As we continue in this season and fast of the Nativity (and in the Alexandrian Rite we start the month of Kiahk) we come again to contemplate the incarnation. More precisely we contemplate the paradox of Jesus Christ Who is the Incarnate Logos. As we turn to the Scripture in this contemplation we may initially be deceived into thinking that we cannot obtain much help from the accounts therein. We have seen together that much more is revealed to us than we initially perceive if only we are taught to look properly (God saves His People). In that article we considered the conversation between St. Joseph and the Angel, but here let us consider another, perhaps more obscure, element of the opening of the gospels. I mean the genealogy of Christ.
What could this obscure list of Hebrew names teach us about the God Who takes flesh and becomes as we are? Let us turn to consider this long list of names,
“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham: Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot Judah and his brothers. Judah begot Perez and Zerah by Tamar, Perez begot Hezron, and Hezron begot Ram. Ram begot Amminadab, Amminadab begot Nahshon, and Nahshon begot Salmon. Salmon begot Boaz by Rahab, Boaz begot Obed by Ruth, Obed begot Jesse, and Jesse begot David the king.
David the king begot Solomon by her who had been the wife of Uriah. Solomon begot Rehoboam, Rehoboam begot Abijah, and Abijah begot Asa. Asa begot Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat begot Joram, and Joram begot Uzziah. Uzziah begot Jotham, Jotham begot Ahaz, and Ahaz begot Hezekiah. Hezekiah begot Manasseh, Manasseh begot Amon, and Amon begot Josiah. Josiah begot Jeconiah and his brothers about the time they were carried away to Babylon.
And after they were brought to Babylon, Jeconiah begot Shealtiel, and Shealtiel begot Zerubbabel. Zerubbabel begot Abiud, Abiud begot Eliakim, and Eliakim begot Azor. Azor begot Zadok, Zadok begot Achim, and Achim begot Eliud. Eliud begot Eleazar, Eleazar begot Matthan, and Matthan begot Jacob. And Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ.
So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations, from David until the captivity in Babylon are fourteen generations, and from the captivity in Babylon until the Christ are fourteen generations.” Matthew 1.1-17.
To better consider this list of names I wish to direct your attention to the significance of some of the individuals named.
1. “Judah begot Perez and Zerah by Tamar”
– This account comes to us from Genesis 38. This is the same Tamar who is the daughter-in-law of Judah. She was married to the first and then the second of Judah. When they both died in succession, Judah gets scared off of offering her his third son (as would be Jewish custom) and refuses to have her marry a third son of his. She then dresses as a prostitute who entices Judah who unknowingly raises up children by his once daughter-in-law.
2. “Salmon begot Boaz by Rahab”
– This Rahab is the harlot mentioned in the book of Joshua, “Now Joshua the son of Nun sent out two men from Acacia Grove to spy secretly, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho. So they went, and came to the house of a harlot named Rahab, and lodged there. And it was told the king of Jericho, saying, ‘Behold, men have come here tonight from the children of Israel to search out the country.’” Joshua 2.1-2
3. “Boaz begot Obed by Ruth”
– Ruth, of course, is not a Jew. She is a Moabite who we read about in the book of Ruth.
4. “David the king begot Solomon by her who had been the wife of Uriah”
– This story is relatively famous, but notice the emphasis of the Evangelist with the inclusion of the detail, “By her who had been the wife of Uriah”. There is no hiding the adulterous story as included in 2 Samuel 11 (2 Kings in the Septuagint)
5. “Solomon begot Rehoboam, Rehoboam begot Abijah”
– This is the same Rehoboam who would tyrannize his people and even said to them, “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scourges!” 1 Kings 12.14 or 3 Kings in the Septuagint.
