The Genesis of Christmas: uprooting the family tree (Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2022)
If you can name your great-great grandparents, you are a part of a tiny minority of Americans. If you can go beyond that, you are in a category sociologists can rarely identify. But go into other parts of the world and the line of one’s ancestry is clear. Many non-Western cultures know from whom they come. But just as rides to the airport from friends has been technologized over to Uber and Lyft, so has naming where you come from through the various services of companies like Ancestry.com and 23andme. We have no idea where we come from, but at least there’s an app for that. This nauseating Western reality has been called by Alex Haley, “the pervasive rootlessness that afflicts America.”
The most important thing about you and me is not what we do for a living, nor is it what we are interested in or what we think about a given political or cultural issue, and it’s not even our children. The most important thing about any human being is the human beings who came before them. If I want to know you more, I will ask you about your parents. If I want to know even more, I’ll ask you about your grandparents. The disappearing faces of our ancestors reappear in our life in ways we rarely understand. We are those people, in some ways, and they are us. The importance cannot be overstated.
Ancient Hebrew society prized family lineage. It’s why your Bible is full of long lists of fathers and mothers and children. In fact, ten percent of the book of Genesis is taken up with genealogies — this is significant seeing that the book is 50 chapters long. Pages upon pages are given to lists of names — and the family of God isn’t even that big at that point. Why do they spend so much time on them?
J. Richard Middleton has noted that the mistake of many well-meaning Bible interpreters since the Enlightenment has been to mine genealogies for historical data, understanding their purpose as strictly scientific: how old is the human race? In what year did Abraham live and die? This is unhelpful and inaccurate as the Bible’s writers were up to something not so much of socio-historical importance, but of theological importance. “[G]enealogies make the important theological point,” writes Middleton (emphasis mine), “that despite human sin…God’s creational purposes have not been thwarted.”
The book of Genesis is somewhat obsessed with genealogies because one of its major themes is precisely what Middleton points out: that despite the wreckage left by the selfishness of human beings, God is pushing his purposes forward, to redeem and bless all the nations through Israel (c.f. Genesis 3:15, 12:1–4). The genealogies that continue through the Bible (and there are many) seem to perpetuate the same meaning. Keep reading these terrible stories, the author seems to be saying, because God is still moving through this people and he has not forgotten what he has promised.
Additionally in these genealogies is the acknowledgment of sin’s kinship. There is a generational terror in the rebellion against God. If we are to ever wonder why Jacob is a fool, we only need to look at his genealogy. When we see from where he comes, and notice that Abraham is his grandfather, we are not surprised when he does nearly identically idiotic things as his ancestor did. If God’s purposes did not quit then, they certainly can’t quit now. If we was able to push his plan through Abraham, he can do it through Jacob.
The prequel to Christmas is a genealogy. Before the first gospel tells us the story of Jesus’ birth, Matthew, our writer, gives us a list. The grand opening of the New Testament breaks 400 years of silence with a seemingly tepid roll call. It may not be the sexiest way to start a story, but it is very much in line with the tradition from which Matthew writes. He begins, “the book of genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). In the Greek, “the book of genealogy” is an exactly copied phrase (“Βίβλος γενέσεως”) from Genesis’ first genealogy in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). Matthew is nodding to Genesis to say: I am setting the story you are about to hear all about Jesus inside the context of Genesis and the story the Hebrew Bible tells.
Matthew’s genealogy is near air-tight. He walks through each generation from Abraham to David and up to Jesus’ father’s father, “Matthan.” This man, Matthan, fathers someone named Jacob, who then father’s Joseph.
Does this sound familiar? It should, but not to the reader of Matthew. Only the reader of Genesis will catch two important intertextual echoes in Matthew 1.
First, when Matthew tells us of the first Jacob (the Genesis Jacob!) back at the beginning of the genealogy, he tells us that Jacob is “the father of Judah,” although most of us know Jacob as the father of Jospeh — the Joseph also from Genesis, whose story we follow for the final thirteen (!) chapters of the book. But if you are not just a reader of Matthew, but a Bible reader who has read Genesis, this little move Matthew makes gets you thinking. And then, when you start reading about this new Joseph who will be the father of Jesus, things start to click. Here now, writes Alastair Roberts, “another Joseph [fathered by] Jacob is given prophetic dreams and leads his family down into Egypt for safety. Here there is another king killing baby boys, from whom the child appointed to be the future savior of his people is again delivered.”
