Don’t Skip the Genealogies
If it were left to me, I think I’d be torn between Luke and John. John’s wonderful echoes of Genesis 1 would be fantastic stylistically. But then Luke’s picking up on the prophecies at the end of the OT and showing their fulfillment in John and Jesus would make a clearer continuation of the story. Mark wouldn’t make my (very) shortlist – sorry, Mark – just leaping into the narrative like that. And to be honest, I’m not sure I’d have chosen Matthew. Yes, the birth narrative is there, but you have to wade through that long genealogy to get to it. Not the most thrilling start.
God, apparently, disagrees.
A few people – including my pastor – seem to be reflecting on Matthew’s genealogy this Christmas, so here’s my two-penn’orth.
Why on earth would God want to start the New Testament, the story of the new covenant, the bit that most people nowadays are likely to start with, if they’re going to read a Bible at all, with a genealogy? Who wants to read a long stream of unpronounceable names of total strangers before the story starts? Is it like the title cards at the beginning of old movies? Important information to those concerned, but just an opportunity to make yourself comfortable and arrange your snacks for the rest of us?
I’m guessing not. God usually has a plan, even if it’s not immediately obvious to the casual viewer. So what could it have been?
David Suchet was once asked how he had overcome the challenge of all the genealogies, censuses and lists when he was recording the NIV audio Bible. He said the breakthrough came when he realised that each name wasn’t just a tricky pronunciation exercise, but represented a real person, with a personality, a history and a family. When those scriptures were read out, for hundreds of years, the descendants of those individuals would have been listening eagerly for their family names, feeling an intimate connection to the story.
So that’s what the genealogy in Matthew would have done for the early Jewish converts – it would have helped them to place Jesus as really one of them, connected to their family and their history. (As well, of course, as establishing his royal pedigree and showing how he was the promised messiah.)
Could it be that it is supposed to do the same for us? God started the NT not with declarations of his glory and majesty, not with indications of his power, but with humans. Very fallen, very broken humans – some considerably worse than others. It includes heroes and villains, winners and losers, perpetrators and victims. It includes five women, which was unheard of at the time. It includes “the outcast, the scandalous, and the foreigner”, as Sam Allberry put it in a recent tweet. It includes the world-famous and the otherwise-unknown. It sets Jesus right in the middle of the story of us.
Some friends were talking the other day about a trip they had taken to the village their family had come from generations back. Seeing their family names on the gravestones and war memorials had given them a buzz of connection, a sense of being part of something bigger than themselves, a rootedness to times and places in history.
I wonder if that’s at least part of what we 21st century Western Gentile individualists are meant to take away from both the fact of the genealogy’s existence and its position right at the beginning of the part of the story where we begin to find ourselves. Our faith is not just about our ‘personal relationship with Jesus’, but it is much bigger than that – it’s about being part of a huge, interconnected, multi-generational family. And not even just our immediate church family (though I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about that at the moment), but a family dating right back to Abraham (Gal 3:29). Once we are in Christ, we are rooted not only in his heavenly family, but also in his earthly one. We’re related to Elihuz and Zerubbabel, Jotham and Jehoram, Amminadab and Abijah. We’re related to David and Bathsheba, to Ruth and Boaz, and to Judah and Tamar. We’re related to Hezekiah. When I visited Jerusalem a few years back, the thing that excited me most was walking through Hezekiah’s tunnel (2 Kings 20:20) – I wish I’d grasped at the time that he was one of my ancestors.
For Christians then, the New Testament starts not with echoes of Genesis, not with the breaking of a 400 year silence, not with the fulfillment of prophecies, but with us. It sets us right in the narrative, reminding us of who we are and where we fit, rooting us in the story, and the story in us.
So when you’re thinking about what the New Testament teaches us, whether at Christmas or beyond, don’t skip the genealogies!