Genealogies rarely contain interesting tidbits about our ancestors, especially the more unacceptable ones. But Jesus’ genealogy does. In fact, it even seems to highlight several rather shady characters.

And they are women.

There are five women in the genealogy of Jesus Christ. In a time when genealogies didn’t normally contain even a single female name, why are these women included? And what does their presence imply?

In the book of Matthew, the author gives us the list of Jesus’ ancestors in the first chapter. The list begins prestigiously enough with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But then the genealogy begins to falter. Wait a minute, what is Tamar doing here? Didn’t she solicit sex with her father-in-law (shudder) and wasn’t that how Perez, her son, was conceived? Tamar was a woman of unidentified origin (many scholars think she was a Canaanite) who had been widowed by two of Judah’s sons, and had been promised to the third and youngest son, Shelah. Judah, fearing for the life of his third son since the Lord had struck the other two dead, delayed giving him to Tamar. In fact, he probably didn’t intend to ever allow Shelah to marry Tamar.

Tamar was stuck in a very hard place; because she had been returned to her father’s house to wait for Shelah, she had no status, no inheritance, no Social Security would ever come her way because her only route to the future was through children and she was not a mother. And she was not eligible to remarry since she was ‘waiting’ for Shelah.

So she took matters into her own hands.  Much of what follows is difficult for the modern reader to understand. After Judah’s wife died, she posed as a prostitute, though she was not. She wanted a Judah offspring—Shelah was preferable, but denied that, she would have a child through the tribal chief himself (Gen. 38:1-25).

Judah’s role is incriminating. He readily propositions a ‘prostitute,’ little dreaming she is his daughter-in-law. He soundly condemns Tamar when her pregnancy is revealed, and even intends to have her burned to death in a shocking case of a double standard.  But Tamar has cleverly protected herself and the identity of her child’s father by holding Judah’s personal belongings—cords and a seal and staff.

Finally, we see some good action from Judah when he acknowledges his paternity and proclaims that she is more righteous than he is (Gen. 38:26). He was seeking an irresponsible sexual encounter; she was seeking to responsibly protect her future and even his, by providing a child who would live and produce offspring. She was indeed more righteous than he. In a culture when women had few rights, Tamar thoughtfully invested in the future (Gen. 38:27-29).

Matthew acknowledges Tamar’s rights by including her in the Messiah’s genealogy. The Lion of the tribe of Judah needed this determined woman to form his earthly genealogy.

A second surprising inclusion is Rahab. Rahab clearly was a prostitute, and a Gentile, living in Jericho (Josh. 2:1). Despite her occupation, she seems to be a woman with kindness in her. She provides financially for her parents and siblings and she is quite willing to hide the Israelite spies who have come to search out a way to attack and defeat Jericho. She has a compassionate heart and hides the spies on her roof.

Rahab wants a way out of the life she is living. She believes that the people of God will take her city because the fear of the Lord and what he is doing has fallen on her and the people in her land. She has heard the stories of how the Israelites came out of Egypt and how the Red Sea dried up to allow them passage across. She has heard of the defeat of her powerful neighbors across the Jordan River, King Sihon and King Og. She realizes that Jericho is the gate to Canaan and she wants to survive the attack she knows is coming. She, like Tamar, has cords that signify belonging. “Hang this scarlet cord in this window where you let us down, and we will spare you and all in your house,” the spies instruct her.

It happened as planned. Rahab and her family were saved during the compete defeat of Jericho by Joshua’s army. Later, Rahab marries Salmon, a Jew whom tradition says was one of the spies she hid. They have a son, Boaz, who grows up to become a righteous and godly man (Ruth 2:1).

The third woman is Ruth, also a Gentile, and like Tamar, a widow, but this woman’s sexual purity has not been compromised. In fact, the highest words of praise are spoken by Boaz in identifying her as a woman of virtue, a woman of noble character (Ruth 3:11). She is a woman who from the time she heard the name ‘Yahweh’ has been an earnest follower, thanks to the instruction of her mother-in-law, Naomi. Following Naomi’s sound advice, Ruth entreats Boaz to marry her and to provide for her and Naomi in their old age, provision which will come in the form of a precious son, Obed. And little did Naomi and Ruth know, but this tiny son of theirs would be grandfather to King David (Ruth 4:16-22) and therefore, in the lineage of Jesus Christ.

The fourth woman is not named, but she is identified as Uriah’s wife. She married David, but she did not properly belong to him. She had been seduced by Israel’s greatest king, and to some extent, she was complicit, though as the powerful one in the ‘relationship’ David clearly carries the blame. He instigated the adultery with the beautiful wife of one of his finest generals. Later, to protect himself, David has General Uriah placed in battle where he is sure to be killed. The story is full of death, for the child from the adulterous union dies, too.

Eventually, by God’s mercy, David repents. And God grants a son, Solomon, to him and his now legitimate wife, Bathsheba. And through Solomon, the line to the Messiah flowed.

The fifth and final woman in the genealogy is Mary, officially married to Joseph, and mother of Jesus who is called the Christ (Matt. 1:16). Mary is Jewish, Mary is a virgin to whom no taint of sexual scandal had come. Mary is a devout believer in Yahweh. To him she entrusts herself: her reputation, her future, and her entire hope. When the angel tells her she will be pregnant by the Holy Spirit, she believes (Luke 1:35-38) and accepts what has never happened before. Where did this slip of a girl, just recently come into womanhood, get this kind of faith and trust? “I am the Lord’s servant,” were her amazing words. She comprehended in an instant, what generations of Jewish women had never understood: the Messiah would be born of a virgin. She wasn’t sinless, but she was a godly, virtuous and young Jewish girl.

And so the genealogy concludes. Five women are included, mostly poor, mostly misfits, widows, unimportant, unknown, sinful women who changed the course of history by their simple, obedient lives. One might suppose that the women in Jesus the Messiah’s genealogy should have all been the finest Jewish women, but they weren’t. Most weren’t even Jewish at all. And except for Ruth and Mary, they had tarnished sexual histories. They were ordinary women, trying to get life right, but missing the goal.

In other words, they were women just like us: ordinary, tarnished by sin, unlikely to shape the course of history. They are in the Savior’s genealogy to give us hope, and to foreshadow the kind of people Jesus the Messiah came to save.

He came from a lineage of sinners to save sinners.

But He remained sinless.

And we will be like the women from Jesus’ genealogy as we put our whole future into the hands of our God, Jesus Christ of Nazareth. He offers to give our simple lives great significance as we follow him. Like the women of the genealogy who put their hope in the coming Messiah, following him is worth far more than we will know until eternity.