It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
Who Do You Think You Are is on TV again.
I love a good family history story regardless of whether I’m related to the protagonists or not, especially if I can watch it with Christmas lights around me and that now famous ‘hygge’ feeling. I have become convinced through watching that I must, somehow, be related to royalty – all I need to do now is prove it. But despite my love of pouring over a family tree, or settling down with a cuppa for an hour of history, genealogies in the Bible rarely bring that same feeling of festive, or indeed any, joy.
The Christmas story as told in Matthew begins with a long list of names. There’s a reason this chapter doesn’t often feature in school nativities…while some names are recognisable the world over, others are seemingly unpronounceable and obscure. A few of the characters are familiar, featuring in Bible passages, yet others are mentioned only as the father of another. It seems like a lot of effort to read through in detail – can’t I just gloss over the list and move on to the story?
But David Suchet recently answered this question when asked about his reading of the genealogies for the audio Bible: wasn’t it somewhat tedious to read list after list of names, not to mention finding them difficult to pronounce? It was, he confessed – until he had a realisation. Each of these names was considered important enough to put into this book. Each had a story. Each person was recorded, even if the reason or what happened to them, has been long since lost. Their roles as children, siblings and parents was significant. Each family would have held this person dear and acknowledged them in their own family tree. That alone made their names worth practising and reading aloud with respect. It’s a sobering thought.
So in Matthew 1, from Abraham to Joseph, 47 individuals feature in this list of 42 generations. Each ‘was the father of…’ denotes a life of sacrifice, effort, discipline and love. And while the long list of Chapter 1 seems merely a section to plough through before the traditional story, the genealogy of Jesus actually points us to the final few chapters of the book.
Jesus isn’t biologically related to any of the men or women in this list save Mary. The genealogy is of Joseph, Jesus’ adoptive father. Regardless of biological connection, this is Jesus’ family and line, and mirrors our adoption as sons and daughters of God, made possible through Jesus’ death on the cross. “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:26-29) We are considered members of God’s family in the same way that this genealogy is that of Jesus: this is his family, and we are His family too.
With this in mind, I began to invest more in these lists and make an effort to read each name rather than skimming through to get onto the next bit of the story, and I returned to a thought that strikes me every time. Five of the names within this particular genealogy are women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary. The mention of these five women in the ancestry of Jesus is not immaterial. It gives us a glimpse of what is to come in Jesus’ life and attitudes; significant roles for women in an otherwise patriarchal society, such as Mary Magdalene being one of the first to see Jesus after he rises from the dead, and the woman at the well evangelising to her entire neighbourhood.
But what I love about these women is how very ordinary they are in an extraordinary story. Over the next week I’ll be exploring the stories of these five women…between them, before they reach their pivotal point in the genealogical story, these five women were widowed four times, three migrated to a land that’s not their own, they were exploited, given a death sentence, worked as a manual labourer, a carer and a prostitute, experienced their baby dying, had three pregnancies outside of their marriages, and were the anchor ensuring the family survived.