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. Why?
Sadly, if we do a quick Google search on the females in Jesus’s genealogy, we find that many, if not most, people conclude, “To show what great sinners God incorporated into the family tree.” We see words such as “scandalous” and “immoral” that point to the past sex lives of these women. One writer exclaims, “But these women were not, on the surface, notable or saintly women whom we would want to find in our lineage!” The implication is that the men were good and righteous; the women, naughty—especially sexually.
But we could just as easily say, “But these men were not, on the surface, notable or saintly men whom we would want to find in our lineage!” Yet have you ever heard a message or read an article about the genealogies in which the main point was what great sinners the men were and what great grace God showed to include them? Me neither. And in viewing the women in Jesus’ genealogies as “bad girls,” we both miss the author’s intent and demean females.
Granted, any human in the genealogy of the Son of God is evidence of God’s great grace to sinners. But that’s not the point here. Assume we applied to men the same standard we apply to the women on the list. Right off the bat we encounter David (1:1). Interestingly, whoever wrote the account of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11 assigns zero responsibility to Uriah’s wife for the adultery, while he presents David as lusting, then committing adultery, and finally ordering the murder of a faithful man in order to cover his own sin. David had much more social power than Bathsheba. So if we want to talk about the great sinners in the genealogy, David could stand as Exhibit A.
Moving ahead to the next verse, we see Abraham (v. 2). Remember his lie? It went something like this: “Tell Pharaoh you’re my sister so he won’t kill me.” And what about his grandson, Jacob (v. 2), who deceived his brother out of the birthright? And then we come to Judah (v. 3), the father of Tamar’s twins. For a fab look at what Genesis 38 says about Tamar in light of Jewish custom, check out Carolyn Custis James’s Lost Women of the Bible. There’s good textual evidence that Tamar sought to obey (oral) levirate law when she dressed as a prostitute so her widowed father-in-law would impregnate her. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that Tamar was in the wrong. If so, she dressed as a prostitute and committed sexual sin. But what about Judah? This guy lied in promising to give her one of his sons as a husband (a great injustice). Then he committed an immoral act in paying a prostitute to have sex. And finally, he was a huge hypocrite for seeking to have her killed for being a hooker! He even admitted she was more righteous than he (Gen. 38.26). (This is not even to mention the story in Genesis 37 of selling his brother, Joseph, to some Ishmaelites and then lying to his dad about it for years.)
Continuing, we find more failures. Royal failures—literally. The kings were no Boy Scouts. How about Solomon with his umpteen wives who led him to worship other gods? And Rehoboam, who blew off the counsel of his elders so he could over-tax his subjects? And Manasseh, who committed idolatry?
Enough already. You get the point.
So if first-century listeners didn’t think “sexual sin” or “sexual scandal” when they heard the names Tamar (v. 3), Rahab (v. 5), Ruth (v. 5), the wife of Uriah (v. 7), and Mary (v. 16), what did they hear?