Professor of the Old Testament, Divine Word Seminary
Tagaytay City, Philippines
Commentary 2: Fr. Anthony Ynzon, SVD
Graduate Student in Philosophy, Catholic University of Louvain
A more intense pathos and angst is seen in the characters of Steven Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s List. It is based on a true-to-life story of Oskar Schindler who owns a factory in Poland during the Nazi period. Taking advantage of cheap labor, the German businessman employs Jewish workers in his factory. But then after witnessing the horrifying reality of the Jews being sent to the concentration camps and eventually being killed in the gas chambers, he creates a list of over 1,100 Jews whom he saves from death. Mr. Schindler lobbies before the Nazi authorities lying to them about the names on his list as Jewish workers necessary to manufacture goods for Hitler’s army. The end of the movie is a touching scene of the survivors laying a stone over the grave of Mr. Schindler. Thanks to Schindler’s list, these Jews, his former factory workers, survived to tell the harrowing story of the Jewish Holocaust.
List of Failures
A list of names has its own story to tell. The names in genealogies, like Jesus’ genealogy, have their own story to tell – some still familiar to us, but most familiar to the Jews of the first century A.D. Except for Josiah who had introduced political and religious reform in Israel in the 7th century B.C., all the names there including Jesus and his parents witness diverse experiences of human failure. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have a problem with honesty. Both Abraham and Isaac lie to disown their wives before authorities to save their own skin. Jacob is a trickster, stealing both the blessing (“berakah” in Hebrew) and birthright (“bekorah”) from his brother, Esau.
David, supposedly greatest of Israel’s kings, is guilty of the murder of Uriah, the commander of his own army, to legitimize an adulterous affair. Though credited for building the first Temple, his son Solomon is notorious for having 700 wives and 300 concubines “who turned away his heart after other gods.” The author of the book of Kings has no good word for Solomon and his father: “his heart was not true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of his father David” (1 Kings 11:4) -- like father like son. His leadership is not only religiously offensive; it is also marked by corruption and injustice. Solomon builds luxurious palaces, rest houses, and stalls for his innumerable horses at the expense of his own people, exacting heavy taxes and employing forced labor to satisfy his edifice complex. Two hundred years later, even after the many warnings of the prophets and the experience of the division of the kingdom and the fall of Samaria, such abuse of power in the monarchy still pervades. Manasseh (26thmale ancestor of Jesus according to Mt 1:2), who reigns the longest, forty five years, is easily the worst king in Judah. Not satisfied with rebuilding sanctuaries for other gods, he burns his own son as an offering to them (2 Kings 21:3-6). Through Manasseh’s example, idolatry spread like wildfire to the people of Judah and Jerusalem. Example is the best teacher. According to author of the Second Book of Kings, Manasseh should be blamed for the destruction of Jerusalem and exile of its people to Babylon. So great is his sin (2 Kings 21:12-15; 22:16-17).
Five Women, Five Victims
The five women in Jesus’ genealogy are less sinners than victims. Tamar (Genesis 38) poses as a prostitute and seduced her father-in-law, Judah because the former did not intend to fulfill his promise and obligation to provide her with a husband of his line, and give her a chance to bear the grandchildren who would continue his line; Rahab is another prostitute from Jericho who goes out of her way to help the Hebrew spies even if it would entail betraying her own city and people (Joshua chapters 2 and 6); Ruth, the Moabite childless widow who needed to leave her own land and her own religion to join Naomi, her mother-in-law in Bethlehem-- Naomi’s relative, Boaz marries her after a compromising position on a threshing floor (Ruth 3); the “wife of Uriah,” Bathsheba is apparently a victim of the king’s abuse of power; and Mary suddenly finds herself in a scandalous situation by becoming pregnant before marriage. Matthew’s unexpected introduction of women in the genealogy could reflect the early Christians’ recognition of the contributions that women as well as other powerless groups made to the growth of the church.
Genealogies in Ancient Near East
Archeology has shown us that more than 3,000 years before the coming of Israel, people in the ancient Near East preserved their institutions and forged their identity by listing down names. For instance, in order to legitimate the rule of a king and preserve the monarchy, scribes wrote down the list of names of kings who reigned in the kingdom including the number of years of the reign of each king. One king even reigned for 43,200 years (!), making Methuselah (Gen 5:27) in the genealogy of Adam, the supposedly oldest person in the bible (969 years old), a toddler.
