Jesus’s Troubled Family History
By beginning his Gospel with a genealogy, Matthew declared that the Jesus who was born in Bethlehem, raised by Joseph, and who worked as a craftsman in Nazareth was the descendant of Abraham through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Matthew sought to convince his readers that Jesus, who had no home, no fortune, and only an unimpressive group of followers, was the royal King in the line of David whose kingdom would never end.
But honestly, if that was all that Matthew was trying to accomplish, he could have gone about recording Jesus’s family history in a very different way. If that’s all Matthew was trying to communicate, there would be no reason for him to include some of the names he chose to include in the genealogy, specifically the names of five women.
Jewish genealogies (and most genealogies in the Bible) don’t include women. But more interesting than the fact that Matthew included women is the particular women he chose to include and to leave out. We might expect Matthew, writing for a Jewish audience, to include Jewish matriarchs such as Sarah, Rebekah, or Leah. But of the five women Matthew included in Jesus’s genealogy, four aren’t even Jewish. Only Mary, who likely descended from the kingly line of David like her husband, Joseph, was Jewish. The other four women Matthew took care to include in Jesus’s genealogy were Gentiles! Tamar and Rahab were Canaanites, the race of people living in Canaan when the Israelites took possession of the land. Ruth was a Moabite. Then there was Bathsheba, who, though she may have been an Israelite by birth, was married to Uriah the Hittite, which legally made her a Hittite.
Matthew seems to be going out of his way to make clear to his Jewish readers that God had always intended for his blessings, his promises, his rule to be for people from every tribe, tongue, and nation—not exclusively for those who had pure Jewish blood in their veins. It seems as if Matthew wanted to make clear that being a part of the people of God, the family of God, has never been about blood but has always been about belief. It is about taking hold of the promises God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which is exactly what Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth did.
That Matthew included women who were foreigners in his genealogy is not the only thing that stands out when we read it. We can’t escape the reality that the lives of each of the women he chose to include were touched by sexual scandal.
Saints and Scoundrels in the Story of Jesus
Saints and Scoundrels in the Story of Jesus tells the story of 10 people who are integral to the story of Jesus, putting the characters in context of the whole Bible and delving into what they reveal about Christ.
Tamar’s first husband was so evil that God put him death. Imagine being married to a man that evil! Left a childless widow, Tamar, following the cultural practices of her time, married her husband’s brother, but this brother didn’t want to share his inheritance with children born to her, so he simply used Tamar for his sexual pleasure while avoiding impregnating her. God put him to death for his evil ways too. Left widowed again and desperate for security and posterity, Tamar dressed as a temple prostitute and put herself in the path of her father-in-law, Judah. Evidently, she knew Judah was such a lowlife, he would easily be seduced. She also knew she would need evidence of their liaison to keep from being killed once her pregnancy was discovered, so she kept his seal and staff. And her plan worked. She gave birth to twins fathered by her father-in-law. And one of her twins, Perez, became part of Jesus’s family tree. (For Tamar’s story, see Genesis 38.)
Then there was Rahab (see Joshua 2 and Joshua 6). She was running a brothel in Jericho when the advance party of two million invading Israelites came to her town and to her inn. She had heard about how their God gave them victory over their enemies, and she knew that the city of Jericho was the next enemy to be defeated. She wanted into the Israelite family and was not only saved by Israelites, she became one of them through marriage. The former madam became a mother and a grandmother, also finding a place in the lineage of Jesus (Matt. 1:3).
Ruth was a Moabite. That meant she traced her ancestry, not to Abraham but to his nephew Lot. Do you remember Lot? He was the guy who impregnated his daughters while drunk. This was the incestuous family and culture Ruth came from. A Jewish family escaping famine in their hometown of Bethlehem moved to Moab, and she married one of their sons. But then he died, leaving her a childless widow. Eventually, she traveled to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law, Naomi, where she was resented as “the Moabitess” by most of the Bethlehem folks. But a godly man named Boaz called her “my daughter,” and eventually, “my wife.” Thus, Ruth, a foreigner brought into the family, became a great-grandmother to David, whose greater son would be Jesus (see Ruth 1–4).
