Jesus’ Grandmothers Were Bad

Quick quiz #1: Who was Jesus’ mother?

Answer: Mary.

Quick quiz #2: Who were Jesus’ Grandmothers?

Answer: ?

The Bible never gives the names of Mary and Joseph’s mothers, although it does tell us the names of four of the geat-great-etc.-grandmothers in Jesus’ ancestry.

  1. Tamar (Matthew 1:3)
  2. Rahab (Matthew 1:5)
  3. Ruth (Matthew 1:5)
  4. Bathsheba (Matthew 1:6)

Some say that including these women among the dozens of men named in Jesus’ ancestry shows God’s grace and redemption in the women’s lives. That is true, just as the list  shows the same for the men named there. Yet there is a temptation to oversimplify what God did in his grace when redeeming these four women. More than one writer or preacher has taught that:

  1. The inclusion of Tamar shows God redeeming her from her sexual immorality and deception in bedding her father in law Judah (although Genesis 38 clearly shows she acted morally and righteously, and that Judah is the one who was in the wrong).

    Judah and Tamar, by Aert de Gelder (1667)

    Judah and Tamar, Aert de Gelder (1667)

  2. The inclusion of Rahab shows God can use even a prostitute to build his kingdom (although Joshua 2 is not clear on whether she was a prostitute or – just as likely – an innkeeper).

    Rahab Receiveth and Concealeth the Spies, by Frederick Richard Pickersgill (19th C.)

    Rahab Receiveth and Concealeth the Spies, Frederick Richard Pickersgill (19th C.)

  3. The inclusion of Ruth shows that God can use penniless widows on the extreme margins of society, honoring their faithfulness just as Ruth was faithful in caring for her equally poverty-stricken mother in law.

    Ruth in Boaz's Field, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1828)

    Ruth in Boaz’s Field, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1828)

  4. The inclusion of Bathsheba shows that God will use children of immoral relationships (although to suggest, as some do, that Bathsheba was a willing participant in an adulterous tryst denies the reality that she had no choice in the matter; her husband was away at war and the king summoned her to his bed).

    Bathsheba at Bath, Paolo Veronese (ca. 1575)

    Bathsheba at Bath, Paolo Veronese (ca. 1575)

It is not that these four aspects are completely untrue. Rather, it is that these are superficial matters when it comes to understanding the most significant aspect of those women’s lives.

The most significant aspect they shared is that they were all evil.

Bad People

Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba are not actually described as bad people anywhere in Scripture. It’s just that they all are tainted by the nation they are identified with. In that day’s culture, this taint was considered as personal as the nose on one’s face.

The tainting nation is not Israel, especially not for Tamar, Rahab and Ruth. They are foreigners: Tamar and Rahab were Canaanites, and Ruth is a Moabite. As for Bathsheba, her nationality of birth is not mentioned but she married a Hittite and by virtue of that marriage took on her husband’s identity.

Each of those nations – Canaan, Moab and Hatti (the homeland of the Hittites) – was abhorrent to God’s people and that abhorrence extended to each person of the abhorred nation. To understand fully, look at the circumstances God’s people faced when he brought them out of Egypt to the land that would become Israel’s home, a territory already occupied by other nations.

My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out. Do not bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practices. You must demolish them and break their sacred stones to pieces. (Exodus 23:23-24.)

Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. (Deuteronomy 20:17.)

The Israelites did not follow God’s command, but rather:

The Israelites lived among the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. (Judges 3:5.)

The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness. (Ezra 9:1-2.)

Notice that one addition to the list in that last passage is Moab, a nation subject to a special prohibition.

No … Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation. (Deuteronomy 23:3.)

Ruth was a Moabite born and bred, and is not only listed as Jesus’ ancestor but also King David’s great grandmother. Since David was only three generations removed from her, he was automatically disqualified from entering God’s assembly. Yet he not only joined the assembly but led the procession. (2 Samuel 6: 12-16.)

Tamar’s marriage into the nation of Israel was not explicitly prohibited at that time, since she lived centuries before God brought his people out of Egypt. But her people had the same detestable practices as later Canaanites. Ruth and Bathsheba certainly lived in the time of prohibition for marriage between Israelites and Canaanites or Hittites.

None of them – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba –  should have been allowed to marry as they did, yet they each had marriages that led eventually to the birth of the Messiah, the hope of Israel.

Qualifying the Disqualified

When I read those four names in Jesus’ genealogy I do not focus on their personal shortcomings. Everyone God redeems has fallen short. (Romans 3:23.)

When I read their names I am instead struck by God’s audacious grace. The Israelites had these instructions:

  • Don’t marry Canaanites; don’t marry Hittites. Wipe them from the face of the earth!
  • Don’t let Moabites anywhere near God’s assembly. Don’t let their children near, don’t let their grandchildren near, and don’t let anyone else related to them near even if they are ten generations removed!

