The odd ancestry of Jesus, part 2

This blog is about a prostitute, a widow, and an adulterer who killed to keep his affair secret. What they have in common is that they are ancestors of Jesus.

Last week’s blog described three of Jesus’ odd ancestors. Now we have another three who are at least their equal. After telling their stories, I’ll sum up the situation of all six.

1. Rahab

Who would write a novel in which the local prostitute would be key to a victory for God’s people over Jericho and entry into the Promised Land? But that’s what happened. Here’s Rahab’s story (from Joshua, chapters 2 and 6).

Moses had rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and, after years of wandering, brought them to the border of the Promised Land. Then Moses’ days were over, and Joshua became the new leader. His job was to take the people forward into their new homeland.

But it really was new to them. This generation of Israelites had never lived there. They’d little idea about the terrain, or the opposition they’d face. So Joshua sent two spies to scout out the land, and especially the strategic city of Jericho. They slipped quietly into Jericho, but where could they stay? The one door that would open to them without any questions belonged to a prostitute called Rahab.

But the spies’ entry into Jericho wasn’t a secret. Perhaps they were seen or news of their arrival leaked; whichever, the King of Jericho was told there were spies in the city. What’s more, he knew where they were and soldiers were sent to Rahab’s house to capture them. But Rahab hadn’t put the spies in her usual beds (thankfully), but hidden them on her roof among stalks of flax. ‘No spies here,’ she told the soldiers. She agreed men had come, but she’d no idea who they were, and they didn’t stay long in Jericho. They left just before the city gate was locked for the night. ‘That was only a short time ago,’ she continued, ‘so if you hurry you may catch them.’ Rahab must have been a good liar because the searchers immediately headed off into the countryside looking for the spies.

But those soldiers might come back, so Rahab had to get the spies out of the city. She got the men down from the roof. ‘I know that the Lord has given this land to you,’ she told them. (Joshua 2:9) She’d heard how God had dried up the Red Sea for the Israelites to cross, and about the victories they’d won in battle during their travels. These things had turned her heart to God ‘for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below’ she said. (Joshua 2:11)

Rahab then negotiated a deal. She would help the spies escape from Jericho but, ‘please swear to me by the Lord that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you … spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them … save us from death.’ (Joshua 2:12-13)

The spies swore her family would be kept safe when Israel captured the city. That deal done they had to escape quickly. Rahab’s house formed part of Jericho’s wall, so, using a rope, she lowered the spies down the outside of the city wall. And off they went.

In due course the supposedly impregnable city of Jericho was conquered and its citizens killed, but the oath the spies had sworn to Rahab was honoured. (Joshua 6:22-25) She and her family were spared, and they became part of the people of Israel.

Eventually Rahab married Salmon of the tribe of Judah, and gave birth to Boaz. Many generations later Matthew includes her name in the genealogy of Jesus. (Matthew 1:5)

Three things, however, make it surprising that she’s included in the family line of the Messiah.

  • She’s a woman – not the only one in the genealogy of Jesus but there are very few (only five, including Bathsheba who is not named). Predominantly the genealogy is about the fathers in Jesus’ legal line of descent (40 men listed).
  • She had been a prostitute. By the time the spies came, she may have come to faith in God and changed her work. But prostitution can cast a long shadow over someone’s life, so she might well not have been named.
  • She was not born an Israelite, and the significance of that will be clear with our next character.

None of these three factors would be welcome in a Jewish genealogy, but Matthew includes Rahab. He’s clear that she is one of Jesus’ ancestors.

2. Ruth

Ruth’s story is a favourite for many – because of her love and loyalty toward her mother-in-law Naomi, and the romance and marriage to wonderful, caring Boaz. (All told within the four chapters of the book of Ruth.)

It’s all true, but often left out is what came before, and that’s a story of tragedy upon tragedy.

There was famine in Judah. People were desperate for food, so a man called Elimelek decided he would take his family to Moab. That meant a journey east, approximately to where Jordan is today.

Escaping to Moab was an odd choice: a) to get there meant a walk of some 2000 miles; b) much of Moab lay on a high plateau, so overall the journey was an uphill climb; c) the family might not be welcome because the Moabites had their own gods, and were frequently in conflict with the Israelites. Some consider Elimelek’s decision to go to Moab faithless. The family’s home was Bethlehem, and they could have stuck it out through the famine, trusting God to preserve them. Instead they went to live among hostile foreigners.

Despite these factors, Elimelek takes his wife Naomi, and sons Mahlon and Kilion, on that long journey, and they settle in Moab.

But they aren’t settled for long because Elimelek dies. That makes Naomi a widow, a vulnerable status in those times and in that place. Thankfully her sons are now old enough to marry, which they do to Moabite women: Orpah and Ruth. The family unit is again secure, and all seems well for the future.

But their security doesn’t last. About ten years after going to Moab, both Mahlon and Kilion die. Now not only the father is gone; the sons are gone too.

