A while back, I received an amazing and exciting gift from a niece of mine: a printed copy of my personal genealogy. Though I had known a bit about my family tree from some research done by an uncle, this one was mind-boggling. I found the names of ancestors on my father’s side going all the way back to the 9th century. There were famous people, even royalty, as well as a few scoundrels.
It’s nice to know one’s family tree, even if there may be a few horse-thieves hanging from it. It somehow makes you feel a bit more connected to history and to the rest of the human race.
The gospels give us the genealogy of Jesus – in fact, two genealogies. Luke gives His genealogy through his mother, Mary; Matthew gives His genealogy through his stepfather, Joseph. Luke’s goes back to Adam, the father of the human race; Matthew’s goes back to Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel. Both trace His lineage through King David. They show us His Jewishness, His royalty, His humanity.
Matthew begins his gospel with the genealogy and leads us right into his version of what we would call “The Christmas Story.”
We usually consider during this season, the incarnation of the Son of God, the fact that as John says, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Matthew seems to be telling us “start here!”
And as we read through the list of all the “begots,” if we read carefully, we may notice that four women (besides Mary) and four only, are included in the list of Jesus‘ ancestors. Of course, if my math and my biology are correct, there should be one woman for each of the males listed. We may ask, why these four?
Look at the women listed: Tamar (Matthew 1:3); Rahab (verse 5); Ruth (verse 5); and “her of Uriah” (verse 6). That’s all. Who are they?
Tamar (Genesis 38) was probably a Canaanite by birth (this was before there were laws forbidding intermarriage). Judah, the fourth son of Jacob, had three sons. He “took a wife for Er his first-born and her name was Tamar” (38:6). “But Er … was evil in the sight of the LORD, so the LORD took his life” (verse 7). So Judah told Onan his second-born to take Tamar and inseminate her to raise up offspring for his brother. Onan, however, had sex with her but “spilled his semen on the ground,” so the LORD took his life also (verses 8-10). So Judah told Tamar to wait for his third son, Shelah to grow up. But he never gave him to her (verses 11, 12). Desperate for a child (apparently her biological clock was ticking) she disguised herself as a prostitute and had sex with her father-in-law Judah. (This was considered incest in the later Mosaic Law and a capital offense for both parties: Leviticus 18:15; 10:12). When Judah found out his daughter-in-law was “pregnant by harlotry” he wanted to put her to death till he found that he was the father (verses 13-26). And so through this soap-opera union, Perez entered the genealogy of Jesus (verses 27-30).
The next woman mentioned was Rahab (Joshua 2; 6:21-25). Rahab was a genuine prostitute, not just a pretend one. She was also a Canaanite and as such was doomed to die at the hands of the invading Israelites (Deuteronomy 7:1-3). But Rahab hid two Israelite spies and gave a confession of faith in the LORD, “ … the LORD your God, He is God in Heaven above and on earth below” (Joshua 2:11). She and her family were spared death when her city Jericho was destroyed. She is remembered elsewhere in the New Testament as a woman of faith (Hebrew 11:31; James 2:25). Later she married an Israelite man named Salmon and gave birth to a son named Boaz.
Ruth, the third woman on the list (the Book of Ruth), was from Moab, the widow of an Israelite, who came to Israel with her (also widowed) mother-in-law, Naomi. Like Rahab, she, as a foreigner was considered part of a despised group. A Moabite was not permitted to “enter the assembly of the LORD … even to the tenth generation” (Deuteronomy 23:3-6). But like Rahab (her future mother-in-law) she confessed faith in the LORD. She says to Naomi, “Your people shall be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Through faith, divine providence and (it seems to me) a little scheming, she ends up married to Boaz, a rich relative of her deceased husband and becomes the great-grandmother of King David. (I guess Boaz couldn’t be too uptight about marrying a foreigner. After all, his mother was both a foreigner and a hooker!)
The last woman in Matthew’s list isn’t even named. He simply refers to her as “her of Uriah.” Her story is found in 2 Samuel 11 and 12. Her name is given as Bath-Sheba and she is the (former) wife of Uriah the Hittite, a foreign mercenary in King David’s army. She is an Israelite by birth, the only one of the four women who is. (Her genealogy can be found in 2 Samuel 11:3; 23:34). Most of us know the story of David’s illicit affair with her and how he had her husband murdered. Yet she became the mother of both King Solomon (Joseph’s ancestor) and of Nathan (Mary’s ancestor).
Certainly if I were setting down the genealogy of the One whom we claim as God-in-the-flesh, I could have chosen better ones than these, couldn’t I – some of the good wives and mothers of the kings in the Old Testament? On the other hand, if Matthew was looking for some real baddies, he could have found them: Athaliah, the daughter of Jezebel, the woman who murdered her own children and grandchildren and almost wiped out the royal line of David.
So why these four? Well they do have some things in common.
· None of them belong here! Each should have been excluded by the Law that God gave Israel. Two were prostitutes; one committed incest; one committed adultery; and three were foreigners, two of whom were to be excluded by the Mosaic Law. By the way, most of the men in this list weren’t fit to be here either!
· Most likely all four were believers. We have the statements of faith of two of them.
· Therefore they are examples of grace, people who can make no claim to privilege, people who are “outside,” or as Paul says, “ … Gentiles in the flesh … separate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now … brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:11-13).
· They demonstrate the reality of the incarnation. Jesus chose to be born into a family of sinners. He put it all on the line: He “emptied Himself” of the prerogatives of Deity (Philippians 2:6-8) and took on all the dangers of being human: physical dangers as well as dangers to His reputation (cf. John 8:41, 48).
· Perhaps as well, they are there to tell us that we need to empty ourselves of any pride we may have in ourselves or our ancestry. We need to recognize that we too come from a family of sinners and are sinners ourselves, and place our faith in the One who put it all on the line for us.