Thursday, November 28, 2013

Part VI Matthew: The Genealogy (1:1-17)

By John Shelby Spong

 “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” — that is how the gospel of Matthew begins. The word “genealogy” means “origins,” beginnings. It could thus also be translated the book of the “genesis” of Jesus, the messiah. For “genesis” is what is being described in this opening chapter and Christ is simply the Greek translation of the Hebrew word “machiach,” which means messiah. If the words “genesis” and “messiah” were both used in an English rendition of this text, it would become very obvious that Matthew was a Jew writing to a Jewish audience about the Jewish Jesus to make the claim that he was the expected Jewish messiah. I suspect that all of these things were obvious both in Matthew’s mind and in the minds of the Jewish audience for whom he wrote. Matthew, we will discover later, will divide his teaching of Jesus into five major blocks, just like the Torah was divided into five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. So it should not be surprising that Matthew opens his gospel with his account of Jesus’ “genesis.” Today we will circle back to the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel to examine his view of the “genesis” of Jesus.

Matthew’s genealogical narrative begins with Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation. Jesus is to be heir to and the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham. In this “genesis,” Matthew will also touch a second major moment in Jewish history. This was their memory of the days of Jewish glory, the golden age of Jewish history, which they had identified with King David. Among his many accomplishments David had begun the plans for the building of the Temple in Jerusalem. His son Solomon had brought this Temple to completion. As the years rolled by King David, despite many character weaknesses, still had his reputation filled with the mythological content of heroes. Ultimately all Jewish dreams of the coming messiah included in them the re-establishment of the royal house of David as the mark of the arrival of the Kingdom of God. Matthew touched all of these bases in his “genesis” of Jesus. He was the son of Abraham, the son of David and the messiah for whom the people yearned.

The third experience in Jewish history to which this “genesis” would allude was the most painful moment these people ever endured. They called it “The Babylonian Exile.” It came about after the defeat of the Jews at the hands of the Babylonian army that happened first in 596 BCE and then once again a decade later in 586 BCE, when an ill-conceived rebellion broke out in Jerusalem. To pacify the land, the Babylonians moved significant numbers of the Jewish population to the land of Babylon, where they became an underclass of cheap labor. That kind of exile normally ended in the loss of national identity as intermarriage occurred and the people forgot their own biological roots and places of origin. That had been the fate of the Northern Kingdom of Israel when they were defeated by and exiled into the land of the Assyrians in the 8th century BCE. Today, we call them “The Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.”

Matthew, however, was well aware that the defeated Jewish people survived this crisis of the exile. They did it with Herculean efforts to keep themselves apart from the people of Babylonia. They accomplished this by emphasizing those things that made them separate and different. The Jews of the Exile observed the Sabbath by refusing to work on the seventh day of every week; they adopted Kosher dietary laws that prevented them from eating with and thus from fraternizing with non-Jews, and they placed the sign of their Judaism, circumcision, on the bodies of every Jewish male. Those intense efforts at separation paid off and in time these exiles were able to return to their homeland as a cohesive people. This was the time when they began to dream of the one who would someday come to restore the power and the fortunes of the Jewish people. These were the notes that Matthew struck in his genealogy. He wanted his readers to know that Jesus was the son of Abraham, the son of David and the expected messiah. Despite the boring nature of these opening verses this “genesis” was terribly important in developing the purpose of Matthew’s work.