With this context in mind, we might read and think, quite frankly, why would St. Matthew have included these details? St. Luke’s genealogy is that of the Theotokos, St. Mary, but St. Matthew records a genealogy that evokes stories full of sin and brokenness. St. John Chrysostom before us also asked these questions where he ponders,
“And along with these things, this is also worth inquiry, wherefore it can be, that, when tracing the genealogy through the men, he hath mentioned women also; and why since he determined upon doing this, he yet did not mention them all, but passing over the more eminent, such as Sarah, Rebecca, and as many as are like them, he hath brought forward only them that are famed for some bad thing; as, for instance, if any was a harlot, or an adulteress, or a mother by an unlawful marriage, if any was a stranger or barbarian. For he hath made mention of the wife of Uriah, and of Thamar, and of Rahab, and of Ruth, of whom one was of a strange race, another an harlot, another was defiled by her near kinsman, and with him not in the form of marriage, but by a stolen intercourse, when she had put on herself the mask of an harlot; and touching the wife of Uriah no one is ignorant, by reason of the notoriety of the crime. And yet the evangelist hath passed by all the rest, and inserted in the genealogy these alone. Whereas, if women were to be mentioned, all ought to be so; if not all but some, then those famed in the way of virtue, not for evil deeds.” Homily 1 on Matthew 1, St. John Chrysostom
So the Evangelist has passed over the righteous women in silence, but highlighted those that were harlots or of another race and has chosen to draw attention to the tyrant king Rehoboam and the sinful intercourse of Judah and David. Contemplating this, St. John Chrysostom answers while going over Judah’s begetting of Zerah and Perez by Tamar,
“And Judas begat Perez and Zerah of Thamar.” “What are you doing, O man [St. Matthew], reminding of a history that contains an unlawful intercourse?” But why is this said? Since, if we were recounting the race of a mere man, one might naturally have been silent touching these things; but if of God Incarnate, so far from being silent, one ought to make a glory of them, showing forth His tender care, and His power. Yes, it was for this cause He came, not to escape our disgraces, but to bear them away. Therefore as He is the more admired, in that He not only died, but was even crucified (though the thing be derogatory, yet the more derogatory the more does it show Him full of love to man), so likewise may we speak touching His birth; it is not only because He took flesh upon Him, and became man, that we justly stand amazed at Him, but because He condescended to have also such kinsfolk [relatives], being in no respect ashamed of our evils. And this He was proclaiming from the very beginnings of His birth, that He is ashamed of none of those things that belong to us; while He teaches us also hereby, never to hide our face at our forefathers’ wickedness, but to seek after one thing alone, even virtue. For such a man, though he have an alien for his ancestor, though he have a mother who is a prostitute, or what you will, can take no hurt thereby. For if the whoremonger himself, being changed, is nothing disgraced by his former life, much more will the wickedness of his ancestry have no power to bring to shame him that is sprung of an harlot or an adulteress, if he be virtuous.” St. John Chrysostom, Homily III on Matthew, Chapter 3
If this was the story of a mere man, it would be right and pious to hide the ‘gory details’, but if of God come to descend to our weakness (cf. Phil 2.7) then this is to be glorified. Because it is Christ’s entry into all the brokenness of humanity we should not be surprised to read of his entry through this broken, but very human line of individuals.
Elsewhere about Ruth and Rahab St. John Chrysostom will say,
“Do you see that it is not for no reason that he brought to our remembrance the whole history concerning Judah? For this end he hath mentioned Ruth also and Rahab, the one an alien, the other an harlot, that thou mayest learn that He came to do away with all our ills. For He hath come as a Physician, not as a Judge. Therefore in like manner as those of old took harlots for wives, even so God too espoused unto Himself the nature which had played the harlot: and this also prophets from the beginning declare to have taken place with respect to the Synagogue. But that spouse was ungrateful towards Him who had been an husband to her, whereas, the Church, when once delivered from the evils received from our fathers, continued to embrace the Bridegroom.
See, for instance, what befell Ruth, how like it is to the things which belong to us. For she was both of a strange race, and reduced to the utmost poverty, yet Boaz when he saw her neither despised her poverty nor abhorred her poor birth, as Christ having received the Church, being both an alien and in much poverty, took her to be partaker of the great blessings. But even as Ruth, if she had not before left her father, and renounced household and race, country and kindred, would not have attained unto this alliance; so the Church too, having forsaken the customs which men had received from their fathers, then, and not before, became lovely to the Bridegroom.” St. John Chrysostom, Homily 3 on Matthew 1, 5.