Three widows are left. With no protectors and no providers, they’re in danger of assault and starvation. Moreover, Naomi is now depressed, convinced God has abandoned her: ‘the Lord’s hand has turned against me!’ (Ruth 1:13)

She sees only one option – to return to Judah. She knows people in Bethlehem, and they may take pity on her. And news has reached her that the famine there is over; good harvests are being gathered in again.

So, all three women begin the arduous journey. But Naomi thinks while she walks, and decides there is no good future for Orpah and Ruth in Judah. Moabite women will not be welcome. She tells her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab where they can find new husbands.

Orpah accepts the advice and leaves. Ruth refuses and speaks what are now famous words, ‘Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.’ (Ruth 1:16)

Naomi and Ruth trek all the way to Judah. There’s shock at Naomi’s appearance. She’s certainly older and probably worn down by bereavement and by hunger. They arrive just as the barley harvest is beginning, so Ruth heads to the fields to glean grain, an accepted practice of picking up stalks the harvesters have left behind.

She meets the owner of the field, Boaz. He is a near relative, and might be entitled to take her in marriage within the rules of those times. One night she lies down at his feet, thus offering herself to him as a wife. His heart melts. And – after some careful manoeuvring – Boaz is able to marry her.

God’s hand is in all this, but so is Naomi’s. She’s the one who told Ruth to lie down beside Boaz, knowing very well what might follow. Yet it seems that Ruth and Boaz genuinely fall in love. In time along comes their son Obed. Eventually Obed is the father of Jesse who is the father of David, the shepherd boy who later became king.

Who would not want this wonderful love story of Ruth and Boaz in their family line?

The answer may surprise you: no Israelite would. Why not? A true Israelite sought a pure line of descent, and that was impossible with a Moabitess as an ancestor.

Moab had a track record of being hostile to Israel, and the nation was seen as immoral and idolatrous. Therefore there was to be no association with their people. Among the laws given by Moses is this: ‘No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation.’ (Deuteronomy 23:3)

That’s why no Jew would want a Moabitess in the family line.

But Ruth the Moabitess is in the family line of Jesus. She had accepted Naomi’s God as her God so was welcomed into the community of those who worshipped the Lord. She would be a near ancestor of Israel’s great king, David, and an eventual ancestor of Jesus, God’s Messiah.

3. David

There’s no doubt David was a great king over Israel. Most would say that David was Israel’s greatest king.

And many children grow up hearing the heroic story from David’s youth, how the shepherd boy would not let the army of Israel be shamed by the Philistine giant Goliath, went out to fight him armed with only his sling and a few pebbles, and killed Goliath with his first stone. (1 Samuel 17) That boy eventually became king over Israel, and in many ways was God’s delight. But David was far from perfect. (As described in 2 Samuel, chapters 11 and 12.)

One night David was restless. He got up from his couch, and walked around on the flat roof of his palace. A woman in a nearby house caught his eye. She was bathing, possibly naked and certainly very beautiful. David wanted to know more about her, and learned her name was Bathsheba. She was the wife of Uriah, one of the soldiers fighting with David’s army (where David probably should have been as well). David wanted Bathsheba. That would be a terrible wrong. A king might have many wives, but not someone else’s wife.[1] But Uriah’s absence was David’s opportunity. He had Bathsheba brought to him, slept with her, and then sent her home again.

Maybe David forgot about his one-night-stand. But Bathsheba couldn’t because their liaison had unintended consequences. The most immediate was that she had become pregnant.

Bathsheba sent David word that she was expecting a child. Her husband couldn’t be the father because he was still with the army. ‘But,’ David thought, ‘perhaps I can make him believe he’s the father.’ He gave orders for Uriah to be brought back. He came straight to the palace. David asked him how his commander, Joab, was faring, how the soldiers were, and then how the war was going. When their meeting was over, David told Uriah to go home. His purpose, of course, was for Uriah to go to Bathsheba and make love to her, so he and everyone else would think the child was his. But Uriah wouldn’t go to his house. David made him drunk, thinking he’d then wander home. Still he didn’t go. More than once he resisted the King’s urging that he should spend the night with Bathsheba because he would not take advantage of being at home while all his fellow soldiers were fighting and had no such comforts. He told David: ‘How could I go to my house to eat and drink and make love to my wife? As surely as you live, I will not do such a thing!’ (2 Samuel 11:11)

Tragically Uriah’s sense of honour became his death sentence.

Next day David gave Uriah a secret message to take to Joab, the army commander, and then sent him back to the front line. The note he carried, but did not see, read:  ‘Put Uriah out in front where the fighting is fiercest. Then withdraw from him so he will be struck down and die.’ (2 Samuel 11:15)

There was nothing ambiguous in that command. Joab positioned Uriah in the front line where the enemy were strongest, and then abandoned him and those near him to die.