Why a write a genealogy of Jesus? If we were among the first Christians, it would have been a scandal that the Jesus whom we begin to call and worship as the Son of God comes from a human family! Remember that the second century followers of Jesus did not yet have a dogma of the Trinity.
In the Old Testament, there are two main purposes of genealogies: (1) on the literary level, a genealogy marks the end of the story a generation and the beginning of a new one. On the theological level, it is to legitimate belongingness – who does and who does not belong to the chosen people of Israel.
On the literary level for instance, we read the genealogy (“toledoth” in Hebrew) of heavens and the earth (Gen 2:4) marking the beginning of the (second) story of creation. Before the flood, we read the genealogy of Noah (Gen 6:9) and the genealogy of Noah’s sons (Gen 10:1) after the flood. This could be the reason why Matthew divides his presentation of Jesus’ genealogy into three events (in 14 generations): before, during, and after the monarchy. The evangelist wants to present the coming of Jesus as a new beginning of a story and history of Israel; someone in whom the chosen people can have hope for from the failed monarchy (including its symbolism that the first passage in the Bible after the last book of the Old Testament is the genealogy of Jesus).
On the theological level, genealogies answer the question about who is and who is not an Israelite. Thus we read the genealogy of Shem (Gen 11:10) from whom the descendants of Abraham emerge as well as the genealogy of Terah, Abraham’s father (Gen 11:27). Isaac has his own genealogy too (Gen 25:19) linking him to Abraham and to Jacob, all heirs to the promise of the Lord. In contrast, also Ishmael (Gen 25:12) and Esau (Gen 36:1) have genealogies, but it is clear that these genealogies function to separate them from belongingness to the chosen people. Nonetheless, they receive God’s blessings too. In starting his gospel with Jesus’ genealogy then, Matthew clearly presents Jesus as a “true Israelite”, an heir to the promise and to the faith of Israel’s ancestors.
Conclusion: Janus Parallelism
In short, in the genealogy of Jesus read during this Simbang Gabi, we can meditate on two things: (1) Jesus as the new beginning -- as Israel’s hope as well as our hope; (2) Jesus as part of God’s promise to Israel in the past -- the basis of our hope. When we think then of Christmas, we do not only look forward to the newness that the Incarnation brings about but also look back to God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Israel to whom Jesus belongs.
In Roman mythology, Janus (from where the name “January” comes from) is known as the god of gates, doors, doorways, beginnings, and endings. He is often portrayed with two faces one looking forward, the other backward. I think New Year as well as Christmas can also be Janus-faced. We look back to God’s goodness from the beginning (the “Alpha”) and we look forward with hope in the birth of Christ, in the birth of a New Beginning (the “Omega”).
When I first arrived, I was really worried how we could survive as a mission center with very limited funds and no regular source of sustainable income. I was first concerned with the basics, food of course! If I could only get an assurance that we would have rice on our table daily, that will be a big relief. As days passed, I noticed that a steady supply of rice came in, not much, yet enough for us to live by and even feed and share with people who beg from us.
Part of our rice supply, I fondly termed as halo-halo for these came from children in the elementary school who made it a habit to bring to school (on the day of their monthly mass) 1 gatang or approximately 1 to 2 cups of rice in a plastic bag. One could only beam at the sight of the children who, despite the poverty in our place, can still find ways to share for our mission! Not being an expert on rice varieties, we simply put them together and cooked “halo-halo rice” for our meals. Indeed, good rice, NFA rice, not-so-good rice, and other varieties, all ended up to make one sumptuous meal that exuded an odor of children’s generosity expressed at its best!
If we look back on Jesus’ genealogy, we couldn’t help but think of Palawan’s halo-halo rice. Indeed, we are presented with a mixture of sinners and saints, of kings and peasants, of men and women. In the end, we still got Jesus! God works wonders, even in halo-halo situations. Let today’s gospel be an invitation from God for us to be thankful for all that has been, and an assurance that if God works, there will be rice for us to get by.