The story of Ruth concludes with a genealogy—but why? “Why end this beautiful story with a family tree, a piece of dusty historical information about long-dead people?”1 Samuel moves the reader from famine to harvest, from faithlessness to faithfulness, from widowhood to marriage, from barrenness to fruitfulness, and ultimately from death to life. In this sense a birth and a genealogy is a fitting way to conclude Ruth’s story. Samuel concludes with resurrection reversal in a genealogy of the child Obed, who will be a “restorer of life.” Obed’s birth has an unmistakable connection to the future kingdom of David, and thus it drives the reader into the future. It is not an exaggeration to say that the future course of history was altered with the resurrection at the end of Ruth’s story. One scholar notes,
This short genealogy quickly advances the story’s time frame from “long ago” (i.e., “the judges’ days”) to “recently” (i.e. a time closer to the audience). . . . Suddenly, the simple, clever human story of two struggling widows takes on a startling new dimension. It becomes a bright, radiant thread woven into the fabric of Israel’s larger national history. . . . Yahweh’ guidance takes on new meaning. His gracious care for two defenseless widows now emerges as divine guidance for the benefit of all Israel.2
The genealogy authenticates the kingdom of David, pushing the promises of David’s kingdom far into the future. Think of it—David’s kingdom was historically connected with resurrection as the means by which it was established and as the means by which it would move into the future. Thus the kingdom of David was a kingdom of resurrection life. LaCocque says,
The whole book of Ruth is also centered on the perpetuation of the generations in Israel, and by extension, on the indispensable culmination of salvation history—here in the person of David, then in the Messiah.3
Therefore, the concluding genealogy has redemptive/theological dimensions that are eschatological. This is a fancy way of saying that Samuel uses this story to point us forward into history towards the last things—the culmination of history itself in the coming of Messiah’s kingdom. Imagine—all of that from a genealogy!
The Theology of Genealogy
Genealogies played an important role in Jewish culture. In fact they were so important that Paul gave specific warning against the misuse of genealogies. It may strike the contemporary reader as rather odd that of all the things Paul could have warned the people of God to avoid, he told them to avoid disputes over genealogies. He says, in 1 Timothy 1:4—“nor give heed to fables or endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith.”
The Hebrew people were painfully aware of the importance of history and they used genealogies to link themselves to the past. They were the people of God and this could be traced through their genealogies. Genealogies are sprinkled almost everywhere across the pages of the Old Testament. Rarely is a person mentioned in the Old Testament without at least some brief reference to his or her genealogical roots. (Joshua son of Nun, Solomon son of David, etc.) While most preachers and readers skip or ignore biblical genealogies, genealogies were very important to the people of God, but why? Why did God use genealogies in the Bible? Was this merely for the sake of establishing a good pedigree? There were many practical reasons for emphasizing genealogies.
a. land: Determining a family’s place of residence in the land was determined by tribes, families, and father’s houses (Num. 26:52–56;33:54) Sometimes in order to establish one’s claim to property it was legally necessary to produce a valid genealogy to substantiate one’s claim. The transfer of land required accurate knowledge of genealogy. (Ruth 3:9,12,13;4:1–10)
b. employment: In order to lay claim to certain jobs in the religious system that was central to Israel one had to produce a valid genealogy. For instance, in order to become a member of the most important social class among the Jewish people, a priest, one had to produce a genealogy connecting one to the family of Aaron. Upon return from Babylon a person claiming priestly prerogatives was required to provide a genealogy proving priestly descent. (Ezra 2:62) Genealogies were especially important for the high priestly job. Jobs in the temple also were connected to the tribe of Levi.
c. title: In order to validate one’s claim to a title of standing as leader, had to produce genealogical evidence for the claim. Indeed, royal succession was linked with Davidic lineage (I Kings 11:36; 15:4)
Genealogies played a very practical role in the social/political life of the Hebrew people. The genealogy with which Matthew began his gospel was not an attempt to claim a high pedigree for Jesus. Rather, its principal intention is to substantiate Jesus’ claim to a title, the claim to the title, CHRIST.