Bathsheba mourned her husband’s death, but once that time was past David had her brought to the palace and married her. Bathsheba had a son. But God was angered by David, and sent the prophet Nathan to make David see the great sin he’d committed. David recognised his wrongdoing and found forgiveness. But that forgiveness of sin did not remove its consequences.

The prophet had two more messages from God for David. First, his future would be one of constant strife. ‘Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’ (2 Samuel 12:10)

The second message was even more chilling: ‘because… you have shown utter contempt for the Lord, the son born to you will die.’ (2 Samuel 12:14)

The infant did become ill. David prayed and fasted – he was in total despair – but the baby died. And never again did David have peace at home or with neighbouring peoples.

But, in time, David and Bathsheba had another son whose name was Solomon. God loved and blessed him. Eventually he succeeded David as king and generations later Jesus became a descendant of both of them.

Of the six odd ancestors of Jesus we’ve considered in both blogs about Jesus’ genealogy, David disturbs me the most.

But now it’s time to sum up and draw lessons from these blogs.

Here are our six odd ancestors.

Abraham – saved himself by giving his wife away to other men, and then had sex with another woman to have the son he was promised.

Jacob – blatantly lied to his father and cheated his brother so he could have top position in the family.

Tamar – pretended to be a prostitute to trick her father-in-law into sex because he’d failed to give his son as her husband.

Rahab – a prostitute who hid Israelite spies and helped them escape.

Ruth – an immigrant from one of the nations Judah most hated, and who, in theory, should never have been allowed to marry into God’s people.

David – guilty of adultery, and then having the husband he cheated deliberately killed in battle.

Never suggest the Bible hides cold hard facts! And never suggest its heroes are flawless.

To be fair, I consider only the men in the list as flawed. The women are different. Tamar was badly maltreated, and she used desperate measures only because she was, indeed, desperate. Rahab had an undesirable past, but, when it most mattered, she chose a better way even though that way risked death for her and all her family. Ruth also chose a better way, but one that took her from her own people to a country where she might be despised. She risked all to support her mother-in-law.

I can’t find excuses for the wickedness of any of the men, though marvel how God worked through their flaws and sins to bring about his purposes. Ultimately they are significant figures along with the women in the family line of Jesus.

So, two final lessons.

What’s ahead of you is more important than what’s behind you

Many of us – probably most – have things in our past which we regret. Some find it hard to move beyond what they’ve done or what’s been done to them. They think their lives will always be troubled, or they can never be forgiven.

If anyone could have reacted like that, it would have been the Apostle Paul. In his pre-Christian days he hunted down some of the first believers in Jesus, several of whom died. But that cruelty didn’t define his future. He became a follower of Jesus, and an apostle (messenger) to many nations. He wrote that he forgot what was behind and strained forward to what’s ahead. (Philippians 3:13) He was picturing an athlete, in the final stretch of his race, totally focused on running flat out to the finishing line ahead.

That image – leaving the past behind, and giving yourself entirely to what’s ahead – describes how we should all live.

God brings both dark and light threads together in a perfect tapestry

An old illustration says that if you look at the back of a tapestry the threads seem to go in all directions; there’s no design to be seen. But turn it round, look at the front, and those threads are exactly where they’re meant to be, forming a wonderful picture.

God took some odd ancestral threads, including some very dark shades, and brought them together perfectly at the birth of his Son into the world.

He did that by his Spirit and by using the one other named woman in Jesus’ genealogy, his mother Mary. She was young, probably no more than 15 or 16 in age. But, instead of being a rebellious teenager, she accepted God’s will for her life which was to give birth to the Son of God.

Mary did no wrong in becoming pregnant, but initially her husband-to-be thought she had, and likely many others always believed she’d been immoral. Mary accepted the risks to her reputation and to her life in order to follow God. She’s not an odd ancestor; she’s the ancestor who gave herself to God and then to God’s will for her life, whatever that would mean, whatever that would cost. Mary is a woman with a deep faith and sincere humility.

And so God brought everything to the exact place he wanted. The wrongs and difficulties of past generations didn’t count now. It was time for Jesus to be born. Nothing was easy yet. The journey Joseph and Mary made to Bethlehem was exhausting. At first there was no accommodation there, even for a woman about to give birth. And I’m sure Jesus’ birth was as painful for Mary as birth is for any woman. But the Son of God was born. Soon the visits of shepherds and wise men confirmed the world-changing significance of what had happened.

But the family weren’t safe. They had to flee to save Jesus’ life from Herod’s orders that all male infants born in Bethlehem should be killed. Joseph, Mary and Jesus became refugees in a foreign land. But wherever they went, God was always there, always watching over his plan for each person and for his Son.

The message I hope we see in the ancestry of Jesus is, indeed, that God is always near, always guarding his people and his purposes. That’s been true down the ages, and also for the life of each person now. Which includes ours.

There is much for which to be thankful at Christmas.


[1] That was punishable by death. Deuteronomy 22:22: ‘If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel.’