Why the Begats Matter

People’s lives are at stake.

if we want to stand for justice in our world.

Atatiana Jefferson was murdered by a police officer this week. She is the most recent victim of murders of innocents. I lament her death, but lament is not enough to stop the madness. I have a responsibility to see her as my kin. The Gospel demands of us this radical reconstrual of our identities, attitudes, and behaviors.

The Christian New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew begins with “begats.” Genealogy matters in the recorded story of Jesus.

Genealogy in the New Testament is also a bit peculiar as genealogies go. The Gospel of Luke’s begats are different than Matthew’s. Why is that? Did the two writers have two different family Bibles (and thus two different versions of Jesus’s ancestry)?

Scholars disagree on why Luke’s and Matthew’s genealogies differ, and this essay is not the place to muddle through the scholarly debates. What is clear is that genealogies held value for both of these ancient writers.

Genealogies say something about who we are by saying something about who our ancestors are. They also set boundaries between insiders and outsiders. Who has the right bloodline to inherit this or that name or property or authority? Who begat whom with whom and from whom? Genealogies set parameters for personal, social, and political life stories.

What do Jesus’ genealogies tell us about his identity?

Most genealogies in patriarchal societies focused on male ancestors. That is what makes Jesus’ genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew so striking. Note some of the names recorded by the writer of Matthew as part of Jesus’ family tree:

Tamar (Genesis 38)
Rahab (Joshua 2)
Ruth (The Book of Ruth)
Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11)
Mary (the mother of Jesus)

Women are included in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, even some Canaanite and Joabite women. So-called “outsiders.” Women who were deemed scandalous. The genealogy even includes an unnamed woman, “the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” We know her as Bathsheba.

Surfacing “subjugated knowledge”

Matthew’s genealogy brings to mind for me the work of French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault. Foucault constructed “genealogies” of contemporary practices and institutions. His aim was to show how present power dynamics emerged out of struggles, conflicts, alliances and power plays that are too often buried or forgotten.

Foucault sought to surface “subjugated knowledge” that is routinely muted or disqualified by dominant or more powerful voices.

Matthew’s Gospel disrupts the usual bloodlines and histories to include the stories of outsiders in Jesus’ genealogy. If Jesus was born to remake the world and transform the human story, then he needs a subversive and radical genealogy that includes those routinely discounted. Matthew gives us that.

Who do we name in our genealogies?

Why does this subversive begatting matter? The reason, for me, takes the shape of a question:

Who do I name in my genealogy? I have my family tree, of course, the one that Grandma recorded on those pages in the center of the Crainshaw Bible. I have a responsibility to be aware of my family’s history. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus urges me to take this a step further. Matthew’s genealogy urges me to pay attention to whose names are not recorded on those glossy family tree pages.

The presence of the women in Jesus’ genealogy signals that Jesus’ life-story will inaugurate a new and unexpected identity for the people of God, one where subjugated knowledges, bodies, and stories are respected and embraced as kindred.

A call to radical kinship

Too many people in our communities today face violence, danger, and even death because of their race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, economic reality–in other words, because they reside in realms of “subjugated knowledges.”

The time has come for those of us who claim kinship with Jesus to reimagine our genealogies. Who are the Tamars, Rahabs, Ruths, Bathshebas, and Marys in our communities? In our life stories? Where can we encounter those whose wisdom and voices have been subjugated or denounced or destroyed by the powers that be.

Whoever our Tamars, Rahabs, Ruths, Bathshebas and Marys are, we need to name them, lament the pain they have experienced, confess our participation in the injustices they have endured, and do whatever we can to celebrate our kinship with them in the beloved community of God.

And our responsibility does not end with lament, confession, and celebration. People’s lives are at stake.

Jesus calls us to stand with those relegated to and endangered on the margins, even if we risk our own security and privilege by doing so.

The begats matter in the genealogy of Jesus. They matter for us too as we work to extend radical hospitality and inclusivity to others. And they matter if our lament over Atatiana Jefferson’s death is to move us to everyday actions that, because we are her kin in God’s beloved community, resist injustice in all of its forms.

Author: drdeacondog

I am a professor at Wake Forest University School of Divinity and an ordained PCUSA minister.

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