None of us gets to choose our ancestors, but many are nonetheless fascinated with learning the details regarding our forebears.  One of the hottest gifts this Christmas season is a “23andMe” DNA kit, promising to reveal all kinds of surprises about who I am and where I come from, and not in any metaphysical sense:  If ordered, the eagerly anticipated kit arrives in a package emblazoned with the slogan “Welcome to You.”  The teaser for the DNA kit offered by National Geographic promises “an unprecedented view into your deep ancestry.”

Before the Human Genome Project opened the door to such knowledge, my Dad embarked on some pretty extensive genealogy research the old-fashioned way.  It was time-consuming and the results were interesting, but only got us back a few generations.   When we would ask him a question beyond the limits of his research, like “Who was my great, great, great, grandfather?” he would usually reply, “Probably some horse thief.”

Too Dry?

There are two genealogies of Jesus presented in the New Testament, in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  The differences are oft-debated, but in one way or another reflect points of ancestry being emphasized by the particular writer to his intended audience.  When I was a kid, I would skip reading these parts of the Bible as “too dry,” but in college began to find both genealogies fascinating and very meaningful.

Dubious Ancestors

The one I have grown to reflect on most over the years is that found in Matthew (Matthew 1:1-16), and it is largely because of the inclusion of scoundrels and characters of ill-repute.  For example, there are Jacob, the “trickster” who conned his brother out of his birthright, and Judah, who slept with his daughter in law Tamar, but only because he thought she was a prostitute (Genesis 38:13-28).  That one night stand produced Perez, who was the forefather of “Rahab the prostitute” (that’s really what she is called in scripture, see Joshua 6:17 & Hebrews 11:31), who happened to be the great, great grandmother of King David.  While he was a undoubtedly a “star”, the fact remembered in the genealogy is that he had a son, Solomon, through his adulterous liaison with “Uriah’s wife” (Bathsheba), whom David married after having her husband killed.  It is not the kind of pedigree that I would recount if trying to convince a reader of the credentials of the Son of God, but there it is in all its unvarnished “glory.”  These roots, and the kind of rabble that Jesus was born among and hung out with during his time on earth, confirm the insight of Bruce Cockburn’s lyric:

“For it isn’t to the palace that the Christ child comes, but to shepherds and street people, hookers and bums ”[1]

And it is not only people with checkered pasts through whom Christ was given.  There are many ordinary folk who seem quite unremarkable, such as Akim and Elihud, whose only mention in the Bible is in Matthew’s genealogy.  Thus, they are essentially anonymous, and we are left to wonder what kind of people they were, and what, if anything, they accomplished.

A Genealogy of Hope

As a follower of Christ, I suppose that is what I find most hopeful.  God works in human history through a variety of people.  Sure, a few are “stars” by any standard, but there are plenty who are deeply flawed with much to be ashamed of, and others who are quite ordinary or even anonymous characters in the unfolding story of life.  Yet, God used them anyway, and in the process, more often than not, changed them for the better.  That seems to leave room for God to work through, and change, you and me, too.  And such redemption rippling through the surface of time, as Cockburn continues, is “a Christmas gift you don’t have to buy.”[2]


[1] Cockburn, Bruce “Cry of a Tiny Babe” (Nothing But A Burning Light, True North 1991)

[2] Ibid.