Ancestry.com is the largest for-profit genealogical company in the world, referring to itself as “the global leader in family history and consumer genomics.” It boasts access to approximately 20 billion historical records from 80 different countries of origin, has over 2.7 million paying subscribers and more than six million DNA customers. User-generated content tallies to more than 90 million family trees, and subscribers have added more than 330 million photographs, scanned documents, and written stories. Needless to say, what used to be an elementary school project has now become big business.
Why are genealogies such a big deal? Genealogies matter culturally because they can be utilized to trace ethnicities as well as geographic movements of families. Genealogies matter medically because they contribute to diagnoses and preventative care due to the hereditary nature of many diseases. Genealogies matter economically because they can determine whether or not you are entitled to someone else’s estate or qualify for particular types of government funding.
While genealogical research is growing in popularity today, it should be noted that it has always been popular in the Jewish culture. So, it should be no surprise that the genealogy of Jesus is recorded in two of the four Gospel accounts (Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38). Both accounts consist of a list of names in keeping with the Jewish practice of ancestral records. Quite honestly, it is tedious reading and differs from the narrative style of writing with which we are accustomed in the Gospels. So, why is it preserved for us?
First, Jesus’ genealogy is preserved for us because it reveals how He fulfilled Messianic prophecy.
For example, it shows that He was the seed of Abraham. In Genesis 12:3, God told Abram, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” and He repeated this statement in Genesis 22:18, saying, “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” Jesus is identified as the blessing for all the nations since He is “the Savior of the world” (1 John 4:14), and both genealogies recount the fact that Jesus descended from Abraham (Matthew 1:2; Luke 3:34).
Additionally, the genealogies show that Jesus descended from the tribe of Judah. When Jacob blessed Judah in Genesis 49:10, he said, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet.” Later, Isaiah prophesied about the tribe of Judah saying, “the surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall again take root downward and bear fruit upward.” Both of these statements are taken as indicators that the Messiah would come from the tribe of Judah, and both genealogies recount the fact that Jesus was a Judahite (Matthew 1:2; Luke 3:33).
Finally, the genealogies show that Jesus was an heir to the throne of David. In one of Scripture’s most popular Messianic prophecies, Isaiah associated the Messiah with David saying in Isaiah 9:6-7, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder…Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom.” Jeremiah also made the connection between the Messiah and David when he wrote, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jeremiah 23:5). Both genealogies trace Jesus’ lineage through David to indicate that He was in fact a descendant of the King and heir to the throne (Matthew 1:6; Luke 3:31).
Thus, Jesus’ genealogy is provided so that there will be no doubt that He meets the qualifications of a Messiah based on prophetic proclamations presented in the Old Testament. As a result, we can be confident that the son of Joseph and Mary was in fact the Son of God.
Second, Jesus’s genealogy is preserved for us because it reveals how one’s past does not determine his or her future. Jesus’ genealogy is filled with some heroic individuals such as the Hebrew forefathers (i.e. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) and renowned Israelite kings (i.e. David, Solomon, Hezekiah, and Josiah). So, it is surprising that some of the most scandalous stories in Jewish history are immortalized alongside these heroic figures in Matthew’s version of the Messiah’s genealogy.
For example, Matthew 1:3 records that Jesus descended from Judah through his son, Perez, whom he had with Tamar. As the story goes in Genesis 38, Tamar portrayed a prostitute in order to coerce her father-in-law, Judah, to sleep with her, and, thereby, produce an offspring for her. The reason she orchestrated this immoral episode is because Judah was refusing to allow her to marry his youngest son in keeping with the practice of Levirate marriage. Such a salacious story of sexual immorality seems unnecessary if the sole purpose of the genealogy is simply to trace the ancestry of Jesus.
Additionally, Matthew 1:5 includes Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute who was spared from Jericho’s destruction because she protected two Israelite spies and acknowledged that the God of the Israelites “is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Joshua 2:1-21). Although Rahab is esteemed as a hero of faith (Hebrews 11:31), her name is synonymous with her profession, and her inclusion is not only unnecessary but also unwanted by the average Jew who would not want the public to be reminded of her non-Israelite DNA or scandalous occupation.
Finally, Matthew 1:6 makes reference to Bathsheba; however, she is referred to her as “the wife of Uriah,” which brings to mind her adulterous affair with David and his subsequent murderous coverup operation, both of which are recorded in 2 Samuel 11. Although Jesus’ relationship to David must be emphasized genealogically, it hardly seems necessary to reference the sexual sin of the “man after God’s own heart” with “the wife of Uriah.”
Jesus’ genealogy includes references to these embarrassing relationships without qualification or hesitation. The identification of these individuals indicates that even though Jesus was perfect (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15) His family tree was not. This may be an insignificant observation in the grand scheme of things, but I think it shows that Jesus was not defined by His heritage, and, therefore, we don’t have to be defined by our’s either.
Along those lines, I am reminded of Paul’s presentation of his heritage in Philippians 3:4-6. After listing those details, he said that he counted “whatever gain” he had from such a heritage “as loss for the sake of Christ” (Philippians 3:7). In other words, his relationship with Jesus was far more important than his heritage. Then, a few verses later he said that he was “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” so that he could “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14). In other words, he indicated that his future reward was far more important than his past mistakes. Paul then concluded by instructing “those of us who are mature” to “think this way” (Philippians 3:15). The point is that your past may be problematic, but, if you are in Christ, your future is glorious. Therefore, there is no reason to dwell on the past.