1 December 2013
Carolyn L Roberts
Historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. hosts African American Lives on PBS. If you’ve never watched it, I encourage you to do so–it’s fascinating. He uses traditional genealogy research methods for much of his work, which focuses on known African American personalities as a way of entering into the histories and cultures the African American community. But he also uses genetic analysis to lift up the particular racial make-up of those he features. Entertainers like Morgan Freeman and Whoopi Goldberg, poet Maya Angelou, and physician Ben Carson have all been among his candidates. Some have fairly extensive information dating back at least five generations; others...not so much. But without fail, the element of genetic analysis reveals or confirms parts of the individual’s history that had been the stuff of family lore, if it was known at all.
The writer of Matthew has no such tools at his disposal. Genealogy research and the wonders of genetic analysis are millennia away. But as a follower of Jesus, Matthew has inherited the gospel according to Mark, and he feels compelled to re-tell the gospel story with a new generation, or at least a different audience than that addressed by Mark. And of course, Matthew wants to edit Mark, to fill in some gaps, to flesh out the story. So unlike Mark, which has no birth story, but begins with Jesus’ baptism and call to ministry, Matthew offers up the spiritual bona fides, the spiritual heritage of Jesus of Nazareth within the context of Israel’s salvation history. Like Maria teaching the von Trapp children to sing by starting with do, re, mi, Matthew begins at the very beginning of the Jesus story, with the spiritual ancestor of all of Israel: Abraham.
That said, Matthew–the quintessential Jewish gospel writer–doesn’t exactly tell the story with the same emphases the Hebrew writers tell it. Where Genesis focuses primarily on Joseph as the featured son of Jacob, Matthew features Joseph’s brother Judah as father of twins Perez and Zerah by Tamar. Interesting...because Tamar is Judah’s daughter-in-law, and there are huge taboos against incest. Oh–and Judah doesn’t exactly father the twins because he wants to make sure that his twice-widowed daughter-in-law is relieved of the cultural scourge of being barren. Or that his eldest deceased son has heirs...both of which are powerful cultural reasons for relations with Tamar. No. Judah becomes a father to twins because Tamar tricks him into thinking he’s just having a good time with an out-of-town prostitute. That’s because Judah’s reneges on his promise to provide his youngest son as husband to Tamar so that she can fulfill her wifely duty to provide an heir to her first husband. Not that you blame him. Three out of three sons to one wife–and the first two are dead? The term Black Widow comes to mind. Only this is the Bible. God is the primary actor here. Tamar is not responsible for the deaths of her first two husbands.
Perez, the son of Tamar, is the fourth great grandfather of Boaz. And Boaz is the grandfather of Jesse, the father of David, who becomes the legendary king of Israel. But even in this part of the story, Matthew slips in a deviation. Yes, Boaz is David’s grandfather. But the grandmother is Ruth the Moabite–forever the outsider, the one whose people frequently are listed as Israel’s enemies.
And then of course, there’s David himself, whose wives and concubines fill the pages of the books of Samuel. And within those stories is the inconvenient truth of David’s lust for Bathsheba, wife of one of his trust-worthy soldiers, Uriah. We know the basics: David sees Bathsheba bathing, and wants her for himself. He sends for her and has sex with her; she becomes pregnant. David wants to cover up his deed so tries first to get Uriah back from the battlefront to sleep with Bathsheba. It doesn’t work. So David sends Uriah to the frontlines of the battle, where Uriah is killed. But even though Bathsheba becomes David’s wife and the mother of their son Solomon–renowned for his wisdom and building the first Temple in Jerusalem–the writer of Matthew doesn’t speak of her by name or by her relationship to David. She is identified simply as the wife of Uriah. That’s the biblical equivalent of referring to a certain ball team only as the football team from the District.
Now I’m the first to agree that my own prologue is even longer than Jesus’ genealogy up through Jechoniah, the patriarch up to the time of Judah’s deportation to Babylon. But there are several things to note. The first is that women are mentioned...full stop. Matthew doesn’t have to name them. The genealogy works just as well without them in that patriarchal culture. So we have to assume that they are included for a reason, and that as we look at the women in Jesus’ spiritual and genealogical heritage, we find women who take risks; we find women who–let’s be honest– manipulate the cultural conventions set up against them so that those conventions work in their favor, if they assert themselves; and we find women who are caught up in the social and political dynamics of their time.
In our own context, in this season of Advent, this season of preparation and waiting, this simple genealogy can prompt reflections of our own personal and spiritual genealogy. Like Henry Louis Gates, how far back can we trace our spiritual heritage? Who are the risk-takers? Who are the people like Tamar and Ruth, that against difficulties threatening to engulf them completely, still practice hope?
Over the seven days of this first week of Advent, I invite you reflect on your spiritual heritage, and if you are inclined, lift up one of you spiritual ancestors and share it with me in an email. But don’t stop there. Equally important, what about your own personal and spiritual life? Consider those for whom you are a spiritual forbear. Have they seen in you something that envisions a future that is other than present reality? Have they seen in you–and in us, in this congregation–the practice of hope?
Because this is the faith to which we are called, a faith that is in covenant with God, where hope shapes a future that is other than present reality.