elimilech and their two sons—to Moab to survive. Ruth’s life was one of difficulty and sorrow. She saw her husband, her brother-in-law, and her father-in-law perish in Moab. When Naomi, her mother-in-law, sought to return to her homeland, she chose to follow her and worship Naomi’s God (Ruth 1:16). She eventually became the wife of Boaz and the great grandmother of King David.
The book of Ruth beautifully tells the story of Boaz as Ruth’s kinsman redeemer, the one with power and resources to rescue and protect the vulnerable. And her appearance here in the opening pages of the Christmas story reminds us that Jesus is the redeemer of those who are on the outside, who, like the Moabitess Ruth were once alien to the courts of the Almighty and are now brought in as full participants of the grace of God.
Your name in the family of God
So hopefully, by now, you will never read the first chapter of Matthew the same way again. But more importantly, I hope that you realize that Jesus is more than just a name in the Bible. He is the Son of Abraham. He is the Son of David. He is the Christ.
I find it comforting that God names these four, otherwise forgotten, otherwise outsider women. He names the exploited, the forgotten, the powerless. The world may forget your name, but you can be known and named, by the one of whom it is said is the “name above all names” (Phil. 2:8-11). What’s more, Jesus can give you a new name. This is the real meaning of Christmas, that God is in the business of taking sinners like you and me and making us new creations, with new identities and a new purpose:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:17–19).
I hope you understand, as you close this book, that if there is room in the family of God for Rahab and Tamar, Abraham and Jacob, Ruth and Bathsheba, David and Judah, there is room for you. Is there anything keeping you from embracing, by faith, this good news?
This is an excerpt from The Characters of Christmas (Moody, 2019).