What Jesus’ genealogy reveals about his character

Snapshots of grace in the Christmas story

November 25, 2019

Chances are, when you are meditating on the birth of Jesus this Christmas season, you are not spending a ton of time perusing the list of names in Matthew’s Gospel. But you should, for Matthew didn’t include these names at the opening of the New Testament simply because he needed a clever introduction. He’s making a point that Jesus of Nazareth is the long-awaited promised one, of whom the prophets spoke and to whom the symbolism and sacrificial structure of Israel pointed. Jesus is the rightful Son of David, the forever and true King of Israel. 

What’s also important is the message God is communicating even in the way Matthew arranged this list of names. Typically, Jewish genealogies didn’t mention women. They only ever listed men as the heads of their households. Women in the ancient world had little agency and had virtually no voice. So in telling the Christmas story through women like Mary and Elisabeth and Anna, God is telling us that his Kingdom is a different kind of kingdom. And even in this small and seemingly insignificant detail of listing four women in Jesus’ family tree, Matthew is communicating something powerful. 

To fully grasp this, we have to understand how poorly women were regarded in the first century. A woman had no legal rights and was completely subject to her husband’s power. According to New Testament scholar Michael Green, a Jewish man “thanked God each day that he had not been created a slave, a Gentile, or a woman.”[1]

To put it bluntly: it would be scandalous for Matthew to put these women’s names in here. And these weren’t just any women. Each one of them carried with them a stigma and asterisk next to their name every time a faithful Jewish person heard their name read out loud in the temple or the synagogue. Here’s a look at what they can teach us: 

The forgotten

Tamar is a name most Jewish people likely wanted to forget. And yet here she is as the wife of a man named Er, one of two sons of Judah. These sons were the result of an adulterous relationship Judah had with another Canaanite woman. Er was not a good husband and was killed by God. When he died it was, according to the custom at the time, up to his next oldest brother, Onan, to marry Tamar and continue the family line. But in a greedy attempt to set himself up for a richer inheritance, he refused to conceive a baby with Tamar. As a result, God struck Onan dead as well. 

The world may forget your name, but you can be known and named, by the one of whom it is said is the “name above all names” (Phil. 2:8-11).

The next brother was much younger, so Tamar waited and waited for Judah to give his youngest son as her husband. This never happened. Judah was reluctant, believing Tamar was somehow cursed by God. So she took things into her own hands and dressed up like a prostitute along a main roadway. Judah propositioned her and as a result of their liaison, they conceived. In an interesting twist, Judah, when he discovered she was pregnant, sought to put her to death for violating the oath to stay chaste until she remarried. But she proved to him that it was his children she bore. And yet, one of their two sons, Perez, would be an ancestor of King David and, eventually, King Jesus. 

Judah and Tamar’s place in the family of Jesus shows us a kind of interesting juxtaposition between the powerful and the powerless: Judah the hypocritical leader who covered his sin, who exploited his daughter-in-law to satisfy his passions, and the helpless, forgotten Tamar. In Jesus’ new family, both the religious hypocrite and the exploited mistress find their need for grace. 

The sinful

Rahab’s story is similarly sordid (Joshua 2:1-7). When the Jewish spies came to scout out the land of Jericho, she was the one who hid them in her home and protected them from prying eyes of the government police. She had heard of the miracles God wrought with Israel in Egypt and in the wilderness and, unlike the rest of her country, turned to faith in Yahweh. But her profession, Joshua tells us, is a prostitute. She sold herself for the pleasure of men. We recoil even at that word, prostitute, but we should know that in ancient times this was often the only way for a vulnerable woman, without a family or husband, to survive. This doesn’t justify her lifestyle, but it reminds us that she was exploited for her body. 

Because she provided critical intelligence that helped Israel defeat Jericho, Rahab was given safe harbor in Israel and grafted into the Jewish nation (Heb. 11:31). James, the brother of Jesus, says that her actions were evidence of her newfound faith (James 2:25). Her life is evidence that Jesus is always bringing in outsiders, those seen by religious institutions as too damaged by exploitation and sin. 

As we gather this Christmas to worship, we are tempted to think of ourselves as more righteous than the Rahabs in our world, but in a sense, every human being is as unclean in God’s eyes as a prostitute. Paul, once an observant, faithful Jew recognizes that there is none righteous before God (Rom. 3:10) and saw himself as the “chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15 KJV). But the good news is that Jesus, by his life and death and resurrection is bringing Rahabs into his new family. 

