The X-Rated Gospel

The X-Rated Gospel

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Published:
March 31, 2016

‘The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the Son of Abraham.’ That is Matthew chapter 1, v. 1—not exactly riveting stuff, is it? One might have thought that the ‘begots’ were an Old Testament thing—but here we are, at the very start of the New Testament, supposedly the new religious order and what do we have? Matthew 1, v.2: ‘Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot Judah and his brothers.’

Most people just pass over the first seventeen verses of Matthew completely and skip down instead to Matthew 1:18: ‘Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows’. Not only is that a familiar story and the start of an exciting story—but, regardless of its qualities, it is a story. Even if it were not the Christmas story, most people would still prefer to begin the Gospel of Matthew and the New Testament with the 18th, not the 1st, verse of its first chapter, simply because any story would be preferable to that seemingly endless recitation of who was whose son.

However, I am basing this commentary on Matthew 1:1–17, and I do so because of two convictions. The first is that what we read in 2 Timothy 3:15–16 is absolutely right: that it is the ‘Holy Scriptures which … make [us] wise for salvation through faith … in Christ Jesus’ and that ‘All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man [and woman] of God may be complete’. My second conviction is that there is something profitable there; there is something which can guide us to our loving Lord Jesus Christ and so to salvation: that it is, in fact, appropriate that the first of the Gospels, the books of ‘good news’ about Jesus and the salvation he offers, begins with ‘The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ’—for embodied even in this is the truth that God is Love.

Biblical scholars regard Matthew’s gospel as being the most concerned of the four gospels with showing the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah, the King of the Jews.[1] One Adventist scholar observes that Matthew’s gospel ‘is in a real sense a Jewish document’, written to deal ‘with fundamental questions of Jewish identity’, including the issue of whether Christ and the Christian movement fulfilled ancient prophecies about the Messiah.[2] So remember, this is a big part of Matthew’s agenda in compiling this family tree of Jesus. Hence, he is only going to mention in the genealogy people he thinks significantly support his purpose in writing.

Not every culture constructs family trees the way we do in Western society today.Note that Matthew lists forty-two generations between Abraham and Jesus, neatly (almost miraculously) divided into fourteen between Abraham and David, fourteen between David and the exile to Babylon, and fourteen more from the Babylonian captivity to Christ.  Now, such a remarkable division—with each section of generations being twice the mystical number of seven—may engender suspicions that the whole thing is a fake—a put-up job to make Matthew’s claims on Jesus’s behalf more convincing.  These suspicions seem to be confirmed when we turn to Luke chapter 3, verses 23–38, for there, in Luke’s version of the pedigree, we find fifty-four generations listed between Abraham and Jesus—and what is more, the names are not even the same from King David on.  So what’s going on? 

Well, the ancient Israelites and other middle eastern peoples often described a man as the ‘son of’ somebody who was simply his ancestor, rather than his actual father.  In 1 Samuel 2:28, Aaron is referred to as the father of Eli, though in fact he was not even his grandfather, and it is clear from the rest of the passage that father actually mean’s ‘father’s house.’ In Chronicles, the author observes of a number of kings of Judah, that they had not served the Lord as faithfully as had their father David. So, when Matthew described the genealogy of Jesus, he was describing not every son of every father, but rather key links in the blood-line: there were fourteen notable generations between Abraham and David, likewise between David and the exile; that is what Matthew is trying to say.  And by linking Jesus with people who, to his readers, would have been famous or at least identifiable, Matthew was still serving his purpose of making Jesus’s claims credible to a skeptical audience.

Given, however, that there these are selective genealogies, it makes them rather more interesting. If it was a simple recitation of every branch on the family tree, then we might justifiably have only an academic interest in it.  But that is not the case and one cannot help but wonder, who did Matthew put in?  And why?

What are the qualifications for being chosen in a team to be representative of the ancestry of the Messiah! A selection whose whole purpose is to create a good first impression! The point of the genealogy is not simply to satisfy a bunch of family-tree buffs, but to say to Jewish readers ‘Look! This guy is somebody significant, somebody worth paying attention to; regardless of what you heard about him being executed as a common criminal, this was no ordinary person. Jesus of Nazareth was in fact Jesus the Christ.’ So who on earth do you choose for that? Quite an important choice!

