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The Genealogy of Jesus

by Martin Mosebach

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  • Description:
    In a family tree that traces only the male line, every deviation from this rule must be very significant. This is the case in Jesus' genealogy — it seems to lead to Mary, yet does not fit her in entirely convincingly. Here, the author pays particular attention to the women (Tamur, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba) mentioned in the first sixteen verses of St. Matthew's Gospel, the genealogy of Jesus, and their stories, which make them peculiar enough to break the patriarchal principle. This article, translated by Graham Harrison, is part of an upcoming book on the liturgy by Martin Mosebach soon to be published in English by Ignatius Press.
  • Larger Work:
    Inside the Vatican
  • Pages: 32 - 37
  • Publisher & Date:
    Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, 2005

To modern man the genealogy of Jesus as found in the first sixteen verses of St. Matthew's Gospel is, at best, an absurd concatenation of sounds. The succession of Old Testament names, in quasi-Greek or Latin versions, recalls an incantation or spell; it is both grotesque and comical. It is as if a multitude of dwarfs, with strange Van Dyke beards and pointed caps, is joined together by their generative organs to form a human edifice, an artistic tower of humanity. We find these venerable patriarchs, each one standing on another's head, sculpted into the pointed arch of the entrance porches of Gothic cathedrals. On the walls we see Jesse, wearing slit Turkish trousers, sleeping on a grassy hillock, while from his loins a creeper issues, tree-high, its twisted foliage revealing the faces of tiny, anxious old men looking out; they are all connected to each other, and ribbon-like labels announce their strange names. David and Solomon, Jacob and Joseph are the only familiar characters among others such as Perez and Amminadab, Rehoboam and Asa, Jehoshaphat and Jotham, Hezekiah, Jechoniah, Shealtiel and Zerubbabel.

The genealogy of Jesus is the Gospel for the Feast of the Name of Mary on 8 September; it is also read on 16 August, the Feast of St. Joachim, Mary's father, who is not mentioned in the genealogy at all. It can be seasonally hot on both feasts. Then the deacon sings this genealogy, dressed in his gold-embroidered dalmatic and surrounded by servers carrying candles and thuribles, perspiring profusely into the white linen cloth that encloses his neck. "Abraham autem genuit Isaac, Isaac autem genuit Jacob, Jacob autem genuit Judam et fratres eius . . . " So it goes on: fourteen generations from Abraham to David, another fourteen generations from David to the captivity in Babylon, and finally another fourteen generations, from Babylon to the birth of Jesus Christ.

Is this really a piece of the Christian message? Is this genealogy with its three groups of fourteen — clearly stylized — something more than an archaic ritual? Jesus' family tree (abbreviated by three kings in order to preserve the rhythm of the three fourteens) is here presented by Matthew in such a way that it emphatically repeats the name of David: the fourteen represents the numerical value of the three Hebrew consonants that frame the name David. Jesus Christ is the "son of David"; the family tree is meant to prove this. He is the one about whom Isaiah uttered this strange warning: "Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel."

For thousands of years it was accepted that descent, pedigree, gives evidence of election, of legitimacy, substantiating the claim to lordship; all juridical relationships, public and private, were seen in the context of descent. This is something the western nations and those marked by them have utterly forgotten. The solemnity that once — even at the beginning of our century — surrounded the "family of royal blood" is now reapplied to the "elected parliament" or the "elected president." Yet David's family tree continued to be traced up to the recent past. Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia bore the title "King of Zion" and "Lion of Judah"; for three thousand years a rumor went around in his family that it owed its origin to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba — much as a certain Prince Massimo proudly told Napoleon that he was descended from Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator. Up until the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 his genealogy used to be sung by the ecclesiastical singers; it was divided into sections, each containing seven generations, and all the children of the Ethiopian "House of David" used to learn the last seven generations of their family tree by heart, so that they could recite them on solemn occasions. Just as we find in Matthew, only the fathers and sons were named; and, as in Matthew, female names cropped up in the long series from time to time, when something important was associated with these particular mothers.

The unsuspecting reader is quite taken aback when he comes to the end of Jesus' genealogy. Its purpose is to demonstrate Jesus' descent from King David in a factual way and using symbolic numbers. Thirty-nine times we read "genuit" ("begat"), since the genealogy's author is not afraid of seeming monotonous when it is a case of accuracy. Suddenly, however, when he has to draw his conclusion from this long series of generations, he omits the word "begat": "Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary," and he continues, "of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ." According to Matthew, therefore, Joseph did not beget Jesus. A great genealogy has been laid before us — to show that it does not show Jesus' descent. Does this mean that Emperor Haile Selassie had more claim to be a "son of David" than Jesus?

