The odd ancestry of Jesus, part 1

It’s often said, ‘We can choose our friends, but not our family’. True. And most families include strange people. Like crazy uncle Henry who tells inappropriate stories at family gatherings. Or cousin Maureen who’s been married six times, divorced five times, and everyone’s guessing how long husband number six will last. Or like younger brother Bert who’s rarely talked about and rarely seen because most of his adult life has been in government funded accommodation. (No-one likes to use the word ‘prison’.)

Every family’s different, but it’s not unusual for some of our ancestors or present-day relatives to be odd.

Jesus certainly had odd characters in his family line. In this blog I’ll select three of Jesus’ ancestors listed in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 1, verses 1-16. (Some will know that another genealogy appears in Luke’s gospel. I’ll explain at the end why the two genealogies are not identical.[1]) This time, then, three ‘odd’ people among Jesus’ ancestors, and in the next blog another three.

Does ancestry sound boring or irrelevant? I promise these people are neither. Most of these stories are shameful and shocking, more so than many modern dramas. But it’s significant – even encouraging – that they are part of Jesus’ ancestry.

Three short notes before starting.

  1. At the time Jesus was born, genealogy was hugely important. Matthew began his gospel like this: ‘This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham…’ and what follows is a list of who is the father of whom. His story of the events leading to Jesus’ birth doesn’t start until verse 18. Why open with a genealogy? It was because Matthew was writing his gospel for a Jewish audience, and to a Jew a person’s family line was of utmost importance. To show your impeccable descent as a true Israelite was the most significant part of your ‘résumé’. So Matthew lays out Jesus’ ancestry.
  • Several of the names in Matthew’s list are people we regard as heroes of the faith, both Jewish and Christian. People like Abraham, Ruth, David are great names to have in your ancestry, but they are also ‘complicated’. That doesn’t make them any less great. After all, who’s not ‘complicated’? It’s fascinating and comforting that people who did seriously wrong things were and are heroes of faith.
  • It’s all right to talk about this. It’s tempting never to admit our heroes were flawed, or abused, or had problematic backgrounds. But: a) Matthew’s readers knew all that already; b) We need to know that God uses flawed and complicated people. There have never been any perfect saints.

Now on to the first three ancestors of Jesus.

1. Abraham

This is the man with whom God made a special covenant, that he would have a son, and down subsequent generations would come offspring as many as the stars in the night sky. (Genesis 15:4-5)

Abraham believed God, and in most things tried to go God’s way.

But he didn’t get everything right. In particular he made two enormous mistakes.

First, he handed over his wife Sarah to other men. Sarah was very beautiful, and other men wanted her. To save his own skin he pretended she was only his sister, and allowed them to take her. That happened not just once but twice.

The first time was in Egypt. (Genesis 12) Not knowing Sarah was already married, Pharaoh took Sarah into his harem. In punishment God inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household. Then it was discovered that Abraham had hidden the fact that Sarah was his wife. Pharaoh was furious and drove Abraham and his people from the land.

You’d think Abraham would learn his lesson. He didn’t.

In Gerar, again he said that Sarah was his sister. (Genesis 20) Abimelek, the king, took Sarah into his harem. But Abimelek had a dream in which God told him Sarah was a married woman, and he was saved from disaster because he had not yet had sex with Sarah. Abimelek was incensed with Abraham for deceit that almost brought destruction on him and all his people. Abraham protested she really was his sister. That was true. Abraham and Sarah had the same father but not mother, so she was his step sister. But she had become his wife, and from the start of their wanderings he had pressured her into concealing they were married in order to keep Abraham safe.

There was nothing good or acceptable in Abraham’s self-preserving dishonesty. He harmed many, none more than his own wife.

Second, Abraham had sex with another woman so he could have the son he was promised. Years went by and Abraham questioned whether God would keep his promise of an heir. He and Sarah were getting old, and Sarah had never become pregnant. It seemed Abraham would never have a son.

Then Sarah made a suggestion. She had a young Egyptian woman called Hagar as her slave. Sarah told Abraham he should have sex with her so they would have a son through her. Hagar would be a surrogate mother for their child. (Genesis 16)

It’s hard to know what Abraham thought but there is nothing in the story to say he protested or had to be pressurised. Because Hagar was a slave she had no choice and she became pregnant.

None of the three characters in the story behave well after that. Hagar seems to have taunted Sarah because she’d conceived when Sarah couldn’t. Sarah was upset. She complained to Abraham who took a hands-off approach by telling her to do whatever she pleased. Sarah then treated Hagar so badly she ran off into the desert. An angel told her to return, which she did, and gave birth to a son who was called Ishmael.

