The Genealogy of Jesus: Shadows and lights in his past
But Matthews symmetrical genealogy is much subtler than one might think. For one thing, contrary to the patriarchal mentality of the time, Matthew has inserted four women into the long list of men a fascinating innovation. None of these womens namesTamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathshebaare found in Lukes genealogy. Who are these women? Why are they there? What do they tell us about Advent?
Who are they?
Matthews readers, who knew the Hebrew Scriptures well, must certainly have been jolted at finding Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba on the list. They might even have been embarrassed, especially when they saw Tamars name. The Book of Genesis (38:15) recounts that she pretended to be a harlot and seduced her father-in-law, Judah. The twins born of their illicit union, Perez and Zerah, are two of the names Matthew lists.
The first-century Christians whom Matthew addressed probably had mixed but considerably more favorable reactions to the inclusion of Rahab on the list. She was a prostitute, as the Book of Joshua attests (Jos 2:1), but the New Testament praises her for her faith and good works (Heb 11:31 and Jas 2:25). She hid the Israelite spies who had infiltrated Jericho, thus facilitating the capture of the city. When the walls came tumbling down (Jos 6:20), only Rahab and her family were spared. We know nothing about Salmon, whom Matthew lists in Jesus genealogy as the father of her child, but one wonders whether he might have been one of her clients.
Of the four women, Ruth comes off the best in the Scriptures. All of us recall the wonderful fidelity of this foreigner to her Jewish mother-in-law. Rather than abandon Naomi, Ruth declares: Wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God my God. Wherever you die I will die and there be buried (Ru 1:16-17). So Ruth accompanies Naomi from the Plains of Moab to Bethlehem where her mother-in-law introduces her to a relative named Boaz, whom she weds. The child of this mixed marriage, Obed, becomes the grandfather of David the king.
By far the most shocking woman, both to Matthews contemporaries and to us today, is the fourth in the genealogy. Matthew does not mention her name, describing her simply as Uriahs wife. The infamous Bathsheba, as readers will remember, committed adultery with David, who, in an attempt to make Uriah think that the child in Bathshebas womb was his own, called her husband back from battle and tried to induce him to have sexual relations with her. When Uriah abstained, David had him murdered (2 Sam 11:11). After mourning her husbands death briefly (2 Sam 11:26), Bathsheba quickly took up residence with David and gave birth to their child, who died almost immediately. Their second child was Solomon, renowned for his wisdom. But Solomon, heedless of the Lords admonition (1 Kgs 11:1ff), chased after countless foreign women. He had 700 wives and 300 concubines, the Book of Kings tells us, and they turned his heart away from the God of Israel. It is his name, from among Davids children, that appears on the list of Jesus ancestors.
Why are these figures included?
By including these notable women in Jesus genealogy, Matthew is teaching us that it is the Spirit of God that guides human history. God uses the unexpected to bring an unfolding plan to fulfillment. History is not a linear series of events leading to predictable outcomes. It involves sin and conversion, success and failure, heroes and villains. But God is at work in it, making crooked ways straight and rough ways smooth. And ultimately, Gods love prevails, a truth revealed in the person and life of Jesus.
Matthew seems to have a second motive for inserting these four women into the otherwise all-male genealogy: They are all Gentiles. Tamar and Rahab were Canaanites, Ruth a Moabite, and Bathsheba was probably a Hittite. Their presence on the list foreshadows the role of the Messiah, who opens Gods saving plan to the Gentiles. Matthew is saying that just as Gentiles are part of Jesus lineage, they are part of his future.
What does it mean?
Matthews genealogy shows us that trust in providence is one of the keystones of spirituality. This is a central theme in Matthews Gospel, introduced right from the beginning of the infancy narratives. Jesus is named Emmanuel, that is, God is with us (Mt 1:23). Matthew is assuring us that God governs history and that nothing eludes Gods power, that there is a guiding plan, beyond our comprehension, which gives meaning to lifes events. He is encouraging us to stand with reverent trust before the mystery of God, as revealed in Christ.
Matthew is sharing his faith with us. He sees God working through Tamars se-duction of her father-in-law, through the collusion of Rahab the harlot with Israels spies, through Ruth the Moabites unexpected union with Boaz the Jew, through David and Bathshebas adultery. Writing in an uncertain time for the early Christians, Matthew is expressing his trust in Gods hidden plan (Col 2:2-3), even though he and his readers have experienced the fall of Jerusalem, the persecution of the newborn church and the death of many fellow believers. He tells us that trust in providence is the key to finding meaning in the polarities of human existence: light and darkness, grace and sin, peace and violence, plan and disruption, health and sickness, life and death.
The saints have all known this truth. The great saint of charity, Vincent de Paul, wrote to a friend in 1648: We cannot better assure our eternal happiness than by living and dying in the service of the poor, in the arms of providence, and with genuine renouncement of ourselves in order to follow Jesus Christ. Even though he was struggling to help the starving and the wounded who were dying by the thousands in an endless war in the French countryside, he was utterly convinced that for those who love God, all things work together for good (Rom 8:28). He told his closest collaborator, Louise de Marillac: In the name of God, let us not be surprised at anything. God will do everything for the best.
So, with Matthew, the church encourages us this Advent to ponder the mystery of providence, both in our own lives and in the wider history of humanity today. Do we trust deeply that a loving, personal God guides each of us as well as the tragic events of contemporary history? That is surely an enormous challenge as we experience war, terrorism and poverty.
This Advent the church asks us to lift up our eyes toward the ends of the earth and to embrace the universalism that Matthew subtly introduces in the genealogy. In the infancy narratives Matthew continues this theme with the story of the magi, Gentiles who come from the East to adore the newborn Lord. And he concludes his Gospel with the rousing universal missionary mandate: Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations. Baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you and know that I am with you always, until the end of the world! (Mt 28:18-20).
Strikingly, this fare-well command combines the two themes that the evangelist in-troduced so creatively into the infancy narratives: providence (I am with you) and universalism (all nations).
By highlighting Jesus universal mission, Matthews genealogy poses some penetrating questions today. Do we remain insulated, as Matthew feared was the case for many of his readers? Are we so caught up in our own families or our own work that we rarely raise our eyes to the larger world of the poor on other continents? Do we sense ourselves as members of a worldwide family? Do we live in active solidarity with those who are needier than we are, reaching out to them with both affective and effective love, and sharing with them some portion of our material goods?
Matthews account of Jesus genealogy poses a number of challenges this Advent. It reminds us to make Advent a time of peaceful trust in Gods providence and to make Christmas a celebration in which we open our eyes, minds and hearts to the universal call of the newborn Lord.