You Think Your Ancestors are Embarrassing? Look at Jesus’s
In one recent year, 7,000 users “discovered unexpected paternity or previously-unknown siblings.” Two families who prided themselves on their respective Irish and Jewish heritage discovered that their patriarchs had been mistakenly switched at birth at a hospital in the Bronx in 1913. That’s why the genetics company 23andMe greets customers with a series of ominous warnings. You may learn things about your ancestry you do not want to know.
What would Jesus ben Joseph unearth if he were to join up? Thanks to the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, we know the answer. He’d find adultery, incest, and non-Jewish ancestry that would make any first-century Pharisee squirm.
And yet, that’s part of the Good News. No matter messy and embarrassing our family tree, God is always directing us to Himself.
The Embarrassing Family Tree
Matthew 1 offers Jesus’s ancestry through Joseph, his legal and presumed father. After a nod to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, things quickly turn sour.
“Judah [was] the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar.” Judah, a son of Jacob, solicited a woman he presumed was a prostitute. She was actually his daughter-in-law Tamar in disguise. When he finds she is “with child by harlotry,” he demands she be burned. Then she reveals the signet and cord he had left behind. Not exactly the kind of ancestral anecdote one tells the grandkids.
Only a few generations later, we read of “Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab.” Rahab was another harlot, living in the city of Jericho. The Hebrew people aimed to conquer it after forty years of wandering in the desert. Rahab wasn’t just prostitute. She was a Canaanite.
Further sexual immorality and miscegenation follow. Rahab’s son Boaz weds Ruth, a widowed Moabite, one of the peoples the LORD had ordered Israel to destroy. King Solomon is the issue of a scandalous relationship between King David and Bathsheba, the wife of one of David’s most faithful servants whom David has killed. Indeed, this episode is so controversial Matthew neglects to mention the woman’s name, instead labeling her the ignominious “wife of Uriah.”
After that there is a long line of Judahite kings — Rehoboam, Abijah, and others — who wreck the kingdom. They do it through a combination of immorality, idolatry, and disastrous political decisions.
Few people would want such an ancestral line broadcast for public consumption. Yet with arrestingly reckless abandon, the ancient Church placed Matthew’s genealogy at the very beginning of the New Testament. There will be no ghosts in the closet of Jesus of Nazareth.
Still the Son of David
Even with such an embarrassing family tree, we see the messiah. In spite of his heritage, Jesus the son of Joseph is the Son and heir of David. As the son of Joseph, a descendant of David, who lived in Nazareth (lit. “Branch Town,” or town of the Davidic branch), he had the rights of inheritance. For him, that meant he fulfilled the Bible’s messianic promises.
Moreover, to make the point clear, Matthew’s genealogy ends with “all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.” Fourteen is the sum of the Hebrew letters of the name “David” — a literary and mathematical tool common in Hebrew literature.
The Messiah’s humiliating ancestry tells us that God is present in the very midst of sin and shame. He can use even the worst human sins — incest, adultery, murder — to bring about good. We worship a “God who writes straight with crooked lines.” There is hope for everyone when God’s only begotten son has such an imperfect pedigree.