John famously begins his Gospel with a piece of theology: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Matthew starts with a genealogy. John celebrates Advent with a hymn, Matthew with a list. For John, Jesus is the Word of creation in human flesh. For Matthew, he is a name.
We may find Matthew’s prosaic opening a let-down, but there’s a lot going on in that genealogy. Like John, Matthew begins with an echo of Genesis (“the book of the genealogy of Jesus,” see Genesis 5:1). “Genealogy” translates the Greek genesis, probably the title of the first book of the Bible already in Matthew’s day. Like John, Matthew writes a Gospel of new beginning.
As many have observed, the four women in the genealogy—Tamar, Rahab, the “wife of Uriah,” and Ruth—all have dubious reputations. Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute to seduce Judah so she could get an heir from her own father-in-law. Rahab was a prostitute, and David seduced Bathsheba, then killed her husband to cover his tracks. Ruth was descended from Lot’s incestuous daughters and was as aggressive as her ancestors in courting Boaz, a man old enough to call her “daughter.” The Messiah doesn’t stumble over these scandals. Matthew’s genealogy shows that they are, mysteriously, steps along the path of his arrival.
All the women are Gentiles or married to Gentiles. Tamar and Rahab were Canaanites, Ruth a Moabitess, and Bathsheba the wife of a Hittite. There were many mothers in Israel, but every last one of them—Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah—gets passed over. In Matthew’s account, only Gentile brides and mothers get a branch in Jesus’s family tree.
Gentiles don’t have to wait until Pentecost to enter the kingdom. From the moment Jesus is conceived, he incorporates Gentiles into his flesh. In this way, Jesus fulfills Yahweh’s promise to bless Gentiles through Abraham’s seed. Jesus is the son of Abraham, but not because his veins flow with pure Jewish blood. He is Abrahamic because of his mixed blood and “impure” flesh, for Abraham is the father of many nations. Before Jesus speaks a parable or performs a miracle, he is already the sacrament of the healing of Babel’s wound.
The genealogy sets the trajectory for a Gospel that ends with a commission to make disciples of “all the ethne,” all the Gentiles. As the apostles gather believers in the power of the Spirit, Jesus’s corporate body comes to resemble his physical body. Like Jesus himself, the Church is constituted from every blood, every race, tribe, nation, and tongue.
Advent marks a “genesis” because in Jesus the human race gets a fresh start. Advent celebrates the Advent of humanity’s reunion, the coming of what Paul calls “one new man.”
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.