A genealogy of a king’s dynasty need only have the list of fathers. Matthew’s list includes four women, and it may be helpful to ask why are they included? The first time reader has no idea of what is coming. The author writes from the perspective of knowing what’s coming, and he can foreshadow or hint at things to come. What are the stories of these four women, and how do they help us?
Tamar was Judah’s daughter-in-law (Matthew 1:3). She married Judah’s son, Er. But Er was wicked, and the text says, “the LORD put him to death.” The fact that Er died childless brought into play the custom (later law under the Mosaic covenant) of levirate marriage. Levir in Latin means husband’s brother. The custom meant that the brother would marry his late brother’s widow. Children from this marriage would be considered the descendants of the dead brother.
Onan, Er’s brother, married Tamar, but Onan didn’t want to father children for his dead brother. His strategy was not quite abstinence, and not quite fulfilling his end of the levirate bargain. His name gives us the word onanism. (Check definition two in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary.) The LORD also put Onan to death.
When Judah did not fulfill his promise to have his third son, Shelah, marry Tamar, Tamar hatched a plan. She dressed as a prostitute and placed herself along a road where Judah had gone to shear sheep. Judah avails himself of her services and in the process gets her pregnant. If we are shocked by the story, that’s the point. This narrative is not flattering to Judah, and this unseemly story is a part of King David’s genealogy. As the saying goes, you don’t pick your family.
The second woman is Rahab (Matthew 1:5). She is better known as Rahab, the prostitute (see Joshua 2:1-24, 6:22-25). She rescued the Israelite spies who entered the city of Jericho. In return for their safety, she is spared when the city is destroyed, and she made her life in Israel. Kind David has a non-Israelite, former prostitute in his genealogy. (I know that I’ve assumed “former” in the previous statement, but given the Mosaic law, it seems a very reasonable assumption.) It nevertheless, is a skeleton in the family closet of King David’s family.
The third woman mentioned is Ruth (Matthew 1:5). Ruth is an admirable woman. She has faith, loyalty, and hard work going for her (see the book of Ruth for her story), but she is a Moabite – not an Israelite by birth. Although the nation of Moab was descended from Lot, Abraham’s nephew (see Genesis 19:37), conflict had arisen between Israel and Moab. A summary of the conflict is in Deuteronomy 23:3 with some stern restrictions on Moabites. In other words, a Moabite great-grandmother isn’t exactly who you would have anticipated for King David, but that’s the family history.
The fourth woman is not mentioned by name, but her name was Bathsheba (Matthew 1:6). Literally, the phrase in Matthew is “by her of Uriah.” The great scandal of King David’s reign is painful to tell. While his army is in the field and David is at home, David commits adultery with the wife of one of his outstanding soldiers. When she becomes pregnant, David attempts to cover it up by bringing Uriah home on leave, but Uriah refuses to go home because his fellow soldiers are in the field. David covers his tracks by sending orders with Uriah (unknown to Uriah of course) that he is to be placed in the front lines, and then left without support, so that he will be killed. It’s a malignant chapter in David’s life that could have led him away from God if it wasn’t for God’s grace and David’s repentance.
So why allude to these skeletons in the closet? It’s as if Matthew is providing hints as to where his story is going to go. Jesus has an unusual birth. At first blush, it sounds scandalous when it is not. It’s as if Matthew is reminding his readers, “You respect King David, don’t you? Just remember parts of King David’s history. Don’t jump to conclusions concerning what I’m about to tell you. Listen to the whole story. Get all the facts. Be as fair to Jesus as you would be to David.”