Second Week of Advent: “A Nice Boy from a Good Family?” (Mt 1:1-25)

We should not skip over those boring “begats” that form the prologue to Matthew’s Nativity story.  This “family tree” has a few surprises—and a lot to say about how God works in history. 
In traditional societies, persons derive their identity from their clan—in stark contrast to the individualism of modern culture.  Thus Matthew’s genealogical roll call would have been the normal and expected way to introduce and commend Jesus to his Jewish audience.  The genealogy comes in three parts (see 1:17), invoking each major epoch in the saga of the people of God: the patriarchal era (Abraham et al, 1:1-6); the monarchy (David et at, 1:6­-11); and the exile and restoration (1:12-16).
But it is the way in which Matthew departs from what should have been a strictly patriarchal line that captures our attention.  Five women, inclusive of Mary, appear in the list!  Even more disturbing to tradition is the fact that these are women of “dubious” character.  There is Tamar (1:13), who posed as a prostitute in order to compel Judah into fulfilling his obligations according to the customs of Levirate marriage (Genesis 38).  There is Rahab (Mt 1:5), a Canaanite brothel owner who saved Joshua and his spies by hiding them and then lying to royal security forces in Jericho (Joshua 2).  There is Ruth (Mt 1:5), a Moabite who seduced Boaz to gain entry to his clan (Ruth 3).  And there is the “wife of Uriah” (Mt 1:6, Bathsheeba), the object of King David’s adultery and murderous cover-up (2 Samuel 11).  It appears, then, that Matthew is intentionally associating Mary, the peasant-girl mother of Jesus (Mt 1:16), with other women of “unusual” sexual circumstances. 
The first scene of the drama gives us the reason for this unusual family tree.  In first century Jewish culture, marriage was arranged between families.  A “contract of consent” was drawn up when the girl was about 13; she then continued to live at home for up to a year, until she was “transferred” to her husband’s house and support.  It is during this time of “betrothal” that Mary is found to be pregnant (1:18).
Jewish law required that adultery be punished with stoning (Deut 22:20f).  Joseph, however, refuses to make this a public issue, and plans instead to divorce without pressing charges (Mt 1:19).  At this point he has his first dream.  He is instructed not only to go forward with the “transfer” of Mary to his house, but to become the legal father of the child (effectively “covering” for the Holy Spirit!).  To publicly name Jesus functions as an acknowledgement of paternity.  Isaiah’s royal moniker, “Emmanuel” puts this act firmly in a political context (1:23 = Is 7:14). 
In light of this apparent village scandal, Matthew’s twists to the genealogy suggest that he does not necessarily assume the credulity of his audience.  While believers may affirm the virgin birth of Jesus, Matthew recognizes that the appearance of Jesus’ illegitimacy remains.  He, too, is “covering” for the Spirit, placing Mary in an extraordinary line of women who, despite (or perhaps because of) “questionable circumstances,” have played key roles in salvation history.  Indeed, the next episode in this Nativity story will allude back to the extraordinary conspiracy of women who rescued the prophet Moses from an imperial pogrom (Ex 1).  
This reminds us of a central truth of incarnational theology: God’s redemptive purpose works in and through real human situations, in all their ambiguity.  Especially through improvisational, courageous women willing to defy oppressive social conventions in order to embrace the alternative vision of God. 
Matthew 2 turns to the story of Herod and the Holy Family, a narrative full of violence and risk.  Biblical scholar Richard Horsley, in The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context (Crossroad, 1989), writes: “Quite apart from any particular incident that may underlie it, the story portrays a network of historical relationships that prevailed in the general circumstance of the birth of the messiah” (p. 40).  He details how Herod, the powerful, half-Jewish despot serving Rome’s interests in colonial Palestine, oppressed his own people with taxes to fund his grandiose building projects.  Herod “instituted what today would be called a police-state, complete with loyalty oaths, surveillance, informers, secret police, imprisonment, torture and brutal retaliation against any serious dissenter” (p. 46f). 
Horsley concludes: “Matthew 2 comes to life vividly against the background of Herodian exploitation and tyranny” (p. 49).  We’ll look at that story next week.