Have you ever tried to read the Bible straight through? The story starts out well enough. Genesis is full of engaging and wild stories. Exodus recounts the dramatic tale of God’s deliverance of his people from slavery in Egypt, through the wilderness, and into the promised land.
But then it gets brutal. Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are a quagmire of laws, regulations, and ordinances for a world that we can’t even imagine, let alone understand. The action picks up again, briefly, in Joshua and Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings. But at this point it’s as if the biblical writers are trying to punish you for making it this far—and they do this in the form of 1 Chronicles, the “flyover country” of the Bible. The first ten chapters read like an ancient semitic phonebook: page after page of unpronounceable names born thousands of years ago in faraway places as the chronicler records the family lines of each of the twelve tribes of Israel in painstaking detail.
This is where our eyes start to glaze over. What could these family trees possibly mean for us? If we read these genealogies at all, we read them the same way we read disclaimers when signing up for a cellphone plan: we start by reviewing the contract carefully, but then we get bogged down in the fine print before finally scrolling to the very bottom of the document and mindlessly clicking “I Agree.” I have no idea what these genealogies are supposed to mean or why they’re in the Bible, but sure, I agree.
If you can persevere through the historical books—a wasteland littered with the bones of readers who didn’t have the strength for the journey—the rest of the biblical storyline accelerates rapidly through the rise and fall of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, culminating in their respective exiles under the pagan empires of Assyria and Babylon. And that’s where the Old Testament leaves off, on a note of almost unbearable uncertainty and expectation.
“Out of the Womb of Israel”
The New Testament picks up the plot hundreds of years later. There were rumors that, after centuries of silence and waiting and suffering, Yahweh himself just might show up on the scene and put things right. And that brings us to the moment of the big reveal, what the New Testament writers call “the gospel.” This is where the book of Matthew begins. Matthew’s purpose is to announce that this moment had finally come, and he headlines his world-altering announcement with—wait for it—a genealogy (Matthew 1:1–17; take a minute to read it). Again? Ugh. What is it with these people and their obsession with family histories?
As it happens, Matthew doesn’t think we can understand the good news of the birth of Jesus—the good news of Christmas—unless we know the genealogies of 1 and 2 Chronicles. To the Hebrew mind, genealogies were critical. They were a means of tracing the promises God had made through the generations, through the ups and downs of Israel’s history, through moments of triumph and moments of failure. Genealogies were a way of keeping track of the waiting, of keeping the promises alive, even in moments of utter darkness and confusion.
The primary meaning of Jesus’ genealogy is to emphasize that he is the long-awaited Messiah, “born out of the womb of Israel.” Matthew refers to Jesus of Nazareth as the “Son of David” and the “Son of Abraham” as a way of signaling that Jesus is himself the fulfillment of the two key promises on which the entire biblical storyline depends: 2 Samuel 7, where God promises that one of David’s descendants shall always be on the throne, and Genesis 12, where God promises Abraham that he will become a great nation, and “all the peoples of the earth shall be blessed through you.” So, the opening of Matthew’s gospel isn’t actually a dry and dusty family history, it’s a shocking claim: this Jesus of Nazareth, the son of a common laborer and an unwed mother, is the very one through whom God is keeping his promise to rescue creation and bring blessing to every tribe, nation, and tongue. But that’s not all.
A Crooked Family Tree
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” asks an incredulous Nathanael after being told that Israel’s long-awaited deliverer was raised in the sticks (John 1:46). It’s not hard to understand why. After all, everyone (thought they) knew Jesus’ dirty family secret—that he was born out of wedlock to a couple of hicks: a carpenter and his teenaged girlfriend (Mark 6:3). That’s not the half of it. Dig a little deeper into Jesus’ bloodlines, and you’ll find that his family history is positively sordid.