The exploited 

Even if you don’t know the Bible, you know what happened when King David first looked at a naked Bathsheba, bathing on her rooftop (2 Sam. 11-12). It was the biggest scandal during the reign of Israel’s greatest king. Most of us think of this story in terms of what it means for David. Often it is used as a sloppy apologetic for our own sin. David sinned and still was a man after God’s own heart. David was repentant, and so when we are repentant, we will find grace. God still used David as a leader after his sin. 

But let’s think about Bathsheba. The Bible never really seems to bring judgment on her for her place in David’s life. It’s likely that when David summoned her from her home, she had little choice but to comply. If you are a woman in the ancient world and the King summons you, you comply. The story gets even more complicated when you realize that Bathsheba is the young granddaughter of one of David’s closest advisors Ahithophel (2 Sam. 11:3). 

The magnitude of David’s gross sin cannot be overstated. He exploited Bathsheba. He used his power to get from her what he wanted. And not only did this result in the death of Bathsheba’s husband, it was one of the pivotal events that divided David’s family, causing the death of one of David’s children by Bathsheba and a catalyst for an ugly, father-against-son civil war. 

Bathsheba’s life was one of difficulty and sorrow. She was likely a very unpopular woman in Israel and in David’s family. She suffered the loss of a son and became the wife of an unfaithful husband. And yet here she appears in Matthew’s retelling of the story of Israel and the promise of the Redeemer. She is named, by God. A victim of exploitation. And so it is that God sees and knows all of those who are often exploited and abused. In Jesus, the forgotten can find a new family and a new identity. 

The outsider 

Perhaps the most scandalous name in Jesus’ genealogy is Ruth. Unlike the other three women, she doesn’t have the sexually sordid backstory and she isn’t the victim of abuse. And yet to the Jewish person hearing Matthew’s account, her appearance would be offensive. Why? 

Like Rahab and Tamar, Ruth wasn’t Jewish. But not only was Ruth not Jewish, she was a Moabite. Moabites were not simply Gentiles, they were one of Israel’s sworn enemies. They weren’t even allowed to enter the worship gathering of Israel. They were idolaters who had refused to help Israel as they made their way from Egypt. 

But a famine in Israel sent a Jewish family—Naomi and Elimilech and their two sons—to Moab to survive. Ruth’s life was one of difficulty and sorrow. She saw her husband, her brother-in-law, and her father-in-law perish in Moab. When Naomi, her mother-in-law, sought to return to her homeland, she chose to follow her and worship Naomi’s God (Ruth 1:16). She eventually became the wife of Boaz and the great grandmother of King David. 

The book of Ruth beautifully tells the story of Boaz as Ruth’s kinsman redeemer, the one with power and resources to rescue and protect the vulnerable. And her appearance here in the opening pages of the Christmas story reminds us that Jesus is the redeemer of those who are on the outside, who, like the Moabitess Ruth were once alien to the courts of the Almighty and are now brought in as full participants of the grace of God. 

Your name in the family of God

So hopefully, by now, you will never read the first chapter of Matthew the same way again. But more importantly, I hope that you realize that Jesus is more than just a name in the Bible. He is the Son of Abraham. He is the Son of David. He is the Christ. 

I find it comforting that God names these four, otherwise forgotten, otherwise outsider women. He names the exploited, the forgotten, the powerless. The world may forget your name, but you can be known and named, by the one of whom it is said is the “name above all names” (Phil. 2:8-11). What’s more, Jesus can give you a new name. This is the real meaning of Christmas, that God is in the business of taking sinners like you and me and making us new creations, with new identities and a new purpose: 

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:17–19).

I hope you understand, as you close this book, that if there is room in the family of God for Rahab and Tamar, Abraham and Jacob, Ruth and Bathsheba, David and Judah, there is room for you. Is there anything keeping you from embracing, by faith, this good news? 

This is an excerpt from The Characters of Christmas (Moody, 2019).


  1. ^ Green, The Message of Matthew, 58.

Daniel Darling

Daniel Darling is the Director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a columnist for World Magazine and a contributor to USA Today. Dan is a bestselling author of several books including, The Dignity Revolution, A Way With Words, and The Characters of … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24