Rose window in Basilica of St Denis, France, depicting the ancestors of Christ from Jesse onwards.
“The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren; And Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar; and Phares begat Esrom; and Esrom begat Aram.” (Matthew 1:1 KJV)
And so it goes on. “What is this all about?” I hear you say. “Why must we have these boring lists of names in the Bible, and what does have to do at all with our faith? Why are there so many genealogies in the Bible.”
It is all to do with the fact that to the ancient Israelites your family was very important. You had to know where you came from and to whom you belonged. So anyone of standing in the society would be able to recite the names of their ancestors way back down the generations. It was like that in Wales a few hundred years ago when you would be able to say, “I am Dafydd, ab Ioan, ap Rhys, ab Owain, ab Ifan, ap Tewdor.” etc. You knew your ancestry. It was important to be able to trace your family back to some great leader of the past.
And so, in the New Testament both Matthew and Luke give us the genealogy of Jesus because they want to show us he is the Messiah, the Son of David promised by the prophets. You will find considerable differences in the two lists . Matthew’s list starts with Abraham and ends with Jesus. Luke starts with Jesus and traces right back to Adam. Also the lists diverge after King David. Matthew follows the line of King Solomon and the kings of Israel, while Luke follows the line of another of David’s sons, Nathan.
Scholars have pondered over this and some have come to the conclusion that Luke’s list is actually the genealogy of Mary, rather than Joseph. That is: both Joseph and Mary were of the line of King David.
If this idea is true, then Matthew’s list would give the official, legal line through Joseph. He was a descendent of the Kings of Israel and Jesus, his adopted son, would be the legal heir of the line of David. And Luke’s list would give us the biological descent, from King David through Mary. It’s an interesting theory.
Skeletons in the cupboard
Now, what would you expect of an early Christian writing the family tree of Jesus Christ? Would he not tend to play down the less reputable members of the family? After all, people don’t like there to be a “skeleton in the cupboard”.
Think of the television programme “Who Do You Think You Are?” in which celebrities trace their family tree. At the beginning of the programme they always express the hope that they might find some noble, and virtuous ancestor. They are mortified if one turns out to be a thief, or a murderer, or a slave trader.
The list of ancestors given by Matthew does not contain all the links – that is quite common in ancient genealogies. So you would think perhaps that some of the worst ones had been left out. But this is not the case. As the list goes through the Kings of Judah we find such evil men as Rehoboam, Jehoram, Manasseh and Amon given full prominence. And even the “good” ancestors had many faults.
Just think of:
- Abraham and Isaac – both tried to pass off their wives as their sisters so they could be well received in foreign lands.
- Jacob cheated his brother out of his blessing.
- Judah lay with his own daughter-in-law, thinking she was a prostitute.
- David committed adultery and murder.
- Solomon married a multitude of pagan women.
These were good and great men but the had their faults. By God’s mercy they were forgiven and cleansed and they experienced God’s grace.
Nonetheless, you could still say there are plenty of skeletons in the cupboard in the family tree of Jesus!
Now, in those days genealogies consisted only of the male names of the family. Rarely would there be a mention of a woman. But Matthew, in his family tree of Jesus draws attention to four women. And what women they were! One played the harlot and another was a harlot full time. Another was an adulteress. And two of them were from pagan backgrounds.
Matthew’s Gospel was written particularly for the Jews – to bring them to faith in Jesus as the Messiah. You can’t help but think that Matthew here is trying to puncture Jewish self-righteousness in his readers. He was writing to people who prided themselves on being Hebrews of the Hebrews. They came from godly families and there was no trace of Gentile blood or of pagan practices in their families. So Matthew is drawing attention to the fact that Joseph ( the legal father of Jesus) had not only sinful kings of Judah in his ancestry but even pagan and immoral women. The Son of David was not only coming to save the Jews but for all people. And he would be the Saviour, not of the righteous, but of sinners.
Let’s briefly look at the lives of these four women:
Tamar was the daughter-in-law of Judah. She had been consecutively married to two of his sons. After both sons had died Tamar was left childless and alone – a terrible position for a woman in those days. But Judah was unwilling to let her marry his third son as the custom was, and he left her “on the shelf” as it were. So Tamar took matters into own hands. She covered her face and disguised herself as a prostitute. When Judah came by he asked to have sex with her. Later, when it was found that Tamar was with child, Judah wanted to have her burned for playing the harlot. But when he realized that he himself was the father of the child he admitted that he was in the wrong.
“I have failed in my obligation to her, – I should have given her to my son Shelah in marriage”, he said.
Tamar gave birth to twins, one of whom, Perez, became and ancestor of King David, and therefore of Jesus Christ. The whole rather unedifying incident can be found in Genesis chapter 38.
We read abut Rahab in the story of Joshua’s conquest of Jericho. If there is one thing people know about Rahab it is that she was a harlot. She was the Canaanite prostitute who took in and protected the Israelite spies in Joshua, chapter two. When the city was sacked Rahab and her family were spared.
Rahab had helped the Israelite spies because she had come to believe in the God of Israel. She had come to see that the Lord was giving the land of Canaan to the Israelites, and she sided with them and against the people of Jericho. After the conquest of Jericho Rahab lived a different life. She married an Israelite man and became the mother of noble and honorable Boaz who married Ruth. This surely shows a work of God’s grace in her life.
Ruth was a Moabite women whose whole life was one of nobility and goodness. She certainly was not a bad woman but she came from bad stock. She would have been despised for being a Maobitess. But Ruth loved her mother-in-law Naomi and wanted to follow the God of Israel. Like her husband’s mother Rahab she attached herself to the Lord and to the people of Israel.
Her name is not mentioned in this list but she is described as the mother of Solomon ands the former wife of Uriah. She had been married to a non-Israelite in King David’s service. The King, succumbing to the temptations of the flesh, took Bathsheba for himself and plotted the death of her husband to cover up his own sin of adultery. God’s punishment fell on David for his sins but he sought God’s mercy and received it. Bathesha was not guilty in all this – there was no way she could have resisted the will of the King. Nor was she complicit in the death of her husband Uriah. Nonetheless, she was an adulteress, also probably a Hittite like her husband, and thus liable to be looked down on by a religious Jew.
The grace of God
So all four of these women had something about them that would have been unacceptable to a self-righteous religious Jew at the time of Jesus. But they all became ancestors of King David.
Matthew seems to be wanting to say that the grace of God overcomes all the barriers of backgrounds, former life and ethnic origin.
And when Jesus the Messiah came into the world he came for people such as these just as much as for the respectable people. When Jesus started his ministry he reached out to all kinds of outcasts and marginalized people. The ones who were despised by the scribes and Pharisees – lepers, harlots, tax gatherers, Quislings, Samaritans, pagan Greeks, Roman soldiers – all kinds of people. He also took notice of women and of children – people who were usually ignored in the culture of his day.
Advent is the season to get ready – to prepare for the coming of the Lord. Like the Lord Jesus we should be ready to welcome all kinds of people and to offer them the grace and forgiveness he offers us.