What’s more, when we look at the genealogy more closely, there are some odd choices.  There are the obvious ones—Abraham, Isaac, David, the big names of the Old Testament so to speak. But while Matthew also lists most of the Kings of Judah as Jesus’s ancestors, he also lists some rather curious people, which include (unlike Luke’s genealogy) women.

Matthew singles out 42 men as ancestors of Jesus—but only four women. Three are mentioned by name; the fourth is referred to as the wife of her husband. That makes only four women out of 46 people specifically referred to—or less than 9%. This makes one very curious about the four who were chosen by Matthew for selection in his presumably all-star team, to prove Christ’s kingship of his people. Who might they be, the fab four?    

A quick perusal of Matthew 1:3, 5 and 6 will provide the answer. You will see that Ruth is one of them—no doubt she would have been many people’s choice for one of the top four; but Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel are conspicuous by their absence. The other three are actually Tamar, Rahab and Bathsheba.

Why these four? They seem to have nothing in common.  And if Matthew’s choice of them was merely random, then there is little to be gained from an analysis of the genealogy after all.  Perhaps skip on to verse 18 was the right thing to do all along.

However, on closer inspection, these four women do have something in common. All had some great flaw. We can see this by examining the story of each in the Bible. Three of these women’s stories are not pretty reading.  However, I believe that if a story is in the Bible that has survived to this day, then it has a divine purpose, as well as origin. If a story is in the Bible, it didn’t just have a point in ancient times—God has allowed it to survive to modern times because it has a lesson to teach us. God does not shrink away from unpleasant facts if they have a lesson to teach. It is up to us to come to terms with what God has put there for our own edification.[3]

Let us take the stories in chronological order. Tamar was the daughter-in-law of Judah, the wife of Judah’s eldest son—her story is found in Genesis 38. While the tribe of Judah later became a by-word for loyalty and prowess, here we find Judah himself acting first selfishly, then immorally, and finally hypocritically. Tamar’s husband died; Judah then arranged for a younger son to marry Tamar, as custom dictated. The younger son, too, died, however, and so rather than risk the death of his third son (as it says in v. 11), Judah deliberately let Tamar stay unmarried. No problem, at least not today. But in those times, a woman actually needed a man to help protect and sustain her; this is one reason why it was the custom that another son should marry his brother’s widow. Furthermore, because everybody knew that Judah ought to have arranged for that to happen, by not doing it, not only did he make life difficult for Tamar, a woman who he had taken into his family when he arranged her marriage to his son, and who thus counted as his daughter. He also brought shame on her—for why, people must have speculated, would Judah not marry her to his third son?

Tamar wanted a child. That was her role in her society and she wanted to fulfil it. So she deliberately posed as a prostitute and lay in wait for Judah. Judah saw Tamar, desired her, hired her, and had her. Note Genesis 38:13–15: it’s clear that the fault was on both sides. Judah approached Tamar on the presumption she was a prostitute. This was not entrapment: yes, Tamar was there on the roadside, a kind of ancient Palestinian street-walker; but she didn’t solicit Judah—he solicited her. Nobody made either Tamar or Judah sin, it was their choice.

Judah had acted immorally. But he and Tamar had conceived a child in their night together and when Judah discovered this, full of his own righteousness, he condemned her to be ‘burned to death’ (v. 24), as a prostitute. Fortunately for her, Tamar had taken the ancient equivalent of a credit card number off Judah—his seal, its cord, and his staff—and so could identify the father of her unborn child. When she revealed that it was Judah himself who was the man he spared her life—just about his first decent action.

Well, there it is, a squalid little story. Nobody comes out of it looking good:  Judah declares (in verse 26) ‘She has been more righteous than I’, but both he and his daughter-in-law acted discreditably, sinfully. We might well wonder what this story is doing in the Bible, save perhaps as an example of how sinful Jacob’s first ten sons were.

