Family trees

Why are there so many unexpected people in Jesus' family tree—like Rahab, the prostitute? Why are they recorded for us in the Bible, instead of being quietly swept under the carpet? Helen Jensen takes a look.


How many of us have traced out our family tree? Has anyone in them turned out to be famous? I know a man who found that Sir Henry Parkes and Governor King were both in his family tree. For our Australian readers: do you know who were the first of your ancestors to settle in Australia? Are their names on the Welcome Wall next to the National Maritime Museum? Is one of the names of your ancestors on the monument of the First Fleet at Brighton-le-Sands? How many generations of your ancestors were born in Australia?

In tracing your family tree, what if you found a black sheep or a skeleton in the closet? I know a man who was tracing his family tree and found that his great aunt was really his great grandmother! The family had pretended that the illegitimate daughter was really the sister of the birth mother. What if your family tree had in it a prostitute, a sworn enemy, a child born as the result of a liaison between a father-in-law and a daughter-in-law, or a woman whose husband was killed because of her adultery? Would you try to cover these people up? Pretend that they had never done what they had done? Pretend that the circumstances were not really what they were? Would you just somehow skip the generation in which they lived?

One of the marvelous things about the Bible is that it does not cover up, hide, pretend, or pervert the circumstances of people and events. All those I mentioned are found in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Do you remember who was the prostitute? The woman involved in the liaison with her father-in-law? The sworn enemy? The adulteress? All but one are recorded by name. Also, without being recorded by name, there was the woman who married her half-brother, the woman who married her first cousin, and the woman who married a man who really loved her sister and married her as well. Do you remember who these women were?

The Bible has interesting things to say about some of these women.

Hebrews 11:11 tells us that “By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised”.

Joshua 2:11 has Rahab testifying that “the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath”. Hebrews 11:31 tells us that “By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies”. And James uses her as an example of one whose faith was seen in her works (Jas 2:25).

Ruth’s determination to take Naomi’s God as her God, and to entrust herself to his care, lead her to being honoured and becoming the great grandmother of King David. Her choices showed her faith.

Sometimes the most unlikely people become members of God’s family and are found in his family tree!

The New Testament also reveals other unlikely people who become members of God’s family, God’s children “and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:17). Unlikely people have God as their father and Jesus as their brother!

Two passages in 1 Corinthians show unlikely people becoming members of God’s family tree.

1 Corinthians 6 records what some of the Corinthian Christians used to be:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practise homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. (vv. 9-11)

People unlikely to be in God’s family tree? People who have defrauded others, drunks, those who have spoken abusively, those who cannot control their desire for food or wealth, those who steal, men who have had sex with other men, those who have had sex with people who were married to others, those who have worshipped idols, those who have had sex before marriage… definitely unlikely people! And this is what some of them had been!

But 1 Corinthians 6 immediately continues, “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (v. 11). These Corinthian believers, part of God’s family tree—these unlikely people—had been washed clean of their sins, set apart for God, and declared right by God in the name of Jesus and by the Holy Spirit. God accepted them into his family: they became his children by the death and resurrection of Jesus and through God’s Holy Spirit working in them. God accepted these unlikely people.

Another list of unlikely people is shown to us in chapter 1 of 1 Corinthians, where Paul writes to the Corinthians reminding them of their backgrounds: “…not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (v. 26) Some were seen as clever, influential, and/or from distinguished families, but not the majority—only a few. An intellectually inferior, unimportant, insignificant lot, really!

If 1 Corinthians 6 tells us how such unlikely people became part of God’s family tree, 1 Corinthians 1 tells us why:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are… (vv. 27-28)

It is all part of God’s great plan!

1 Corinthians 1 goes on and instructs the Corinthians as to how they should respond because they have become members of God’s family tree. The response is twofold:

  1. “…so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (v. 29). There is no room here for pride in works, family, position, status or achievement. No “I did it my way”. Not even “I did it God’s way”. The phrase ‘God chose’ is recorded three times in verse 28; not humans, but God—all God. No human can be self-justified in the presence of God. Humans can stand before him only because of Jesus and because God did it all.
  2. The second response is found in verse 31: “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord”. These unlikely people could tell of their place in God’s family only by crying out what God had done for them. Their bragging was not of themselves but of the wonder of God who, was the originator of them being in his family. Verse 30 calls God the source of their life.

And what of us? We are, in human terms, also unlikely people. Some of us have lives of which we are deeply ashamed. Some of us know the pressures to fall back into those ways of life. Some of us know we are not significant in any way;  we are nobodies in this world’s estimation. But we are all thankful, if we are Christians, to our heavenly Father. Because through Jesus’ death and resurrection and the work of the Holy Spirit, we unlikely people are part of God’s family tree. We can call God ‘Father’. We can take a stand by our words and lives as witnesses to the great work of God in bringing us into his family. And we can seek out other unlikely people and tell them the good news, because we do not know which other unlikely people are in God’s family. And we can rejoice that the Scripture record is unafraid to tell the truth about those who were in the family tree of Jesus.