Matthew calls Bathsheba “the wife of Uriah” to remind readers of two things: (1) she was a Hittite by marriage, and (2) she was married to Uriah when David summoned her to his bedroom. Hers is a story of being used sexually, which led to an unexpected pregnancy (see 2 Samuel 11–12). But she too, through her son Solomon, found her way into the family of Jesus (Matt. 1:6). All the sexual scandal in the lives of these women prepares us for the great scandal to come: the pregnancy of unwed Mary, the mother of Jesus. Though Mary had not committed any sexual sin herself, she was likely shunned by her pious neighbors as she carried the unborn Christ in her womb. If the producers of Who Do You Think You Are? were looking for ancestors to include in Jesus’s story, the lives of these five women would make great television. But why would Matthew include them in his Gospel? It would seem that Matthew used the genealogy of Jesus to make it abundantly clear: The family of Jesus is made up of people who come from less-than-respectable backgrounds and have less-than-perfect records.
He Took on the Shame of His Family Tree
Jesus came from a long line of outsiders, outlaws, scoundrels, and sinners. When he entered into the world, he entered into the messiness of the human family, even in his own family. In fact, he was the only member of this family who never brought shame upon the family. Instead, he took upon himself the shame of every person in the family tree.
Think of Abraham’s shame for allowing his fears to put his wife in a compromising situation. Jesus bore that shame as he hung on the cross even though Jesus always protects his bride. Think of Jacob’s shame for a lifetime of deception. Jesus bore that shame, though he always told the truth and, in fact, is the Truth. Think of Judah’s shame over selling his brother (Joseph) to slave traders, lying to his grieving father (Jacob) for years, and his incestuous liaison with his son’s wife (Tamar). Jesus, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, took upon himself the sin and shame of Judah. Think of King David’s shame over taking another man’s wife into his own bed and then organizing her husband’s murder. Jesus bore that shame as he hung on the cross under a hastily made, mocking sign that read, “King of the Jews.” Jesus came to save both victim and perpetrator, sinner and sinned against.
No one gets into God’s family by being born into it. You must be reborn into it.
As we consider the kind of people who are part of the family of Jesus, I can’t help but ask, Is there something in your own story that makes you think you could never belong in God’s family? Has a sense of shame shaped your sense of self so that you think your name will not be found on that list of names of those whom Jesus calls beloved brothers and sisters? My friend, if the story and secrets of your life were recorded for all to read, as the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Judah and Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, or David and Bathsheba were recorded for us to read—if your story includes sexual scandal such as adultery, incest, or becoming pregnant by someone you’re not married to—you’re going to fit right in to this family.
If you’ve been deceitful or hateful . . . if you’ve used or destroyed other people to get what you wanted . . . if you’ve touted your religious credentials to impress other people when in reality you wanted nothing to do with God himself, welcome to the family! If you’ve taken God’s generous provision to you for granted . . . if you’ve doubted God’s promises . . . if you’ve presumed upon God’s protection while also ignoring him—we can see the family resemblance. If you have no hope to be accepted into God’s family other than the perfect record of your righteous brother, Jesus, then you can be sure you’ve found your forever-family. No one gets into God’s family by being born into it. You must be reborn into it. And no one gets into God’s family through good behavior. The only way any of us become a part of this family is by grace through faith.
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin.1
“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). Matthew wanted us to see that the family of Jesus was made up of people who had less-than-perfect records. This means that there is hope, there is a home, there is a future in this family for people like me and people like you—no matter what we’ve done or failed to do, or who we’ve been or failed to be.
- Julia H. Johnston, “Grace Greater Than Our Sin,” 1910
This article is adapted from Saints and Scoundrels in the Story of Jesus by Nancy Guthrie.
Because of Christ, our sin does not have to separate us from God. In fact, when we confess it and believe in him, we are cleansed from our unrighteousness.
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