In the beginning, there was a sex scandal. If the National Enquirer had been sold on some newsstand in Eden, this would have been the world’s first tabloid headline: "Eve Tempts Adam: Bite My Apple." Of course, the first sin had nothing to do with sex ---believe me, it didn’t ---- but that’s what sells newspapers. So as sure as the sun rises, instead of talking about all the splendid things God had just done in Genesis, we would have been talking about "Applegate."
Let’s look at the four ladies in Matthew’s genealogy who were Jesus’ ancestors. But I won’t handle it the way it would be handled by a supermarket tabloid.
The genealogy of Jesus found in Matthew's Gospel is often an embarrassment to Lectors. It seems so boring, as the lector goes on and ONNNN, reciting 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 more from David to the Babylonian Exile, and 14 more from the Exile to Christ. The names sound like a spell or incantation: Perez, Amminadab, Rehoboam, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, Jechoniah, Shealtiel, Zerubbabel. It’s comical. It is as if a multitude of dwarfs, with strange curly beards and pointed caps, is joined together by their baby-making equipment to form a living Eiffel tower of humanity.
But Matthew’s genealogy is much subtler than you might think. For one thing, contrary to the patriarchal mentality of the time, Matthew has inserted four women into the long list of men— a fascinating innovation.
Matthew’s readers, who knew the Hebrew Scriptures well, must have been unpleasantly jolted--- embarrassed, even --- at finding Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba on the list. Why? In brief:
First Tamar, an apparent Canaanite and apparent prostitute, who apparently seduces her father-in-law and becomes an ancestress of Jesus--- apparently through incest. I just said “apparently” four times. I’ll clarify that later.
Second Rahab, who really WAS All That --- a real Canaanite and ---- a real working prostitute.
Third, Ruth, a Moabite. This was a pagan tribal group the prophets Ezra and Nehemiah forbade the Jewish people to intermarry with because of their treachery.
Fourth, Bathsheba, who became the mistress of King David, and brought on a moral catastrophe which almost destroyed Israel’s most beloved king.
Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba. It’s like saying the Word was made Flesh from Calamity Jane; Typhoid Mary; the murderous Lizzy Borden, and --- let’s say --- Monica Lewinski.
Instead of covering up Christ's "less acceptable" roots, Matthew highlights them by mentioning these four women --- and these four only. Did we need to know all this?
For thousands of years all human relationships, public and private, were seen in the context of pedigree: ancestors and descendants.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, sees her life this way. She says,
His mercy is from generation unto generations,
Behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
As he spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and to his seed for ever.
She was standing at the point of connection, between all the generations of the past, including Eve, who is the one who famously blew it, and all the generations of the future who would call her blessed. Why is it important? Is this going to be a Patriarchal Parable, where all the evil comes from women, starting with Eve? Or am I going to turn it into a Feminist Folktale, where, as I’m sure you know, it always works out that Women are Nice and Men are Lice?
I’m not going to tell you a patriarchal story--- and I wouldn’t waste your time with feminism. Yes, it’s OK to be a feminist in the Church, if you’re a feminist transformed by the Gospel. It’s even OK to be a patriarchalist in the Church --- if you’re a patriarchalist transformed by the Gospel. The important thing isn’t patriarchy or feminism. The important thing is transformation.
But if transformation is important, why is this troublesome genealogy important? For that matter, why is ANY Scripture important?
Is it because Scripture gives us weekly exposure to inspirational poetry? No. You could get lots more inspirational poetry from Helen Steiner Rice.
Is it important because Scripture provides us with a systematic code of moral theology? No. Most of the Bible is not moral theology, and it’s anything but systematic.
Is it important because Scripture has stories we can use at Vacation Bible School to get the kids to behave? No, not even that. Parts of the Bible are not suitable for getting kids to behave: if that were the point, the stories of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba would not be in there.
Scripture is important for only one reason: because it’s true. It’s not an “authorized biography” edited by a defense attorney and distributed by a public relations firm. Scripture has not been carefully scrubbed by the Big Man’s campaign manager. It tells what actually happened. It tells the truth about men, women, families and nations. It’s history.
Catholic philosophy says that God’s Providence can be found in history. I find this difficult to believe. Mind, you, I believe it, but I find it difficult. It often looks to me like “History is just one damned thing after another.” But the valuable thing about Biblical history is that it’s not a cover-up. It shows you how it happened, one damned thing after another. And then it shows you what God did with it.
Jesus was introduced into human history with a mostly-Semitic, 40 century, more-or-less 40 book prequel. The evangelist Matthew recaps the whole 4,000 year story in super-concentrated form via his Genealogy, with its few heroes and its many humbugs, its anointed Prophets and its string of trifling piffle kings.
It’s not a WikiLeaks Exposé. Even the most wince-worthy details come to us, not from the foes of Israel, not from the enemies of Christ, not from the mockers, the skeptics, unbelievers and the atheists, but from the very first Apostle who wrote the very first Gospel, in fact, the very first chapter of that Gospel.
Surprisingly, just four women are highlighted in the Genealogy, and rather unrepresentative ones at that. If you don’t like the rather eyebrow-raising selections, your quarrel isn’t with me, it’s with the authors, Matthew and the Holy Spirit: the ones who decided who made the cut.
It’s that Jesus, God Incarnate, enters into this history and saves it “from within”. He is not a magician who changes things “from outside” with one swish of a magic wand, but the true Redeemer who will rescue and transform every splintered and faltering good thing in the Universe, from the inside, for those who have faith.
Those people in the Genealogies who had “faith,” who were believers, what did they believe in? They believed in One God, and they believed that his Anointed One was coming to bring a better law, a better triumph, “something better,” as the Epistle to the Hebrews says.
Take a good look at your botched personal past and your compromised personal present, your rickety family legacy, the wince-worthy history of Israel, and the Church, and the World.
It’s a mess.
The Gospel --- the Good News--- is not that we’re going to be airlifted out of it. It’s that He’s in the middle of it.
Tomorrow we’ll take a closer look at Scandalous Four Female Ancestors, Exhibit One: Tamar.
Juli Loesch Wiley is a Spero columnist. She has published articles in U.S. Catholic; 30 Giorni (Italy); Caelum et Terra; New Oxford Review; Commonweal; Sojourners; Touchstone; Voices; and Crisis. She has also contributed chapters to books by Donna Steichen and Studs Terkel.