Unlikely Heroes: The Women of Matthew 1
The Bible is filled with amazing stories, parables and historical accounts. There are also some less interesting parts, like genealogies. Perhaps you — like many — skip right over them. After all, genealogies are dense, filled with Scrabble-winning names like “Amminadab” and “Zerubbabel.” We often don’t realize that they have just as much significance and importance as other passages in Scripture.
When we examine Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1, we see a whole lot of names, some familiar and some not. But what’s really fascinating is that we see five specific women called out in this passage of Scripture. Why did Matthew call out these women in particular? It seems like he was trying to get us to think about these stories, specifically. After all, it wouldn’t have been normal for a woman’s name to be listed in a genealogy.
Jesus came from a family filled with unlikely people, including outcasts and harlots. Through this, Jesus tells us that he celebrates and loves the unlikely people — ones he can turn into unlikely heroes. After all, they’re his family!
So let’s examine, together, these five unlikely women who God used in mighty ways to ultimately bring about the birth of Jesus.
Tamar: The Seeker of Justice
Judah … said, "She is more righteous than I am …” — Genesis 38:26a (NLT)
Tamar’s story is one that would, in our modern time, be branded with a “not safe for work” warning. It’s a sordid tale of grief and depravity. And that’s what makes Tamar’s inclusion in the genealogy of Jesus so very interesting. Genesis 38 tells the story of Tamar — she was the daughter-in-law of Judah, a man who had three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah. Tamar married the eldest son, Er, but the man was “a wicked man in the Lord’s sight, so the Lord took his life” (Genesis 38:7, NLT). In that culture, it was customary for a woman to marry the brother of her deceased husband in order to be provided for and remain a part of the family. Judah married Tamar to his second son, Onan, who was also wicked and put to death by the Lord. At this point, Judah lied to Tamar, promising that she would be taken care of when his youngest son was older. But he had no intention of doing so.
Tamar experienced significant loss at the hands of wicked husbands who mistreated her and faced abandonment by Judah. And as we see in her story, this led her to do some questionable things. But it was Tamar’s pursuit of justice in Judah’s abandonment of his promise that allowed her to be a part of Jesus’ family.
But when Judah discovered who Tamar was and what she did to ensure that she would be taken care of — that she would not be dismissed or disparaged — he said, “she is more righteous than I am.”
Tamar’s circumstances and the presence of immorality in her story would have us all believe that she would not be celebrated by Scripture. And yet, Tamar was given the honor of being the first woman included in Jesus’ genealogy. The pain, loss and sin she was subjected to would ultimately be redeemed by the Messiah in her family tree.
Rahab: The Harlot
“God has a people where we little dream of it, and he has chosen ones among a sort of people whom we dare not hope for; who would think that grace could grow in the heart of one who was a harlot by name, as though her sin was openly known to all? Yet it grew there, like a fair flower blooming upon a dunghill, or a bright star glittering on the brow of night! There her faith grew, and brought forth glory to God!” — Charles Spurgeon
Out of all the people in Jericho, who would suspect that Rahab — the harlot — would be the one to fear the Lord and keep the Israelite spies safe? This woman was unassuming and had nothing to gain from helping the spies. Yet she, out of all of the people in the city, was the one to protect them and to trust in the Lord’s strength.
It can be easy to judge Rahab based on her profession. We often make snap judgements of others based on what they look like, where they live or what they do for work. And yet, Rahab had immense faith in the Lord. In Joshua 2:11b, she tells the spies of the fear Jericho has, and ends by saying: “For the Lord your God is the supreme God of the heavens above and the earth below” (NLT). And perhaps that is why Scripture refers to Rahab, throughout, as a “harlot” — because it is demonstrative of the fact that God can redeem anyone and anything for his purpose; that he uses the most unlikely of us to bring about his plans. Because of that faith and display of heroism, Rahab is a part of the lineage of Jesus.
And her example continues to remind us of our own salvation and how it came in the most unexpected form — a baby in a manger.
Ruth: The Sacrificial Servant
But Ruth replied, “Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!” — Ruth 1:16-17 (NLT)
Ruth had the opportunity to rebuild her life. After her husband died, her mother-in-law, Naomi, gave Ruth permission to return to her home and her family. Naomi had no way to financially provide for her daughter-in-law. She had no other sons for her to marry, and no husband to provide for them.
