The Backdrop of Matthew 1

Matthew, chapter 1, is an important chapter, but I think I’ve only heard one sermon on it in my life. And it’s rarely included in Christmas messages. It’s significant to us as widows because three of the four women mentioned are widows.

The apostle Matthew was not a typical Jew. Before he joined Jesus as an apostle, he worked as tax collector for the Roman government. Thus, he was hated, treated as a social outcast, considered a liar and cheat, regarded as a sinner, and may have been refused as a worshipper in the temple.

Since his Gospel is directed to a Jewish audience, Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage from Abraham and King David to Joseph, Mary’s husband and Jesus’ earthly father, because it was customary to trace a person’s lineage through the father. The Jews also knew the biblical prophecies that said the Messiah would be in the line of David. Thus, Matthew presents Jesus as the rightful heir to David’s throne.

It’s significant that Matthew mentions four women, especially since three of them participated in sexual sin (Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba), two had no Jewish lineage (Rahab and Ruth), and three were widows (Tamar, Ruth, and Bathsheba). Women were not highly regarded in that culture, although Jewish culture treated women with more respect than pagan cultures.  Their inclusion in the genealogy says to me that God recognized women’s role in His redemptive plan and that God chooses imperfect people, like you and me, to do His will. It also demonstrates that Jesus identifies with sinners, since He came to seek and to save the lost.

Tamar’s story is found in Genesis 38. According to Jewish law in that day, when a woman’s husband died, her brother-in-law was required to marry her, and her first son would be considered the son of the dead brother. When Tamar’s husband died, she married her brother-in-law, but he refused to give her a child. When that man died, her father-in-law refused to give his third son to Tamar as her husband. She took measures into her own hands, played the role of a prostitute, and became pregnant by her father-in-law. Both of her children are listed in the genealogy (Matthew 1:3).

Rahab was a gentile prostitute (Joshua 2). Because of her actions in helping the Jewish spies, her life was preserved at the destruction of Jericho. She married into a Jewish family and became the great grandmother of King David. God does not look at our pedigree, our status in society, or even our wealth. God uses the person who forsakes her old way of life and chooses to live by God’s standards.

The Book of Ruth, one of my favorite books in the Bible, portrays a widow’s wonderful love story. She, a gentile, was a gracious friend to her widowed Jewish mother-in-law. God blessed Ruth with another husband, which then leads to the lineage of Jesus (Matthew 1:5). Ruth’s story teaches us that God works something good out of the challenges in our lives. God’s provision for her of work and food shows God’s care for widows.

Most people know the sordid story of David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11), the fourth woman in our list. She had an affair with King David when her husband was in David’s military. Some feel she was a victim; others feel she was a willing participant, since we have no record of her trying to reject David’s advances. Her father, Eliam, was one of David’s warriors (2 Samuel 23), and she possibly knew David when she was younger.

While the names in Matthew 1 may seem like laborious reading, the stories of the people listed teach us significant principles. God cares for us as widows; He keeps His promises; His redemption and His plans are worked out even through imperfect people.