Genealogies link us to the past for a sense of the future.
The practical reasons were connected with the theological reasons. Genealogies link us to the past as something vital for our future. This may be hard for many of us to appreciate as modern/post-modern thinkers. We tend to have a distrust of things that are old. We tend to deride and to distain the aged and the ancient. Consequently, we don’t have a great deal of interest in history, historical things or least of all in genealogies. In fact, genealogies may well be the lowest on the scale of historically interesting things to study.
The Bible is structured to oppose this way of thinking. It may also help to remember that the Bible is an historical document. The Bible constantly tutors us to appreciate history. The Bible draws our minds to the redemptive events of God in history and from these objective events we are encouraged to look forward. Genealogies are critical to this kind of thinking. Genealogies link us to the past and provide us with the memory God wants us to have. Genealogies don’t win beauty prizes for their glamour, but they are like links in a chain of history. There is very little about genealogies that are thrilling or nostalgic, which seems to be the way God wants them. As an emotional reflection on the past, God doesn’t encourage nostalgia. One could define nostalgia as a wistful or excessively sentimental longing to return to some past period that in reality cannot be recovered. In this sense, nostalgia is not helpful for Christians before Nostalgia,” says, historian Christopher Lasch, “does not entail the exercise of memory at all, since the past it idealizes stands outside time, frozen in unchanging perfection.” Memory, on the other hand, “draws hope and comfort from the past in order to enrich the present.”4
Biblical genealogies do exactly this—they require us to build on the past and as such they not only enrich our present, but they inspire us into the future.
We generally use genealogies to help us trace our family history. Do you know your family history? I enlisted the help of a local genealogical expert to help me in discovering more about my family’s history on the Jackson side. I might add that, unless you are willing to be honest about your “roots,” this can be a dangerous endeavor. Genealogies are a double-edged sword. The danger comes, of course, if you are not prepared to discover connections that you didn’t really want to unearth. For instance, I tried to persuade my genealogist to find some kind of genealogical connection to Stonewall Jackson. If not Stonewall, then I hoped she might at least connect me to Andrew Jackson or perhaps some noble hero of American history or maybe a distant relative who was instrumental in the Protestant Reformation. Instead, she told me that there were a lot more Irish Catholics in my family than I was willing to admit. For a long time my wife’s Irish Catholic connections had been the brunt of family jokes. Now my wife happily redirects the same old jokes back to my side of the family.
Genealogies link us back not only to the good portions, but to everything. The good, the bad, and the ugly are all part of who we are in our family history. If genealogies are studied properly, they provide a true sense of “rootedness.” If you study your family’s history through genealogies, you may find yourself amused. In so many cases, those of us who know our family history find ourselves amused and comforted when we say, for example, “well this is definitely the ‘Jackson’ coming out in that boy.”
Knowing your family history can inspire you to continue to be faithful. I am proud of my father, for instance, because he broke a long chain in his immediate family history. Neither of his parents finished high school, and he was the first member of his family to go to college. Not only did he go to college, but he entered and finished dental school, becoming the first professional in our family. You don’t appreciate these kinds of things as a child, but the older you get, the more you appreciate your family history and the way such history can be beneficial in so many ways.
Knowing your family’s genealogy can give you a sense of steadiness and hope. You can think back about what God has done through your ancestors, and you find courage and hope for what God may do through you. Very few of us have this sense of history rooted in our own experience—a few of you may. We are close friends with a family in Ohio who have a sign at the entrance of their farm reading, “Keys homestead—established 1836.” This means that the present Keys family who live on this farm can trace their heritage on the land for several generations. Needless to say, when Dad Keys passed away and the funeral procession slowed down as it passed the Keys farm, the deep family connections to their farm provoked a flood of emotions. In this way a family history can offer a sense of steadiness as we reflect on what God has done in our families in the past. It confirms the basic truth that says, “Knowing where you came from is very helpful in giving you a sense of where you are going in the future.”
