During the month of December, many people will be turning to two great stories in the New Testament to read about Christmas. Luke is the champion storyteller, with angels, shepherds and Mary and Joseph’s desperate search for shelter because there was no room in the inn. Matthew adds the story of the Magi from the East who had seen a star at its rising and discerned from it the birth of a new king. Taken together they comprise a stirring story that can be told with majestic strains from Handel’s “Messiah” or with costumed children in a pageant.
Matthew’s story actually begins with a genealogy, tracing 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 generations from David to the deportation to Babylon, and 14 generations from the deportation to Jesus. It is a reading that many people find tedious and boring, filled (in the King James Bible) with repetitive “A begat B, and B begat C.” It is tempting to skip the genealogy and cut to the chase of the story that begins immediately after.
Don’t skip the genealogy. There are some fascinating stories embedded in it that can shape the way we see the birth of Jesus. Among the many men listed in the family tree there are four women — three of whom are named and one who is not. Each of these women has a backstory that makes her presence in this genealogy unusual and intriguing. Call it the “herstory” in the history.
First, there is Tamar, identified as the woman by whom Judah bore two sons. That sounds wholesome enough until one realizes that Tamar was not Judah’s wife, but his daughter-in-law, against whom Judah had committed a grave injustice. In a context that was patriarchal to the hilt, Tamar found a way to get justice. In doing so, she became the mother of Judah’s children, and part of the great family lineage from Abraham to David to Jesus.
Next there is Rahab, the Mata Hari of the ancient Near East. Rahab was a prostitute living in the city of Jericho when Israel sent two spies to scope out the city before attacking it. She lied, she betrayed her own people, and she hid the spies before helping them escape because she recognized God’s hand in it. Now viewed as a paragon of faith, Rahab survived the battle of Jericho and returns in Matthew’s genealogy as the great, great-grandmother of King David.
Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David, has an entire book devoted to her story. It begins with tragedy and turns when Ruth makes the compassionate decision not to abandon her mother-in-law to survive widowhood on her own. Compassionate, beautiful and clever, Ruth becomes the second foreigner to become part of this family tree.
And then there’s the unnamed woman, described in the line, “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah.” Raped by King David, who then has her husband murdered and takes her into his palace to display his royal chivalry, Bathsheba’s story is the ultimate #MeToo story. Even in the genealogy, her name is omitted and her identity absorbed into the three men who shaped her life. Yet, Bathsheba survives and ultimately ensures that her son becomes the next king after David’s death. Bathsheba’s story is a story of survival and power.
From these roots filled with sordid stories and amazing heroines, a child is born, who Christians throughout the world will celebrate as God’s presence made flesh among us.