By Rev. Bob Thompson
Matthew 1: 1-17
The story of the Christian community in the New Testament, begins with the story of Jesus, in the four Gospels, and that story begins with Jesus’ genealogy in the first seventeen verses of the first chapter of Matthew.
The first thing to ask about genealogy is whether we believe it to be a factual account or not. And my answer is that “No, it isn’t a factual account.”
Matthew even hints at that when he says that there are fourteen generation from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to the Babylonian exile, and another fourteen, from the exile to Jesus. Scholars are in general agreement that Matthew is the most Jewish of the Gospels, and that the purpose of the genealogy is to establish that Jesus is the Messiah, promised in Old Testament prophesy. In that regard, the significance of the fourteen generations, is that each letter of the Jewish alphabet was given a numerical value, and fourteen is the accumulated value of the letters in King David’s name. To reach that numerical value in each of the segments, scholars know that Matthew left out some people in the last series from the exile to Jesus, and most likely added some people in the earlier portions, to come up with the fourteen generations.
So, the value in looking at this genealogy is not in its factual record, but in what it means in the tradition. And here, there are many interesting things to look at. One question that is raised for me, is that the genealogy ends with Joseph, Mary’s betrothed, even though, according to the tradition, he is not Jesus’ father. It’s a question that we raise – and leave – because we just don’t have the time to pursue it.
What I have focused on, is the four women Matthew names in the genealogy, even though women were never included in Jewish genealogies of the time. One might understand this inclusion, if it were some of the matriarchs of the people who were named – people like Sarah or Rachael, or Rebecca. But they weren’t. And so, what women did Matthew include in the genealogy?
One was Rahab. She was commonly known as Rahab the Harlot. She was a prostitute. Even more surprising, she was known as Rahab the Canaanite Harlot. She was a foreigner. In Joshua’s time, her house was on the city wall in Jericho, and when he sent spies into Jericho, to determine whether the Jews could conquer the city, they stayed at Rahab’s house. When the men of Jericho discovered that they were Jewish spies and tried to break into Rahab’s house to capture them, Rahab helped them to escape over the city wall. One commentary suggests that Rahab’s house was a good place to hide in plain sight, because strange men were always coming and going from there! Or perhaps, they just got distracted.
But I wonder why, if Matthew was trying to establish the Jewish credentials of Jesus’ genealogy, he included a foreign woman in it. That becomes an even greater question with the next woman, Ruth. In one sense, Ruth was a Jewish hero. She even had a book named after her in the Old Testament. But she was also a foreigner – a member of a foreign nation that was hated by their Jewish contemporaries. It was like present day Israelis making a hero out of a Palestinian woman. For me, the thing that was important about Ruth was her devotion to her mother-in-law. What lengths would she go to, to provide a secure home for Naomi? Naomi tells Ruth to go into the place where Boaz a wealthy relative, is sleeping, and uncover and lay at his feet. In the Bible, uncovering his feet is often a euphemism for uncovering another part of his anatomy. And Boaz ends up marrying her. She does what she must, to secure Naomi’s future.
As does Tamar. This is a rather complicated story. The ancient Jews didn’t believe in an existence after death, and the way in which a man’s legacy was guaranteed, was through his offspring. If a man died without a male heir to carry on his name, his wife was required to receive his eldest brother, and if a male offspring resulted from that liaison, he was to carry her husband’s name and legacy. In Tamar’s case, the eldest brother refused to honour his obligation, as did the other ten of her husband’s brothers. How was she going to fulfil her commitment to her husband? She ended up dressing like a prostitute, and camping by the side of the road, and when Judah, her father-in-law passed by - she seduced him. When Judah discovered she was pregnant, he called for her to be put to death, but she had had the foresight to steal his ring when they were together, and she sent the ring back to him, saying that the father of her child was the owner of this ring. Judah realized what she had done – what he had done, and allowed her to live, and fulfil her obligation to her dead husband.
And finally mentioned is Bathsheba. We are told that she committed adultery with David, but I don’t think that is what the text says. I think she was raped by King David, and when he found that that pleased him, he had her husband killed in battle so she could be added to his wives. Even the women at the highest place in the Jewish society, were there at the whim of the men who had control of their lives. But she ensured that Solomon, her son by King David, secured his throne.
Those were the women in Jesus’ genealogy. When I talked about this, six years ago, I tried to imagine why Matthew would have written his genealogy this way. But of course, I can’t, and it is a fruitless endeavor to wonder about it. And so, my reason for telling this, is to say that these stories are part of our tradition, and to ask what they tell me about Jesus and the kin-dom community.
I looked to some of the commentaries, and their explanation of why Matthew might have included these women, but I rejected most of them – I must say with a good deal of anger. They said these women were included ‘to show how God could redeem, even women like this’. But I don’t think these were women who need to be redeemed. These women were marginalized ----- in the biblical tradition of that time, their value and worth was at the whim of the men who controlled their lives. Rahab and Ruth were racialized. All of them were sexualized. That was their only significant role in the society. But none of them were victimized. Even in the limited context of their lives they were strong and courageous, and they went to whatever lengths they needed to, to protect and preserve their families. In the face of the hierarchy and paternalism which was in place to control and minimize them, they were strong women.
But they used all that strength and power and ferocious family loyalty, to push against the hierarchy and the patriarchy whose purpose was to disempower and subjugate them. What if the society of that time had been open to them using their strength and talent for the good of all? What might they have accomplished, and how might everyone benefitted by the strengths of their personalities?
And that makes me wonder about the problems of our society today – problems like homelessness, immigration, addictions, isolation of seniors. We tend to make it a problem of the victims – those who suffer as a result of these problems. They are the ones to blame. I want to say that the tradition out of which we come, affirms that we are all part of the problem, and what is needed is a new vision of community where all are included – where there is no ‘us and them’ – where a place must be made for the gifts and strengths of every one of us, as we seek for the way forward.
And that leads me to think about Jesus, and how this tradition affected him. I think that instead of rising above the people like these women of his genealogy, he sought to create a kin-dom community which embraced them, and made a place for us all to live and work together for the sake of everyone.
I think that so often, the stories of the heros we celebrate, are stories of men and women who were born into poverty or oppression and rose above it all – the rags to riches stories – the Cinderella stories. But that wasn’t Jesus’ story. That isn’t the story of our tradition. There are others like him – people who didn’t try to rise above the rest, but to create a community in which a place is made for all.
For that is the tradition of the community we are called to live in, and as I hear these stories, I’m reminded to seek for, and cherish, that kind of community.