Five Women of Christmas

November 27, 2012

by Peter Amsterdam

Audio length: 17:34

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The Christmas season is here, and Maria and I want to wish you all a Merry Christmas. We pray that your Christmas will be very special and that you will be able to make other people’s Christmas very special as well.

Most of us know the story of the first Christmas pretty well, so in this set of four Christmas talks I’m not going to repeat it chronologically. Instead I’ll touch on some lesser-known points that you might find interesting and inspiring.

Before we begin, let’s put the two accounts of Jesus’ birth, as told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, into context. Both Gospels—in fact, all the Gospels—were written decades after the events of Jesus’ life. So when the Gospel writers were writing about the birth of Christ, they already knew the outcome. They knew who He was, the miracles He’d done, about His death and resurrection, and the salvation He brought to humanity.

They were writing to preserve and pass on the events and words of the one who had died on the cross for the sins of others. In the decades after Jesus’ life the stories about Jesus, His sayings, parables, and His teachings were passed on orally from those who were with Him, who heard His words and absorbed His teaching. In time the eyewitnesses, those who knew Him personally, who had heard Him speak, who had followed Him, were dying off.

In order to preserve His teachings, the Gospel writers wrote what they had personally experienced, in the case of those who were apostles, or for Luke and Mark who hadn’t known Jesus personally, what they had heard from eyewitnesses, or what they had read from others who had written about Jesus. Luke, who was not one of the apostles, put it this way:


Many people have set out to write accounts about the events that have been fulfilled among us. They used the eyewitness reports circulating among us from the early disciples. Having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I also have decided to write a careful account for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught.[1]

The Gospel writers gathered all the information they could about the Lord, from many different sources, and wrote their books with the intent to teach about Jesus. They wrote in a manner that those living in the first century AD would understand, and they each had their “audiences,” those they were writing to. Matthew seemed to be writing to a Jewish audience and Luke to a Greek-speaking Hellenistic audience.

Their narratives of the birth of Jesus were written to express the wonderful thing that God had done in entering our world of humanity by becoming incarnate. They tell the story of the entrance of the only person who was both God and man, the only one who could save humanity.

Matthew, who was writing for a first-century Jewish-Christian audience, starts his story with a genealogy, a listing of some of Jesus’ ancestors beginning with Abraham, and including King David. His Jewish readers would be very familiar with the promises God made to Abraham thousands of years earlier, that through his offspring God would bless all nations of the earth. The Bible says:

In your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.[2]

They would also expect to see David listed as one of Jesus’ ancestors, because the Messiah was to come from the lineage of David according to God’s promise to David:

And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.[3]

So Matthew included this genealogy to show that Jesus was a descendant of Abraham and that he was from the royal bloodline of King David, and therefore fulfilled the biblical expectations of the long-awaited Messiah.

The thing is, Matthew gives a bit of a twist in listing the ancestors. Unlike Luke’s genealogy—in fact, unlike most genealogies of the time—Matthew includes women in the lineup. And not just any women, but some scandalous women. The list includes Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Let’s take a quick look at their stories.

Tamar was a non-Hebrew woman, whose story is told in Genesis 38:1–30. She was first married to Er, the eldest son of Judah. Er died, leaving no children. It was the custom of the time that if a man died leaving no heir, his brother would marry the widow. (This is known as a Levirate marriage and is explained in Deuteronomy 25:5–10.) So according to custom Tamar married the second son, who also died leaving no children. Judah, Tamar’s father-in-law, said that his third son was too young to marry and that she should return to her father’s house until the younger son was old enough to marry her, so she did. But as the years passed, it became clear to Tamar that Judah was not going to let his third son marry her. It seems he was afraid that the third son might die as well if he married her.

So Tamar made a bold move. She heard her father-in-law was going to a certain village, so she dressed up as a prostitute, covered her face, and sat at the gate of the city. When Judah passed by he saw her and wanted to engage her services. He said the payment would be a goat, so she asked for his staff and his signet ring as an assurance that he would give her the goat, since he didn’t have the goat with him. He gave her the ring and staff, slept with her, but didn’t realize it was Tamar. When he returned home, he sent a servant to give the woman the goat, but the servant couldn’t find the “prostitute.”

Tamar was pregnant, and when Judah heard this news about his daughter-in-law, he was irate and demanded that she be burned. As she was being taken out to be killed, she sent a message to her father-in-law that said, “I am pregnant by the man who owns these. See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.” Judah realized he was the father and said, “She is more righteous than I am, because I didn't arrange for her to marry my son Shelah.” Tamar was a bold woman who was determined to uphold her legal rights, even if by unconventional means.

