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 genealogyTamar, Rahab, the “wife of Uriah,” and Ruthall 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 themSarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Leahgets 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.”
That’s both a problem and a promise. It’s a problem for all the obvious reasons. The disciples of Jesus are not unified; his corporate body is tragically splintered, often along ethnic lines. We can offer plausible mitigating explanations; we can offer implausible excuses. The fact remains: Christ’s body does not measure up to the standard, which is Jesus. Paul asked the Corinthians the appalling question, “Is Christ divided?” and expected a negative answer. In our devilish ingenuity, we have made it seem possible to answer that he is.
It is not finally possible. Christ is not divided, and Matthew’s genealogy reveals a magic deeper than our divisions. There have been many mixed people through the centuries, but they did not mark the advent of unity. Jesus writes a new genesis because he is more than the son of Abraham. Matthew hints at Jesus’s divinity with exquisite subtlety: The name “Jesus” begins and ends the genealogy, implying that Jesus is both origin and climax of the genealogy of Abraham. He is the Alpha and Omega of Israel, who can say, “before Abraham was, I am.” Just as Jesus is David’s son and Lord, so he is father and son of father Abraham.
That is why the genesis accomplished by his Advent cannot be undone. The God whose Son already joins Jew and Gentile in his flesh will not fail to unite humanity to himself. The divine Word who becomes this flesh in his Advent has already in principle embraced all peoples in his one body.
Jesus is the unsurpassable fact that conditions all other facts, including the shameful fact of our disunity. If Gentile prostitutes can become brides and mothers in Israel, mothers to the Messiah, then the Bride’s scandals cannot frustrate the Bridegroom’s love. A Matthew of the distant future will be able to chart the fissures of the Church’s history to demonstrate that our scandalous divisions too are mysteriously encompassed in the Last Man’s triumph over Babel.
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.