Skeletons in the closet (First Advent 2012)

Imagine being about 10 or 11 years old.  Your only Bible is a secondhand leather-bound New Testament given to you by your grandmother, but you’ve never read it.

One day, you decide it’s time.  You take the musty-smelling book from the shelf and settle in to read.  Where to start?  Might as well begin at the beginning, you reason.  So, opening the delicate pages to The Gospel According to St. Matthew, you read this:

The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.  Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren; and Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar; and Phares begat Esrom; and Esrom begat Aram; and Aram begat Aminadab; and Aminadab begat Naasson; and Naasson begat Salmon; and Salmon begat Booz of Rachab; and Booz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse; and Jesse begat David the king; and David the king begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Urias… (Matt 1:1-6, KJV)

Yes, that was me, trying to grope my way through the pocket-sized King James New Testament my grandmother gave me in hopes of my being saved.  I didn’t know how to pronounce most of the names, and it only got worse as the chapter went on (Josaphat?  Zorobabel?).  Nor had I ever heard the word “begat” before (though, being a precocious child, I inferred its meaning).  Needless to say, it was an inauspicious beginning.  It would still be a few more years before I actually became a Christian, and some years after that before I could appreciate that there might be any significance whatsoever to genealogies like this one.

As Advent begins this year, I am reminding myself of the wondrous nature of the story that Matthew tells.

As observed in a post this past summer, there are some oddities in the way the genealogy is written.  Matthew sets up the story of Jesus, the one born to bring God’s kingdom, by showing his descent from the royal house of David.  But why break with the usual tradition and include the names of women?  Here, in a mere five verses bookended by the towering figures of Abraham and David, Matthew includes references to four women.

Unusual.  But more pointedly: in a royal genealogy, why include these women, some of whom carry much more than a whiff of scandal?  Bathsheba, for example, isn’t even named explicitly; she is only referred to as the one who had been married to Uriah.  But who could forget the story?  David the king got bored, lusted after a married woman, used his royal power to have his way with her, got her pregnant, then arranged for her valiant and loyal husband to be conveniently killed in battle (2 Sam 11).  Isn’t that story best forgotten?

Then there’s Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah, one of the twelve sons of Jacob.  Poor Tamar had the misfortune of being widowed twice.  Her husbands were Judah’s eldest sons, both put to death by God for their wickedness.  Anxious over the loss of two sons already, Judah misled Tamar into believing that she would also be given to the last remaining son.  When Judah failed to keep his promise, Tamar disguised herself as a shrine prostitute and got pregnant by her father-in-law (Gen 38).  The illegitimate twins born of that union are the Perez and Zerah of vs. 3 in Matthew’s genealogy.

You would think that someone writing the family history of the Messiah would be more careful about keeping such skeletons carefully stashed in the closet.

But it would be impossible to purge the record of scandal.  Bathsheba is not named; should David, the archetypal king, also be edited out for his crime against Uriah, or his incompetence as a father?  Unthinkable.  And though the list of Jesus’ ancestors names many righteous kings, it also contains its share of corrupt, cowardly, and idolatrous ones.

Matthew is not trying to give us a mere accounting of who was born to whom, as if he were a clerk in the County Recorder’s office.  He is giving us a carefully crafted and symmetrical sacred history with a broad narrative sweep: from the birth of a nation in Abraham, to the birth of monarchy in David, to the failure of monarchy in the Babylonian exile, and finally, to the birth of the Messiah, the true anointed King (Matt 1:17).

Matthew could have begun his story with the scandal of the Virgin Birth.  Poor Joseph.  Out of the loop and confronted with a pregnant fiancée, he had to be reassured by an angel that this was of God.  But that episode somehow makes more sense against the backdrop Matthew paints: God does things like this.  His plan and purpose go forward through the most unexpected of means.

Or even better: the story of the Messiah embraces our flawed humanity, scandal and all, and redeems it by the sovereign grace of God.

That’s part of the good news we celebrate as Christians at Christmas: as adopted children, our names are now part of the sacred history.