Let us move on. Who does not know the story (re-counted mostly in Joshua chapter 2) of Rahab, the gallant woman of Jericho, who hid the Israelite spies ‘at the peril of her own life’, as Ellen White says,[4] and then smuggled them out of the city, via a rope hung from its celebrated walls. She and her family were the only citizens of Jericho to survive the city’s fall and destruction, as Joshua 6:22–25 relates. Rahab’s declaration to the spies, rings down the ages: ‘I know that the Lord has given you the land’, she says in verse 9 of Joshua chapter 2; and in verse 12: ‘The Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath.’ Here, at any rate, is a splendid, faith-building story; and the fact that Rahab’s household was marked on the day of Jericho’s fall by a crimson cord hanging from the window is sometimes used as a metaphor for how all our lives depend on the lifeline of Christ’s blood, shed for us. So no problem with Rahab’s presence in the all-star selected genealogy of Jesus.

Or rather, just one; but a bit of a big one. She didn’t just pose as a prostitute, like Tamar. Rahab was a prostitute. It states explicitly in Joshua 2:1 that the two spies sent by Joshua to Jericho ‘came to the house of a harlot named Rahab and lodged there.’ Now, the Hebrew word used here for harlot can also be translated as inn-keeper – but that’s because ancient people didn’t always call things by their right names. Rather like us; today, men don’t go to brothels, they go to massage parlours and tanning salons. References in the Book of Hebrews and the Epistle of James, both written in Greek, leave us in no doubt, for both refer (Heb. 11:31, Jas. 2:25) to ‘Rahab the prostitute’ [ESV]. So Rahab was a whore. There’s not much more to say, is there?

Let’s move on instead to a happier story, that of Ruth, splendidly told in the book that bears her name. Here we have one of the most famous stories in all the Bible and one of the most beautiful love stories ever written. It contains, furthermore, another and even more stirring declaration of faith. Let us not forget, however, that Ruth was a Moabitess. Well, of course, we all know that: it’s an integral part of the whole story, but let’s not forget the significance of her nationality. First, there was a categorical prohibition in Deuteronomy 7:3 against marrying outside the Twelve Tribes of the Children of Israel.  This ban was restated by Joshua in his farewell address to the Israelites and was specifically repeated again after the return from captivity in Babylon.[5] Moreover, of all the nations into which an Israelite male might marry, Moab was the worst. Moabite women had seduced the children of Israel in one of the most famous episodes of disobedience in their desert wanderings (see Numbers 25:1–5). Moses explicitly commanded (in Deuteronomy 23:3) that Moabites ‘shall not enter the congregation of the Lord; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the congregation of the Lord’; while after the return from exile, Nehemiah explicitly condemned those Israelites ‘who had married women from...Moab’ (Nehemiah 13:23ff). Ruth was not merely a foreigner, one of the despised heathen, fit only to be put to the sword; she was a Moabite and a Moabite woman at that, synonymous with harlotry.

Finally, there is Bathsheba. Her story is found in 2 Samuel chapter 11. Note that Matthew’s gospel does not mention her by name; Matthew 1:6 states that ‘David the king begot Solomon by her who had been the wife of Uriah.’ Again, I’m sure we all know this story – David and Bathsheba go together almost like Romeo and Juliet. Of course, Bathsheba was an adulteress, David was much more to blame for their offence; but given the culture of the time, it is a pretty safe bet that the Israelites of Christ’s time blamed the woman for leading David into sin, rather than the other way around; while the fact remains that she is only known to us today because she broke the seventh commandment.

So there we have the four women: an incestuous fornicator; an admitted prostitute; a woman of a despised and depraved race; and an adulteress. These are the four who are singled out for mention as ancestresses of his supposed Messiah! If this is the gospel, it seems like an X-rated, ‘Adults only’, Gospel! What was Matthew thinking?!

Matthew was beginning the way he intended to carry on: not simply by asserting the claim of Jesus to be the Christ, the Messiah, the King of Kings; but by revealing his true mission – to save humanity from sin. The Jews of Jesus’ day had become obsessed by the law – by the Mosaic code that embodied Israelite identity—so obsessed that they were flawless in their compliance to its dictates, but had forgotten that doing so might make them perfect Israelites, but could not make them perfect in God’s sight. And it was not only the first-century Jews who made this mistake. We know from Acts 15 and the epistles that many new Christians had the same idea: that unless one kept the customs of Moses, one could not be saved.[6]

There were two mistakes, both of which Jesus tried to correct and both of which Matthew highlights from the very start of his gospel narrative. First is the misguided idea that only a descendant of Jacob could be saved; and second, the terrible lie that the path to salvation lay in perfect behaviour—in flawless adherence to a list of precepts.

