An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah… (Matthew 1:1-7)
My great aunt, Celia Belle Yoder, keeps our family history. She’s ninety-five years old but sharp as a tack and shows no sign of slowing down. I went to visit her a few weeks ago. We spent an hour together as she walked me through our family genealogy. She’s a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and she can trace our family history back at least four hundred years. She tells me of well-known circuit-riding preachers who started churches a hundred fifty years ago, about Civil War soldiers, and about pioneers on the Oklahoma prairie. She wants me to know who I am and where I came from.
We begin this book of reflections about the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus precisely where Matthew begins the story-with the genealogy of Jesus. Scholars agree that Matthew does not give us a complete genealogy. He gives us just the highlights that he thinks are important. I’ve included only a portion of the genealogy above, but I would encourage you to read all seventeen versus (Matthew 1:1-17). Most people just skim them when reading Matthew, but there are important things to notice.
Here are a few. Matthew’s genealogy is a summary of nearly the entire Old Testament, from Genesis 11 to Malachi 4, capturing the stories of the patriarchs, the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt, and the exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land; there is David and Solomon and the divided kingdom, the destruction of Israel and the exile of Judah, and finally the return from exile. Here’s the point: Jesus’ birth is the climax of this entire story of God’s relationship with Israel. Jesus is the end to which the entire biblical story was moving.
It is often rightly noted that Matthew’s account of Jesus’ genealogy is nearly unique in that it includes five women. Putting women in a genealogy was not unheard of in the first century, but it was unusual. Who are these women, and what do they tell us about Jesus?
Tamar, the mother of Perez, played the role of a prostitute in order to have children after her husband died. Rahab, listed as the mother of Boaz, was a prostitute when she first entered the biblical story. She was also a foreigner. Then there was Ruth, who, like Tamar, was a widow and, like Rahab, was a foreigner. Bathsheba is mentioned next. She was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, which means that she may have been a foreigner, and she was an adulteress (or the victim of rape) at the hands of King David, after which David had her husband killed. She too was a widow. The last of the women mentioned in the genealogy is Mary, a peasant girl whose life we will examine in greater detail in the next reflection.
When my Aunt Celia Belle tells me our family’s history, she describes pioneers, soldiers, and preachers. When Matthew tells Jesus’ genealogy he lists two prostitutes and an adulteress, women who were outsiders. Matthew is, in this genealogy, pointing us toward Jesus’ identity and mission. Jesus would bring hope to the widow, mercy to the sinner, and good news not just for the Jews, but for all humankind.
Lord, thank you for your love of those whom others see as second class. Thank you for showing mercy to the sinner and compassion to the brokenhearted. As I begin this season of Advent, help me to see you more clearly in the stories surrounding your birth. Amen.