Just follow Matthew’s account (1:1–17). Abraham: a great man of faith … when he’s not lying or swindling. Isaac: another liar. Jacob: a deceiver, a con man, and a cheat. Judah and Tamar are right out of an episode of Jerry Springer: a Canaanite who disguised herself as a prostitute to trick her father-in-law into bearing her child. Then there’s Rahab: an actual prostitute (not just pretending to be one). “The wife of Uriah”: that would be Bathsheba, the other half of King David’s illicit affair, accessory to her husband’s murder, and mother to David’s illegitimate sons. And that’s not to mention David himself: an adulterer, a manipulator, an abuser of power, a predator. And we haven’t even gotten to the part where Judah’s kings started sacrificing their own children to pagan gods, as Ahaz and Manasseh did.
If you were running for public office—like Messiah, for example—these are the kind of family secrets you’d be desperate to hide, but Matthew leads with them in all their scandalous and lurid detail. Jesus descends from a line of idolaters, con men, cowards, crooks, tyrants, scoundrels, murderers, adulterers, egomaniacs, harlots, failures, and nobodies. Quite the royal lineage!
What are we to make of all this? This genealogy is a way of reminding us that Jesus was born into a tortured history of ups and downs, fits and starts, glimmers of hope dashed by despair. It reminds us that we too have inherited this twisted history, born and bred into brokenness and darkness, waiting for the light. This genealogy is “the hopes and fears of all the years,” as the famous Christmas carol puts it. But this genealogy also means that Jesus was not ashamed of his family tree and that he is not embarrassed by our family secrets, either. The dysfunctional relationships with our parents, children, and siblings, our broken marriages, the wreckage of our professional failures, our deep wounds and wells of pain that are too much for us to bear—none of it embarrasses Jesus of Nazareth. He’s not ashamed to be one of us. This genealogy is another way of saying that Jesus is the friend of sinners.
Manger and Cross: The Crooked Made Straight
“Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made,” wrote Immanuel Kant. And most days, it seems like he’s right. Even Solomon says so: “What is crooked cannot be made straight” (Ecclesiastes 1:15). So, is that it, then? Is there any hope for us who come from rotten stock, twisted and warped? Is there grace even for us with our gnarled and knotty family trees, with stories marred by sin and failure? Is there any chance of redeeming our work, our industries, our civic life, raging as they are in a maelstrom of self-destruction and futility? Is there any future for the enterprises and projects we’re trying to build out of this crooked timber? “What is crooked cannot be made straight.”
The Gospel of Luke unearths an ancient promise from the prophet Isaiah that, one day, “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:5–6; cf. Isaiah 42:16, 45:2). The incarnation is God making something straight out of our crooked stories, even as we tried to hide from him in our sorrow and our shame and our pain. In the words of our ancient brother, Severus of Antioch (d. 538):
[Jesus’] genealogy reveals that it is our very sinful nature that Christ himself came to heal. It is that very nature which had fallen, revolted and plunged into inordinate desires. When our nature fled from God, he took hold of it. When it dashed out and ran away in revolt, he stopped it, held onto it, enabled it to return and blocked its downward spiral.
The manger and the cross are made of the same warped and twisted family tree—not only of the line of Judah, but of every failed human effort: the failures of his family, the failures of Adam’s family, of your family, of mine.
Can anything straight be made of this crooked timber? Only the son of a carpenter could do that.
 Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, ed. Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 43.
 Immanuel Kant, “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose,” vol. 7 of The Collected Works of Immanuel Kant (1784; repr., Hastings, UK: Delphi, 2017), Proposition VI.
 Severus of Antioch, “Homily 94,” quoted in Matthew 1–13, ed. Manlio Simonetti, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), 6.
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This post was published December 14, 2020
Ryan serves as theologian-in-residence for Denver Institute for Faith & Work, where he writes and teaches on the integration of faith and work. Alongside his work with Denver Institute, Ryan is an instructor in the Division of Christian Thought at Denver Seminary, where he teaches theology and the history of Christianity, and associate pastor at Foothills Fellowship Church in Littleton. He holds a Th.M. in ecclesiastical history and a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Edinburgh. He has published in the areas of inter-religious dialogue, historical theology, and Christian ethics. Ryan lives with his wife, Adrienne, and their daughter in Lakewood. Most importantly, Ryan is a diehard fan of the Denver Nuggets—and he liked them even when they were terrible.