The Forgotten Chapter of the Christmas Story & the Women in Jesus' Family Tree
- Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Jesus had a human family. He had a mother and a father and a history. He's not some fictional character—like the gods on Mount Olympus. No, he was a real person born into a real family. Galatians 4:4 teaches us that behind it all stood God superintending the whole process.
Do you remember the TV mini-series Roots? It was the story of how Alex Haley, a black man, set out years ago to discover his family's history. All he knew was that his family had descended from an African slave named Kinte who landed in America at a place called "napolis." He also remembered bits and pieces of the stories his aunts and grandmothers used to tell him when he was a child. With that meager information, he began to put the story together. Across the generations, a few syllables of the original African language had been repeated. He went from one linguist to another, repeating those few syllables, asking if they knew what language they came from. No one seemed to know, until one day he met someone who identified the words as belonging to a tribal language from the small West African country of Gambia. After more research, he discovered that "napo-lis" stood for Annapolis, Maryland, entry point for thousands of African slaves. When he went to that area, he found the name Kinte in the breeding records of a family that had owned slaves a century and a half earlier.
Eventually Alex Haley made the trip to Gambia. There he visited tribe after tribe, listening to the tribal historians tell their stories. These were old men who had memorized hundreds of years of birth, death, marriage and war. One day he sat for hours listening as a man told the story of his tribe. "So-and-so was the first. He married so-and-so. They had so-many children and lived so-many years." On and on it went, the story of one African tribe spanning the centuries. Then it happened: "So-and-so married so-and-so. They had a son. In such-and-such a year he was taken away and never seen again." What was the name of the son? Kunta Kinte. The year was 1752. Alex Haley said, "I had what they call a peak experience." It was one of those moments of revelation that you have once or twice in a lifetime. He said, "I realized then that I had roots. I had history. My family came from somewhere."
That's what Matthew 1 is teaching us. Jesus had roots. He had a history. He had a family. He came from somewhere.
C. It's a chronicle of the grace of God.
If you study these names in detail, it's almost as if God has pulled together a rogue's gallery. I've already said that we don't know about every person on this list. But of the ones we know about, nearly all of them had notable moral failures on their spiritual resumes. For instance, Abraham lied about his wife Sarah. Isaac did the same thing. Jacob was a cheater, Judah a fornicator. David was an adulterer and Solomon was a polygamist. Manasseh was the most evil king Israel ever had. And on and on we could go.
This is not a list of plaster saints. Far from it. Some weren't saints at all. The best of these men had flaws and some were so flawed that it is impossible to see their good points.
How does that show the grace of God? Simple. It shows the grace of God because people like this make up Jesus' family tree. A murderer is on the list, a fornicator is on the list, an adulterer is on the list, a liar is on the list, a deceiver is on the list. Think about that. Most of these men were very great sinners.
II. Four Unusual Women
That brings me to my second major observation about this list: It includes four women. That in itself is unusual because when the Jews made a genealogy they normally didn't include women on the list. They just traced the family tree from father to son. But Matthew 1 includes four women in Jesus' family tree. They are Tamar (3), Rahab (5), Ruth (5), Bathsheba (6). All of them are very unlikely people. With the exception of Ruth, none possessed an exemplary character.
Her story—unknown to most of us—is found in Genesis 38. Tamar was the daughter-in-law of Judah who was the son of Jacob, grandson of Abraham. All you need to know is that Judah had a son named Er who married a Gentile woman named . . . Tamar. Er died and his brother Onan rose up to do his brotherly duty by marrying Tamar. But he, too, suddenly died, leaving Tamar both husbandless and childless—a kind of twin curse in those days. So because she was impatient and unwilling to wait for God to supply her need, she hatched a scheme to cause her father-in-law Judah to sleep with her. Her plan was simple: Dressing up as a shrine prostitute, she seduced Judah into sleeping with her, whereupon she became pregnant and gave birth to twin boys—Perez and Zerah. When she confronted Judah with the truth, he said (rightly), "She is more righteous than I." Indeed, no one looks good in this story, which reeks of greed, deception, illegitimacy, prostitution, sexual lust, and even the hint of incest. Whatever you can say about Judah (and it's not very good), you cannot by any stretch of the imagination make Tamar look good. She's only less-bad than her father-in-law. But what she did was evil, wrong and immoral. She truly acted like a prostitute even if she wasn't one by trade. That's all we know about Tamar. There really isn't a happy ending to this story. She's just a footnote in biblical history—and an unsavory one at that. The story of her encounter with Judah is a story of human frailty and weakness—of the sinfulness of human flesh. That people like Judah and Tamar would be included in the line of the Messiah sends a strong message about the pure grace of God. Neither one deserved it, but both are on the list.
We pass now to the second woman on the list—Rahab. Most of us know more about her. In fact, she is almost always mentioned by a certain phrase in the Bible, a phrase most of us know by heart: Rahab the harlot. But that's not all. Rahab was also a Canaanite—who were the hated enemies of Israel. Her most exemplary deed was the telling of a lie. Think about that. A Harlot, a Canaanite and a liar. You wouldn't think she would have much chance of making the list, but there she is.
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