Saturday, 18 December 2010

Skeletons in the cupboard? The highs and lows of Christ's geneology.

I'm one of those people that usually skips over the long lists of genealogies, places or tribes when I'm reading the Bible. But for some reason - maybe I was thinking that there must be SOME reason for them being there - this Christmas I took a closer look at the first chapter of Mathew which begins: "A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham:"

We have two genealogies of Christ from the gospels - one in Mathew and one in Luke. On the surface, these introductions to the birth of Christ provide him with an impeccable lineage from King David to both Mary and Joseph as his biological and 'legal' parents respectively. Indeed it was because they were of the 'house of David' that they visiting Bethlehem ("Royal David's City") for the Roman Census at this particular time.

The other high points of this lineage include the central biblical figures of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Judah (one of the 12 sons of Jacob from whom the Jews - the tribe of Judah - were descended). Also we later have King David, and his son King Solomon (who built the first temple in Jerusalem) as further links in a continuous family tree down to Joseph. The later names do differ between the two genealogies (at least for the generations between King David and Mary and Joseph), as it is believed Mathew traces the legal descent of the house of David using only heirs to the throne, while Luke traces the direct bloodline of Joseph back through David to Abraham and further still back to Adam.

Given that Mathew's listing emphasizes Jesus's birthright to the throne of David, it is interesting that he alone chooses to include four women (besides Mary) in the family tree. Why these four women? The reasons may be shocking to some. All four were of 'low' estate - either they were not Israelites, or they were involved in adulterous relationships with the men in the genealogy, or both. There can be no reason to think that Jesus
was who he claimed to be simply because of a sort of high spiritual or royal inheritance.

The four women mentioned in Mathew's account are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba (the wife of Uriah the Hittite).They are certainly worth knowing about.
1 This is the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham:
2 Abraham was the father of Isaac,
Isaac the father of Jacob,
Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,
3 Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar,
Perez the father of Hezron,
Hezron the father of Ram,
4 Ram the father of Amminadab,
Amminadab the father of Nahshon,
Nahshon the father of Salmon,
5 Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab,
Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth,
Obed the father of Jesse,
6 and Jesse the father of King David.
David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife,
[Mathew, Chapter 1, 1-6]
If you think the Christmas story is a sanitized one, prepare to be shocked by the story of these four female 'ancestors' of Jesus. But I should state the obvious - there is no suggestion that the blame for the adulterous side of this story is to be laid exclusively on the females!

the mother of Perez

Tamar was a Canaanite woman married to Judah's son Er. When Er died, his brother Onan refused to take Tamar as his wife as was the custom. When Onan also died, Tamar returned to her Canaanite home with Judah's promise that if she lived as a widow she would have his third son Shelah when he was old enough. But this promise was broken, and when Tamar heard that her father-in-law, Judah, was coming to shear sheep near her own father's house she took off her widow's clothes and disguised herself with a veil at the roadside. The unabridged version of what happened next is from Genesis, chapter 28:
15 When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. 16 Not realizing that she was his daughter-in-law, he went over to her by the roadside and said, “Come now, let me sleep with you.”

“And what will you give me to sleep with you?” she asked.

17 “I’ll send you a young goat from my flock,” he said.

“Will you give me something as a pledge until you send it?” she asked.

18 He said, “What pledge should I give you?”

“Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand,” she answered. So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him. 19 After she left, she took off her veil and put on her widow’s clothes again.

20 Meanwhile Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite in order to get his pledge back from the woman, but he did not find her. 21 He asked the men who lived there, “Where is the shrine prostitute who was beside the road at Enaim?”

“There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here,” they said.

22 So he went back to Judah and said, “I didn’t find her. Besides, the men who lived there said, ‘There hasn’t been any shrine prostitute here.’”

23 Then Judah said, “Let her keep what she has, or we will become a laughingstock. After all, I did send her this young goat, but you didn’t find her.”

24 About three months later Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant.”

Judah said, “Bring her out and have her burned to death!”

25 As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. “I am pregnant by the man who owns these,” she said. And she added, “See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.”
26 Judah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not sleep with her again.
27 When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. 28 As she was giving birth, one of them put out his hand; so the midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his wrist and said, “This one came out first.” 29 But when he drew back his hand, his brother came out, and she said, “So this is how you have broken out!” And he was named Perez. 30 Then his brother, who had the scarlet thread on his wrist, came out. And he was named Zerah.
And so we have "Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar".

