The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham…
And Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram.
…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: 1; 3; 5-6).
Genealogies were a big deal to Jewish people in Bible times (still is!). A story recorded in the book of Ezra illustrates how crucial it was for a Jew to be able to trace his or her ancestry.
During the return of the exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem and Judah to rebuild the house of God, they took a census according to their clans. Certain persons, purporting to belong to the priesthood family were excluded from serving in the house of God, because they could not prove their history and lineage within the tribe of Levi.
And from among the priests:
The descendants of Hobaiah, Hakkoz and Barzillai (a man who had married a daughter of Barzillai the Gileadite and was called by that name).
These searched for their family records, but they could not find them and so were excluded from the priesthood as unclean. The governor ordered them not to eat any of the most sacred food until there was a priest ministering with the Urim and Thummim. (Ezra 2: 61-63).
Writing his gospel for a primarily Jewish audience, Matthew labours to show that Jesus was rightly descended from David, and the promised Messiah who would assume the throne of David forever (2Sam. 7:12; Ps 89:3-4; 132:11). He starts his genealogy from Abraham, because, to a Jewish audience, tracing the family history of Jesus back to Abraham was critical to establishing this claim. A long time ago, God had promised Abraham that through his seed, the whole world would be blessed (Gen. 12:3; 22:18; Acts 3:25; Gal. 3:8, 16) and this was a well-known fact. Thus, Matthew takes pain to detail the long line of descendants from the time of Abraham till the birth of Jesus.
The Jews prided themselves in the fact that they were God’s special people. They so cherished this special status that they reviled all the other nations, calling them dogs (unclean) (Matt. 15:26). As Paul notes in Romans 9:4-5, “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.”
There are, however, quite a few names Matthew mentions in his genealogy that are quite stunning, even to a 21st century audience; namely Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and the wife of Uriah. This is because, these names represented a dent in the character of their patriarchs and heroes. They were a painful testament to the fact that even the very best of our heroes are human, and are flawed with weaknesses. They also included some who were non-Jewish by birth.
Matthew could have spared us the fine details of their inclusion in the lineage of Jesus, and merely mentioned the patriarchal figureheads. But he doesn’t. God, in His grand plot of redemption, chose to not bypass the weakness of man, but rather condescended so low as to use even their sins, and their mistakes, to fulfil His good purposes. This article considers how these women feature in the plot of Christmas and what we can learn from them.
Judah, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, had three sons by a Canaanite woman. Their names were Er, Onan and Shelah. Tamar was the wife of the firstborn, Er; a marriage that Judah himself arranged. For an act of wickedness Er did of which we are not told, God took his life before he had any children by Tamar. In order to preserve the family inheritance, which was passed down through the line of the first-borns, Onan was required to marry Tamar, following the Levirate marriage custom (Deut. 25: 5-10; Ruth 1: 11-13; 4: 1-12). He did this half-heartedly. Knowing that any children born to Tamar by him would technically bear his brother’s name, Onan selfishly refused to fulfil in private what he had agreed to do publicly, and so he too attracted God’s wrath and was killed. Fearing for his last-born son’s life, Judah sends Tamar packing to her family under the pretext that she will marry Shelah someday. But that day never comes. Tamar, therefore, decides to take matters into her own hands, and disguised as a prostitute, Judah has an affair with her that results in the birth of Perez.
We see in this passage the patriarch Judah at his worst. Here we see a picture of the depravity of man. The sinful nature on full display is selfish, hypocritical and capable of unimaginable vices. In spite of the Judah’s flaws, Jacob prophesied that “the sceptre will not depart from Judah” (Gen. 49:10). Against all odds, David’s dynasty, and that of Christ was going to come from the line of Perez.
Rahab was a prostitute from the city of Jericho. If we were to nominate one person from all of Jericho to be spared from annihilation during the war against Joshua’s men, we probably would not have considered her. She was the last candidate you might expect to see God’s hand in the invasion of her city. Notwithstanding, she gladly received God’s people into her home, hid them from capture, and aided their escape from Jericho when they came to spy out the land. The writer of the book of Hebrews tells us that she did these by faith (Heb. 11:31), and was saved when the city tumbled under the roar of the mighty army of Israel.
Have you ever done something that you thought was beyond forgiveness? Like Rahab, I have been the recipient of God’s forgiveness for sins that I thought were beyond redemption. But the gospel attests to the fact none of us can fall too far that God’s grace cannot reach us.
We will recall the story of Ruth, the Moabite. For one, she was not a Jew, and would have been excluded from the covenant of God with Abraham, going by her natural circumstances. When her husband died, she chose to accompany her mother-in-law to her home in Bethlehem, preferring to serve the God of Israel as her God for as long as she lived.
The story of Ruth buttresses the fact that God is not a respecter of persons; but accepts all who come to Him in faith.
The wife of Uriah
What shall we say of Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah?
You will remember how David schemed to get her. Not only did he commit adultery, but he also covered up his sins and added murder to the list, just to fulfil his lustful desires. Consistent with His nature, however, God forgave him when he confessed and owned up to his actions.
Later on, he wrote,
“For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up[b] as by the heat of summer. Selah
I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” (Psalm 32: 3-5).
At the start of his prayer of confession, he exclaims, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.”
You too can be a part of God’s plot for His kingdom
Like Tamar, Ruth, Rahab and Bathsheba, God desires to include each of us in His grand family tree. Far more than an Abrahamic heritage, being a part of God’s family is to be treasured above any earthly family lineage because it holds value not only in this world, but also in the world to come. Whereas being of Abrahamic descendant qualifies one to be a Jew, it takes the new birth to be made part of God’s family. All who come to God in faith through Jesus Christ are adopted into God’s true Israel, as spiritual descendants of Abraham (Rom. 9: 6-8; Galatians 3: 6-9).
If we look closely in redemptive history, we will notice that God has always used people who felt they were too far below the mark to receive His love. But such is the nature of grace—it is undeserved! Paul observed this so aptly when he said,
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1Cor.1:26-30).
Christmas is a reminder of God’s offer of forgiveness in Christ Jesus. He calls one, and He calls all. Let this be the Christmas when you give God the present of your heart.