When it comes to perusing Biblical scripture, genealogies hardly make for scintillating reading, but that’s what we tucked into last Sunday night at Ember Faith Community in Lancaster, PA. To the uninitiated, genealogies can come across as tedious lists of difficult to pronounce names that at first glance do not hold any real theological importance. While Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus is lengthy and features some tongue twisting names, it cannot be said that his genealogy lacks theological substance – though it is ahistorical. In other words, the author of Matthew had a clear theological goal in mind when he wrote what we now call Matthew 1:2-17, which contains a pattern of three fourteen generation time periods. For Matthew, this establishes a foundation for his belief that Jesus is the Messiah. Mark Allan Powell notes that because the Messiah was to be a son of David that Matthew used fourteen generations because in Hebrew the letters for ‘David’ also serve as the numerals 4,6,4 which when added up equal fourteen (Powell, 103). Right from the beginning of the Gospel, the author makes it clear people’s expectations about the Messiah, and God, will be turned on their heads by Jesus and that Matthew has a “clear plan for his Gospel,” (Powell, 104).
This can be seen, starting with the genealogy. Stanley P. Saunders writes that, “Matthew creates a storied space in which even women and outsiders have their place in bringing God’s blessings to the world.” Matthew includes women in his genealogy which was quite radical at the time, and probably befuddles gender complementarians in our own time. “The inclusion of these women recall moments in Israel’s history when God’s purposes were accomplished through ordinary people, the disenfranchised, non-Israelites, the marginal, and by those who cross boundaries. The inclusion of these characters dislocates the audience from their everyday expectations about the origins of God’s anointed one.” (Saunders, 296). Not only are women named, they were marginalized women in their social contexts, and again in ours.
In Genesis 38, Tamar is introduced as a widow of one of Judah’s sons. Widows lived even more precariously than others in the Ancient Near East, thus having children and being part of a family was important for ensuring their survival. Tamar took matters into her own hands when Judah’s sons failed to live up to the normal code of levirate marriage. She posed as a temple prostitute with whom Judah has sex and impregnates. Tamar’s ploy works because she received a signet from Judah thus proving the paternity of the twins she was carrying. It is worth noting that Judah was not reviled by his community for having gone to a prostitute, but Tamar was when it was learned that she was pregnant. She did what she had to do to survive as a widow in a world where life was lived on the edge. Including her in the genealogy of the Messiah indeed makes a powerful statement.
Rahab was both a prostitute and a non-Israelite. Ruth was a Moabite widow who, like Tamar, did what she had to do in order to survive. She basically waits until Boaz is asleep after his threshing, eating and drinking, and then has sex with him. The text says “feet” which is a euphemism for penis. Ruth and Boaz then get married and she too plays an important role in the genealogy of Jesus and those who came before him. “The wife of Uriah” was Bathsheba, the woman whom David raped and then had her husband killed when it turned out she was pregnant. And finally there is Mary, a woman who became pregnant out of wedlock, whom we are told is the mother of Jesus – the Son of God. Marginalized women, all of whom had major roles to play in shaping Israelite history and Jewish social and theological views.
Clearly, Matthew has some big ideas when it comes to Jesus. Those ideas flew in the face of what many people thought the Messiah would be, whether it was a wise and powerful king, or fierce conquering warrior to who would restore the Israelite kingdom to its former supposed glory by throwing off the yoke of Roman oppression. Instead, we learn from Matthew that Jesus has so-called undesirables in his lineage, is born in a lowly manger, works as a day-laborer, has some radical ideas about God and how to live on earth, and dies an enemy of the Roman state on a cross that Romans used to inspire terror in their conquered enemies.
As we proceed through Advent, I hope that I can learn to see Jesus more distinctly in the lives of those who are marginalized, oppressed, and downtrodden. As I learn to see more clearly, I hope that I can live more faithfully to the teachings of the Anointed One. What hope does Matthew’s genealogy inspire in you?
Peace be with you.
Powell, Mark Allan: Introducing the New Testament
Saunders, Stanley P. : “Matthew” in, Theological Biblical Commentary
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