Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, and Ram the father of Amminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nashon, and Nashon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah,… Matthew 1:2-6
If you were going to write out the genealogy of someone of grand importance (like, say, the eternal Davidic King who has come to establish the unfailing Kingdom of God) and your desire were to be careful not to sully that person’s name or position, who would you include and who would you omit from the family tree? If this were a fictitious person, and if you were trying to fool a bunch of people into following him or her for personal political reasons, you would – let’s be honest – seek to indoctrinate everyone with a positive spin on the family tree. If this were a real person but you had the liberty to include whatever details would be most beneficial (meaning you were not required to tell the WHOLE truth), then you would – again let’s be honest – practice the same art of positive spin as in the previous example. We all tend to include the details of any given story that we believe will most benefit the point of the story – and ourselves in telling it. History is rife with these examples of positive spin and sins of omission, with new ones being added to the list on almost a daily basis.
In that sense Matthew’s genealogy fails completely – at least if it intends to serve as a positively spun polemic for the eternal Davidic King. In fact, Matthew includes some family details within this first section of his genealogy of Jesus that are positively puzzling in terms of how they help establish Jesus as this promised Davidic King (if political polemics is the point). These puzzling family details should make us pause (instead of speed reading or skipping the genealogy altogether, as most of us do throughout our Bible reading) and ask why Matthew would include these particular details (or people) and not others. Frederick Dale Bruner captures this idea well when he writes, “…Matthew’s genealogy is a work of theological craftsmanship more than it is a simple historical list. It is not only genealogy, it is theology; it is not only archive, it is doctrine; it is not only history, it is sermon.” This means that Matthew is trying to tell us something about this Davidic King and His associated Kingdom that is of greater importance than the mere purity or worthiness of His lineage. This genealogy serves not as an argument for the purity of the pedigree of the King but as a theology of the reign of this King over His Kingdom to the glory of God.
An important rule in Biblical study is to note patterns and repetitions as well as breaks in patterns and repetitions. Matthew’s genealogy employs the common “begats” pattern as established in the early Genesis accounts where the father and son(s) are named but not the mother and sister(s). Yet, Matthew’s pattern breaks periodically with the inclusion of 4 women, 3 named and 1 unnamed: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah, whom we know as Bathsheba. This should cause us to pause and investigate further. While space does not allow a full discussion on each of these women, we will benefit from noting a couple of important truths. The first and most shocking is that 3 of the women are Gentiles by birth and 1 by marriage: Tamar is a Canaanite, Rahab is a Jerichoite, Ruth is a Moabite, and Bathsheba is a Hittite by virtue of her marriage to Uriah. Not only are they Gentiles, but they are Gentiles from key people groups that have historically been enemies of God and His people! Most Jews who would have read this genealogy in the first century believed Gentiles and in particular, Gentile women, to be less than dogs, making them unworthy to be in the Kingdom of God. In addition, several of the women have less than stellar stories which would not have improved their status: Tamar pretends to be a prostitute to fool Judah into sleeping with her, Rahab worked as a prostitute, and Bathsheba had an affair with King David that cost her husband and her first born son with David their lives. First century Jewish readers would have been very familiar with these stories which would make this quite the scandalous read. These are not exactly the people you would want to highlight if purity of kingly pedigree were at stake!
This is exactly what makes the genealogy of Matthew so beautiful and important for us to consider during Advent Season. With the inclusion of these 4 women and their lineages and stories, Matthew declares that God is sovereign over all of humanity and that sin cannot stop His gracious promises from coming to pass. Each woman represents the truth of the meaning of Jesus’ name, “Yahweh saves.” Not only does Yahweh save, but He saves to the uttermost which is truly good news to us this Advent. Consider those you believe are beyond saving, whether it be a generation, particular culture, people group, political position, religious affiliation, or family member. Ask how this belief is affecting your theology of God who sent the eternal Davidic King to establish a Kingdom from every group ‘beyond saving.’ Give thanks for God’s grace and mercy as evidenced by the inclusion of sinners and doubters such as you and me in the lineage of Christ. Martin Luther illustrates this truth beautifully in his “Sermon on the Birth of Mary” preached on the 8th of September 1522:
“This happened so that Christ could show us how friendly he is to poor sinners, that they could understand a little and say ‘Ah, Christ is such a man that he is not ashamed of sinners, yes, he even includes them in his family tree.’ If the Lord does this, we should not scorn anyone, for otherwise he would have included honorable women such as Sarah…. He did this so that we could see God’s grace to sinners, that we would follow Him and not be ashamed, but weave ourselves with the sinners in order to help them. For that reason these women are listed here…”
Cameron Barham is the Lead Pastor of Christ Community Church in Kennesaw, GA.
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 Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew, A Commentary: Volume 1: The Christbook, Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 21.
Susan C. Karant-Nunn and Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, eds. and trans., Luther on Women: A Sourcebook (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 38.