More people purchased genetic ancestry tests last year than in the four previous years combined. To date, approximately twelve million people around the world have used this service. The jump can be partially explained by the affordability of these tests and the millions of dollars spent every year in advertising by companies like ancestry.com and 23andMe. But these sales strategies wouldn’t work if people didn’t already have an interest in learning their history. The desire to feel connected to the story of our ancestors seems like a universal phenomenon, and the Jewish people living during the time of Jesus are no exception.
The Loss of Meaning
It’s difficult to describe how important the Temple was for first century Palestinian Jews. The beautiful structure was located in Jerusalem high atop the pinnacle of Mount Moriah. For a 1,000 years it had been the center of religious, cultural, political, and financial life. It was the one thing that gave meaning, value, and purpose to the entire universe.
During the time of Jesus, the Roman Empire ruled Israel, and while the relationship between the native people and the occupying power waxed and waned over the years, something catastrophic happen to the Jews in the year C.E. 70. In response to a revolt around Jerusalem, Emperor Vespasian destroyed the Temple. It’s high altar was shattered into tiny pieces, scrolls of the Torah were burned, holy vessels were destroyed, and the walls of the temple were dismantled and removed from the city stone by stone until nothing was left. If this weren’t bad enough, Roman soldiers executed almost all the Temple authorities, including the priests, scribes, and their families, and also killed many innocents who were on pilgrimage. In this way, the Romans annihilated the one thing that made sense of the whole world. This unimaginable loss initiated a time of massive change, requiring the rebirth of a people.
The Gospel of Matthew was written to a small group of Jews who were trying to make sense of the destruction of the Temple in the context of their belief that Jesus was the promised messiah. Given this historical background, we can understand why the author of Matthew would start his gospel with a genealogy.
What’s Up with All Those Names?
Many contemporary readers skip over the genealogy because most of the names are foreign to us, and long lists of unknown names seem boring and irrelevant. But for a first century Jew undergoing seismic change, this genealogy would have been a source of inspiration, encouragement, and hope.
On the surface, Matthew is clearly trying to make two important points in listing all these names. First and foremost, he was giving evidence that Jesus was God’s promised Messiah, the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy and the answer to Jewish prayer. Second, the author was saying, “Take heart because this is your heritage. You came from a long line of people who endured tremendous loss and prevailed. You came from heroes like Abraham and David, and like them you are strong. You are heirs of the promised messiah and are special.” This was an important message for a people who desperately needed encouragement in the face of deep loss and change.
However, a close reading of this passage discloses another important message.
Breaking with Tradition
It’s important to note that genealogies were not uncommon in the Ancient Near East. Sumerians, Egyptians, and other groups wrote genealogies to show how their people were exemplary by tracing their lineage through the most admirable and powerful people in their past. When doing this, they were careful to omit anyone that might evoke embarrassment.
What’s striking is that the author of Matthew doesn’t do this.
If you look at the list of people in Matthew 1:1-17, you’ll notice that the genealogy breaks with Ancient Near Eastern custom in important ways. Most notably, he included women in the genealogy. This is strange, because in the ancient world everyone traced their lineage through men. Men were thought to contain the seed of life, and women were expected to provided their bodies to simply grow the fetus until birth. Since the person growing inside the woman was thought to come entirely from the man, genealogies didn’t typically include the names of women. So the author of Matthew broke with established custom and did something that he didn’t have to do, something that nobody would have expected him to do.
What’s even more striking is that Matthew included names that evoked scandal.
Take, for example, the mention of Tamar. There was a patriarch named Judah, the son of Jacob. Judah had three sons. The oldest, Er, was married to a woman named Tamar. But before Er and Tamar could have children, he was killed for being wicked in the sight of God. Since Tamar was childless at his death, she fell under the ancient custom of Levirate marriage and married Er’s brother, Onan. The expectation was for her to bear children to continue the family name. But he also did things that were wicked in the eyes of God, which resulted in his untimely death. Judah, her father-in-law, convinced her to remain unmarried until his youngest son, Shela, was old enough to become her husband. However, in the interim Judah came to see Tamar as a curse on his family and reneged on the deal. Heartbroken and desperate, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and seduced her father-in-law. She became pregnant, and when Judah heard the news he sentenced her to death until she was able to prove that he was the father of her twins, Perez and Zerah. This sounds like an episode of the Maury Povich show!
