The Forgotten Chapter of the Christmas Story & the Women in Jesus' Family Tree
- Wednesday, December 12, 2012
You might call this text "The forgotten chapter of the Christmas story." It is a genealogy—a list of names, most of them unpronounceable. Because of that, this is a portion of Scripture that we tend to overlook. We don't know what to do with it. It's not often read in public. For that matter, we don't read it often in private unless we're following one of those "read the Bible in a year" plans. Hardly anyone ever memorizes this passage, and to my knowledge it's never been set to music.
It's just a long list of names starting with Abraham, moving on to David and ending with Jesus. In between are some names we recognize—Jacob, Solomon, Jehoshaphat—and many more we've never heard of—Hezron, Abiud and Azor.
The structure is simple: "So-and-so was the father of so-and-so, who was the father of so-and-so, etc." One name after another, a listing of the generations of the Hebrew people from their father Abraham to the Messiah, Jesus Christ. As history, the list is fascinating, but for most of us, that's about as far as it goes.
It's like the story of the man who was asked to write a review of the phone book. His summary: "Great cast of characters. Weak plot." That's the way we feel when we examine Matthew 1: "Great cast of characters. Weak plot." Unless you happen to know the Old Testament. But even that may not help you because some of the names in Matthew 1 are completely unknown to us—particularly the ones in the last few verses. Since most of these men lived in the intertestamental period, we know nothing about them except their names.
If you are familiar with the King James Version, you remember that the word "begat" is used instead of the phrase "the father of." "Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat Jacob, Jacob begat Judah," and so on. That strange word has given rise to many strange interpretations. One day a little boy came home from Sunday School excited about his lesson. When his mother asked him what he had learned, the little boy replied, "I learned all the "forgots" of the Bible." "What do you mean?" "You know, Abraham forgot Isaac, Isaac forgot Jacob, and Jacob forgot Judah."
The Jews Loved Genealogies
In that spirit we may call this "the forgotten chapter of the Christmas story." We routinely skip it in order to get to the "good stuff." But the Jews of the first century would be quite surprised by our attitude. To them the genealogy would have been an absolutely essential setting for the story of Jesus' birth.
The Jews routinely paid close attention to questions of genealogy. For instance, whenever land was bought or sold, the genealogical records were consulted to insure that land belonging to one tribe was not being sold to members of another tribe—and thus destroying the integrity of the ancient tribal boundaries. You couldn't just put the money down and take the deed. You also had to prove that your ancestors came from the same tribe.
Genealogy was also crucial in determining the priesthood. The law specified that the priests must come from the tribe of Levi. Genealogy also helped determine the line of heirship to the throne. That helps explain why Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7 contain lengthy listings of the various people returning from captivity. As the Jews re-established themselves in Israel, it was crucial that they know which families had historically held which positions in the nation.
But that same principle applies directly to the Christmas story. "In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world . . . And everyone went to his own town to register." (Luke 2:1, 3) That meant that each man must return to his ancestral hometown—the town from which his family had originally come. But the only way you could be sure about your ancestral hometown was to know your genealogy.
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