Redeeming the Graveyard

At the end of the Old Testament, the prophets of Israel were saying that God is going to send a savior, a Messiah to redeem Israel and restore Jerusalem… then God remains silent for 400 years. When the silence breaks… at least in our canon of Scripture, we are given the book of Matthew, and as he begins to tell the good news about Jesus, he starts with dead people. As Ray Bakke says, “he takes us on a cemetery tour.”

You ever noticed that? The beginning of the gospel of Jesus according to Matthew starts with a genealogy… a remembrance of those who are in Jesus’ family tree. What in the world is Matthew doing by doing with this? Well for starters, the first century church sure did celebrate the resurrection well, but totally missed the birth of Jesus. They celebrated Jesus’ death and resurrection (rightly so!), and celebrated the fact that Jesus is the King of kings, and Lord of Lords, but in many ways neglected to celebrate His birth, the moment this great King became one of us pitiful humans, left glory and became a helpless (may I say powerless) baby totally dependent on adult care. Matthew here is reminding us of the importance of the birth of Jesus, and seems to be exposing the “skeletons in the closet” of Jesus’ family tree.

As one would read Matthew 1:1-16, you would realize many things, one being, this seems totally boring! But if you were forced to study this passage (as I was) because you went to school to study Scripture, you spend a little more time pondering the names in this genealogy of Jesus. The first thing that stood out was that there were five women referenced in this list. Why are they there?

The fourth century theologian Jerome say that these women are all here to show that sinners are a part of Jesus’ genealogy, but that interpretation immediately breaks down, because all of the men in the genealogy were sinners too. According to Ray Bakke, Martin Luther was the first theologian to notice that they were all foreigners, except for Mary. This is a significant thought. Let’s try to unpack that a little bot more.

The four moms (not counting Mary) in Jesus’ genealogy appear in verse 3-6: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. What’s Matthew doing by putting these women in this genealogy? What do all these ladies have in common? Here’s a brief summary of these ladies lives as is found in the Old Testament:

Tamar: a Canaanite (Gen. 38); married to a son of Judah named Er, who died because he was wicked. Judah’s second son was supposed to take his brothers wife to give her a heritage (children), but on his way to take care of business, Onan spilled his sperm on the road before he went to “lay” with Tamar. Judah’s third son, Shelah, was not given to her because he was too young, but was promised to Tamar once he grew up. When Tamar realized Shelah had grown up and was not given to her, she took matters into her own hands (remember, no sons for a woman in these days meant there was no inheritance in heaven for her; this was equal to salvation in their minds).

So she went into town after Judah’s wife had died, took off her widow clothes and put on prostitute clothes, and sat at the entrance of the town. When Judah arrived, she welcomed his “business” and she asked him for his credit card (his signet ring, a bracelet, and his staff) to “make sure he comes back to pay”. She gets pregnant that day, and when Judah finds out a few months later that she’s pregnant, the hypocrite Judah said, bring her forth, she must be burned. “As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, ‘By the man to whom these belong (the credit card!), I am pregnant.’ And she said, ‘Please identify whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.’ Then Judah identified them and said, ‘She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.’ ” (Gen. 38:25-26).

Rahab: a Canaanite as well (Josh. 2); Again, according to Bakke, she ran a hotel where the lights were dim and the charge was by the hour, not the night. She lived on the wall of Jericho. Her name means “wide”; she didn’t miss a man who came into town. So when the spies from Israel came to scout out the city, she brought them in and hid the Israelite spies because she feared the Israelites God. Her and her family were the only ones spared in the battle of Jericho. She ended up marrying a good Jewish man named Salmon, in the line of Judah, and they bore a son together, and named him Boaz.

Ruth: a Moabite (Ruth 1; Gen. 19), from the country of Moab which was started by an incestuous relationship. Lot (Abraham’s nephew) was spared from Sodom, his wife died, and Lot left the city life and ran to the suburbs, but in doing so, he neglected to find husbands for his daughters, which again, was a duty of a father. So the daughters, seeing that their dad had brought them to the suburbs where there was no hubby to be found, had a plan to gain an inheritance of children from their dad. On two consecutive nights, they got their dad drunk and each slept with him, each conceiving and eventually gave birth to two sons, Moab (father of the Moabites) and Ben-ammi (father of the Ammonites).

So here’s the Moabite Ruth, meets the family of Elimelech (names means “My God is King”) in Moab, because he took his family and left Bethlehem (name means “city of bread”) because there was “no bread” in Bethlehem (oh the irony!). His wife Naomi (name means “pleasant”) and their two sons Mahlon (names means “sick”) and Chilion (name means “dying”) arrive in Moab, and “My God is King” dies. So “Pleasant” has her two sons, “sick” and “dying” take Moabite wives. “Sick” marries Ruth (name means “friendship”) and “Dying” marries Orpah (name means “gazelle” or “fleeing”). To no ones surprise, “Sick” and “Dying” die, and “Pleasant”, “Friendship”, and “Fleeing” are left in Moab, during the time of the judges (everyone did what was right in their own eyes; wicked days) with no men, no hope, no safety.