What’s interesting is that Matthew could have avoided evoking all this scandal by simply saying, “Judah the father of Perez and Zerah,” but he intentionally continued, “by Tamar” (1:3). It seems odd that Matthew would not only break with custom by adding a female name, but choose a name that would evoke such an embarrassing story.
The same is true of the unnecessary reference to Bathsheba. When listing the heroes of the Jewish faith, the author could have simply said, “David was the father of Solomon,” but he intentionally continued, “by the wife of Uriah” (1:6). Why reference Bathsheba, and why do it in a way that would intentionally evoke another scandalous story? It’s like Matthew was saying, “Hey remember when our most admired king was overcome with lust and selfishness, misused his power to force a married woman into having an affair with him, got her pregnant, and then had her husband murdered on the battlefield? Yeah, that guy!” King David was remembered for some pretty great achievements in the history of Israel, so why refer to Bathsheba and draw attention to his biggest moral failure?
Also, in Matthew 1:5, the author names Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute who rescued Hebrew spies on a recognizance mission in Jericho prior to the conquest of the Holy Land. Again, why add a Canaanite prostitute to a Jewish genealogy?
The Power of the Bad Parts of Your Story
Perhaps one reason Matthew mentioned these women is to remind us of the power of the bad parts of our story. The primary purpose of Matthew’s genealogy was not to give a sanitized version of Israel’s history, so they could delude themselves with ethnic pride. Rather, its purpose was to remind the Messianic Jews of how God had remained faithful throughout the generations in both the good times and bad. Of how God worked in and through their people, not only when they were faithful covenant partners but also unfaithful covenant breakers. Of how God used the good and the bad choices of ordinary human beings to transform them, and through them the world.
The author of Matthew knew that the power of their ancestral stories was not in the moral perfection or nobility of their national heroes, but in God’s ability to work through success and failure to reveal truth, love, justice, and healing. Indeed, people like Abraham and David, Rahab and Ruth, didn’t become heroes of the faith because they always did the right thing, but because they experienced incredible suffering (which was often the result of their own bad choices) and came out on the other side stronger and wiser because they trusted God and believed in themselves.
Matthew shows us that the dark parts of our story can be the most powerful, that when understood in the context of God’s providential and redeeming love they can be great sources of courage, strength, and hope. We see that when navigating disorienting change, we needed the power of our whole story, because a story without bad parts is a story without redemption, and a story without redemption is a story that’s incapable of transforming us for the good.
Embracing and Sharing Your Whole Story
All of us want to see ourselves as good people, and we want others to see us as good people too. As a result, we often try to deny, minimize, or hide the bad parts, not only from others but also from ourselves. Unfortunately, this cuts us off from the most inspirational and transformative parts of our story. We need to remember the times when we were at our worst, because it is here that we see most clearly God’s love, forgiveness, and redemption manifest in our lives. Remembering the bad parts and how God used them to transform us can provide a wellspring of memories capable of renewing our courage, strength, and hope as we move through new seasons of change and loss.
And it’s not just our personal stories that can help, but also our family stories and the stories of our spiritual ancestors. Reading about our forerunners in the Bible empowers us to remember that if God helped them, then God can help us too. Reading about the saints of our own time, like Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King Jr., gives us hope that if they could faithfully navigate change, then we can too. Remembering our family stories can also provide wisdom as we make decisions and move into a new future.
Take some time this week to remember the bad parts of your story. Some may have experienced real trauma and will need the help of a skilled therapist, but most of us can safely recall memories of things we would rather forget or hide. It can be healing to recall these dark spots and reflect on good questions: What happened? What was changing or shifting? Where was God? What did I learn? How did I experience redemption? How did it transform me? How can I draw from this story as a source of wisdom and strength when dealing with change and loss today? And how can I make my story available to others who also need inspiration and encouragement?
I also encourage you to surround yourself with people, poems, books, stories, music, art, and films that inspire you. Let them nurture your soul and give you strength.
God, help me see my whole story in the light of your redeeming love so that I can receive the gifts of courage, strength, and hope that it has to offer.
(This post is the second in a series of thirty-seven on the Quadratos. See chapter four in Heart and Mind by Alexander John Shaia. Each post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)