Summary: The gentile ancestors of Jesus. The list of women in an all male genealogy of Jesus.
Buried in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew chapter one is a gospel treasure. That treasure is five women. The Gospels include two genealogies of Jesus - Luke 3:23–38 and Matthew 1:1–17. Luke’s version traces our Lord back to Adam, placing him over the family of mankind. Matthew’s list establishes Jesus as heir to the Davidic dynasty. But another key difference between the two is that Matthew’s list, unlike most such lists in the first century, includes 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 four of them were among the most notorious women in biblical history. In a family tree that traces only the male line, every deviation from this rule must be very significant.
We may call this “the forgotten chapter of the Christmas story.” We routinely skip this list and other records of genealogies in the scriptures in order to get to the “good stuff.” But the Jews of the first century would be quite surprised by our attitude. To them the genealogy would have been an absolutely essential setting for the story of Jesus’ birth.
The Jews routinely paid close attention to questions of genealogy. For instance, whenever land was bought or sold, the genealogical records were consulted to insure that land belonging to one tribe was not being sold to members of another tribe—and thus destroying the integrity of the ancient tribal boundaries. You couldn’t just put the money down and take the deed. You also had to prove that your ancestors came from the same tribe.
Genealogy was also crucial in determining the priesthood. The law specified that the priests must come from the tribe of Levi. Genealogy also helped determine the line of heirship to the throne. This helps explain why Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7 contain lengthy listings of the various people returning from captivity. As the Jews re-established themselves in Israel, it was crucial that they know which families had historically held which positions in the nation.
But that same principle applies directly to the Christmas story. “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world … And everyone went to his own town to register.” (Luke 2:1, 3) That meant that each man must return to his ancestral hometown—the town from which his family had originally come. But the only way you could be sure about your ancestral hometown was to know your genealogy.
Which is why Mary and Joseph had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem in the ninth month of her pregnancy. They had to make that long and dangerous journey because Bethlehem was Joseph’s ancestral hometown—a fact they knew from studying their genealogy.
Matthew begins his gospel with the genealogy of “Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham,” and then goes on to list 42 men in Jesus’ family. These names are tied to the different stages in Israel’s history, and they all culminate with Jesus, the Christ, Immanuel.
Is this genealogy with its three groups of fourteen — clearly stylized — something more than an archaic ritual? Jesus' family tree (abbreviated by three kings in order to preserve the rhythm of the three fourteens) is here presented by Matthew in such a way that it emphatically repeats the name of David and Jesus Christ is the "son of David" - the family tree is meant to prove this. He is the one about whom Isaiah uttered this strange warning: "Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." Isaiah 7:14.
All 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 all 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, the reason for His coming.
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 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).