The Messy Lineage of Jesus

Isaiah 11:1-5

Out of the stump of Jesse will grow a shoot—
    yes, a new Branch bearing fruit from the old root.
And the Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
    the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
He will delight in obeying the Lord.
    He will not judge by appearance
    nor make a decision based on hearsay.
He will give justice to the poor
    and make fair decisions for the exploited.
The earth will shake at the force of his word,
    and one breath from his mouth will destroy the wicked.
He will wear righteousness like a belt
    and truth like a belt around his waist.

* * * * *

Matthew 1:1-17

An account of the birth of Jesus the Messiah, 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 Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab,

and Aminadab 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 King David.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, 

and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah,

and Abijah the father of Asa, and Asa the father of Jehoshaphat,

and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, 

and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz,

and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh,

and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah,

and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.


And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel,

and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel,  and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud,

and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 

and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim,

and Achim the father of Eliud,  and Eliud the father of Eleazar,

and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 

and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.

* * * * *

It’s an odd way to start a story, isn’t it? All those names. Not exactly scintillating story-telling. Not something you’d linger over, savor, roll around on your tongue. It’s certainly not a reading you’d ever give a liturgist unless you wanted to torture them. [Nor would I knowingly give this to a colleague to have to read!!] Which is why we hardly ever preach on passages like this.

But these genealogies are scattered all over scripture; these who-begat-whom lists of names.  

It reminds me of my Southern friends in my study group; someone’s name would come up in conversation, some saint from one of their churches, and sooner or later someone would ask, “Who’s his Mama?” It’s all about where you came from. It’s who your people are.

Matthew is telling a story. It’s the story of Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah. And it’s important for people to know where he came from. Who his people are. His credentials, his lineage. That’s what these long lists spell out.

Matthew does it with a story-teller’s flourish – three sets of names, with fourteen generations each. “Fourteen” is kind of a magic number in Hebrew scripture. “7” is a number of wholeness, even holiness – think of the seven days of creation. And 14, well, it’s twice as good as seven. So fourteen generations from Abraham till you get to King David, then fourteen from David to the Exile to Babylon, then fourteen more till Jesus, the Messiah. He is the end result of all this perfection.

Except for the bits that aren’t so perfect… we’ll come back to that in a minute.

It starts out with Abraham, of course, the great-great-granddaddy of God’s people. In the Exodus story we heard the phrase “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” over and over again.  It was Jacob and his family who went down to Egypt in the first place. It’s the Exodus story that takes their descendants back to the Promised Land, until, finally, they have their own king, the best one being David. So Abraham to David, fourteen generations.

Matthew’s readers had grown up Jewish, and they would have known most of these names already. And those names would have brought up memories. As Tom Long puts it, when someone said, “Solomon was the father of Reheboam…” they would remember his wealth and his wisdom. And the name Rehoboam would bring to mind his military ambitions, his stubbornness, his troubled reign.

“On and on continues the list of names, some famous, some not as well known, but many of them… calling forth well-loved and often-told stories.”[i]

Which is why what Matthew does in this genealogy is so provocative. It’s hard for us to see it – most of these names mean nothing to us. But there are five women’s names in this list.  Almost all the names are men - in a patriarchal, patrilinear culture, it’s the ‘fathers’ who are listed. But there are five women’s names in Jesus’ lineage. And not just any women. Five troubling women…

Let me tell you a little about their stories.


The first one is Tamar. Judah had twin sons by Tamar, it says.  Now Tamar is a story you don’t tell at the Thanksgiving table. More like at the bar after you’ve laid back a couple of rounds of Scotch.

See, I don’t know if you know this, but Tamar was Judah’s daughter-in-law. That’s right, his daughter-in-law. Let that sink in. Of course, Tamar’s husband had died by then, so it wasn’t like she was still married. Actually, that was part of the problem. After Tamar was widowed, her father-in-law Judah was supposed to let her marry one of his other sons. Somebody was supposed to step up to support her, and it should be family – the next of kin. And Judah hadn’t done right by her. So Tamar took things in her own hands.