Abraham and Sarah struggled on. But they’d virtually given up on having a son of their own. Even when an angel of God promised them again that they will have a son, Sarah laughed to herself: ‘An old woman like me? Get pregnant? With this old man of a husband?’ (Gen.18:12, as paraphrased by The Message)

Not a polite reaction to an angel’s promise, and not at all full of faith. But God’s promise was stronger than this couple’s failure of faith. Abraham and Sarah eventually had their son, and he was given the name Isaac. (Genesis 21)

Abraham – the father of the nation Israel – was undoubtedly a great man. But, perhaps like most great men, he was far from perfect. And he was not the only odd ancestor of Jesus.

2. Jacob

Here is another very significant person in the story of God’s people, the man who wrestled with God and was then renamed Israel. (Genesis 32: 27-28)

But Jacob’s earlier history is not good. (Genesis 25) The problems centred on the relationship between Jacob and his brother Esau. The two boys were twins. Esau was born first, so number one in line to his father Isaac.

In many ways these brothers were very different from each other:

  • Esau was an outdoorsman, rough skinned and covered in hair. Much loved by his father, Esau was the hunter-son who brought Isaac the venison he liked.
  • Jacob was domesticated, a smooth skinned man. He was also the favourite of his mother Rebekah.

Jacob, it seems, hated being second, and, as grown men, his resentment came to a head in two sad and bad actions.

First, Jacob took advantage of Esau to ‘steal’ his birthright from him. Because he was born first, Esau would inherit the whole ‘family estate’ when his father, Isaac, died. That was his birthright. Until, that is, Jacob went to work.

Here’s what happened (as told in Genesis 25:29-34). Jacob – the stay-at-home son – had cooked some stew. Esau, meanwhile, had been wandering the hills, likely hunting for game. He’d been away for some time, and arrived home famished. The smell of the stew hit his nostrils, and he begged Jacob for the food. Jacob shrugged and said something like, ‘I’ll give you stew if you give me your birthright’. Esau – not thinking straight – replied he was about to die from hunger so what good was the birthright to him. Jacob seized the moment. He made Esau swear an oath giving his birthright to Jacob in exchange for bread and lentil stew. It was all over in a moment. That done, Esau sat down and ate his meal.

There’s no doubt Esau was extremely thoughtless and foolish. He showed an impulsiveness which also got him into trouble on other occasions (such as marrying Canaanite wives, which was forbidden).

But Jacob is not guiltless. He did nothing illegal, but his actions were far from commendable. It was ridiculous to take his brother’s birthright in exchange for a bowl of stew. Who would think anyone would sell his inheritance for one plate of food? Jacob would. He could imagine that Esau would be weak-willed and reckless enough to do exactly that. So Jacob took advantage of Esau when he was vulnerable and got away with it, but his actions were utterly unworthy.

Second, Jacob deceived his dying father with help from his scheming mother. The years have rolled on and the twins’ father Isaac is now old and weak. (Genesis 27) He is blind, and recognises his sons only by touch and smell. The day he will die approaches, so Isaac decides the birthright must now be passed from father to son.

But to which son? It’s not clear that the deal done earlier between the twins is valid. It certainly isn’t recognised by Isaac because he is ready to bestow his blessing on his older son, Esau.

Isaac tells Esau to hunt game and prepare a tasty meal just the way he likes it, and then he will give him his blessing. That ‘blessing’ will be the formal moment of passing the inheritance.

Esau’s mother Rebekah overhears, and swiftly gives instructions to Jacob. He is to fetch two goats, bring them to her, and she’ll prepare a meal the way Isaac likes it. Jacob will serve the food, and he will get the blessing. Jacob points out the obvious, that if Isaac feels him his smooth skin will immediately reveal that he is not Esau. His mother has a solution to that. When the meal is ready, she dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothes and covers his hands and his neck with rough goatskins.

Jacob goes to Isaac and blatantly lies to his father: ‘I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me. Please sit up and eat some of my game, so that you may give me your blessing.’ (Genesis 27:19)

Isaac isn’t so sure – how could Esau be back so quickly? Besides the voice sounds like Jacob, not Esau. But he feels his hands and they are rough. Again he asks if he is really Esau, and Jacob replies ‘I am’. (v.24)  There is one final check. Isaac insists on being kissed by his son, and when he is close he smells his clothes. They smell as Esau’s clothes. And so Jacob gets the blessing of his father, and therefore inherits everything including rulership over his older brother.

Of course the deception is known as soon as Esau returns, but it’s too late. The blessing Isaac has given Jacob cannot be withdrawn. And so the course of history is changed.

