One of my motivations in writing this blog is to have a space in which I can ask some of the random questions I have about the Bible. Not the huge questions, like “why suffering?” but the odd questions that sometimes spring to mind, like “exactly how tall was Zaccheaus?”.
And because I’m from the UK, and am therefore (technically) subject to a monarch, I started wondering why Israel’s royal family, and therefore Jesus’s descendents, don’t follow the usual rules for that sort of thing.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with the eldest son not automatically getting the inheritance or the crown, but when something seems to break the rules, it’s normally worth asking why.
The kings of Israel were mainly from the Tribe of Judah. Now, this is interesting because the really good stuff, like wealth and blessings were supposed to pass from father to eldest son, and yet the kudos involved in being the royal line goes to Jacob’s fourth son. This sticks out like a sore thumb – Judah isn’t the eldest (that’s Reuben), he’s not the favourite (that’s Joseph), he’s not even the youngest-and-therefore-ironic-choice (that’s Benjamin). What’s going on?
The answer is in Genesis 49. Jacob’s dying, and he gives his final blessing (or otherwise) to each of his sons, something that effectively acts as something of a prophecy for their descendents.
So Reuben loses his birthright because he slept with the mother of his half-brothers. The next two brothers, Simeon and Levi, miss out because they killed a bunch of people responsible for raping their sister (which I guess is understandable, although it shows a tendancy to turn to violence when angry).
And so fourth in line is Judah, and he gets to father the trible of royalty – “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs.” His name also goes on to define the people as a whole – the word “Jew” comes from Judah.
(Which I guess immediately spelt trouble for King Saul, who was from the Tribe of Benjamin…)
None of this should really come as much of a surprise. There’s a bit of a tension in the Bible when it comes to inheritance going to the first-born son. It’s how society worked, but Genesis keeps undermining this – of Abraham and his descendents, Isaac wasn’t the first-born. Nor was Jacob. Nor was Judah. They’re all descended from Seth (Adam and Eve’s third son) and Shem (Noah’s second son). There’s even ambiguity over Judah’s first-born. And when it comes to David becoming king, he’s the youngest of eight brothers.
Anyone would think that God’s plans often overrule social conventions.
Now, when Jesus comes along, as ultimate fulfillment of Jacob’s royal prophecy, he is the first-born (albeit ‘adopted’ by Joseph). But even his family tree isn’t simple. It contains five women (which wasn’t common): Mary (fairly obviously), and Tamar (a very dodgy story that doesn’t paint Judah in a good light – interesting…), Ruth (not an Israelite), Rahab (not an Israelite but possibly a prostitute) and Bathsheba (who married David after they had an affair that lead to the murder of her husband).
The fact is, Jesus’s family tree is full of some very dodgy and awkward stories, and yet rather than try to gloss over this, Matthew draws attention to it. Why?
Because maybe it’s not about worth, or at least worth in the way that society judges it. If one of the central themes of Christianity is grace, then maybe Jesus’s family tree immediately highlights this theme right at the beginning of the New Testament. We all fall short of the glory, but God can use us anyway.
Think of that next time you’re feeling bad about your past. Grace – and love – can overwrite anything.