Where God Begins

The liturgical year begins with this the first Sunday of Advent.

Five years ago I wrote a post reflecting on the genealogy of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew.
Matthew 1.1-17
A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham:
Abraham was the father of Isaac,
Isaac the father of Jacob,
Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,
Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar,
Perez the father of Hezron,
Hezron the father of Ram,
Ram the father of Amminadab,
Amminadab the father of Nahshon,
Nahshon the father of Salmon,
Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab,
Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth,
Obed the father of Jesse,
and Jesse the father of King David.
David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah's wife,
Solomon the father of Rehoboam,
Rehoboam the father of Abijah,
Abijah the father of Asa,
Asa the father of Jehoshaphat,
Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram,
Jehoram the father of Uzziah,
Uzziah the father of Jotham,
Jotham the father of Ahaz,
Ahaz the father of Hezekiah,
Hezekiah the father of Manasseh,
Manasseh the father of Amon,
Amon the father of Josiah,
and Josiah the father of Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon.
After the exile to Babylon:
Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel,
Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel,
Zerubbabel the father of Abiud,
Abiud the father of Eliakim,
Eliakim the father of Azor,
Azor the father of Zadok,
Zadok the father of Akim,
Akim the father of Eliud,
Eliud the father of Eleazar,
Eleazar the father of Matthan,
Matthan the father of Jacob,
and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.
Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ.
Matthew's genealogy is noteworthy for two reasons. First, Matthew mentions women, five to be exact. In itself, this is an unusual move. But even more interesting, and this is the second thing to note, is what links the women Matthew selected to mention.

All five share something in common: Sex scandals.

Rahab was a prostitute. Bathsheba was involved in adultery. Tamar tricks her father-in-law into sex leading to a pregnancy. And the unmarried Ruth goes and sleeps with an intoxicated Boaz at night (uncovering his "feet," a Semitic euphemism for the male organ).

Some speculate that Matthew highlights these sexual indiscretions to contextualize the scandal of Mary. Mary, Matthew may be arguing, isn't so different from other women in Israel's faith history. Matthew might be trying to normalize the scandal around Mary and the whiff of illegitimacy about Jesus.

But I think a more interesting way to read the genealogy is that Matthew is trying to highlight the scandal.

Presumably, God could have entered the world in a variety of fashions. We know Jesus enters the world under humble circumstances (peasant parents, occupied outpost of the Roman world, born in a stable, refugees in Egypt, raised in a backwater town, etc.).

But what does it mean that God enters the world under the cloud of moral scandal?

God chooses to enter the world in the middle of small town gossip. (And if you've ever lived in a small town you know exactly what that is like.) What does it say about God in this choosing to enter the world under these particular circumstances?

I think it is a hint about where and how God begins God's work in the world. Then, as now, God doesn't start in churches. Nor does God start in world capitals or with superpowers. God doesn't start with the talented, powerful, rich, or famous.

Rather, God starts with the poor, the alien, the immigrant, the person on the street out in the cold.

And God starts in the midst of moral scandal and gossip. God starts in the place of social shame and moral blame.

God starts with an unmarried pregnant teenager. A human being--along with her embarrassing "situation"--still shunned, shamed and shut away in our churches.

Where does God begin?

Here, in the place the religious and the powerful least expect it.

(Photo: Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation, oil on canvas, 1898)

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13 thoughts on “Where God Begins”

  1. Thank you for sharing this Richard. As one who has a past of similar scandal (and met God in it), I am reminded that not only does God "start in the midst of moral scandal," He starts despite it as well.

  2. Also observe that Rahab and Ruth were Gentiles, Tamar was probably a Gentile, and Bathsheba was originally married to a Gentile -- all anticipating a fundamental Matthean theme: outsiders recognise the Messiah! (cf. the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28 - who also, btw, exposes a prejudice in our Lord -- which he humbly acknowledges). All four women also demonstrate a quick, proactive, and practical intelligence, as well as boldness and perseverance in action.

    Note further that while the first section of the genealogy focuses on sex, the second section (from David onwards, 1:6b-11) focuses on violence. Throw in the fierce acquisitiveness and conspicuous consumption of Solomon, and the forced labour and arms dealing on which his economy was built (see I Kings 10), not to mention the general disloyalty and corruption of Israelite royalty -- and, well, yep, welcome, Jesus, to the pathology of patriarchy and the squalor of the human condition.

    And for any keen inerrantists, check out the post-exilic family tree (1:12-16) -- Luke has a mostly different list (Luke 3:21ff.). In fact, most of the names aren't to be found in the Old Testament, and some scholars think that Matthew just made them up to round off the numbers to a significant 14.

    Where does God begin? Yes, Richard, with the old block and its chips, with folk like you and me, with not very promising material at all. God is so good.

  3. This is a great start to the season. Thanks so much as always, Richard. I was reminded of Luke's comment the other day, quoting Mother Teresa on humiliation as a prerequisite for humility. Perhaps this is what moves us from Zechariah's, "How can I be sure of this?" to Mary's, "How can this be?" Warmest Advent wishes to you and my fellow-readers.

  4. I really enjoyed the post and most of the biblical examples are accurate but this is a gross misinterpretation of Ruth. Both Ruth and Boaz are described as people of God and there is no hint of sexual immorality in the text.

  5. I still remember when I wrote a short skit of the Christmas story for our church's children to act out, and got objections from an elder on the grounds that my portrayal of Mary's out-of-wedlock pregnancy was inappropriate for children. I was quite embarrassed by the whole situation. (In a small church, you don't want to create youth programs that the elders pull their own kids out of on moral grounds.) It's interesting, looking back, to wonder if I got caught in a small piece of the embarrassment of the gospel.

  6. There is a hint of sexual scandal. The Hebrew phrase for what Ruth uncovered is ambiguous, but the Greek translators evidently saw a hint of impropriety in it--they said that she uncovered "the things toward the feet." (!) Note also that Boaz made her return in darkness so she wouldn't be seen and lose her reputation.

    Yes, the text portrays them as Godly people--but it also hints that Godly people, perhaps without actually doing anything wrong, can in desperate situations get caught in what still looks like an incipient sex scandal.

  7. Thanks Jonathan! Saved me some work here. Nice to have OT professors as readers of the blog. ;-)

  8. I agree that this could have looked like a sexual encounter to others during this time period, which is the very reason Boaz did not want her to be seen. I just think it's quite a leap to explicitly say that it WAS a case of sexual immorality. Regardless, I enjoyed the post.

  9. That painting hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art where I first saw it... and it has stuck with me as perhaps the best imagery to capture the event when a young, frightened, teenager in Palestine gets told that her world will turn upside down.

    Thank you for using that paintining... and thank you for your reflection on the scandal.

  10. I love how the Bible is so full of meaning, obvious meaning, and sort of hidden meaning. Hidden to us in the 21st century, unearthed with careful consideration and study. Thank you for peeling away another layer of the onion that is the Word of God. As Andrew said, this is a wonderful start to Advent.

  11. Is there somewhere that you can see Mary's direct genealogy? I could be missing it, but what I read ends up going to Joseph.

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