All human nature has played the harlot, seeking to bind herself to one who is not her true groom – God. Attaching ourselves to various pleasures thinking they will bear fruit for us, we are ever thirsty in a land of shallow wells (to borrow the title of Matthew Gallatin’s work, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells). It is to unite us back to Himself that the Groom, God, comes and enters within a lost and perishing humanity. Even the Gentiles are included in this union with God as Ruth would symbolize. We too can be united to Christ, if we leave the foreign customs of our fathers (i.e. of the world) that we we hold so dearly. It is precisely for this purpose that these details are left in the genealogy, according to St. Severus of Antioch,
“Christ therefore took upon himself a blood relationship to that nature which fornicated, in order to purify it. He took on that very nature that was sick, in order to heal it. He took on that nature which fell, in order to lift it up. All this occurred in a charitable, beneficial manner wholly appropriate to God. Thus, one of the ways we understand the inclusion of these women is that our Lord descended from them despite their sins to show us that He would redeem us from our sins.” St. Severus of Antioch, Homily 4, Patrologia Orientalis courtesy of (Become Orthodox by Fr. Moses Samaan)
Christ enters into the broken humanity in order that He might heal it for this is true healing. Humanity has espoused itself to another and thereby become bound by another – this is its brokenness! Godlessness is the source of human brokenness. The undoing of this brokenness is God uniting humanity to Himself in Christ. This which becomes evident from the genealogy and its reading by the Church Fathers is the content of the Christian understanding of Salvation,
“The Only Son of God became consubstantial with us by being united hypostatically to one flesh animated with a rational soul. By reason of this, the entire human nature and the whole race became united in love to the divine nature, from which it had formerly been estranged. Hence, as it is written, we, being made worthy of the original harmony, have become partakers of the divine nature. By participation we have received divine gifts and immortality, which had been lost to us on account of the trespass of Adam.” St. Severus of Antioch, Contra Impium Grammaticum, I, p.200 as found in the translation by Ian Torrance, (Christology After Chalcedon)
It is a dying humanity, mired in sin, that The Logos enters and therefore He becomes one of us. His union with what is broken mends it, heals it, makes it whole. It is because we see the wound (the brokenness of the genealogy) that we can appreciate the medicine Who is come to heal it. St. Cyril says,
“That, in my opinion, is the most probable reason why the holy evangelist, indicating the whole living being by the affected part, says that the Word of God became flesh. It is so that we might see side by side the wound together with the remedy, the patient together the physician, that which had sunk towards death together with Him Who raised it up towards Life, that which had been overcome by corruption together with Him Who drove out corruption, that which had been mastered by death together with Him Who was superior to death, that which was bereft of life together with Him Who is the provider of life.” St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John 1.14.
What better place do we see this than the genealogy of Christ, where the broken lineage is united to Him Who is stronger than death. This itself is summarized in the theological axiom formulated by St. Gregory the Theologian. A lesser known debate in the 4th century would revolve around whether Christ had a human mind or soul. In responding to this question St. Gregory the Theologian states,
“For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole.” St. Gregory the Theologian, Letter to Cledonius
If we are able to see it, this is what is happening in St. Matthew’s genealogy. Christ enters the nature which had distanced itself from Him so that by uniting with it, He might heal it. This union is no static thing somehow accomplished by Christ 2000 years ago but rather becomes the living content of the Christian life. Fr. Lev Gillet comments beautifully on the genealogy,
“The Gospel begins with the Genealogy of Jesus Christ. What does this long list of Hebrew names mean? For the Jews, the necessity of underlining the descent of the Messiah from David. Another meaning is that in this lineage there are murderers, adulterers and incestuous persons. If Jesus is born in my soul, He is born there in spite of and through the accumulation of my sins. Jesus pierces, finds His way through my faults, climbing over them one after the other. It is His genealogy in me. In this break-through shines forth His mercy, His condescension, also His strength.” Jesus, A dialogue With The Saviour by Fr. Lev Gillet, pg 7
Christ too must be born in me. The accumulation of my sins are the cracks within me through which Christ might seep into me and heal me. This should not entice us towards sin or complacency with sin and hence St. Paul says, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it (Rom 6. 1-2)?” Christ enters into where we are most broken that He may heal it. We cannot ‘sanctify ourselves’ so that we might finally approach Him for this presumes a Divine strength on our part. We must yield ourselves to Him as we are so that he might be born in us ‘in spite of and through the accumulation of my sins.” If we prove to be receptive soil as the Theotokos was receptive to The Word of God, then Christ can be planted in me through the work of The Spirit. In this manner we too can give birth to Christ within in a manner analogous (although understandably different) to the Theotokos. Our sin should at least teach us that we cannot ‘go it alone’, that we must respond to the call of God Who stands at the door and knocks (cf. Rev 3) so that we might be receptive to the Word of God Who can come and make His abode in us. This union with Him Who has come that He might unite Himself to us is the call to Christian ascetical practice and the highest calling of the Christian. It is St. Paul who says,
“But it is good to be zealous in a good thing always, and not only when I am present with you. My little children, for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you.” Galatians 4. 18,19
May Christ be born in us during this season of The Nativity and may we prove to be fertile soil that produces much fruit that the world may be fed the Life of Christ through His Church.
*** To see how the few passages following the genealogy of Matthew tie beautifully to see what the genealogy reveals – specifically, how the names ‘Emmanuel’ and ‘Jesus’ reveal God’s uniting to a broken humanity – head on over to this earlier post (God Saves His People) ***