By Matt Proctor
One of my favorite Christmas pastimes is sitting with my kids and looking through family photo albums. Almost every picture sparks a story about their ancestors:
• “There’s your Great-Grandpa Weede. Oh, he loved to joke. One time, he painted faces on his two big farm-fuel tanks. One had a smiley face that said, ‘I’ve got diesel.’ The other had a frowning face that said, ‘I’ve got gas!’
“The whole county knew his laugh . . . and his faith. He prayed every day for every grandkid by name.”
• “And there’s your Granny Ruth. A strong, energetic lady, and the glue that held the big Bunton farming clan together. For 20 years on her tax forms, she wrote ‘matriarch’ on the occupation blank!
“But always a servant. She was still teaching the special-needs adult Sunday school class at 84 years old.”
The pages turn, the stories flow, my kids learn what kind of people they come from—the good and the bad—and they discover that God’s hand has been writing our family story for generations.
Boring List or Interesting Photos?
Judging from the Scripture readings in the average Christmas Eve service, the Christmas story begins for many Christians at Matthew 1:18. We tend to skip the genealogy in verses 1–17, afraid the droning drumbeat of forty-some generations of Jesus’ ancestors will put the congregation to sleep. It’s not exactly a gripping introduction to Matthew’s book, and besides, it doesn’t seem that important.
But are we missing something? Second Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching,” so could there be something to learn from this ancestral roll call? Could there be gospel in this beginning to the Gospel?
Matthew’s readers thought so. For his Jewish audience, the genealogy was an immediate attention-grabber. The famous Hebrew historian Josephus starts his own autobiography by tracing the names of his ancestors—Jewish audiences love these lists! So for Matthew’s readers, it is not simply an ancient record of unknown dead guys. Instead, almost every name triggers stories, emotions, or warm memories. This is not just Jesus’ backstory, after all. This is their entire nation’s history, their own personal lineage.
It feels to them like sitting on the couch with the family photo album, as dad shows the pictures and tells the tales. And what a collection of famous photos it is! On the title page of Jesus’ family album, Matthew tells his audience this is the story of the Messiah, and they lean forward to the edge of their seats. As Matthew begins to turn the pages, they can’t help but point at the pictures:
• “Look! There’s Abraham.” Matthew’s audience knows Messiah would be Abraham’s seed (Genesis 22:18).
• “And there’s Judah!” They know the prophecy in Genesis 49:10, “The scepter will not depart from Judah . . . until he to whom it belongs shall come.” Their excitement is palpable now.
• “And here’s David!” Messiah, of course, would be descended from Israel’s greatest leader (2 Samuel 7:12).
By the time Matthew gets to the last page of the album—with the photo of baby Jesus in Mary’s arms—his readers know: this child is indeed the Christ, the Promised One of God.
God Has a Perfect Master Plan
They also notice something else important. Matthew is an accountant by trade, and accountants are by nature a little
obsessive-compulsive. They like things neat and tidy. (Do you know why accountants wear gray suits? To bring a little color into an otherwise drab existence.) Accountants deal in numbers, and they always want the books to balance.
But Matthew is also a preacher, and this careful arrangement is not just an attempt to compulsively “balance the books.” This is a sermon. What message is Matthew preaching?
God is in control.
Matthew shows his audience something remarkable. Though history may seem hodge-podge, random, and meaningless in its endless cycle of births and deaths, it is in fact under the careful guiding hand of God. In his genealogy, the organizationally oriented accountant shows his audience that there is order in the midst of the chaos, a divine plan patiently at work over millennia, quietly but relentlessly moving world events toward a single moment—the arrival of the Savior.
In his summary in 1:17, mathematically minded Matthew “shows the believer that, when you ‘add up’ the meaning of history, the ‘bottom line’ is Jesus Christ.”1
This neatly organized photo album reminds the readers that, even when he seemed absent, God had been at work all along. He is ever-present, he is sovereign, he is faithful to keep his promises, and his hand has been writing their family story for generations. God is still in control.
That’s good news.
God Has Some Seriously Messy People
But Matthew’s not done preaching, and in putting together this album, the policies-and-procedures-loving tax guy does something that is definitely not by the book.
He includes women.
Though not completely unprecedented, it is still highly unusual for women to appear in a Jewish genealogy. Imagine picking up a West Point yearbook from 1950—when the U.S. Military Academy was still all-male—and scattered among the black-and-white photos, you find four female cadets. You would be confused, even shocked. Who are these women, and how did their pictures get in this book?
And the women he chose! If Matthew just wanted female representation in his album, he could’ve chosen the honored Hebrew matriarchs—Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah. But he didn’t.
Instead, it’s as if Matthew has rifled through all the old boxes in Israel’s attic, until he finally dug out the four most shocking family photos he could find. These women are all tainted, and his readers can hardly contain their dismay:
“Why is there a picture of Tamar?” In Genesis 38, when Judah fails to provide her a husband as promised, Tamar seduces her former father-in-law. She ends up pregnant with twin boys, making Judah both their father and (legally) their grandfather!
