One of my Old Testament professors at seminary, Ron Hals, once told the story of when he and his wife were doing their morning "devotions"--reading a section of Scripture and then, praying. They were working through one of the dry lists that play such a big--and yawning--part in the Old Testament book of Numbers.
"Ron," his wife asked, "is this really very important?"
"Must be," Ron replied in his typical clipped and ironic style--when he lectured you could tell that Ron was a big fan of the comic storyteller, Myron Cohen--"it's all in there."
Sometimes, when I read genealogies like the one that opens Matthew's portrait of Jesus in the New Testament, I want to skip over it. (Confidentially, sometimes I do.) But it must be important: It's "in there."
Matthew's list of the generations between the great figures of Hebrew history, culminating in the coming of Jesus, is perfect in its symmetry: from Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish nation, to the great King David, a man after God's own heart, fourteen generations pass; from David to the Babylonian Exile, critically important because it demonstrated to the people that God was faithful even when they weren't in possession of their home land and that God was God of all the world; and fourteen generations from the time of the exile to the birth of Jesus.
Some commentators make note that every parenthetical mention of a woman in this genealogy represents pairings that, according to God's will for His people, shouldn't have happened. The heir produced by them resulted from incest, adultery, fraternization with a foreigner, and consorting with a prostitute.
Yet, this line of generations kept returning to God and to the hope for a Savior. Eventually, in spite of the sin and the errors of this family tree, it became the cradle into which the baby Jesus was placed.
I read that and it gives me hope that God can reclaim the rotten places in my life, doing good things in and through me.
An interesting observation about Matthew's list is that he gives Jesus' family history from the vantage point of His earthly father, Joseph. Luke, the other New Testament book that tells about Jesus' birth, gives a completely different genealogy, one written from the perspective of Mary, Jesus' earthly mother.
This chapter also tells the story of Jesus' birth. Joseph and Mary are engaged to be married. Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant and knowing that he isn't the father. In those days, the law said that a woman guilty of adultery was to be taken outside of town and stoned to death. Joseph doesn't want that. So, he decides to quietly sever the formal commitment to marry her.
But then, everything changes for Joseph. Like his Old Testament namesake, Joseph had dreams from God. In this one, Joseph hears God tell him:
"Joseph, Son of David, don't hesitate to get married. Mary's pregnancy is Spirit-conceived. God's Holy Spirit has made her pregnant. She will bring a son to birth, and when she does, you, Joseph, will name him Jesus--'God saves'--because he will save his people from their sins." (Matthew, chapter 1, The Message paraphrase)Matthew underscores that this is what the Old Testament prophet Isaiah had said all along, a virgin would give birth to a Savior, nicknamed Emmanuel, God with us.
Joseph was utterly obedient, although he could have opted out of marriage to Mary and acting as Jesus' earthly follower.
This conforms with a theme that runs throughout the Old Testament and can already be seen in the genealogy of Matthew: God chooses to pursue His good plans for us through human beings. Every one of them could have said, "No" and for as long as each of them take to deliberate over whether to be obedient to God's will or not, heaven waits with baited breath. Later on in the story, God the Father will wait in silence to see whether Jesus, God the Son, will press on to the cross for which He was born into the world.
All of this demonstrates the great risks God is willing to take out of His love for us. Sting once say that if we love somebody, we must set them free. God sets us free to say, "No," as I've said elsewhere, because it's only then that our "Yes" to Him has any meaning. Only love freely arrived at is worthy of the name of love.
[For the next installment, check out Matthew 2]
[Here is the first installment of this series.]