The Covenant of Grace:
Not only do genealogies comprise our family histories, but genealogies structure much of the Bible. The biblical genealogies correspond to the history of redemption—to the covenant of grace. In fact, there is a sense in which the entire Bible is the story of God’s covenantal dealings with his people. After the fall, Adam and Eve were hopeless and helpless. God came to them and established a covenant of grace with them (Genesis 3:15). This was the promise of the Messiah who was to come. This covenant of promise was continued through Noah (Gen. 6–9). God was faithful and continued to unfold his covenant of grace with his people as he called out Abraham (Genesis 12, 15, & 17).
This covenant of grace always spoke of the same thing: salvation by grace through faith in the Christ. However, the covenant of grace was progressively unfolded to the people of God. They were given a family heritage and a land in which to live. While these promises pointed to specific items (i.e. land), they always pointed beyond themselves to the Christ to come. The land was not to be the permanent dwelling of the people; rather the whole earth—indeed, a new heaven and a new earth—was the future promise.
Please note that there was always a future hope. The items given to Israel were never considered the permanent fulfillment of the covenant of grace. There was always a pointing to the future hope of a Messiah. As the people became a nation with specific laws for morality and for worship, God unfolded his covenant to them even more. He made what some call the covenant of the kingdom (2 Samuel 7). Finally in Jeremiah 31 we have a promise of a new covenant, the final covenant in this series of covenants, all comprising the covenant of grace. This points us to the Christ, and we should see the connected and intimately interwoven nature of the covenant of grace. It was not their culture, their race, or their land that gave the people of God their identity; the people of God were always saved by grace through faith in the Christ—this was their identity.
The Covenant of grace unfolds and remains connected
Matthew began his gospel with the words biblios geneseos, a book of genealogy or a book of beginnings. The genealogy traces two major lines: the line of Abraham and the line of David. Jesus came as the perfect fulfillment of the covenant promises given to Abraham and David. The New Testament, no less than the Old Testament, includes genealogies. In fact, Matthew began with the same phrase that is used in Genesis 2:4 and 5:1 in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament.
The entire book of Genesis is structured around the Hebrew word toledot. This word, sometimes rendered “the generations of” or “the genealogy of,” introduces the new developments in the Genesis narrative; (5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12, 19; 36:1, 9; 37:2) Genesis is structured according to genealogical/family histories. From the very beginning, God used the structure of the family to define history. The genealogies emerge as the skeletal structure of redemptive history moves forward. Adam represented his descendants, and after his fall into sin, the families that issued from him followed different genealogies.
a. Cain’s descendants (line of Satan)
b. Abel’s descendants (line of the woman)
This idea continues as family genealogies define redemptive history for us. Abel’s descendants lead us to Noah. And we all know that Noah and his family entered the ark during the flood. From the ark the different sons arose and immediately continued the story of how the different generations or genealogies would move into history.
Abraham and his family were called out and continued the story of families in Genesis 12, 15, and 17. Moses was called to lead the descendants of Abraham, and the genealogies began to become even more defined. In all of these stories, God was honoring covenantal promises. It helps to notice that the promises were never exclusively ethnic. They were comprised of families, but not by pure blood lines. The emphasis on ethnicity was a consistent mistake of the Israelites, not God.
When Matthew began his gospel with a genealogy, he was offering proof that Jesus was the Christ. Christ was not his name but his title. Christos means “the anointed one.” Jesus bears the title of the one who is the Messiah. He is Jesus the Christ. All of the promises related to the coming Messiah were pointing to the Christ, Jesus. The genealogy is substantive proof of Jesus’ claim to this title. The rest of the gospel continues to offer conclusive evidence that Jesus is, indeed, the Christ.
We see Jesus connected to the covenant through Abraham, and we also have evidence of Jesus’ connection to the kingdom of God through the line of David. Note 2 Samuel 7:12 & 16: “When your days are fulfilled and you rest with you fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom forever . . . and your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before you. Your throne shall be established forever.”
What kind of Messiah?
