It's easy to bypass the list of names at the opening of Matthew's Gospel, skipping straight to the birth narrative. However, there is more than meets the eye in the list of Jesus' ancestors that opens the gospel account.
One remarkable element to this particular genealogy is that five women feature. To the modern reader this might not jump out, but in a 1st-century Jewish context to include women in a record of ancestry was unheard of.
What's even more remarkable are the stories of the women who are included.
Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute to trick her father-in-law into sleeping with her and has twins, one of whom is the ancestor of Salmon, who married another woman in Jesus' genealogy, Rahab. The story is told in Genesis 38.
Many are quick to judge Tamar for her actions, but it is said that even Judah recognised that she was "more righteous than I".
Tamar's story unfolds within the context of an ancient law that ensured a man's line continued through childbirth even after death. Tamar was a widow, unable to remarry and secure her future as she was bound to the family of her late husband, Er.
His younger brother Onan was meant to give her children, but refused as he wanted to keep as much inheritance as possible. She was then promised to the youngest brother, Shelah, but when he came of age nothing happened, and Tamar realised she was to be left a childless widow.
Rather than accepting this fate lying down, she chose to act.
Through disguising herself and sleeping with her father-in-law, she ensured her late husband's name continued and that her future was secure. (In those times without a husband or son, a woman's fate was one of dependence and poverty.) She had to resort to trickery, but only because her father-in-law was denying her what was rightfully hers.
Yes, she sinned in doing so, but only from a place of having been sinned against. He, not she, is unjust, as Judah admits.
The story of Tamar shows that justice for women matters – they are not just to be cast aside. Rather, they deserve to be fairly treated, and if they are not they are perfectly capable of taking matters into their own hands.
"Rahab the prostitute." It's as if "the prostitute" were her second name. Her identity has been recorded throughout history as a sex worker. But if you read her story in Joshua, there is much more to Rahab than may first meet the eye.
As recorded in the book of Joshua (mostly chapter two), Rahab was a prostitute in the city of Jericho and played a pivotal role in its downfall at the hands of the Israelites.
Having heard about the God of Israel, she believed he was no ordinary Canaanite deity and chose to betray her city, hiding two Israeli spies on the roof of her house. In return for their safety, Rahab negotiated that they would spare her and her family when the city was destroyed. God flattened the walls of Jericho, but left Rahab's house alone intact. She and her kin were spared God's wrath and she was welcomed into Israel's fold.
Rahab's actions reveal a woman of character who, although imperfect, had a fervent faith in God and who was willing to stand up to her own culture for what she believed in.
Her story reveals that God is looking for faith not perfection, and is willing to look beyond our circumstance but won't leave us there.
Just as Tamar did not choose to disguise herself as a prostitute independent of her circumstance, Rahab's sex work is unlikely to have been a proactive choice made from a place of freedom. In neither case did God wait for the women to become "respectable" in the eyes of the world, but used them as they were.
It was the faith of Rahab that God was interested in. Despite being a Canaanite, she recognised Yahweh as the "God in heaven above and on earth beneath".
This seed of faith redeemed Rahab. The Rahab we leave at the end of the story is in a completely different situation from when we met her. We met a woman who was working as a prostitute and cast out by society, but are left with a woman who has been redeemed by her faith. She marries Salmon and becomes mother to Boaz, the great-grandfather of King David. This Gentile becomes a mother in the line of the Messiah.
Ruth's late husband was Naomi's son. When he died, they were living in Moab. Ruth could have chosen to stay in her homeland, but her loyalty to Naomi meant she went with her to Israel, both as a foreigner and a widow.
Ruth said to Naomi: "Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God" (Ruth 1:16).
Ruth would have been expected to stay in Moab, among her own people. However, she chose to go to a foreign land and to an unknown people out of her loyalty to her mother-in-law and her new faith.
One of two biblical women with a book named after her, Ruth's memory is a noble one. However, she was born under a curse – she was a Moabite. In Deuteronomy 23:3 it is said that Moabites were "shut out of the congregation of the Lord". Yet, through choosing to ally herself with Naomi, and later Boaz, she chose to ally herself with Yahweh.
God shows grace to those who choose him. Our choice is powerful and God's mercy is great. Although the law may have excluded Ruth from salvation, God's grace included her. She is both personally saved and contributes to the salvation of all mankind through her offspring.
Not named in Matthew's account, Uriah's wife refers to Bathsheba who was seduced by King David while married to the Hittite general Uriah. She falls pregnant and in order to save himself from the inevitable consequences, David sends Uriah to a battle where he is likely to die. He, and the unborn child, do die.
Eventually, David repents and God is merciful in granting him a son, Solomon, with his now legitimate wife. The line to Jesus flows through Solomon.
So often shame is attached to Bathsheba, not David in this story, yet the reality is that David would have been the party with all the power in this situation. It is unclear as to whether Bathsheba even consented to his advances, and it is written that she mourned for her late husband's death.
Yet, God is a transformer and is capable of bringing hope out of darkness. David repented and God both redeemed him and Bathsheba in giving them a son – Solomon – who was to become King.
As well as his mother Mary, Matthew included four women in the genealogy of Jesus that paint a picture of tenacity, faith, grace and redemption. These women, while not sinless, were strong. The list speaks of a God who discards social stigmas and hierarchies in place of discerning character and a willingness to follow.
Women have played a crucial role in God's salvation history. God's interaction with women might be less recorded and less frequently celebrated than his interaction with men, but this is reflective of the society in which it was written, not God's concern for women.
The importance of women in God's plan continues to be illustrated throughout Jesus' life, both in his treatment of them and their testimonies about him.