At Christmas Eve Mass, have your pastor read the 25 verses of the Gospel of Matthew rather than using the shorter form that skips the genealogy. I know that the proclamation of Matthew’s genealogy can be tedious for contemporary ears, but it contains critical information about the astonishing – and at times disturbing – unpredictability of God.
Genealogies were important in antiquity. They sought to explain the meaning of a person in light of the overall history of those who had come before him and helped establish the identity and authenticate the status of an important person, such as that of a king or of a priest. If certain ancestral traits reappeared in the descent, a genealogy could also reveal something about that person’s character.
Matthew’s genealogy attempts to link the birth of Jesus to Joseph and to the proud patriarchal Davidic line that every good Jew knew the Messiah would come (see Jeremiah 23: 5-6.) The first line says it all: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham. “Immediately we know that Matthew says that Jesus is the long awaited Messiah and that his line goes back to David then to Abraham.
There is a problem with this: Jesus is the son of Mary, not of Joseph.
Matthew himself calmly states this in verse 16: “and Jacob, the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called the Messiah”.
So here we have an elaborate and painstaking genealogy created to prove Jesus’ ancestral links with the male kings and patriarchs of Israel when in fact, as verse 19 explains, he was born of Mary by the power of the Holy One. -Spirit. Not by Joseph. Not by patriarchal power.
Enough to make any self-respecting feminist laugh.
Sojourner Truth’s 1851 speech arguing for women’s suffrage is pretty clear:
Then that little man in black over there [presumably a preacher], he says that women cannot have as many rights as men, because Christ was not a woman! Where does your Christ come from? Where does your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
“The man had nothing to do with Him.” While that does make the rhetoric rather amusing in the 21st century, it did not work so well for the pastoral sensibilities of the first century. For the sake of the Judeo-Christian community he wrote for, Matthew needed to relate Jesus to the Hebrew patriarchs and explain the unusual events surrounding Mary’s pregnancy, all within the context of tradition and history. Jewish.
He succeeds and it is simply masterful.
In addition to Mary, four women are woven into the Mattheenne genealogy: Rahab, Tamar, Ruth and “the wife of Uriah” (aka Bathsheba). The four women played a pivotal role in Jewish history and, according to renowned biblical scholar Fr. Raymond Brown, they came to be viewed in post-Biblical Judaism as instruments of the Holy Spirit. The four women had something irregular – some would say scandalous – about their unions with their partners.
Rahab (Jos 2: 1-24; 6: 1-2, 15-25) ran a brothel in Jericho. Joshua sent two men to reconnoitre the city before its planned siege. Rahab had gleaned a lot of information from his customers and shared it with Joshua’s spies. She saw that the Hebrews would prevail, “I know God gave you this land. Fear fell on us. … ”Rahab hid Joshua’s spies and helped them escape. In return, she was given safe passage for her entire home and family. Rahab became the mother of Boaz and, according to rabbinical tradition, was the ancestor of eight prophets, including Jeremiah and Huldah.
Tamar’s first husband (Gen 38: 6-30; 1 Chr 2: 3-6) before she had children, Er, died. As was customary, her stepfather Judah gave her to her second son Onan so that her late brother would have an heir. But Onan withdrew before his seed could enter Tamar and as a punishment he also died. A fearful Judah refused to give Tamar her third son, but neither did he free her from the levirate so that she could remarry. Since in antiquity a woman’s first duty was to produce a male heir, a resourceful Tamar disguised herself as a Temple prostitute and seduced Judah. She also asked him for personal items as a pledge of future payment. Tamar got pregnant and when Judah sought to burn her because she was a prostitute, she was saved by showing her her pledge. “She’s more right than I am,” said Judah. Tamar had twin sons, including Perez, who continued the Abrahamic line.
Ruth (Ruth 1-4) was a foreigner, a Moabite woman whose mother-in-law Naomi had migrated from Judah to Moab during a time of famine. After the deaths of the two wives’ husbands, Naomi decided to return to Judah. A childless Ruth insisted on coming back with her. Her loyalty to Naomi is remembered to this day with the popular wedding hymn “Wherever you go, I will go” (Ruth 1:16). Upon their return, Naomi encouraged Ruth to seek out a wealthy relative, Boaz, in the hopes of fulfilling the Levirate obligation to father a child for her deceased husband. Ruth did and Boaz married her. She gave birth to Obed, David’s grandfather.
Bathsheba (2 Sam 11: 1-27; 12: 1-25; 1 Kings 1-40; 2: 13-25) was the beautiful wife of Uriah the Hittite. While she was bathing one day, King David walked around the roof of the palace and saw her. He summoned her to his apartments, most likely raped her and made her pregnant. He then tried to cover him up and ordered Uriah to return home after the battle, hoping he would sleep with his wife. But Uriah refused to take pleasure while his comrades in arms died. David then sent Uriah to the front where he was killed. He took Bathsheba as one of his eight wives and ten concubines. After the Prophet Nathan rebuked David, the couple’s male baby died. David again impregnated Bathsheba and she gave birth to Solomon. Bathsheba then sailed the palace intrigues to ensure that his son, Solomon, succeeds David as king.
Matthew presents these four women as examples of how an unpredictable God unexpectedly used the initiative and courage of women to affect the line of the future Messiah.
In his classic book of childhood stories, The Birth of the Messiah, Brown explains:
It is the combination of scandalous or irregular union and divine intervention through women that explains the choice of Matthew in the genealogy. … Matthew has chosen women who prefigure the role of Mary, Joseph’s wife. In the eyes of men, her pregnancy was a scandal since she had not lived with her husband; yet the child was actually begotten by the Holy Spirit of God, so that God had intervened to fulfill the messianic inheritance.
What better way to witness to the power of an unpredictable God than to raise up a long-awaited Messiah from the least powerful of humans – a child born to a single mother? What better witness than a son without an apparent biological father, and therefore without claim to patriarchal privilege?
In the Women’s Bible CommentaryNew Testament scholar Amy Jill Levine observes that the unconventional birth of Jesus “indicates the restructuring of the human family: apart from patriarchal models, it is not directed or even defined by a male head of household.”
With such a genealogy, it is not surprising that Jesus – taught by his mother Magnificat – devoted his life to raising up the lowly, scattering the proud, and filling the hungry with good things.
In the Messianic Age, “family” would become a newly defined for Christians as deriving from God’s power to save through Jesus, rather than human patriarchal power. Early Christian communities viewed their kinship in Christ as a primary family identity.
Christmas is the perfect time to celebrate the unpredictable God of Jesus, who often confuses even the most deeply held of our human expectations.
It can be scary. It can also be liberating.
How will you bear witness to the unpredictable God of Jesus in a patriarchal world still so deeply lacking in transformative grace?