A Family of Hope

This Sunday marks the beginning of the Advent season. If you’ll be joining us in our advent observances this year and engaging with the readings each night, you’ll notice that the first section is labeled, “hope”. Hope is traditionally connected with the first candle in the advent wreath, and it’s not hard to see why such a designation is appropriate.

What is harder to see is why Matthew, one of the two Gospel authors who records events surrounding the birth of Jesus, would begin the hopeful account with a genealogy. For those of you who have ever made it your mission to read straight through the scriptures, these passages may spell the death of hope, and prematurely end your noble efforts (either that or you just skip over them and quietly move on- we’ve all done it.) Genealogies are difficult pills for us moderners to swallow, but ancient audiences drew great meaning from them, and today, I want to offer you a few tips for reading the genealogy of Jesus in a way that contributes to your advent season and the hope that ought to accompany it.

The genealogy of Jesus is found in Matthew 1:1-17. For ancient authors, genealogies were a canvas. While they certainly functioned to keep track of family lines, they were much more concerned with making statements about the family than they were about keeping rigid census data. Matthew omits various members of the family and skips generations, because his interest is in using the names to tell you something about the person. So let’s consider what tricks Matthew has up his sleeve to make reading a list of names a hope-imbued endeavor.

Firstly, it’s worth comparing Matthew’s list to another in our Bible. The first line of Matthew 1: “This is the book of the genealogy of Jesus…” is identical to the one that introduces the Genealogy of Adam in Genesis 5. The difference is that this one lists the ancestors of Jesus instead of his descendants. This may seem like a minor detail, but it is notable. In Genesis, the list of names is significant because they are attached to their ancestor Adam. That’s where the descendants draw their meaning from. Matthew however, in listing those who came before Jesus, is making the claim that all of those who came before draw their significance from their descendant, Jesus.

It may be easy to forget as a modern Christian raised on the Bible, but ancient Israel was not some powerhouse in the Middle East. Abraham was not a significant person to the world around him, Moses had little impact on world events in his day, and even David’s kingdom was never the empire that Assyria, Babylon, or Persia were. All of these people were ancient nobodies in the grand scheme of things, and yet as Jesus comes onto the scene, these little people gain significance. There is hope for those of small scope. In Matthew’s genealogy we find hope that god has not overlooked the obscure and small in our world. Even heroes of the faith only have their significance in that the Messiah would follow them.

Not only this, but in Jesus’s genealogy there is a place for the outcasts and dregs of society. The genealogy is notable in the ancient world as it includes not 1, but 4 women in the line of Jesus. Beyond that, each of them has gentile connections and a spotted moral history. Ruth was a Moabite, “Uriah’s wife” (Bathsheba) was the widow of a Hittite and is part of the story of David’s fall from grace, Rahab was a Canaanite prostitute, and Tamar was a non-Jewish woman whose story is a little too wild to include in this short post (see Genesis 38). In bringing them all into the company of the line of Jesus, Matthew not only offers hope to the insignificant, but also to the immoral and alienated. They find a place in the community of Jesus.

Finally, Matthew’s Genealogy brings hope in it’s roles as an abbreviated story of Israel. Part of the reason genealogies are difficult for us to read is that we are not particularly familiar with all of the names listed. For an Israelite reader though, a genealogy is essentially a retelling of the story of one’s heritage without all of the details. Reading names calls to mind all of the highs and lows of each name. High notes when names like Abraham and David arise, low notes when Solomon is born of Uriah’s own wife (David’s murder-affair, etc.). A genealogy beforehand is an easy way to recount the whole story, and recounting the whole story is a reminder that God is redeeming the highs and lows of humanity toward the ultimate advent of the Messiah. It has a crescendo effect that climaxes with he birth of Jesus.

Genealogies will probably never be your favorite part of the Scriptures, but read with the correct eyes, they provide hope that God is bringing the insignificant, the alienated, and every moment, high or low, into the redemptive story of Jesus. Matthew’s Genealogy is a remind that nothing is wasted, and that God is capable of turning every part of history into a step toward something greater.
Want to hear the highs and lows of the genealogy a little bit more clearly? Listen to it set to music...

Dan Vandzura