Throughout this season of Advent our focus is “The Story of Christmas in 20 Words.” On each of the 20 weekday mornings ending on Christmas Eve, we’ll spotlight a single word from the Gospel accounts that helps us ponder more deeply the birth of Jesus.
Not all parts of the Bible are created equal.
Among its diverse literary forms are thrilling narratives, epic poems, detailed social legislation, pithy proverbs, and razor-sharp ethical guidelines.
And then there are the genealogies. And so-and-so begat so-and-so, who begat so-and-so. Line after line. Where’s the life-changing thrill in that?
Well, that depends. It depends whose roots are being explored. For some, genealogies prove to be the key to both identity and destiny.
The late Alex Haley never forgot when he first heard an elderly African griot, or oral historian, recite a crucial part of Haley’s own genealogy.
“There is an expression, ‘the peak experience,’ a moment which emotionally can never again be equaled in your life. I had mine, that first day in the village of Juffure, in black west Africa… Goose bumps came out on me the size of marbles.”
That’s the day that Haley first heard the story of his ancestor, the teenaged Kunta Kinte, who was captured by slave traders in 1752. Alex learned that his family, who had been slaves in Virginia and Tennessee, could trace their lineage all the way back to a particular tribal group in Gambia.
Roots, his 900-page 1976 bestseller chronicling the search for his own past, became a landmark TV miniseries the very next year. It also launched a national fascination with African-American history and genealogical research.
Four and a half decades later, family ancestry study is the second most popular hobby in America (gardening comes in at number one), and online genealogical research tools are among the top three most frequently visited types of websites. It is a billion-dollar industry that has recently spawned an explosion in personal DNA testing.
As Haley put it, “In all of us there is a hunger, marrow deep, to know our heritage. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning no matter what our attainments in life.”
It’s worth noting that the New Testament doesn’t begin with Jesus’ birth. It begins with Jesus’ roots.
Matthew 1:1 says, “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah…” Genealogy is the translation of two Greek words: biblos geneseos. As Bible scholar Dale Bruner points out, those words might just as accurately be translated, “book of Genesis.” Everyone in Israel knew that the book of Genesis begins with the beginning of everything. Matthew appears to be saying, “And now we come to the second great beginning in human history – the one in which God becomes a human being.”
Before we arrive at the first line of his birth narrative, Matthew connects the fully human Jesus with some of the greatest figures of Old Testament history: Abraham, Isaac, Judah, and David – all the way down to a carpenter named Joseph.
Not everyone in Jesus’ lineage was a paragon of virtue. His genealogy includes a con artist (Jacob), numerous heretics and idolaters (Ahaz and Manasseh stand out), an adulterer who covered up his affair with murder (the dark side of David) and “the wisest man in the world,” who somehow thought marrying 300 women wouldn’t complicate his domestic life (Solomon).
Then there are the four females.
Ancient world genealogies were typically Males Only. Women would be added only if they somehow enhanced the record, perhaps by means of their special achievements or widely acclaimed purity. Readers would expect to encounter the four most celebrated females in the Messiah’s family tree: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. But they are nowhere to be seen.
Instead, Matthew presents an unusual quartet of non-Jews, each of whom would have been considered less-than-ideal role models. They include Tamar (who seduced her father-in-law), Rahab (the prostitute from Jericho), Ruth (by birth a member of the despised Moabites), and Bathsheba (the object of David’s reckless fantasies).
What’s going on here?
Bruner suggests these four new matriarchs are shouting a message of deep forgiveness. The One who came into the world to save less-than-perfect people is not ashamed to be born into a family that is exclusively populated by less-than-perfect people.
Furthermore, “It is one of the purposes of the genealogy to teach believers that God is Lord over both past and future.” God promised to send a Rescuer. He chose to work through the relational chaos of ordinary people. “’Look,’ the finished genealogy says. ‘God promised a Christ – and he delivered.’”
Which brings us to our own genealogies.
We may look at our personal family trees and cringe. Or laugh. Or weep.
But God used the past to bring you to this moment.
And the same Jesus who is Lord of all your yesterdays just so happens to be the Lord of all your tomorrows.