When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, many Jews expected an ethnic hero to lead them to victory over the Romans—someone to expel the foreigners from the land and establish a Jewish national kingdom. We learn very quickly that God was not concerned with racial purity or spotless ethnic clarity. In fact, it was the genealogy that shattered such a conception of the kingdom of God. God gave the blessings of the genealogies to his sovereign choice so that men would always know that it was not their race or their valiant efforts that gained them salvation, but it was the grace of God alone; God’s sovereign choice, and not man’s efforts, is supreme. This confirmed Paul’s words, “It is not of him who wills nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy” (Romans 9:16). The genealogies teach the sovereignty of God.
• Isaac (from Sarah) not Ishmael
• Jacob & Esau: twins (Genesis 25)
• Perez & Zerah: twins (Genesis 38)
• Joseph (favored though younger)
• Ephraim(younger) & Manasseh (firstborn) [Genesis 48]
This is true of David’s kingdom, which was not established by his own strength or his family’s efforts. His natural family history included incest and violence. Indeed, he himself was involved in many terrible sins, such as adultery and murder. No, David did not gain his kingdom through his own strength; he gained his kingdom through the resurrection power of God, as Samuel reminds us in Ruth’s story.
Don’t be like the Pharisees!
Be very careful how you think about the kingdom of God. Don’t be like the Pharisees, who limited their thinking to a specific ethnic group and a specific plot of ground. When we see the kingdom promises given to God’s people as limited to the nation of Israel, we destroy the very nature of the promises as blessing to all the nations of the earth.
Were God’s kingdom promises limited to the nation of Israel? Is this period of history in which Ruth lived a parenthesis between the Old Testament kingdom of the past and the Old Testament kingdom of the future? The genealogy in Matthew 1 militates against such a view. Matthew was writing to Jews who apparently had a false understanding of the Messiah to come and who assumed they had ethnic centrality in the covenant promises.
Sometimes having an illustrious genealogy becomes a source of pride. Perhaps you have read stories of the pride of powerful aristocratic families who considered themselves elite because of their family history. Certainly this attitude was prevalent with the Jews of Jesus’ day. You can virtually hear a proud Jewish father saying, “My family can trace it roots directly back to Abraham himself.” “Yes, the father of our faith is my great, great, great, etc.” No, said Jesus, you have misunderstood the purpose of the genealogies. If you think you are something wonderful because you are a descendant of Abraham, you are deceived. He reminded them that he could make sons of Abraham from stones. The genealogies did not exist to point to ethnic or family pride but to point entirely to the grace and faithfulness of El Shaddai, God Almighty.
One of the central purposes of the genealogies was to drive the covenant people away from self-reliance and pride. It was “to show that the reign of David resulted from neither his shrewd politics nor his clever tactics, but from the divine preservation of his worthy family line. Therefore, Israel was to accept David’s kingship as the gift of divine guidance.”5
What fools! Imagine the stupidity of taking pride in that which was supposed to be a source of humility! What audacity the nation had in the days of Jesus. Nothing was supposed to point them to ethnic superiority! God makes this unmistakably clear as he includes the obvious string of foreigners in the genealogies. This should have been conclusive evidence that God’s family was not an ethnic family, but one of faith.
Incidentally, what a great remedy the church becomes for ethnic and racial strife. In the genealogy of grace, God through Christ is gathering all peoples from every tribe and tongue from the earth. The genealogies were never about ethnicity, but grace. Certain schools of theology actually focus on this mistake—they are obsessed with everything Jewish. They make the same mistake that the Pharisees of Jesus’ day made in regard to covenant promises. They assume that God has some sort of ethnic affiliation to the Jews. The family history of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was never about ethnicity. Paul makes this very clear in Romans 9, where he states, “Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (vs. 6). It is the faith of families that offers grace to the descendants—not blood or ethnicity. Covenant theology emphasizes this teaching of Scripture; other theologies do not adequately account for this teaching.
