Only ten shopping days until Christmas. If that statement’s not enough to make you put your daily Bible reading on hold until the New Year, the next one might be: Over the next three days we’re looking at Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew’s gospel. You know, the list of names of who “begat” whom. But before you run away, there’s actually a lot of interesting stuff buried in this list of names. Promise.
In the run-up to Christmas, we’re going to look at Matthew’s Christmas story (chapters 1 and 2). Luke’s will be next year, and I hope that before Christmas 2016 someone discovers another Gospel or I’m all out. And in looking at the Matthean* version (*pretentious scholarly adjective), we’re going to pay particular attention to the Old Testament background to what’s going on. For two reasons. One, it’s interesting and not always front-and-centre in our Christmas preaching. And two, Matthew himself seems to have a particular interest in bringing it out, as he stops several times in the story to point out “this took place to fulfil…”
What’s in a name? Or a whole list of them, for that matter?
Firstly, we can’t stress enough the importance of family heritage in the ancient world. For most Westerners, our occupation may be what defines us to others. Or our immediate role in a family or in a community. But in the first century, your ancestral heritage defined you. People were thought to inherit their moral character from their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc. So an impressive family line full of virtuous people was something to be proud of. And if you had any skeletons in the closet – well, you’d want to carefully airbrush them out.
Which makes Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus quite remarkable. Sure, he puts in all the good stuff. In particular, he shows how Jesus is descended from King David, which is important for the later claims Matthew will make about Jesus’ being the Messiah. Reflecting the Jewish love of number symbolism, he even arranges the genealogy in three fourteens (or six sevens): fourteen from Abraham to David; fourteen from David to the Exile; and fourteen from the Exile to Jesus. This is interesting enough in itself, as the division points are very symbolic. It foreshadows the idea that Jesus has come to fulfil the promises made to Abraham (Genesis 12), to David (2 Sam 7), and about the return from the Exile (Isaiah, Ezekiel, and elsewhere). But that’s not the remarkable bit.
You might also have noticed that mostly men get mentioned in the family tree. Hardly any women. Which makes sense I suppose. Since when it comes to having kids, men do most of the heavy lifting, right? I mean, for the 9 months of pregnancy we have to do all the heavy lifting, because once you’re pregnant you can’t bend. And then there’s the lifting of all the flatpack furniture from Ikea for the baby’s room. And during labour, lifting you on and off the bed… And you’re thinking: Tim, way to alienate 50% of your audience!** But that’s the kind of messed-up worldview in which these family trees were written. A world in which only men were important. Where women were treated as second class citizens, rather than equal partners. Or as property, rather than people.
Now let me make it clear that this isn’t God’s worldview. (Or mine, just to clarify.) But rather, it was the view of the cultures to which the Bible was written. And the view of the vast majority of cultures throughout the history of the world. In fact, the Bible suggests that this oppression of women by men was a direct result of human sin; and was nothing like the way God intended humanity to be.
But when we read the family trees in the Bible, we have to realise that it was pretty much all about the men. Now when I teach New Testament at college, I impress upon my students that it’s important to read the Bible in light of the culture in which it was written. That’s how we make sense of it. But it’s even more important to take note of when the Bible does something unexpected in its culture. Which is what we have at the beginning of the gospel of Matthew, when we read Jesus’ family tree. Women get mentioned! Three of them by name: Tamar, Ruth, and Rahab. In a patriarchal, male-centred culture, in a family tree full of more than forty men, three women are named and a fourth is alluded to.
And not particularly notable women either. Not ones you’d want to draw attention to if you were trying to impress your fellow Jews. Two of them aren’t from Israel. One’s a prostitute. And two others were involved in a couple of the biggest sex-scandals in Israel’s history. Yet those are the women Matthew chooses to name.
Why? There must be a reason. They must be there to tell us something. And that’s what we’re looking at over the next three days.
Let’s have a look at the first few generations of Jesus’ family tree, starting from Abraham, who lived about 2000 years before Jesus:Mt 1:1-3 A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham: 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar,
Whoa. There’s the first woman. Tamar. What’s she doing there? Particularly when there were some more famous Bible wives who don’t get mentioned. Abraham’s wife, Sarah. Or Isaac’s wife, Rebekah. They don’t make it into this particular family scrapbook. But Tamar does. Why? Who was she?
Well it’s a bit of a sordid story, really. (Read it in full in Gen 38.) More the plot for a Jerry Springer episode, than a Sunday School lesson. Tamar starts out as the daughter-in-law of Judah, one of Jacob’s 12 sons. But her husband soon dies, and she’s left childless. In ancient societies, that was doubly difficult: not only could you not become a mother, but in the absence of a welfare system, children were your pension plan. Her very ability to survive was at stake.
For this reason, it was the duty of the dead husband’s brother to take her as a wife – they often had more than one back then – and to provide her children. That was the way things worked. But Tamar’s brother-in-law refuses to do this. And God doesn’t seem too happy about it either. So that brother ends up dying as well. And Judah, with two dead sons on his hands, refuses to allow the remaining son to marry Tamar. She’s left with no one.
What she does next is an act of desperation, in a world where women have very limited options. Tamar puts on a veil and disguises herself as a prostitute. She works the street corner where she knows Judah, her father-in-law, will walk past. He picks her up, sleeps with her, gets her pregnant, all without knowing who she is. And he leaves his seal – a signet ring, that functioned a bit like a credit card – he leaves his seal as a pledge for payment. But when he goes back to pay, he can’t find her.
A few months later, the family finds out that Tamar’s pregnant. But not married. When Judah learns of this, his response is brutal: “bring her out, and have her burned to death.” This kind of rank hypocrisy was standard; one rule for a male head of the family, and another rule entirely for a woman. Just like today, where a sexually promiscuous man might get called a stud, whereas the term used for his female counterpart may not be quite so complimentary.
But Tamar has a trump card. She brings out Judah’s seal, proving it was Judah who got her pregnant. And all of a sudden no one is getting burned. She’s allowed to give birth, and has twin boys – Perez and Zerah.
And guess what: it’s through Perez that we trace Judah’s line. Judah had at least one other son that we know of in the story; perhaps more. But it’s the one that came from this sinful union with his daughter-in-law – it’s that son who continues the family line into which God’s son would be born. Interesting.
It’s like God’s sending us a message about how he works. About what Jesus has come to do. This broken, messed-up world – full of men using women as mere objects to satisfy their desire; full of Jerry Springer-like families; full of sin. It’s this kind of world that Jesus has come to restore. To put right. Not by blowing it up and starting over. But by regenerating it from within. Where sin is at its worst, that’s precisely where God is at work with his plan to make all things new.
No matter how messed up this world is. No matter how messed up your family background might be. No matter how messed up your life has become. Jesus came to put that right. In the midst of our brokenness, God’s at work to make good despite our evil. In fact, he’s at work to make good even from our evil.
That’s the Christmas message.
To think about
How have you seen God at work right where human sin is at its worst?
How does it make you feel, knowing that God chose this story to put – prominently – in Jesus’ family album?
** I once preached this at an event with all women in the room. Brave or stupid I don’t know. But they took pity on me as the only one there with a defective (or “Y”) chromosome.