And that’s just the first twist. Secondly, something strange happens in Matthew 1:16. With painful detail, Matthew has just taken most of the first page of his book to detail the lineage of Jesus’ father, Joseph. The whole thing is all about Joseph, only to get to this line: “and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (Matthew 1:16).
Did you notice what happened? The entire genealogy is using the phrase “the father of” to describe the relations of each family member. That phrase repeats 39 times in just fifteen verses. Then, suddenly, the phrase ends not with Jesus, but before Jesus. The phrase’s final use is about Joseph’s father, Jacob. Matthew never acknowledges Joseph as Jesus’ father. Instead, he is simply “the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born” (Matthew 1:16, c.f. Matthew 1:19). The rest of Matthew’s account shows Jesus obsessively referring to “my Father” as God himself (16 occurances in Matthew’s gospel).
And this is the beauty of this genealogy. At first glance, we think Matthew is clearly outlining Jesus’ biological connection to Abraham, but he is not. Matthew is showing Jesus’ theological connection to Abraham. The lineage is not showing that Jesus is related to Jospeh; it is showing us he is not.
The significance is profound: if Jesus were, in fact, blood related to Jospeh, it would mean that the salvation of the world could come through a human bloodline. But the essential doctrine of the virgin birth tells us something we could never make up and often do not want to hear: salvation is from the Lord alone (Jonah 2:9). Only through a miracle will God bring about the saving of all people in Christ Jesus.
But also, this shows the profound lengths to which God comes in Christ. Instead of adopting a human-born child, God goes further: he doesn’t just assume a role in a story, or put his Spirit on a key player — he becomes a key player himself. God writes himself into the story. He alone initiates the action through which he will come into the world. And his partner is actually not a part of a line, but weds into it. Mary is betrothed to the line through which the Messiah comes, leaving God alone as both the Trailblazer and the Trail, the Seed and the Womb, the Son and the Father and the Spirit through which the virgin birth is done. Mary is precisely what she calls herself: “The Lord’s servant” (Luke 1:38). God does not rely on a human to produce a seed, he becomes the seed himself. Taking the form of an embryo, God does not need the human means of procreation to become human. Jesus is therefore not “made,” as C.S. Lewis notes, he is “begotten” (Lewis, Mere Christianity, pgs. 157–159).
Matthew’s argument is less technical and more theological. Rejecting the coming Enlightenment interpretations, Matthew points not to raw data, but Scripture. When Isaiah speaks of the coming Messiah, “the righteous reign of the branch” that will come from Abraham’s lineage, he tells us not of a clean line that will biologically link Abraham to the Messiah. Instead, he says “There shall come forth a shoot from eh stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him” (Isaiah 11:1–2).
Notice the metaphor: the Messiah is not the fruit from the tree of Jesse. In this metaphor, the tree of Jesse (David’s father) is actually cut down to its roots — it’s unearthed, dug up, replaced. The Messiah will come from the wreckage of that family but in a disruptively divine way. Jesus arrives not as the natural born king, but the divinely begotten eternal Son of God incarnate. Jesus comes from the stump of the family, not the surplus.
This story Matthew tells, then, is almost identical to Genesis, which tells the story of all kinds of fools and the Wise One who overturns their evils into His good (Genesis 50:20). God is the only clean character in the whole first book of the Bible. Likewise, Jesus will be the only pure player in Matthew’s narrative. He embodies Israel, as Peter Leithart has argued, making his life their life, and obeying the Father at every point in which they did not. In dramatic fashion, Jesus re-plays the part of God’s people, but in this re-cast, he succeeds where they fail and substitutes himself where they could not. By putting himself in the story, God shows us not only the profound lengths through which he will go to “become flesh” (John 1:14), but also the remarkable consistency in which he has done this through the whole Biblical narrative. God comes in Christ in the same way he always comes: through his own power, ingenuity, and timing. It can happen no other way.
Now, as those “born again” (John 3:3) and by grace “born of God” (1 John 4:7), we know our history. Yes, we come from our grandparents and parents, but we also come from Christ. In our new identity, the most important thing about us is not just who our parents were, but who our Father is now as we stand “in Christ.” We are given a new name, a new family, a new brotherhood and sisterhood in which to exist in the Church, and our entire self-understanding is dramatically and theologically reinterpreted through the Virgin Birth. Yes, our genealogy matters, but so does the one that opens Matthew’s gospel. And could it be that the latter could outweigh the former? I think the rest of the New Testament is an emphatic answer to us: yes.