Rahab the
mother of Boaz

Rahab is commonly referred to in the New Testament as 'Rahab the harlot'. It was in her house or inn built into the walls of Jericho that the Israelite spies stayed, and when Joshua took the city in the first days of the conquest of Canaan, her life was spared because of her help in hiding them. A scarlet rope hanging from her outer window in the walls - the same window that the spies made their escape from - was the given signal. Joshua honoured the promise and the Canaanite Rahab, who now confessed her faith in the Hebrew God, married into the Israelites. In the New Testament, the writer of Hebrews says:
30. By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the people had marched around them for seven days. 31. By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.[Hebrews, Chapter 11]

And in James, chapter 2, we have:
25. In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies?
And so we have "Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab".

Ruth the mother of Obed

Ruth was a Moabitess who married two Jewish farmers despite the statute in Deuteronomy explicitly forbidding Jews to accept Moabites into their assembly.

In the first place she married Mahlon, one of the sons of Naomi and Emilelech in her own land, but when both her husband and father-in-law died, she returned to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law Naomi. Here she met her second husband Boaz, who was a near-relative of Naomi's, while gleaning in his fields at harvest-time.

There is no implication of immorality in the familiar story of Ruth, quite the reverse in fact, but a parallel is frequently drawn throughout
the Old Testament between the sins of adultery and intermarriage with gentiles.

And so we have "
Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth".

Bathsheba the mother of Solomon

Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, a foreign mercenary fighting for King David in the Ammonite war about 1000 bc. When the war was in full swing, David watched from his palace as Bathsheba bathed on the roof of her house below. He sent for her to spend the night with him, and when she fell pregnant, David sent orders for Uriah to be placed in a battle position so that he would be killed. Guilty of murder and adultery, David eventually married Bathsheba after the baby of their first union had died.
Bathsheba then had four sons to David, including Solomon who was to succeed to his throne.

And so we have "
David was the father of Solomon whose mother had been Uriah's wife".

What does all this mean? The stories of these four women, all gentiles, who are included in the genealogy of Jesus Christ, maybe draw a cautionary line in the sand about the veneration of his lineage - not just in terms of the morality of key figures like David and Judah - but more significantly about the Kingship of Christ over Jews and Gentiles alike. One thing seems clear; these four women were deliberately selected for inclusion for SOME purpose - and one that would have been transparent to Mathew's contemporaries.


  1. One of the reasons the gospels ring so true with me is that they are NOT hagiographies, but unvarnished accounts of real life, warts and all. The Twelve are often shown as "Three Stooges" -type characters, or fearful, or prideful. Here Matthew - writing to Jews - includes these women who would be well-known to students of the Hebrew Bible. It makes Matthew's account ring with authenticity: "Jesus is a descendant of these women, whether it disgusts you or not..."

  2. Yes Gary, Mathew's account does "ring with authenticity". Maybe even with purpose - for it seems to deliberately point out the shortcomings as not even naming Bathsheba or calling her David's wife, but the mother "who had been Uriah's wife". And I don't think the OT accounts are any less direct about the male ancestors - certainly Jacob is a liar and deceiver, David is a murderer and adulterer, and Judah ran after shrine prostitutes - not to mention Abraham who tried to pass his wife Sarah off as his sister twice to save his own skin. Strangely I find it all quite comforting to know that these men or women were far from perfect and were, like myself, undeserving of God's call. But that's what grace is - isn't it amazing?

  3. "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good pleasure in men."

  4. They have been linked with righteousness - "She is more righteous than I"; faith - Rahab is the last in Hebrews 11, the faith chapter; love - Ruth and Naomi, and then Boaz; and peace, as Bathsheba is the mother of Solomon, which means peace.

    But the Scriptures never hide things - even things we'd like to hide!

  5. David,
    Yes, I always had a positive feeling about these 4 women, and the other passages you quote show that the Bible always interprets itself! Just by co-incidence I had it pointed out to me last week that these 4 women were all gentiles - Tamar and Rahab were Canaanites, Ruth a Moabite, and Bathsheba the wife of Uriah the Hittite. Mathew's account of the nativity with the story of the Wise Men from the East also emphasises that Jesus was born not only to be King of the Jews, but of all Mankind.

  6. I suspect, too, that the lineage of Jesus is to show us that we aren't to be prideful about OUR OWN lineage, either. I know a widow of a pastor who brags that she is decended from "pure seed." She then proceeds to hide half of her ancestry.

  7. Gorges,
    Good point, we only chase the bits of our family tree that make us look good - sometimes its a pretty hopeless task!