You can tell by the daughters-in-law names what happens next: “Friendship” stays with Ruth to return to “The City of Bread” because bread is there once again, and “Fleeing goes back home to her family in Moab. Long story short, Ruth becomes noticed by the most eligible bachelor Boaz (son of the prostitute Rahab), who’s wealthy and next in line to redeem (marry) Ruth as her kinsman redeemer (giving Naomi’s family a heritage). Naomi spices Ruth up one night, tells her to shower, shave and put on some perfume and go down and sleep next to Boaz in the middle of the night (as if that’s not creepy or anything!). She obviously does a great job, and the story ends with Boaz marrying Ruth, redeems Naomi’s family, and they had a son named Obed. Obed had a son named Jesse. Jesse had a son named David (later to become the “King David”).

Bathsheba: a Hittite from the region of modern day Turkey (2 Sam. 11). Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah, the best soldier for king David. Uriah is out at war in the spring and David should have been with his soldiers, but he’s wasn’t, he stayed back at home, hadn’t written any poetry in a while nor killed any men, so on a leisurely afternoon in the palace he sees Bathsheba bathing because she’s menstruating, and sees that she’s beautiful and calls her into his palace and has an affair with her. Lo and behold, she gets pregnant (surprise, surprise!), so David calls Uriah home to cover this terrible thing up. Uriah, being a good dude that he is, denies to sleep with his wife because his men were in the battle field fighting. Even after Uriah gets drunk by David’s decree and still honors his troops, so David sends Uriah to the front lines of the war to die. Then David conveniently marries the grieving widow, and the whole kingdom sees David as a hero. Bathsheba’s son dies, but then gives birth to King Solomon.

Mary: a Jew (Matthew 1) and a teenage girl who is engaged, but gets pregnant by the Holy Spirit and carries the Savior of the world, a story everyone would believe, right? Teen mom, is supported only by her soon to be husband who was persuaded to stay with her because an angel visited him and told him the whole story. They had to leave their home town before she gives birth to Jesus and are on the road as refugees as she gives birth to Jesus, the King of the world, in the line of David.

What’s similar with all of these women? First of all, all of them had question marks and irregularities in their marriages or in the way they conceived a child, or struggled to conceive a child, which could be a way that Matthew is making room for the irregularity of Jesus’ virgin birth that is unique in and of itself, from an unmarried mother. Maybe Matthew is saying, “Mary, I know you’ve struggled with your role in carrying the Christ and being blamed and accused of many horrible things, so here’s some history for you and some mentors who can bring you comfort in your distress.”

We see that four out of five of these moms were foreigners from a Jewish point of view, as Luther has pointed out. Maybe in our context it would be right to call them immigrants. All the nations that these women were from could very well represent all the major regions of the known world at that time. Either way, we know Jesus’ family tree has international blood. Jesus is born with the blood of all the nations, not just Jewish blood. Jesus the Jew, and the Jewish Messiah, had Gentile blood from every part of the world! His plan for all time was all nations (Gen. 12:1-3), after all, they were all created by Him.

This is an urban text that ought to speak to the urban realities that we all face in our city, Christ our savior not only has Gentile blood, but he came out of a dysfunctional family, and he made sure these women who have suffered were honored and remembered, and he died to redeem their pain and loss.

Jesus is the mixed-racial (mestizo) Savior of the world! Jesus’ family is Middle Eastern, Asian, European, and African (and likely more), nations that many Americans love to hate, but the gospel won’t allow this. This genealogy of Jesus crushes racism. It wasn’t only my sin that was atoned for, but the sins of every ethnic and racial class in the world.

Jesus’ arrival marks a new beginning with the very reason of His existence to restore shalom (the way things were supposed to be). Matt. 1:1 says: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ” The word “genealogy” in Greek is the word “genéseōs” (genesis; beginnings, origin) which the reader would have been immediately reminded of Gen. 2:4 and 5:1, where the exact same expression was used in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint; LXX). With this echo from the book of Genesis we were meant to hear and realize that the arrival of Jesus as the Messiah marks a new beginning, a new creation, a new way to be human. This is good news indeed, especially coming from a cemetery tour.

And finally, at the end of this genealogy, we learn that Jesus is the end of the time of preparation (Israel waited and prepared for the Messiah to come, and Jesus fulfills the end of their wait). Here’s verse 17: “So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.”

Let me explain this to you. 3’s and 7’s were considered to be marks of completion and perfection in Hebrew and Greek cultures. 7 days of creation (complete creation); Jesus died and rose again 3 days later (perfect Savior), etc…

When you double three 3’s and seven 7’s, you make a statement of being “as perfect as you could ever get; the end of the line.” Matthew gives us three spans of time, and then he tells us there are 14 generations in between each span of time (in case Math isn’t your gift, that’s double three’s and double seven’s; pretty perfect and complete!).

Maybe Matthew is trying to tell us that “Jesus is the end of the line.” As far as the OT story goes, it has run its completed course in preparation, and now its goal and climax is found in Jesus. Jesus, the Savor with Gentile blood from all the nations, dies to give us His blood for all the nations. This is not just a good Christmas text, but an Easter one as well. And because this Jesus offered this for us, He has freed us to move into other people’s family trees (their pain and agony and loss) with equal intention and love, and be the presence of Jesus to those who are suffering and broken. And all this from a boring genealogy!

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