A New Family
Jesus Christ came to earth, breaking into the darkness and death of the genealogy of our father Adam. He willingly walked to the cross, taking to Himself the curse and punishment due to all those in the family of Adam and creating for Himself the family of God. Jesus took upon himself the sins of his people. This is why they are faithful; the family of God is faithful because God is faithful. We can’t repeat this enough. The family of God is faithful because God is faithful. Christians should take personal comfort in this central part of their family history!
Thus the genealogy of grace includes sinners of all the families of the earth. Yes, the genealogies we see in the Bible demand that we notice that the gospel includes the outcasts and the needy. In fact, Jesus’ ministry is an amazing account of someone who deliberately went to the outcasts and to the rejected. Jesus blatantly ignored the social, economic, and racial barriers that characterized his day. He included people that nobody else would include. He loved people that nobody else would love. He touched people that nobody else would touch.
The genealogy of grace includes those who willingly submit to the rule of the Lord and who recognize their need of a King—the humble. This means that the genealogy of grace is necessarily going to include people that you and I might naturally have excluded from our family history. For instance, if we were creating our own ideal family, history we might be tempted to leave out crazy Uncle Joey or that cousin who died in prison. Not so the Bible—biblical genealogies are designed point to God’s sovereignty, not to human achievements. This is why so many women and foreigners were included in Christ’s genealogy. Note in particular the kind of women in the genealogy.
vs. 3—Tamar (Genesis 38)
vs. 5—Rahab (the harlot from Jericho)
vs. 5—Ruth (Moabites)
vs. 6—Bathsheba (who had been the wife of Uriah the Hittite)
These are the mothers of our faith? Yes, these are the humble women who responded to the call of faith. Not only do these women illustrate the kind of humble saints that God calls to himself, but they highlight for us that this family history is one of grace alone. It may not strike the modern reader as unusual to include women or foreigners, but women and foreigners in particular did not possess the same standing as others did in the ancient world. Contrary to human expectations, the genealogy of grace included women, and not only women, but foreigners and prostitutes. God chooses contrary to human expectations, and his grace is extended to the humble, not the proud.
The Bible is full of all of the stormy conflicts and deceitful conniving that unfaithful men used in an attempt to establish a great family. These schemes or tricks were not only included as a part of the genealogy of the Old Testament, but they seem to constitute the major part of this family history. One theologian noted this well saying,
There is undeniably a succession of “improper” events in salvation history. . . . To a certain extent, they constitute the backbone of this history. . . . In the name of this (covenantal and eschatological) vision, Jacob is moved by a consuming passion, Rachel demands children or death (Gen. 30:1), and Tamar forces events (Gen. 38). Errors of incalculable proportion are committed: Sarah puts Hagar in Abraham’s bed, Lot commits double incest, Jacob “hates” Leah.6
Beloved in Christ, the list could go on and on. This is the story of the genealogy of God’s family. Think of what LaCocque says: “They constitute the backbone of this history.” How did we get where we are? What kept things moving forward? What kept them alive in the midst of all of this sin, deceit, and dysfunction? What propelled them forward as somehow worthy of the attention of God? Stories like Ruth answer the question beyond doubt. Our answer is the sovereign grace of God alone.
Where men strive to grasp after an inheritance, they lose it. Where they deceive in order to gain a name, they are foiled. They lie, cheat and steal to grasp after what they could never attain by their own efforts. The difference in this family is not their intelligence, their wit, or their wisdom, but the sovereign grace of God. They are, as Paul says in Romans 9, “vessels of grace.”
The genealogies do not point us to great men and women as such; they point us to the faithfulness of God. The faithfulness and the grace of God is our family history. Saints of God, you truly have a genealogy of grace! Think of it—in Christ your immediate family history is overpowered and replaced. So many people are hurting and wounded from their immediate family sins, but all who turn to Jesus become members of a new family; they have a genealogy of grace. The faithfulness of God changes our direction and gives us hope.