See, she found out Judah was going to be in her neck of the woods, but she knew she couldn’t confront him directly. That would go nowhere. So she disguised herself as a prostitute. Can you imagine? He had no idea who she was. She even made him hand over his signet – his personal seal – until he sent a lamb as payment. Well, afterwards, she disappeared, and he couldn’t get his signet back. Three months later Tamar shows up pregnant, and hands over Judah’s signet. I guess he had to take care of her then. “Judah had twin sons by Tamar.” Yeah, that’s not the half of it.

Bet you didn’t know that story.

And she’s not the only name Matthew drops like a bomb. The second woman he names is Rahab. Rahab turns up when the Israelites are trying to get into Canaan – the Promised Land - right after Moses died. They weren’t sure what they were getting into, so Joshua sent two spies to scope it out. When they snuck into the city, Rahab helped keep them safe. You may not have heard of Rahab, either, but Matthew’s first readers would have known. She was a Canaanite, for heaven’s sake. She wasn’t even a Hebrew! Oh, and she happened to be a prostitute. “Rahab the harlot,” they called her.

Now why would Matthew bring her up?

The third woman he mentions is Ruth. You’ve probably heard of Ruth - she has a whole book written about her. She was another foreigner - a Moabite. She ended up in Israel because she followed her mother-in-law back after they were both widowed. She could have stayed in Moab and married again, but she was loyal to Naomi so she went with her. It was a risk - no pension, no support services in those days. You had to depend on family, and Ruth didn’t have any. But they were resourceful, those women. Naomi helped Ruth figure out how to seduce her relative Boaz so he would marry her. Apparently it worked. Ruth was King David’s grandma.

The fourth woman, no name, just “the wife of Uriah”? What a way to put it. That would be Bathsheba. The great King David, taking somebody else’s wife. When he got her pregnant he tried to cover it up by bringing Uriah back from battle and giving them a little time together. But Uriah wouldn’t leave his troops. So David did something really low – he sent Uriah to the front-line where he was sure to be killed. When Uriah died, then King David married Bathsheba. And Bathsheba eventually had Solomon. That’s some story.

Tamar, who tricked her father-in-law; Rahab, the harlot; Ruth, seducing Boaz; Bathsheba, somebody else’s wife.

Then the fifth woman.

Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Why on earth would Matthew start his story this way?

Because Jesus’ story starts out with scandal, too. Mary and Joseph are engaged, and Mary turns up pregnant. Joseph knows he isn’t the father. That’s where this story goes next…  

It’s like Matthew’s going out of his way to say, you know, this pedigree isn’t some blue-blood, pure-blood thing. You don’t need to do to find the skeletons in this closet. I’ll point them out to you.

It’s messy, isn’t it? God’s work in this world is always in the messy reality of families, with all our complicated stories. Jesus is the Son of God - but absolutely human, too. Born into a messy, complicated family, with messy, complicated lives. He is from Jesse’s lineage – but there is so much more to the story, and Matthew insists that we know it. Jesus’ life grew out of a very human past, with villains and saints and heroes, and even courageous women whose stories need to be told.

And that’s part of God’s gift, too.

When I was working on this sermon I came across a Facebook post from an old friend, Mark Davis. His church is spending Advent listening to the stories of these four women in Jesus’ lineage. He’s lifting them up:

“Tamar gets justice,” he writes. “Rahab is faithful. Ruth makes a compassionate decision, and Bathsheba exercised power.”

It’s seeing these women in a whole different light – with their power, their tenacity, their faith, and their voice.

So maybe – just maybe – we can start to see our own stories in a different light, too.

I think that’s the invitation to us.

See, this life of faith we lead is not about purity. Following Jesus is not about pretending everything is clean and tidy and neat. This is about how our stories are changed because of his story. And we start to see our own stories in the light of God’s goodness and grace, God’s transforming love that takes it all in.

I don’t know what your story is – your lineage, your family, your past. All I know is this: there is a place for you in the family of God. All the messiness and beauty and weakness and strength – all of it. God is redeeming it all.

We all belong here – sinners and saints – here, at this table of grace.





[i] Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 8.