And yet that’s exactly what God did. He allowed Canaanites and Hittites and Moabites and many others into his family, marriage and birth and on through generations, and then he joined them when he was born in Bethlehem. This is who God is,

Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own wealth? Or are you envious because I am generous? (Matthew 20:15.)

and who he has always been.

I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. (Deuteronomy 23:3.)

Tamar and Rahab and Ruth and Bathsheba are us – all of us – every woman and every man God has brought into his family. All are disqualified from entering his assembly, and yet he has qualified us through the gift of his Son. (Ephesians 3:12.) It is because of his grace in using those four women and all the women whose names are left out that we now enjoy fellowship in the Lord’s assembly, a gathering that includes those shepherds in the fields 2000 years ago.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:8-11.)

Good news and great joy. That’s what Tamar and Rahab and Ruth and Bathsheba gave us in their grandson (many times great).

That’s what comes with the gracious gift of Jesus our Savior at Christmas.


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15 Responses to Jesus’ Grandmothers Were Bad

  1. Marg says:

    Hi Tim, I have no doubt that God can and does use children born from an immoral relationship, but I don’t know if David and Bathsheba’s children are good examples of this. Both Solomon (Matt. 1:6) and Nathan (Luke 3:31 cf. 1 Chron 3:5) were conceived and born when David and Bathsheba were married.

    • Marg says:

      Also, Bathsheba isn’t named in the Greek of Matthew 1:6 (and in more literal English translations.) I believe this was done to highlight David’s sin and preserve Bathsheba’s honour as much as possible. (Identifying a woman by a male relative, and not including her own name, was an honourable way of identifying a woman in Bible times.)

      • Tim says:

        I thought the same when naming her as Uriah’s wife, Marg. As for the morality of the relationship between her and David, I’ve heard pastors point it out. Perhaps they are focusing on its origins, I don’t know. I was just outlining their incomplete teaching on the passage.

        • Marg says:

          The whole situation was utterly disastrous at the beginning, but it ended well for Bathsheba at least.
          Being the mother of a king was the highest social position a woman could achieve during israel’s monarchy. (Although Salome Alexandra was reigning queen of Judea in the years 76 to 67 BCE.)

  2. This has always been an element of the Scriptures that has fascinated me. It’s all Israel, Israel, Israel, but you have some pretty significant examples of people like these four women, and even some of the actions of the prophets that expand the view beyond Israel.

    It sometimes leads me to wonder if the nation of Israel was meant to mean more than just who descended from who. It was about a choice of who you were consciously identifying with and willing to follow. Tamar sought to be a part of that line even if it meant going to extreme measures. Rahab helped the Israelites against her own city. The text says how everyone was in a panic in Jericho for they had heard what God had done to Egypt, but only Rahab took that and wanted to identify with God and the people he had chosen. Ruth exhibits a similar trend by saying that Naomi’s God and people would be her God and her people.

    You then have Jesus who really drives the idea like this home by saying in John 8:31-47 that just because you’ve descended from Abraham doesn’t mean you’re acting like Abraham acted or that you’re children of God. What we call ourselves isn’t what is important, it is how we act and respond to God that is of utmost importance. These women did that, and it made quite the difference.

    • Tim says:

      Great analysis, Jeremy. God has always said that he is the God of all nations, and that all nations would be blessed through the work he does in his people.

  3. Don Johnson says:

    Jesus was born less than 9 months after Joseph and Mary married and this is one of the scandals that Jesus had applied to him. My take is Matthew is pre-empting a reader’s possible claim that God does not work through things that at least appear to involve sin and not just any sin, but sexual sin. He is also pre-empting a claim that gentiles are not a key part of God’s plan.

    I think one of the subtexts of the book of Ruth is: who will claim that David was an invalid king of Israel? This is actually a puzzle. How can David be a valid king of Israel, assuming the story in Ruth is true? All the clues are in the story.

    P.S. According to Torah, God-fearing gentiles were to be allowed to present a sacrifice at the altar in the temple, so they should certainly be allowed in the temple. The so-called Court of the Gentiles in the 2nd temple (beyond which no gentile was to go upon threat of death) was a human tradition that violated Torah.

    • Tim says:

      I was thinking about the ability of gentiles to join God’s people too, Don. God made provision for them in the law of Moses, and they are in the promise given to Abraham back in Genesis.

  4. Pastor Bob says:

    Good posting, an eye opener!
    Hair split time….
    “The inclusion of Bathsheba shows that God will use children of immoral relationships..”
    The child born of illicit activity died. The subsequent children (of which Solomon was the first -or first male?) was no doubt conceived after a ‘lawful’ marriage. We see no evidence to the contrary.


    • Tim says:

      Those four points are characterizing the way I’ve heard others teach it. I think what they mean regarding Bathsheba and David – though I’m not sure – is the relationship was immoral in the sense that it was tainted from the beginning.

  5. VelvetVoice says:


  6. Jeannie says:

    This is a great post, Tim — another great reminder of how God uses the unlikeliest to carry out his plan.

  7. Pingback: James 2:25. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? | From guestwriters

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