The second woman on the list was Rahab.[4] She was a prostitute in the city of Jericho. When two Israelite spies came into Jericho, she hid them and protected them from capture. She was a gentile (non-Jewish), but she believed that the God of Israel was the true God and confessed this when she said, “For the Lord your God is the supreme God of the heavens above and the earth below.”[5] Because of that, she risked her life to save the spies and joined the Jewish people, leaving behind her past life. She married according to Jewish custom and became one of Jesus’ ancestors.

Ruth, the third woman on the list, was also not Hebrew; she was from Moab. She married the son of Elimelech and Naomi, who had moved to Moab because there was famine in Israel. After some years her father-in-law died, and then later Ruth’s Hebrew husband also died. When her mother-in-law, Naomi, decided to return to Israel, Ruth, out of love and loyalty to her mother-in-law, went with her. They moved to Bethlehem. It was there that Ruth met and married Boaz, who was a relative of Naomi’s family. It’s a beautiful story.[6]

Ruth went out to the fields when Boaz’s workers were harvesting grain. The law stated that the poor could follow the harvesters and pick up the stalks of grain which the harvesters left behind.[7] This was called gleaning. Ruth was gleaning when Boaz first noticed her. He was a kind man and told her to keep gleaning the fields his harvesters were working, and he promised that they wouldn’t bother her. He also said she could drink their water and he invited her to eat with them. He also told his harvesters to deliberately leave some wheat behind for her sake.

At the end of the harvest time, Naomi instructed Ruth to freshen up and go to the place where they processed the harvest, but to not let Boaz see her. She gave further instructions which Ruth followed. Late at night, after everyone had gone to sleep, she snuck in to where Boaz was sleeping and uncovered his feet. She then lay down by his feet. In the night, with his feet cold, he woke up and saw Ruth there. Surprised, he asked who she was, and she explained that she was a relative. In essence, she was making it known that she was available for a Levirate marriage. He instructed her to stay for the night but to get up and leave early so no one would notice she had been there. He explained that there was someone who was a closer relative who was first in line to marry her, and that he would see if that person was interested in marrying her. After a bit of negotiating, he found out that the closer relative didn’t want to marry her, so Boaz married her and they had children together. She, a woman of Moab, who had faith and loyalty, became the great-grandmother of King David.

The last woman on the list is Bathsheba.[8] Matthew apparently wasn’t too keen on her, and avoids mentioning her name in the genealogy. He refers to her as “the wife of Uriah.” While Bathsheba was Jewish, her husband was of gentile descent; he was a Hittite. At a time when her husband, who was a soldier in David’s army, was away at war, Bathsheba took a bath in such a manner that she was in plain sight of the roof of King David’s palace. It’s quite possible that her house bordered the king’s palace and that she was only twenty or thirty feet away, thus giving David a clear view of her bathing. Considering the culture and how modest women were in Old Testament times, it raises the question: why was she bathing in view of the king’s roof while her husband was away?[9] It may have been perfectly innocent on her part, but in any case, her bath got David’s attention. He sent for her, they made love, and she got pregnant.

In order to cover things up, David ordered that Uriah be sent back to Jerusalem from the battlefront in the hopes that he would sleep with his wife, but he refused to go to his house while his fellow soldiers were at war. David went on to have Uriah killed. After Nathan the prophet confronted David for the murder of Uriah and the adultery with Bathsheba, David repented. He married Bathsheba, and though their child died, Bathsheba had a second child who was Solomon, who succeeded David as king of Israel.

Jesus’ genealogy includes four women who were outside of the norm. Three were not Jewish, and the one who was had a gentile husband. One was a prostitute and another pretended to be a prostitute. One committed adultery while another was bold enough to sleep at the feet of a man who wasn’t her husband. This is a cast of rather unconventional female ancestors.

The question is, why in the world did Matthew include them? Though it happened sometimes, it wasn’t common to include women in genealogies at all. In Luke’s version of Jesus’ genealogy, he doesn’t include any. What would it have meant for those who read Matthew’s Gospel in the first century? What would they have understood from it? From the genealogy in general they would have understood that Jesus was from the royal line of David, which was very important, since scripture said the Messiah would be of the house of David. They also would have definitely noticed the inclusion of the women’s names, and as Jews they would have been very familiar with who the women were, and with their unconventional stories.