The early Christians openly recognized the difficulty presented by this passage of Scripture. St. Justin, as early as the second century, asserted that Mary also came from the house of David. The "Protoevangelium of St. James," also a very early text, confirms Mary's descent, and the entire Christian tradition adopted this view. Christian art, too, often sees Mary as a "daughter of David." In many depictions of the Jesse Tree, Mary comes at the end of the sequence of generations and the problematical Joseph has entirely disappeared. The Church has never simply rejected traditions that cannot be substantiated. She has always left much in place, aware that, ultimately, the canonical Gospels are themselves fruits of tradition. According to the Jewish custom, it is said, it was preferable to marry one's close relatives. Mary may have been Joseph's cousin. This makes sense of the puzzling conclusion of Jesus' genealogy. Then we read again Matthew 1:16: " . . . Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born . . . " — and a doubt arises at this point: isn't the explanation given by tradition simply too perfect, too smooth, too reassuring?

In a family tree that traces only the male line, every deviation from this rule must be very significant. This is particularly the case where, as in Jesus' genealogy, it seems to lead to Mary, yet does not fit her in entirely convincingly. However, the other women in Jesus' genealogy are also puzzling. Why are they important enough to break the patriarchal principle? Pious exegetes find them embarrassing. Not all of these women were exemplary characters, either; but all of them were highly peculiar.

First we come to Tamar, the Canaanite woman. She becomes the daughter-in-law of Judah, one of the twelve sons of the patriarch Jacob. Before she becomes pregnant Yahwe kills her husband, who "was evil in the sight of the Lord." The Book of Deuteronomy provides the "levirate" solution to such a childless widowhood: a brother of the dead man must marry the widow; if he produces a son with her, this child is regarded as the dead man's descendant and heir, so that "his name may not be blotted out from Israel." In Tamar's case her brother-in-law was called Onan. At his father's command he married Tamar. "But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went in to his brother's wife he spilled the semen on the ground, lest he should give offspring to his brother." God punishes this act with death, and Tamar is a widow again. Judah's last son, Shelah, is still too young for the levirate duty, but the father seems also to have feared that a curse rested on every marriage with Tamar, and he tried to find a way of avoiding this third marriage. Then Tamar put off her widow's garments, dressed herself as a prostitute and stood by the roadside, evidently sure that Judah would never miss such an opportunity. And indeed, by this stratagem, she gets twins from her father-in-law. Judah has to admit, "She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah."

However, Tamar, with her son Perez whom she had with her father-in-law, became an ancestor of King David. Six generations later we come across Rahab, not a merely apparent prostitute, but a real one, of the town of Jericho. Her entry into the House of David is described in the Book of Joshua. Joshua sends two spies into the enemy town of Jericho. The two men hide under bundles of flax on the roof of Rahab's house, which is by the city wall. Rahab is convinced of Yahwe's almighty power: "The Lord your God is he who is God in heaven above and on earth beneath." She lets the spies down the city wall in a basket and shows them their escape route. In return the spies swear to her that she and her entire family will be spared when Jericho is stormed; a scarlet cord will identify her house.

When, finally, the walls of Jericho collapse at the sound of the trumpets and the shouting of the Jewish army, Joshua remembers the oath the spies swore. Rahab and her family are saved; "she dwelt in Israel to this day." We do not know whether Salmon, who begat Boaz with Rahab, was one of the spies or met her at some later time. The text does not say. Given her previous life, she certainly did not become his wife. Nonetheless, Rahab's renown was not simply that she was an ancestor of David: Paul, in his Letter to the Hebrews, presents her as a great example of faith: "By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given friendly welcome to the spies." The church fathers even see Rahab as a symbol of the Church, since by faith and love she preserved her family from annihilation; this shows how eagerly they took up the challenge to track and trace the history of salvation in every detail of the Old Testament.

Ruth appears as an example of pure gentleness and humility. She is a Moabitess, the widow of the Jew Mahlon; her mother-in-law, Naomi, who was married to Elimelech, is also a widow. Both women, now wretched and abandoned widows, have become beggars. Ruth gathers ears of corn from the fields of a rich relation of her husband's. His name is Boaz; he discovers the beautiful, demure corn-gleaner and shows favor to her. Accordingly, Ruth feels encouraged to wash, anoint herself and put on her best clothes, and goes literally to lie down in Boaz's bed. All this takes place entirely honorably, for she is asking him, since he is a relation of her husband's, to exercise his levirate duty. So Boaz proclaims at the gate of Bethlehem: "Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of Mahlon, I have bought to be my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brethren." So Ruth becomes the mother of Obed, who will become the father of Jesse and grandfather of David.

The fourth woman in Jesus' family tree is Bathsheba, who was married to the Hittite captain, Uriah. The story of how, one afternoon, King David gets up from his bed, goes for a walk on his roof terrace and espies Bathsheba taking a bath on a neighboring roof, has provided a wealth of material for artists, "for the woman was very beautiful" All the more infamously was Uriah dispatched. In a letter that has become legendary, David ordered a fatal attack and the inconvenient husband was buried under a great heap of corpses; the death of so many was intended to cover up the murder of Uriah, who clearly suspected what had been going on. This event is followed by David's repentance and despair, a prayer that is heard by God, for Bathsheba becomes the mother of King Solomon, the fabulous Temple-builder, the greatest Jewish king.

