The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
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 Nahshon, and Nahshon 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 1:1-6
The gospel of Matthew begins with one of those genealogies in the Bible that, if I’m honest, used to bore me when I was younger. When reading the Christmas story in Matthew, my eyes would just skip over this part of the text, getting down to the good stuff: angels, wise men, refugees, and mad kings. You know, the good stuff- full of intrigue, scandals, and adventure. What I didn’t realize at the time is that there’s more to be found in these six verses, seemingly mundane, about the scandal of fallen mankind and the beautiful grace of a loving, saving God than almost anywhere in Scripture.
In the ancient world, genealogies established belonging and helped define one’s place in the world. In cultures that were much more community and family oriented than ours, like ancient Israel, who your people were explained and defined you. And, genealogies were almost always patronymic, meaning passing the lineage through the father. They almost never contained references to women, through whom no inheritance nor property rights flowed. And, so it’s really unusual that there would be four women named in the genealogy of Jesus.
What’s more, these were no ordinary women. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (“the wife of Uriah”) were women of tragedy and brokenness. Tamar was Judah’s daughter-in-law, granddaughter by marriage to Jacob, Israel. Her first husband, Judah’s son, passed away, so she was given in marriage to his younger brother. When he too passed, tradition and law required that she be given in marriage to the next youngest brother. Yet, Judah denied her that right, refusing to allow the marriage to his youngest son. The effect of this breach of law was that Tamar was now destitute, disenfranchised and marginalized, with no rights and no inheritance.
The other women in Jesus’ bloodline fared no better. Rahab was a foreign prostitute, living in Jericho and used by men to meet their needs. Ruth’s Jewish husband also died, leaving her similarly destitute and without rights, a foreigner in her culture, the lowest of the low. And, Bathsheba was taken from her home, her husband killed, and made to have sex with David, whether with or without her consent, and pregnant on top of it all.
None of these women were innocent in their own right, yet all were victimized by the people and culture around them. As little girls, none of them would have dreamed of or chosen the lives they had, and none of us would wish these lives on our daughters: broken, torn, alone, left with nothing.
Yet each of these women trusted in God to rescue them, and acted on that trust. When the spies of Israel came to Jericho under cover of darkness to scope out the city, Rahab welcomed and harbored them. She did so, turning her back on her own people to embrace the people of God, because, somehow, she had heard of this God and His deeds, and now believed He was the Lord of lords. And, so did these other women, in ways that to our ears seem scandalous and aggressive, but were acts of abandon from people who had no other recourse than to trust in God as their redeemer. Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and had sex with Judah so that she would have the justice he had denied her. Ruth, following the counsel of her mother-in-law, Naomi, laid at the feet of Boaz, asking desperately that he save her and Naomi. And, Bathsheba put forward her son, David’s youngest with no traditional rights to the throne, as king, taking her life in her hands.
All of these were acts of desperation, none particularly dignified. They were all messy, pretty sketchy, victimized people who had nothing else except a desperate faith that the God of Israel would come to their aid and have mercy on them, giving them justice. And, God answered. Judah recognizes Tamar as entitled to the rights of his household, declaring her more righteous than he. Rahab and her family are rescued when Jacob and the Israelites miraculously conquer Jericho. Rahab later marries a Jewish man of means (ever wonder how that happened?) and becomes the mother of Boaz. That same Boaz redeems Ruth and Naomi, marries Ruth, and she gives birth to King David’s grandfather, Obed. Finally, Bathsheba’s son, Solomon, becomes king, and she becomes queen mother to the most prosperous era in Israel’s history.
Beauty from ashes. The women in Jesus’ past were broken and marginalized, in some cases left for worse than dead. But, God, through cataclysmic grace, brings forth redemption, both individually and through their bloodlines, the promised Messiah on Christmas Day. The gospel written in perfume, tears, and blood.
God’s grandmothers teach us that no one is beyond His hand, and the way He uses our past not only molds and shapes our current, redeemed reality, but serves as the soil from which He brings forth blessing, our own and countless others. Our past, our dysfunction, those things that bring us pain and shame are never a disqualifier for God to write a different story, to use us greatly in ways that changes our realities, and someone else’s, forever.
I love that God boasts about the types of people in his family history we would probably just as soon leave out of ours, that he’s happy to be aligned and related to these broken, beautiful souls. It gives me hope that He’s proud to be my brother, too. Because, let’s face it: we’re all pretty sketchy, and desperately need Christmas.