If given the choice to return to our families, who would welcome us and comfort us in our grief, would we leave Naomi? Would we reject the possibility of a comfortable life for the uncertainty of a new land, a new people and new customs? Ruth did. Rather than return to her hometown, Ruth was steadfast in her love for Naomi. She sacrificed a life that she knew for a life of uncertainty. Naomi couldn’t promise Ruth a comfortable future with a husband or financial security. But still, Ruth went with her. She remained faithful to Naomi, and pledged her faithfulness to the Lord.
Because of that faithfulness, Ruth was ultimately blessed with a husband named Boaz (and together, they had a child named Obed, whose son was Jesse — the father of King David).
Ruth couldn’t have known that by following Naomi she would someday be blessed by being a part of the Messiah’s family. As Hebrews 11:1 states, “Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see” (NLT). How often do we practice the kind of faith Ruth had?
Bathsheba: The Wife of Someone Else
“She is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” — 2 Samuel 11:3b (NLT)
There’s a good chance that you know the story of David and Bathsheba. You probably know that David’s act of adultery ended with the death of Uriah, David’s faithful warrior — and more importantly, Bathsheba’s husband. If you read through Matthew 1, then, it is interesting that Matthew associates Bathsheba with Uriah (“David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife” — Matthew 1:6b, NIV). It seems that whenever Bathsheba is mentioned, so is David’s sin.
We don’t know much about Bathsheba, but she could not have known that she would become a part of the lineage of the Messiah — even if it was because of circumstances outside of her own control. Bathsheba was a faithful wife who caught the eye of a king. In this culture, she had no choice but to obey David, even if she was already married. Bathsheba was resilient in the face of multiple accounts of grief — when she lost her husband, and when she lost her child. Bathsheba is a woman who was initially sought out as the object of David’s desire, but who showed persistence and perseverance and a spirit that isn’t defined by her circumstances.
We can learn from Bathsheba that faith is often a result of ordinary people obeying God in spite of their circumstances. Her story teaches us that our lives will not always go according to plan. Unexpected circumstances will arrive, but God is constantly and sovereignly working through those in order to bring about plans that are bigger than us.
Mary: The Unlikely Girl
“For he [God] took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed.” — Luke 1:48 (NLT)
A virgin girl was chosen to be the mother of the Savior of the world.
It doesn’t get any more unlikely than that.
Mary’s story is incredible. She was betrothed to someone when the angel of the Lord told her she would become the mother of the Messiah. As such, she likely faced daily shame and scorn for what others assumed about her. She was probably scared and uncertain of her future, and yet she expressed an ultimate faith in God who always made and delivered on his promises. When the angel appears to Mary, her response is an indication of her faith: “Mary responded, ‘I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true’” (Luke 1:38, NLT).
Mary recognized her unlikeliness, singing out praises to God later on in Luke 1:48: “For he [God] took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed” (NLT). Mary was an ordinary girl, who likely planned to live an ordinary life. But what remains beautiful about this story is that God never sees anyone as “ordinary.” The world considered Mary to be an unlikely girl on the threshold of marriage. But God rewarded her faith and planned from the very beginning for her life to be anything but ordinary.
What an unexpected thing, for the Messiah to come from a lineage of broken people with broken stories, and ultimately be given life by a virgin girl who was favored by God.
These women are unlikely people to be included in Jesus’ lineage. Some are young. Some are widows. Some are tied to people who have committed sinful acts. But these stories are all about grace.
Our own stories might seem unlikely or insignificant. Maybe there are even things in our pasts that we would rather hide than bring into the light. But as evidenced in Matthew 1, Jesus was not afraid to share stories of his family members — even those whose stories were messy or uncomfortable.
Everything about Jesus was unlikely. He was born to an unlikely woman, grew up in an unlikely place (“Nazareth … can anything good come from Nazareth?” — John 1:46, NLT). He grew up as a normal child, became a carpenter and led as a servant, rather than a king. The disciples assumed the Messiah would be a great ruler, a politician or a royal figure to save them. But as the Savior, Jesus was none of those things.
Jesus’ family tree includes five notable women who were unlikely in every sense of the word. And yet they were heroes because each of them takes surprising steps of faith that play a part in Jesus taking human form.
How might God use unlikely circumstances in your life to bring about his plans and purpose?