I was enjoying spending time in Matthew’s gospel the other morning, the first chapter about the lineage of Christ. But keep reading. It’s subtle and clever, I think, even subversive.
Most people quote lineages to show the nobility of their birth. (Actually our pedigree Labrador did the same). Matthew does some of that, of course, but the subversive bit is that he only mentions four women – – five if you include the Virgin Mary – – and none of the four are what you’d call conventional, good Jewish girls. They span the range of scandal and tragedy, all females in a man-centred, sexually-objectifying world. Tamar, a sex worker, was impregnated by her father-in-law. Rahab, another sex-worker was a foreigner and an enemy. Ruth was a returning refugee. Bathsheba was seduced by King David when she was married to another man, and, stripping naked on her roof in sight of the palace, may have not been totally blameless in her conduct.
So the four women who were none of them conventional good Jewish girls (Ruth perhaps excepted) were highlighted by Matthew as blood relatives of the Messiah, part of his noble pedigree. Was Matthew gently reminding his Jewish readers that nobody’s excluded from having a part in Christ? That nobody’s history or reputation excludes them?
A second thing about Matthew’s genealogy was that surely he was making theological points rather than strictly historic ones. It reads to me like a stylized re-telling. Matthew was dealing in ‘who we are’ (truly) rather than ‘who we are’ (precisely). (There’s a lot of this in the Bible as everywhere. News reports, for example, are always stylized; they simplify to amplify.) In Matthew’s telling, then, there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David; fourteen generations from David to Babylon; fourteen generations from Babylon to Christ. Put this way it becomes a vignette of salvation history.
Fourteen generations from Abraham: the pioneers become a power. That is not just Israel’s story. It is the Muslim empire’s story, America’s story, the British Empire’s story, and on a wider canvas, the story of every world-dominating thing.
Then, over fourteen generations, the empire, corpulent and corrupt, is swept away, to Babylon. And it seems like the end; the bones scattered at the mouth of the grave.
But then fourteen generations from Babylon to Christ. Babylon to Christ! Matthew’s genealogy says, don’t be bogged down in the noise: learn to see the signal. History’s going somewhere, but it takes its time and has its seasons.
Postscript: A kind critic pointed out that it was not fair to call Tamar a sex worker. My friendly critic is completely right. Sorry for the careless writing. I find it impossible to entangle the rights and wrongs in Tamar’s actions, given her very limited choices and the distance of her culture from mine. But I suppose the general point still stands: Matthew seemed to alight on some unlikely women to name explicitly in his genealogy, and it’s a decent assumption that he was reminding us all of Jesus’ love and inclusion for those of who might doubt our insider credentials.