Oh no! Not another genealogy

Genealogies, at least in the scripture sense and usage, are out of fashion these days. By many the past is considered an imposition, its categories too confining for a liberated age, its conceptions irrelevant.  And yet the very societies that would cut the umbilical cord of the past bare already suffering the results of their false bids for freedom.  Yawn though we may when wading into a scripture genealogy, the genealogies may yet prove a salve of great importance to the post-modern soul. A ready test for this proposition can be found in Matthew's gospel.  By including a genealogy he allows us to explore its meaning for the Jews, for Jesus, and then by way of application for ourselves.

Genealogies and the Jews

A genealogy will say nothing to us if we just read it as a list of names.  It falls flat.  It fails its purpose.  But it was never meant to be a mere list of names.  It was a tool which was used to shape identity, the primary tool.  Genealogies for the ancient peoples preserved important continuities and validated connections.  Roles and responsibilities, possessions, prerogatives, and commitments--all of these were rooted in the family and its history.

Though by no means exclusive to the Jews, genealogies held a meaning for the Jew to which others could not lay claim.  For only the Jews by way of divine revelation possessed a true account of beginnings.  Which meant in turn that only the Jews had access to a true understanding of history and to the pattern that history should follow.  Like we said above, roles and responsibilities, possessions, prerogatives, and commitments all depend upon a genealogy that is properly rooted.

Matthew demonstrates a clear sensitivity to these very points for he begins his gospel with the phrase “the book of the genealogy.”  This phrase, as it is in the Greek original, only appears in the same precise form in two other verses of the Bible, Genesis 2:4 and 5:1.  The first speaks of the “book of the genealogy of the heavens and the earth” and the second of the “book of the genealogy of Adam,” both of which are foundational to the whole of human history and represent the ultimate point of beginning. 

But the connection that Matthew makes grows even richer when we consider the Hebrew word toledot which stands behind the Septuagint translation.  Toledot appears 10 times in the Genesis narratives and serves as an organizing principle for the whole.  It comes from a root meaning “to bear” or “to generate,” but its emphasis goes beyond the mere act of begetting to include all that develops after a begetting has taken place.  It is a this-is-what-came-of-it type of idea.  Both beginnings and endings (in the sense of the cumulative effect of a lived history) are thus bound firmly together, and it is the genealogy that represents and preserves the sense of this close connection between the original creation and all that developed (or should have developed) out of it.

Thus the concept rooted in the word toledot binds together not just the two poles of history; it also binds man to God and God to man.  Genesis makes clear that the begetting of men is only possible because of the initial begettting of God.  He begets first (Genesis 2:4).  He is the initiator, the one who wills the world and its creatures into existence.  Only subsequently are we able to beget (Genesis 5:1) with a begetting that is inescapably rooted in the original creation. Our own begetting is always on a stage and within a life that has been gifted to us and  that is sustained by another, namely our Creator.

Furthermore in this binding of man’s begetting to God's begetting, it becomes clear that human history can only reach its proper fulfillment when it is pregnant with the divine intent, the intent that motivated and guided God in His original act of creation.1 With this in mind it becomes possible to speak of true history as opposed to false, true history being histories the development of which are patterned after the creation intent.

The Jews were keenly aware that their own history had fallen short of this ideal.  Yet even that imperfect history gave witness to the ongoing faithfulness of God in continuing to act and move towards the re-establishment of that which He had envisioned in His original act of “begetting.”

It was the memory and practice of this creation pattern that the Jews were called to preserve, and the genealogy was the record through time of that commitment of faith as well as a vehicle of transmission to the generations to come.  It was a this-is-who-we-are kind of document which went back through all the ages so that identity and commitment were rooted in the being of God Himself.

Genealogies and Jesus

Reading Matthew's genealogy it becomes readily apparent that Jesus lived out His life in the context of a received heritage.  He was part of a history.  He was defined and shaped by what had come before, and he not only accepted that which had come before but embraced it so that it came to define his very identity.  Hyperbole acknowledged, we may still assert without departing from the truth that the genealogy made Him what He was.

It is not a mere conservatism, however, which compelled Jesus in this direction but rather a particular conception of history, as we have worked out above.  In other words, Jesus would not have embraced any heritage but only this heritage.  He understood that it was his unique role to both redeem and establish the God-begotten history to which the Jews had given witness.  This He did by being the first to fully realize the divine intent, an intent which included, as an integral part, absolving on the cross the guilt and shame of the family of which he had become a part.

In accepting this heritage and allowing it to define for him his roles and responsibilities, possessions, prerogatives, and commitments, Jesus became more not less.  He was shaped by a family history in which God had played an integral part, and this rooted His identity not in the narrow scope of the self and of selfhood but in the purposes of God as they had been revealed down through the centuries and epochs of time.

Genealogies and Ourselves

As was stated in the introduction, many today consider the past to be an imposition.  One of the central tenants of the philosophical movement dubbed post-modernism is that the self should be absolutely free to create itself. It was a conviction long in coming, simply the last step in a series of steps taken by western societies in which man replaced God at the center of man's world.

But is man truly able to shoulder this God-sized burden?  Political commentator Walter Lippman, writing in 1964, spoke of the “despair” and “spiritual unease” which even then had begun to afflict the West.  “The malady is caused, I believe, by the impact of science upon religious certainty, and of technological progress upon the settled order of family, class, and community.”  Lippman follows with a striking description of the post-modern dilemma.  This despair, he says, “comes from being uprooted, homeless, naked, alone and unled.  It comes from being lost in a universe where the meaning of life and of the social order are no longer given from on high and transmitted from ancestors but have to be invented and discovered and experimented with, each lonely individual for himself."

What is being described by Lippman is the complete loss of the perspective set forth in Matthew's genealogy.  It is in just such a context that the message of the genealogy becomes imperative.  Next month I will explore the implications of that loss and the response which we as believers should make to it.