There are ways in which the outcome was good. Esau would have had many failings, and children with Canaanite wives would have spoiled the whole line of descent from Abraham. But does the end justify the means? Is blatant lying for self-gain ever right? That is what Jacob did. He achieved his position as an ancestor of Jesus by deceit.

3. Tamar  

Tamar’s story (Genesis 38) could be a script for a scandalous TV drama. The details are unpleasant but important. I won’t be more explicit than the Bible is! Here are the core facts:

  • Judah – Jacob’s son – selected Tamar to be the wife for his son Er.
  • Er was a bad man, and died before they had children.
  • Onan, Er’s brother, was then obliged by ancient custom to marry Tamar and have children with her to continue his brother’s line.
  • But Onan didn’t want responsibility for children who would not be his, so he never completed sexual intercourse with Tamar to make sure she did not become pregnant. That was wrong – it defeated the purpose of kinship marriage – so he came under God’s judgment and died.
  • Judah told Tamar to stay a widow until his next son, Shelah, grew up. She accepted that, returned to her father and lived as a widow waiting to be married to Shelah.
  • A long time passed, which included one event and one non-event. The event was the death of Judah’s wife. The non-event was the promised marriage of Tamar to Judah’s son Shelah. The boy was now a man – Tamar should have been given in marriage to him – but Judah did nothing, a great wrong by the customs of the time.
  • Tamar heard Judah was on his way to another town, so she disguised herself as a prostitute with her face covered and waited at the side of the road. Judah solicited her services, and had sex with her without knowing it was Tamar, his daughter-in-law.
  • Tamar was given a pledge of Judah’s seal, cord and staff as guarantee of later payment for her services. She then disappeared from that place, and Judah could not find the woman to make payment and get his seal and staff returned. He forgot all about her.
  • But Tamar was now pregnant. After three months that was reported to Judah – he was outraged and ordered that Tamar be burned to death. As she was being led out to die, Tamar sent Judah, her father-in-law, a message. ‘I am pregnant by the man who owns these… See if you recognise whose seal and cord and staff these are.’ (Genesis 38:25) 
  • Judah recognised them – they were his – he was the father of her child. And he admitted: ‘She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah’. (v. 26) He had realised she’d trapped him into sex with her only because he had failed to give his last son to her as a husband. Tamar was pardoned because she was the wronged person; Judah was far more a sinner than she was.
  • A few months later Tamar had twins, the older called Perez and the younger Zerah. And Perez – the child of a sexual encounter with a ‘prostitute’, a father-in-law / daughter-in-law liaison – is listed as an ancestor of Jesus. (Matthew 1:3)

Tamar is a victim in this story, a victim of bad husbands and a faithless father-in-law. Her abandonment left her desperate. Her story is told to point out the strangeness of the circumstances that led to the birth of Perez, the ancestor of Jesus. There are times when out of terrible wrong God brings something good.

And that brings me to one closing point. Whether it’s because of personal failure or dreadful circumstances, we may think our lives are beyond God’s reach. Or that what we’ve done means we’re no longer of any use to God. These stories say otherwise. Through people like these and circumstances like these, God does his work. He’s not thwarted, not stopped, not diverted. He is always at work for good, no matter what.

For many people the poem ‘The Old Violin’ by Myra Brooks Welch[2] is a favourite. It’s a copyright item so I can’t reproduce it here, but one of many sites where you can read it is this one:–Old-Violin.html.

Here’s its story. An old violin looked so battered and scarred it seemed worthless to the auctioneer. Sure enough opening bids were low. But then an old man came forward, picked up the violin, tuned it, and played the most beautiful music. When he laid it down, the auction restarted, but now the bids were in the thousands. Some asked what had changed the violin’s worth. And the answer was, ‘The Touch of the Master’s hand’. So the message of the poem is the touch of the Master’s hand transforms lives which are battered and scarred. They seem worthless. Then God takes hold of that life, and the value changes immeasurably.

May that give you hope.


[1] People often puzzle that the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1:1-16 is not the same as in Luke 3:23-38. It is not one hundred per cent clear, but almost all scholars agree that Matthew gives the legal ancestry of Jesus, therefore traced back from his legal father, Joseph, while Luke gives us Jesus’ ancestry through his one biological parent, his mother Mary. Naturally they are not the same, though overlap with several people (most notably King David).

[2] At some point, Welch’s poor health could have ended her writing. But it didn’t. From Wikipedia: ‘Welch was disabled in a wheelchair from arthritis, which later caused her to not be able to play music, such as the organ which she used to play. Her hands were disabled, but she wrote poems on a typewriter by pressing the keys with pencil erasers, despite the pain that it caused.’