“I can’t believe he included Rahab!” Yes, she acted courageously to hide the Israelite spies in Joshua 2, but that didn’t change her occupation. She was a prostitute, a common hooker.
“Ruth? OK, but. . . .” No, Ruth wasn’t like the two women just mentioned, but sexual sin still stained her family history. As a Moabite, she was the product of Lot’s incest with his daughter, prompting God to command that no Moabite may enter the assembly of the Lord, “not even in the tenth generation” (Deuteronomy 23:3).
“Not Bathsheba too!” This picture seems completely unnecessary, a gratuitous reminder of King David’s greatest failure. Why would Matthew insert a photo of the infamous adulteress—a pre-modern Monica Lewinsky?
These women are not squeaky clean Evangelical role models, like Beth Moore or Anne Graham Lotz. You won’t see them on TBN . . . but you might see them on TMZ! They’re notorious—a hot mess—and that’s why you don’t meet a lot of girls today named Tamar, Rahab or Bathsheba. What exactly is Matthew up to here?
God Uses Messy People in His Master Plan
He’s still preaching, that’s what. Matthew includes these four women—each with a messy backstory—to communicate a powerful message: God loves using imperfect people to accomplish his perfect plan.
When President George W. Bush gave the 2001 commencement address at Yale University, he began, “To the A students who are graduating with honors, I say: well done. And to the C students I say: you too can be president of the United States!” God has a long history of using both A students and C students, the eloquent and the slow of speech, the dressed-up and the messed-up, the weak and the strong (1 Corinthians 1:27).
You see that in these four ladies. God chooses them to help save the world, and their contribution is not simply giving birth (as significant as that is). No, each lady is an active agent in God’s plan.
Tamar has to trick Judah into fathering the next generation of the Messianic bloodline.
Rahab has to covertly redirect the king of Jericho’s soldiers to protect the Israelites.
Ruth has to take an aggressive step to get Boaz moving toward the wedding altar—proposing to him herself!
Bathsheba has to make a shrewd, even dangerous, political move to protect Solomon’s right to the throne.2
Each woman takes some kind of risky initiative to accomplish God’s purposes and, in so doing, keeps the redemption story alive. As one scholar puts it, “Israel’s history would have been cut short prematurely had these women not seen it as their task to map out alternative pathways to the future.”3 To Matthew’s readers, these are surprising heroes, because . . .
In all four stories, God uses women instead of men. In Jesus’ day, a woman was a second-class citizen, more property than person. A common rabbinic prayer began, “Blessed art thou, O God, for not making me a Gentile, slave or woman.” In the Greco-Roman world, there were about 140 men for every 100 women. Why? What happened to the other women? They had been left to die as infants, viewed as having little value. Women were literally disposable . . . but not to God.
In the book Children’s Letters to God, one young girl wrote: “Dear God, are boys better than girls? I know you are one, but try to be fair.” In Jesus’ genealogy, God answers the question. He wants to use all of his children to do his work, not just the boys.
In all four stories, God uses Gentiles instead of Jews. Tamar was an Aramean, Rahab a Canaanite, Ruth a Moabite, and Bathsheba was a Hittite, at least by marriage, if not by blood. Though Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience, he pointedly inserts these ladies at the beginning of his book to foreshadow the message at the end of his book: God is not just out to save the Israelite nation.
Shocking as it may seem to Jewish ears, God wants disciples from “all nations,” every ethnic group on the globe (Matthew 28:19). And in the very bloodstream of the Messiah, we can already see God gathering the nations together in Christ. God wants to use all of his children to do his work, not just the Jews.
In all four stories, God uses “scandalous” sinners instead of respectable ones. Of course, everyone is a sinner, but in these four ladies, God picks some of the most scandalous sinners he can find. (Even though Ruth is not as egregious a sinner, her story still carries the stigma of sin.) The stain on these ladies’ lives is clearly visible, but God chooses messes to bring his Messiah. He wants to use all of his children to do his work, not just the respectable ones.
In August 2001, at a jazz club in New York City, world-renowned trumpeter Wynton Marsalis was playing a song called “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You.” The audience was mesmerized, when suddenly the sound of a cell phone sliced through air, marring the drama of the moment. A jazz critic in the audience scrawled on his notepad, “MAGIC, RUINED,” and people began to chatter.
But at that moment, the masterful Marsalis improvised. He played back the notes of the cell phone ring tone—first slow, then fast, and in different keys—and when all ears were back on him, he seamlessly transitioned the silly cell phone tune back to the ballad and finished the song. In the words of the jazz critic, “The standing ovation was tremendous.”
The message of these four surprising females in Jesus’ family photo album? God can take weaknesses—even failures—and weave them seamlessly into the song of salvation. He turns messes into masterpieces, and that’s good news.
This Christmas, don’t skip Matthew’s genealogy. There is gospel in the beginning of this Gospel.
And who knows? Someday, when a future generation is flipping through a photo album of God’s children doing his work in the world . . . maybe they’ll find your picture too.
1Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 22.
2Read Genesis 38; Joshua 2; Ruth 3; and 1 Kings 1.
3R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 38.
Matt Proctor serves as president with Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri.