The Genealogy of Jesus

Week of Monday, June 18, 2001

I am not much of a genealogy buff, but I am grateful for the research my family has done about my history. For the record, here are two snap shots.

On my father’s side, my first ancestor in America was Charles Clendenin (1714–1790), who was born in Dumfrieshire, Scotland, and died in Fort Lee-Fort Clendenin in the town named after him, Charleston, Virginia. On my mother’s side, Michael and Catherine Esterly were born in Wurttemberg, Germany in 1762 and 1766 respectively. In May of 1804 they loaded up their four kids and worldly possessions, boarded the American ship Aurora in Amsterdam, then two months later landed in Baltimore. They migrated to Pittsburgh, then to little Columbiana, Ohio, where my mother was raised and my cousins still live.

My son and I are trying to read through the New Testament this summer, and as I began the Gospel of Matthew, on the very first page I was struck by the power of one’s genealogy. Most Biblical genealogies are incredibly boring. 1 Chronicles chapters 1–9, for example, lists over 500 names with very little comment. But Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:1–17) does something outrageous. Sprinkled among his list of forty-six names, he includes five women with famously notorious lives.

You can read about Tamar (1:3) in Genesis 38. She was widowed twice, then became pregnant by her father-in-law Judah who mistook her for a temple prostitute. The offspring of this incest were the twin boys Perez and Zerah. And Perez is a forbear of Jesus (see Ruth 4:18–21). Rahab (1:5) is both a foreigner and a whore. She’s a liar, too, for it was by her lies that she received and then concealed the Hebrew spies, and in so doing betrayed her native city of Jericho to the invaders led by Joshua. Beyond her story in Joshua chapters 2–6, Rahab is mentioned only three times in the New Testament: as a hero of faith (Hebrews 11:31), as an exemplar of good works (James 2:25), and as the great-great-grandmother of King David (Matthew 1:5).

Ruth’s (1:5) story is really the story of three widows. Her mother-in-law Naomi, her sister-in-law Orpah, and Ruth had all buried their husbands. Naomi, whose name means “Pleasant”, asked to be called “Mara”, which means “Bitter”, because of her misfortunes (Ruth 1:20–21). Orpah returned to her own people, but Ruth and Naomi moved to Bethlehem where, as we know, she eventually meets and marries the wealthy Boaz, King David’s great-grandfather. For congratulations, the city fathers proclaimed, “may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah” (Ruth 4:12)!

Who could forget Bathsheba (1:6), the object of David’s adulterous passion? Like Ruth and Rahab, she too was a foreigner. As a powerful king, David had his way with her. After a feeble coverup failed, he murdered her husband Uriah and then “brought her to his house, and she became his wife and bore him a son” (2 Samuel 11:27). The bastard son was Solomon, of course, another ancestor of Jesus.

Then there is the teenager Mary (1:16), who finds herself pregnant, but not by her husband or any other man. She gives birth to Jesus in a barn because the inn keepers are too calloused to help a pregnant woman in labor. When the evil king Herod seeks to kill her baby, she flees to Egypt and becomes both an alien and a refugee on the run.

What could Matthew possibly be trying to communicate by including these women in the genealogy of Jesus, “King of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2)? Genealogies, it seems to me, are rarely used as mere neutral information, regardless of how boring they might be to read. When I think about what Matthew does with his genealogy of Jesus, two matters come to mind: pride and denial.

Some people like to remind you of their ancestry to let you know how important they and their family are. For example, I might want to remind you, ever so casually, how Charles Clendenin was a sometime business partner of our first president George Washington, or why they named the town after him. Or again, a friend of mine once remarked that his children were the eighth consecutive generation in his family to attend Harvard.

But Matthew’s genealogy comes as a stinging rebuke. He reminds us of a central truth of God’s kingdom, that “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before him” (1 Corinthians 1:27–29).

If we are not snared by pride in trying to boast about how good our past or present is, we can also fall into denial about how bad some of it is. Perhaps my family and my past are not so bad? We are good people, right? Normal jobs, good neighborhoods, the right schools? The truth, we know, is that there are in fact parts of our lives and people in our lives who constitute very bad news, chapters in our histories that we simply wish were not there—a broken marriage, a wayward child, unfulfilled potential, financial mismanagement. The list goes on of the many things about me I decidedly do not want you to know.

But if the genealogy of Jesus comes as a stinging rebuke to human pride, it can also come to us as a gentle solace to whatever we have experienced at the hands of human devastation and dysfunction. The stories of Matthew’s five women are the stories of widowhood, second and third marriages, incest, prostitution, lying, murder, adultery, economic hardship, foreign exclusion, and geographic dislocation. He reminds us that there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:39), and that there is nothing of life’s bitterness that cannot be woven into God’s providential, redemptive history for me. My story is not over; there are more chapters to be written.

The human ancestry of the incarnate son of God includes the likes of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. In his memoir Now and Then Frederick Buechner reminds us that every human story is not only interesting but sacred, our personal histories being the very means through which God speaks to us. This is why reading the Christian stories of other saints can be so powerful—Henri Nouwen, Kathleen Norris, Frederick Buechner, Thomas Merton, and Ann Lamott being some of my contemporary favorites—and why “autobiography becomes a way of praying.” As we listen to the sounds of our own very human stories, may we hear, above all, the sound of His voice.1

  1. Frederick Buechner, Now and Then (San Francisco: Harper), p. 3.

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.