The adulteress, the prostitute and the two aspiring, persistent widows were selected by the Evangelist Matthew as examples of exceptional women in the otherwise purely male family tree of the Redeemer. Many a preacher has found an edifying explanation for this somewhat unsettling selection. Some say that the Evangelist wanted to emphasize that Jesus' forebears were weak and culpable people; others suggest that it shows that Jesus, who saw himself as a "healer of the sick," was not afraid of being close to those burdened by sin; others, again, point to the fact that the Incarnation of the Son of God took place in the Bethlehem stable and in a family that was involved in sin in various ways. The idea sounds plausible; it has a nice Christian, sentimental flavor to it. But does it fit in with the atmosphere of Matthew's Gospel with its laconic edge? The stains on the House of David were painfully obvious to the Jewish author of this Gospel. What made this family special was not its sinfulness, but the promise made to it from Abraham's time, a promise that had been clarified and renewed by the Prophets. Jesus was to be the fulfillment of this promise — but how could this come about if he were not "David's son"?

Why does Matthew adjust his genealogy to fit in with magical numerology, omit the mention of the Three Kings and count Jeconiah twice, in order to arrive three times at the numerical value of the name of David? And why does he make such a startling selection of women? Are we not absolutely compelled, on literary grounds, to see these women in connection with Mary, the last and most unknown of women, the contemporary of Matthew, who deliberately introduces her in the context of these famous historical women?

The first thing the four women in the genealogy of Jesus have in common is that they are not Jewesses. Tamar and Rahab actually come from peoples — Canaanites and citizens of the obliterated city of Jericho — held to be particularly wicked, even cursed. Initially, however, this common feature does not bring us any further with regard to Mary. If it is meant to show that Mary too was a foreigner and an outsider, it does not solve the riddle of Jesus' descent from the House of David. Being a foreigner, coming from a despised tribe, being graciously accepted into a nation marked by the divine promise — none of this seems to mean much for Mary, if she was a Jewess and possibly even one of David's descendants.

However, the four women have something else in common, something that may have occurred to the reader already: all four were made pregnant by someone other than their husband. Bathsheba, the mother of Solomon, was "the wife of Uriah," and she stands in the genealogy under this title, not under her own name. This is the most important point. Rahab is a prostitute — her status is emphasized both in the Old Testament and in St. Paul. By contrast Tamar and Ruth use schemes and pressure to get older relatives to give them children — entirely legally — for their dead husbands. So if Mary is to be compared to the four women, it is because she too did not get her son from her husband. All the offspring of the four women, the illegitimate and those legitimated by the levirate law, became "sons of Abraham" and members of the House of David. Powerful men stepped into the place of the husbands and raised up offspring in their name: the patriarch Judah, the victorious Salmon, the rich Boaz, and finally King David himself. Someone greater than Joseph, in Joseph's place, begat Mary's son Jesus. In comparison with this Greater One, Mary was from a rejected and cursed generation, not from a particular people, but from the guilt-laden human race. By nature, therefore, Jesus is the Son of Him who begot him, but according to the holy levirate law he is the son of Joseph, he is David's son and heir.

Mary, the new Rahab, rescues her people by faith in God's almighty power. As a new Tamar she prevents her people from collapse and extinction. Ruth said to Boaz: "You are most gracious to me, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your maidservant, . . ." and Mary, the new Ruth, says in St. Luke's Gospel: "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden." As the new Bathsheba, Mary brings into the world a new Solomon, who, like the old Solomon, is a judge, but the Judge of the world.

If we were to imagine the four women of the genealogy as Romanesque or Gothic statues, they should really be carrying keys on their girdles, for it is they who unlock the family tree that can seem like a piece of ossified ceremonial. What at first seems like a genealogical register exhibiting the kind of contradictions that emerge when someone cheats at Patience, is changed into a living message. Anyone who keeps reading and comes across Joseph's doubts when he learns that his betrothed is pregnant, already knows what Joseph needs to hear from the mouth of the angel. In its indirect way, Matthew's genealogy of Jesus is the most comprehensive text about Mary to be found in the Gospels. Using the archaic means of a catalogue of generations Matthew is expressing something utterly new, and in doing so he employs neither theological doctrine nor philosophy.

"In the beginning was the Word." So begins the Gospel of John. Matthew's beginning consisted of a chain of human beings disappearing into the darkness of the past. But something invisible was at work in this long human chain, giving direction to the merely biological sequence, imparting a forward thrust to it. We can only know this invisible reality and its effect if we read it in the faces of human beings. History, with its abstractions, is embodied in forms. These forms provide us with bundles of meanings, elucidated in turn by further forms. The reader is presented, not with a series of doctrinal statements, but with a sequence of people. Thus Matthew opens his account of the Word's Enfleshment with a sequence of human incarnations.

Martin Mosebach is a German writer.

(Copyright Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2005. This article, translated by Graham Harrison, is part of an upcoming book on the liturgy by Martin Mosebach soon to be published in English by Ignatius Press.)

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