Today, with anticipation I open the New Testament after 242 readings from the Old, and – it’s a page of genealogy. Thanks.
Then I read it, and it makes a lot more sense than it has before that this comes as the first, off-putting page of the greatest book in history, the one I give to people when they’re ready to find out about God – the New Testament. Because now the names all ring loud and recent bells in my mind, as part of the story that I’ve just read. They make it clear that this book is not a new story, but follows on from what’s already been written; and that the key thing about that ancient story is that it has been worked out in human lives. God has not usually worked by heavenly decree, but through the ordinary and extraordinary people of the Old Testament. Their story has brought the world to this moment, where God enters the human story in person.
What’s particularly fascinating about Matthew’s genealogy is the inclusion of a few key women alongside the fathers and greatgrandfathers of Joseph. Rahab and Ruth, two Gentile women whose faith shines from the Old Testament, are mentioned by name. Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother, isn’t given a name, but is ‘the wife of Uriah’ – for all of David’s greatness, his greatest sin is not hidden. Perhaps, too, we need to be reminded that the Messiah’s family tree doesn’t just include foreigners but also the legacy of lust, adultery and betrayal. After all, there’s some of that in most people’s ancestry, and this is part of the humanity he comes to share.
Overall, though, this whole introduction serves to link Old and New in Jesus. And something new is indeed happening – after the birth of Jesus, genealogies seem to lose their religious significance.
Once the story really gets going, with the conception and birth of Jesus – told mainly, here, from Joseph’s point of view. The meaning of the birth is spelled out in the two names given to the child – ‘Jesus’, meaning ‘God saves’ and ‘Emmanuel’, meaning ‘God with us’.
The visit of the Wise Men, with its tragic consequences for the families of Bethlehem, fulfils in symbol the prophecies of the nations coming to worship, but shows how even the greatest of worldly wisdom and the best of intentions need God’s guidance as well – and how acting on what seems logical and right can lead to disaster.
At the same time, their actions link again the two testaments, but with an ironic twist. In the book of Exodus, Moses was saved in Egypt from the infanticide of a tyrant, Pharoah. Now, a tyrant is in charge in Jerusalem, and Jesus has to flee to Egypt to escape with his life.
This whole story, with its glory and wonder and with its horror, is the more powerful now that I read it with the whole Old Testament story fresh in my mind. There’s a sense of fulfilment that comes across in a new way.
The genealogy helps. Honest.