There are a few things they could have understood:

  1. That three of the four were not Jewish, and while Bathsheba was, she was married to a foreigner. The concept conveyed was that there were gentiles in the royal lineage and thus salvation through Jesus wasn’t only for the Jewish people but for gentiles as well. Matthew was bringing out the point, a point that the early Christian church understood at that time, that the Messiah’s mission was not just for the Jewish people but also for the gentiles. All were welcome in the kingdom of God.
  2. Tamar fought for her rights under the law, yet her methods were questionable at best. Rahab was a prostitute. Bathsheba committed adultery. Ruth, on the other hand, while doing something bold and out of the ordinary, doesn’t seem to have done anything unrighteous. Both sinners and saints were in Jesus’ ancestry, just as sinners and saints are brought into the family of God through salvation.
  3. The genealogy consists of both men and women, just as Jesus’ ministry reached out to and included both men and women. In the culture of the time, women were only lightly included in the religious rights of Judaism. In Jewish society they were held in very low esteem. What they were allowed to do in public was very limited. They had very few rights. Yet Jesus had both male and female followers, and some of the women traveled with Him and the disciples, which was highly unorthodox in that day. His teachings were geared to both sexes and He went out of His way to use both men and women as examples in His parables. This was an outstanding, and completely out of the ordinary, aspect of Jesus’ ministry.
  4. Each of these women had something unusual and irregular about their unions, yet they were blessed of God and played a significant role in the lineage of Jesus. Similarly, Mary, Jesus’ mother, found herself in a highly unusual and irregular situation, which Matthew would go on to talk about in the next chapter of his Gospel.
  5. These female ancestors of Jesus had boldness and courage. Tamar and Rahab took great risks, which could have cost them their lives. Ruth showed boldness and initiative. Bathsheba went on to become a good wife, wise counselor, and the queen mother. As a result of their initiative, daring, faith and courage, these women played an important and lasting role in salvation history. Mary likewise had great boldness and faith as she accepted God’s call to be the mother of God’s Son, even though it would seem scandalous and would hurt the man she loved. God not only used unexpected and seemingly scandalous situations within Christ’s lineage, but He called on Mary, a young woman in the midst of her engagement period, to risk her marriage, her reputation, and even potentially her life to be the last in line of the Lord’s genealogy. Matthew was making the point that, while in the eyes of man Mary’s pregnancy was a scandal, God was in it and He brought His Son into the world in an extraordinary manner.

Matthew starts the story of Jesus’ birth showing that He is not only of the royal line of David, but that He has come to bring redemption and hope to men and women, to Jews and gentiles, to the poor and oppressed, to those whose rights have been violated, to paupers and kings, to the saintly and sinners, to everyone.

Someone picking up the Bible today and reading Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew’s Gospel most likely wouldn’t get much from it. But when we as Christians understand the underlying message based on the historical context, we can be reminded of the foundational principle that God deeply loves everyone and everyone needs Him. God included women of questionable background in the ancestry of His Son. If He would include outright sinners along with the morally upright in the human lineage of His Son, then would it be so strange that He would offer salvation to all? Matthew was making the point that Jesus’ sacrificial death is for everyone. It doesn’t matter whether they’re male or female, holy or sinful. Nationality, race, or religion makes no difference. He doesn’t discriminate. Salvation is His gift for everyone. As Christians, He’s asked us to tell others about Him, to be ready, in season and out, to share Jesus with those He brings across our path, no matter who they are.

It’s the Christmas season, and this is a great time of year to give others the greatest gift of all—salvation through Jesus. There are surely those around you who need Him, so do what you can to help them connect with His wonderful, eternal, and all-encompassing love.


Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2008.

Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1993.

Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1997.

Green, Joel B., McKnight, Scot. Editors. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1992.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1992.

Pentecost, Dwight J. The Words & Works of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.

Sheen, Fulton J. Life of Christ. New York: Doubleday, 1958.

Stein, Robert H. Jesus the Messiah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1996.

[1] Luke 1:1–4 NLT.

[2] Genesis 22:18 ESV.

[3] 2 Samuel 7:16 ESV.

[4] Joshua 2:1–21.

[5] Joshua 2:11 NLT.

[6] The book of Ruth.

[7] Deuteronomy 24:19–22 NLT:When you are harvesting your crops and forget to bring in a bundle of grain from your field, don't go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigners, orphans, and widows. Then the Lord your God will bless you in all you do. When you beat the olives from your olive trees, don't go over the boughs twice. Leave the remaining olives for the foreigners, orphans, and widows. When you gather the grapes in your vineyard, don't glean the vines after they are picked. Leave the remaining grapes for the foreigners, orphans, and widows. Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt. That is why I am giving you this command.

[8] 2 Samuel 11.

[9] Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 40.