The biblical genealogies are a tribute to God’s faithfulness in the face of our sinful unfaithfulness. God is faithful even when the father of our faith, Abraham, flees to Egypt in fear. Why did Abraham run to Egypt for help? Quite simply, Abraham was not always faithful. But God is always faithful to fulfill his promises. The ultimate faithfulness of our father Abraham did not come because he possessed an awesome commitment or a tenaciously courageous spirit; it emerged because of God’s faithfulness to his own covenant promises.
Biblical authors sometimes used the title El Shaddai, God Almighty, when they wanted to emphasize that God was faithful in spite of overwhelming odds to the contrary. Yes, it is El Shaddai who provides salvation when men falter and fail. What a glorious heritage we have in him! This is our story; this is our genealogy of grace and faithfulness.
We can overcome child abuse, sexual scandals, and a whole litany of sins that rack our families and our natural genealogies. We can overcome them because we are now members of God’s family, and God is faithful. Yes, God is faithful, and the genealogies prove it. We are adopted into a new genealogy—we are members of a new family who through Jesus have received the grace of God.
Entering into God’s family through Christ shatters the bonds of slavery that once held us children of our father Adam. Your father may have been an alcoholic who beat you and your siblings, but in Christ the genealogy of sin and darkness is broken. The genealogy of grace shatters the darkness and bursts the shackles of our former family ties. The family ties with Adam are not the ties that bind; it is grace the binds us. Those who become members of the family of God are in Christ, and they are not bound to live forever in pornography, greed, or anger. Your father or mother may have given you birth into a family of death, but if you turn to the Lord, as Ruth turned to Him, then God gives you new birth into a family of grace and life. It is the genealogy of Christ that overcomes the genealogy of every sinful family, both now and into the future.
How many people feel overwhelmed by the constraints of family history and thus despair! Some might say, “My dad was an angry vicious man, and I guess that is all I’ll ever be.” No, Ruth’s story calls you to resurrection power. Ruth’s story calls you to Jesus the husband of a new family. If you turn to Jesus, you are no longer under the dominion of family sins—don’t believe the psychologists and “experts” who tell you otherwise.
Our history is hopeful because the genealogies teach us about the faithfulness of God. Don’t be convinced of anything else. Do not allow anyone to mislead you about the past. Karl Marx once said that if you deprive a people of their sense of history, you can convince them of anything. This can’t be the case with Christians. We have a genealogy of grace that determines our future, and as I have already said, knowing where you came from is very helpful in giving you a sense of where you are going.
This means that your destiny is resurrection living. What an appropriate way to conclude this story of Ruth. Moab was the land of famine and death. If Ruth’s destiny belonged to her land, to her people, or to her family, she was born into slavery and death, and thus she had no future. But praise be to the Lord, by his grace Ruth became the mother of Obed in the land of Judah in the city of Bethlehem. God gave her new birth into a new family full of life and hope. Beloved, be encouraged to know that Ruth’s story is also our story in the greater Boaz, the greater Obed, even Jesus Christ, our faithful husband. 1. Ferguson, Faithful God, p.144.
2. Ron L. Hubbard, Jr., The Book of Ruth, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1988), pp. 277–278.
3. Andre LaCocque, Ruth, p. 118.
4. Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (New York: Norton, 1991), 82ff. I am indebted for this quote to John Muether, historian for the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
5. Hubbard, Ruth, p. 278.
6. Andre LaCocque, translated by K.C. Hanson, Ruth: A Continental Commentary, (Fortress Press, Minneapolis), p. 84.
Rev. L. Charles Jackson is pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Dayton, Ohio.
Questions for Consideration
1. How does a genealogy “advance the time frame” of our story?
2. What does it mean to say Ruth’s genealogy is eschatological?
3. What are some reasons people don’t like genealogies?
4. How can nostalgia be dangerous?
5. What were three practical reasons Israelites needed genealogies?
6. How are genealogies a double-edged sword?
7. How do genealogies structure the Bible?
8. How do the biblical genealogies teach the sovereignty of God?
9. Why are outcasts, misfits, and “improper” people included in the genealogies?
10. Recount the ways in which the Christian’s genealogy of grace encourages us to be faithful.