Jesus’ Genealogy

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If 2021 is the year you decided to read through the Old or New Testaments, you probably ran into a few dry spots in the month of January.

We’re talking about genealogies.

Alongside a handful of major characters, the opening chapters of Genesis introduce us to dozens of obscure individuals with hard-to-pronounce names.  These are folks who appeared on the human stage eons ago.  We know very little about any of them.  Matthew, likewise, launches his gospel with a genealogical tour de force, linking Jesus to both Abraham and David, two of the central figures in Jewish history.  Many of those names are also unfamiliar to us.

Most modern readers, upon encountering such lists, are tempted to yawn.  When do we get to something interesting?

People in Bible times, however, found genealogies exceedingly interesting.  They functioned as resumes.  The record of someone’s family heritage spoke volumes about their character and their legitimacy.

Certain individuals in our own time have rolled the dice by trying to edit their resumes and improve their public standing.  They gloss over failures and insert fictional achievements, hoping no one will notice.  It’s humiliating when they get caught. 

Marilee Jones, a dean at MIT, had been with the university for 28 years when the school realized she had never received the bachelor’s or master’s degrees she had claimed.  In fact, she had never received a post-high school degree of any kind.  Celebrity chef Robert Irvine was asked to step down from his cable TV cooking show when he claimed to have designed the wedding cake for Charles and Diana.  Irvine had merely helped choose some of the fruit topping.   Five days after being hired for his dream job – head football coach at Notre Dame – George O’Leary was forced to resign because he had falsely claimed a degree from New York University.  He had also described himself as a star football player at another college, even though he had never suited up. 

In his own genealogy, Jesus is essentially “interviewing” for a role even more important than coaching at Notre Dame (yes, there really is such a job). 

God had promised a Messiah.  A Savior.  A Rescuer and Deliverer who would set Israel right, and in the process would set the entire world right as well.  Those examining his pedigree would expect to see perfection.

That’s why a particular anomaly in his genealogy is so surprising.  Shocking, actually.

Matthew includes the names of four women.  Historically, genealogies were records of male ancestry.  Women might be identified from time to time if they radically enhanced the dignity and purity of one’s lineage.  Matthew, for instance, might have mentioned any of Israel’s four most famous matriarchs: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah. 

Instead, he calls out Tamar, who contributed to Jesus’ DNA by means of an incestuous relationship.  And Rahab, a prostitute.  And Ruth, an immigrant from Moab, a despised neighboring country.  And Bathsheba, who is identified as “Uriah’s wife” – that would be the faithful soldier David murdered in order to cover up the king’s affair with her.

Matthew seems to have gone out of his way to lift stories off the front page of the ancient world equivalent of The National Enquirer.  These women are not typical role models.

But as Dale Bruner points out in his commentary on the gospel, their inclusion has the impact of a powerful sermon.  Matthew is preaching the good news of God’s deep and wide mercy.  We must not conclude (as have previous generations of Bible students) that this is a quartet of seductresses.  It’s more accurate and compassionate to conclude they were substantially used, damaged, and compromised by the male actors in their stories.  But now God is saying, “These are the ordinary, broken people through whom I am blessing the world.”

What’s the big point, according to Bruner?  God keeps faith

It may seem that his promise of bringing a Savior into the world through Abraham’s descendants keeps running off the rails.  But as James Baldwin put it, “God never seems to come when you want him, but when he gets there he’s right on time.”

Flip over a beautiful, handknitted rug and you’ll discover what the skilled weaver has done.  You’ll see the knots that were tied.  You’ll be able to trace the choices that only a genuine artist would have made. 

In the same way, God the Artist used your great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents – and all the mistakes and bad choices they made along the way – to bring you into the world.  We may question God’s wisdom in blessing such a risky endeavor.  But our genealogies teach us that God is Lord over past generations.  And he is Lord over generations still to come. 

That’s why you don’t need to fix up your resume. 

If our Savior can arrive in the world as a part of a story that takes less-than-perfect behavior into account, you can be certain that God already has you right where he wants you.