The genealogy in Matthew reminds us that the Messiah was descended from an Amorite, a Moabite, and an intercultural marriage between an Israelite and a Hittite. Those people could figure in his ancestry because they had been embraced by the Israelites but that, was in turn because of what they themselves had come to believe—not because of who their parents were, or where they were born. What mattered, in other words, was how they responded to God—Rahab and Ruth and Bathsheba’s Hittite husband, Uriah, responded to God with faith and with belief. That was what mattered to the God of Israel, not the external signifiers such as skin pigmentation, shape of facial features, or even language, that men, fallen into sin, have decided are the determinants of ethnicity or race. Racial and ethnic identities are human constructions. When God looks at human beings He sees only one race—the human race, which the Son of God died to redeem. And in the genealogy of Jesus, Matthew reminds his readers­—and us!—of that fact, by pointing out that the Saviour comes from the wrong sort of people.

Human beings like to think ourselves better than other men and women. The oldest human sin is pride. But the message of ‘The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ’ is partly that Jesus, son of Joseph, was also the son of David, and the son of God, the King of Kings, the fulfilment of the prophecies of Isaiah and others; but it is also partly a reminder of other statements of Isaiah: ‘All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.’[7]

Here is the second error that the first six verses of Matthew’s gospel are intended to correct. The stories of Tamar and Ruth and of David’s adulterous, murderous affair with Bathsheba remind us that even the heroes of the Old Testament, the founders of Israel and the progenitors of Jesus were human: flawed, offensive, vicious, immoral. Yet God looked past their flaws when they responded to Him in belief and faith, and He transformed them.

Furthermore, if the Mosaic prohibition against descendants of Moabites being part of the congregation down to the tenth generation had been enforced, then neither David nor Solomon could have been accepted as part of the Children of Israel.

None of this was what many of those who heard Christ’s words were wanting to hear—and it is not what many Christians today want to hear either. Full of confidence in our own rightness with God, we want to hear how we are His elect; and we also want to hear those others, who are imperfect, who are sinners, condemned. Instead, God tells us, as we find a little later in Matthew’s gospel, in chapter 7, verses 1–2: ‘Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the same measure you use, it will be measured back to you.’ No matter how we live, we have no basis for spiritual pride. You and I are just as much in need of salvation as an incestuous deceiver, a prostitute, a non-believer, and an adulterer; and yet, even though our righteousness is like filthy rags, we are not excluded from God’s love or from His plan of salvation. Intimacy comes when we admit that we ‘have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’.[8] We may not have arranged or tried to arrange someone else’s murder – but we each of us keep having to face the fact that, yet again, we have given pain to people around us and to our loving Father in heaven. However admirable my life may seem to the outside world, by God’s standard, I am an abject failure. Yet I am also a member of God’s family, thanks to the gift of His son.

From the very beginning, then, Matthew is making the same point he will make throughout his gospel. The people who had listened to Jesus, and who read Matthew’s gospel, especially the Scribes and Pharisees, would have known very well the qualities of the four women who are singled out there—theywould have immediately got the point. But do we? All scripture is indeed given by God and is profitable; the first seventeen verses of the New Testament are ‘the book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ’; but that genealogy is also the gospel, the book of good news about a God who, in so many ways, is perfect for us.


[1] See J. B. Phillips’ editorial comments.

[2] Luca Marulli, ‘The Parable of the Tares and Matthew’s Strategy vis-à-vis Extreme Sectarian Impulses from within His Community’, Andrews University Seminary Studies 47 (2009): 181.

[3] It is interesting that in Patriarchs and Prophets, Ellen White says nothing of Tamar or even of Ruth, almost nothing of Rahab, and very little of Bathsheba.

[4] Patriarchs and Prophets, 483.

[5] Jos. 23:13; Nehemiah 10:20; cf. Ezra, chaps. 9–10.

[6] Acts 15:1.

[7] Cf. Romans 14:23: ‘whatever is not from faith is sin’.

[8] Rom. 3:23.

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