Why start the Christmas story with a list of names? Hardly the way you or I would start a biography. Put it in an appendix at the end, perhaps. Not Matthew. Rather than start at verse 18 (‘Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way…’), which is where we probably would prefer to start in our Christmas carol services, he starts with Jesus’ family line.
Some people quite enjoy digging back into their family line. It can be a fascinating business. A few years ago we had Thanksgiving Dinner with some American friends in Switzerland who could trace their generations back to the Mayflower. It turns out that there may be millions of Americans who can trace their family back in the same way, but still. It’s a good pedigree to bring out at a Thanksgiving dinner.
Matthew starts his gospel the way he does because from the start he wants to make it clear who he is talking about: Jesus, the Christ, the heir to David’s throne and descendent of Abraham.
But one of the striking things about the genealogy is the fact that Matthew includes the names of five women. Mary may be easiest understood since she was Jesus’ mother. But what about the other four? Jesus’ Old Testament grandmothers.
It was not unprecedented, though it was unusual, to include women in genealogies. So why did Matthew do this? What point is he trying to make?
By highlighting four Old Testament women, Matthew is not afraid to remind us that God’s plan and God’s work include both men and women. While it is true that there would hardly have been a genealogy had it not been for mothers, Matthew didn’t actually need to mention any of them. Perhaps it is no surprise then that in a culture where some rabbis judges it a waste of time, Jesus is prepared to speak to women like the Samaritan at the well or Mary who sat at his feet. However, if this had been Matthew’s point, why select the particular women he did? Why not include a venerable matriarch like Sara?
A look at the ethnicity of the women shows that at least three of them were Gentiles; if Bathsheba was Jewish, she had certainly married a Hittite. Ruth was a Moabite and they were rank outsiders as far as Israel was concerned. Far from descending from a pure line of true blue Hebrews, the line of God’s King included Gentiles, just as his kingdom would. You don’t have to go too far into Matthew’s gospel to discover that among the early worshipers were several ‘wise men’ from the East. In Matthew 8 Jesus both heals the servant and commends the faith of a Roman soldier. In chapter 15 he rescues the daughter of a Canaanite woman and in so doing again affirms the faith of a Gentile. And at the end of Matthew, as Jesus commissions his followers, he sends them to the nations. His Kingdom is not limited by race or flag.
In addition to their ethnicity, a closer look at the women’s stories reveals that there was a fair amount of scandal in their stories. While they may have undergone some degree of rehabilitation in the minds of many by the time that Matthew was writing (Rahab is presented as an example of faith in both Hebrews and James), three of them had some sordid stories in their past. However, if the main point is that God included notorious sinners in the line of Messiah, would the presence of Manasseh’s name in the list not have served the purpose? It’s also worth noting that in the cases of Tamar and Bathsheba the biblical text places more responsibility and culpability on the shoulders of the men (Judah and David) involved.
Which leads to another observation. The four women lived at four different periods in Israel’s history and each period saw sin and unfaithfulness on the part of God’s people. Tamar’s story belongs to the time of the Genesis patriarchs, Rahab at the time of Joshua and the conquest of the Promised Land, Ruth at the time of Judges, and Bathsheba at the time of the kingdom. Tamar’s story implicates Judah who is forced to admit his own unrighteous behaviour. Rahab’s decision to entrust herself, her family and her future to the Lord is in contrast with the unbelieving generation who had been left behind in the desert. Ruth’s simple decision that Naomi’s God will be her God came during the chaotic period of the Judges. Bathsheba’s story, not least the mention of Uriah, her honourable husband, throws the spotlight on the failure of David. Yet the story of the Old Testament is that not even the unfaithfulness of his people could stop the fulfilment of God’s plan, even if it meant including Gentiles, some of whom Scripture commends for their character and their faith.
The story of Jesus’ family line is the story of a somewhat motley crew of people who each became part of God’s unstoppable plan. Is that not a preview of his kingdom? For it is not limited to those with impeccable pedigree or who pledge allegiance to a particular flag. Nor is its ultimate success threatened by the limitations and lapses of its citizens.
If the story of supernatural birth to which Matthew is about to turn is not only deeply unusual, but also carries its hint of scandal (even Joseph was confused), the stories to which he has alluded in his genealogy have helped prepare the way.