Everyone, including Matthew and his original readers, knew that this genealogy was not literally accurate. It was filled with stylized numbers. All of the great moments of Jewish history were divided, said Matthew, by fourteen generations. From Abraham to David was fourteen generations, from David to the Exile was fourteen generations and from the Exile to the birth of Jesus was fourteen generations. What was that about? Since seven was the holy, perfect and lucky number, the generational dividers were double sevens or fourteen in number. It was an interesting, but historically impossible claim to make. The years between Abraham and David were about 900, the years between David and the Exile about 400 and the years between the Exile and Jesus were about 600. If a generation was 20 years, which would be the average measure in a world where the life expectancy was 30-40 years, the separation between Abraham and David would be closer to 45 generations; between David and the Exile, 20 generations, and between the Exile and Jesus, 30 generations. In the line that connected David to the Exile, Matthew claimed to be following the kings of the Southern Kingdom, but he still left out some kings that were actually named in the biblical story in order to produce his rounded symmetry. Matthew surely knew this. The audience for which he wrote would also have known this, for they were both conversant with the Jewish Scriptures and with Jewish history. Thus it would not have occurred to them to think that this genealogy or “genesis” of Jesus was to be treated literally. That would be the later contribution of the Gentiles who became almost exclusively dominant in the Christian church by 150 CE. Lacking the Jewish knowledge and background to read or to understand these basically Jewish gospels, they assumed that they were reading literal history. I repeat a general theme of this entire series. Biblical fundamentalism was born in Gentile ignorance. It is a “Gentile Heresy!”

One other detail in this “genesis” must have leapt out at the original Jewish reader. Four women are named in the genealogy of Jesus, all of whom have their stories told in the Bible itself. To include women in a genealogical line of ancestors, whether historical or mythological, was quite rare because in the ancient world, the role of women in reproduction was simply not understood. Western science did not definitively establish the existence of an egg cell in the female until the early years of the 18th century. People thought of reproduction after the analogy of a farmer planting his seed into the womb of Mother Earth. The role of Mother Earth was to nurture the man’s seed to maturity, not to contribute genetically to that seed. Women were thus thought of as the incubators of life, which was a product only of the male. So, in the ancient world, women did not make it into genealogical lines because they were not thought of as primary contributors. Yet, in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, four women are included. They are Tamar, whose story is recorded in Genesis 38; Rahab whose story is recorded in the 2nd and 6th chapters of the book of Joshua; Ruth whose story is recorded in the book that bears her name and especially in chapter three, and the wife of Uriah, who is unnamed in the genealogy, but since her story is told in II Samuel 11, we know that her name is Bathsheba.

What are these women doing in the genealogy? What do they contribute to Matthew’s story? What was his purpose in including them? Why did he name these four and not others? Major female figures in the Old Testament like Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel, for example, are not included. These questions simply were not asked before the dawn of critical, biblical scholarship, and since these women were hidden in a genealogy, which is so boring that most people skipped over them anyway, their presence was barely noticed until relatively recently. What can we say about them in this introductory study of Matthew? Our answer involves at least three things.

First, each of these women was a foreigner, a Gentile, not a Jew. Matthew will open his gospel with a story of Gentiles in the form of the Wise Men coming to pay homage to the infant Christ Child at the moment of his birth. When he reaches his climax in the final chapter, Matthew will have the risen Christ send his disciples “into all the world,” beyond the boundaries of the Jews “to make disciples of all nations.” So breaking down the barriers that divide Jews from Gentiles is a very important theme of this gospel. It is, therefore, not surprising that in the line that produced Jesus four foreign women find a place in Matthew’s genealogy. Tamar was a Canaanite woman, Rahab a citizen of Jericho, Ruth a Moabite and since Uriah was a Hittite, we must assume that his wife was also. Bathsheba’s name literally meant “daughter (bath) of Sheba” and the Queen of Sheba in the biblical story was certainly a foreigner when she came to visit King Solomon. So the first interpretive clue to the inclusion of these women in the genealogy is that none of them was Jewish, all of them were foreigners, “unclean” foreigners.

There was one other surprising clue that comes only when these women’s stories are read in the Bible. All of them were, by the standards of that day, sexually-compromised women. One was guilty of incest, one was a prostitute, one was a seductress and the last was an adulterer. We will turn to their stories next week. Until then ask yourself why Matthew would introduce four sexually-tainted women into the genealogy of Jesus in the verses that form the preamble to his story of Jesus’ miraculous birth? Then recall that the Virgin Birth makes its first appearance in the Christian tradition as the immediate follow on to Matthew’s startling genealogy! It is at the very least a strange way to introduce the Messiah.


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