from Old English, gōd spell "good news"
a writing that describes the life of Jesus

Thursday, April 29, 2010

matthew | genealogy | women

It seems important to Matthew - a Jewish tax collector for the Romans, a numbers man as well as a traitor - to show that Jesus' family tree was nice and symmetrical, numerically speaking. Abraham + 14 + 14 + 14 = Messiah. I wonder if it was actually that tidy?

What seems important to me - and to the Roman census takers, who just before Jesus' birth would order every descendant of David to travel to Bethlehem, "the city of David," to be counted - is that Jesus (who just before his death the Romans would call "King Of The Jews," scrawled on a board above his head, nailed to the same post he was nailed to) was from a line of kings, including David, the other great king of the Jews.

What seems amazing is that Matthew - a traitor, as well as a numbers man, who left both behind to follow this new king of the Jews - makes a point of mentioning all those women. He's tracing the lineage of Jesus from his father, Joseph the carpenter, through all the fathers and grandfathers and not so great great-grandfathers right back to the father of the nation, Abraham himself. Father after father, begetting tribe after tribe, like stars in the sky, grains of sand in the desert. Only he doesn't stick just to the men, that symmetrical procession of fathers and sons stretching like the kings Banquo's prophecy off beyond the chronological horizon. No, Matthew - an outcast, a sinner, an enemy to his own people, unfit to be looked upon - can't help mentioning the other ones who might usually get left off the official register.

Tamar: Genesis 38. Tamar married Judah's eldest son, Er, who (according to the text) God killed because he was wicked. Judah asked his second son, Onan, to have sex with Tamar, to make an heir: he performed coitus interruptus so that there wouldn't be any offspring he couldn't claim as his own, so (according to the text) God killed him. Judah viewed Tamar as cursed, so he won't give her to his remaining son. After Judah's own wife died, he went to a prostitute: Tamar, disguised behind a veil. She asked for his staff and seal as security, then made her pregnant. Three months later, Judah learns that Tamar had prostituted herself and gotten pregnant, so he orders her burnt to death; Tamar produces the staff and seal, Judah is busted, calls her righteous. And their son, Perez, joins the royal lineage.

Rahab: Joshua 2. A Jericho prostitute who betrayed her people into the hands of the Israelite army, who destroyed her city and massacred her people but spared her life. She married Perez's great-great-great-grandson Salmon. Their son Boaz, who was a much more likeable guy than family tradition might indicate.

Ruth deserves him. She's in trouble. There's famine, she's a foreigner, her Jewish husband died, her father-in-law died, she's a no-status alien in Bethlehem who keeps her mother-in-law alive by gleaning in the barley fields. There's a bunch more complicated Jewish marriage stuff, but Boaz ends up marrying her, and another Gentile is grafted onto Jesus' family tree. And their son is the grandfather of David.

Who lusts after Bathsheba, and arranges to have Uriah her husband killed in battle so he can get away with seducing her and making her pregnant. Their first baby died. Another of David's boys, Absalom, led the country into civil war, claimed the kingship and had public sex with ten of his dad's concubines. Ultimately it was Bathsheba's son Solomon who slipped past David's eldest son to succeed him in the throne. Solomon, portrayed in Ecclesiastes as a man at the end of his days, sated with wives and concubines and wealth and power, weary of a life spent chasing after wind.

Then there's exile. Then there's a girl who gets pregnant, but not by her fiance. So he's going to break it off, only the law-obsessed ultra-orthodox neighbours might stone her to death. And he loves her, so he decides to do the right thing - with the help of an angel bearing good advice. So Joseph bears her off to Bethlehem for the aforementioned census, and she bears the aforementioned son... Details to follow.


  1. "I wonder if it was actually that tidy?"

    Definitely not. If you compare the list of kings in Matthew 1:7-11 to the list of kings in I Chronicles 3:10-16, you can see that Matthew skips four generations. Matthew jumps straight from Jehoram to Azariah/Uzziah, thus skipping over Ahaziah, Joash and Amaziah; and he also skips straight from Josiah to Jeconiah, thus skipping over Jehoiakim. So there were actually 18 generations from David to the exile in Babylon, rather than the 14 that Matthew cites.

    The reason Matthew emphasizes the number "14" is because it is the numerical value of the name "David" in Hebrew. Hebrew has no vowels, and the consonants that we translate as D and V are worth 4 and 6, respectively. So "David" equals "D+V+D" equals "4+6+4" equals 14.

  2. Oh, and re: Ruth, the important thing to note about her is not merely that she was a Gentile, but that she was a Moabite.

    The laws of Moses (Deuteronomy 23:2-6), as enforced by the Israelites when they returned from exile in Babylon (Nehemiah 13:1-3), forbade the offspring of Moabite and Ammonite women from taking part in the Jewish faith, "even down to the tenth generation." (You can also see signs of post-exilic anti-Moabite prejudice in, e.g., the way that II Chronicles 24:26 revises and updates II Kings 12:21 to include a dig against Moabites and Ammonites that hadn't been there before.)

    So, if you like, the fact that the Book of Ruth explicitly states that David was only three generations removed from his Moabite ancestress can be read as a protest of sorts against the Moses-Ezra-Nehemiah paradigm.

    For what it's worth, you can see a similar sort of protest against the Moses-Ezra-Nehemiah paradigm in Isaiah 56:3, which many scholars believe was written not by the original Isaiah himself but by someone else during the Ezra-Nehemiah era. Isaiah 56 pretty explicitly rebuts some of the restrictions imposed by Deuteronomy ... and, interestingly, it is Isaiah 56 that Jesus is quoting when he "cleanses the Temple" and makes that point about the Temple being "a house of prayer for all nations" (Mark 11:17).

    So if there is a tension of sorts within the Old Testament on this point, it would seem that Jesus, at least, resolves it in one direction more than the other.