The first gospel begins with a genealogy, which concludes, “So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportations to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.” Fourteen seems to be a key, but its significance is not stated, and it is not self-evident at least to this reader. I am surprised, however, that with its repetition it has not become part of the iconography of the nativity story. Perhaps the Christmas table should have fourteen candles or a basket of fourteen pomegranates, but I am not aware of any such tradition.
I am aware of only a few of the names in the genealogy. Most ring no bells, but the unknown ones such as Amminadab, Uzziah, and Zerubbabel at least seem Hebrew. One of Jesus’s progenitors, however, seems out of place–Perez. I think of that as Spanish or as the fictional detective on the island of Shetland, not as a Biblical name. But there it is in the genealogy—“Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Herzon. . . .” (Tamar is the first woman mentioned in the ancestry list. Only a few other women are mentioned. Jewishness may pass through the mothers, but mostly mothers are overlooked in this genealogy, at least until we get to Mary—“Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.” Although the Bible says that Joseph did not take part in the conception of Jesus, the genealogy is his. We are told nothing about Mary’s lineage, which strikes me as strange.)
The mention of Perez in The Gospel According to Matthew is anodyne, but his birth chronicled in Genesis is hardly a routine story. Judah sees the Canaanite Shua, whom he marries. My Bible states that Judah “went in to her, and she conceived and bore a son, and he called his name Er.” Apparently Judah penetrated his love-at-first-sight some more and the sons Onan and Shelah were born. Judah marries Er to Tamar. However, Er is a bad boy for he “was wicked in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord slew him.” This thirty-eighth chapter of the first biblical book only leaves it to our imaginative speculations as to how Er erred and to the method of the slaying, but we do know that Er is dead.
Judah then turns to his second born and using that only slightly euphemistic language tells Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife, and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” Onan, however, is displeased that any resulting children will not be considered his and interrupts his duty: “so when he went in to his brother’s wife he spilled the semen on the ground, lest he should give offspring to his brother.” (Other Bible translations state that this happened repeatedly.) He should have thought twice and lingered more: “And what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he slew him also.” (I understand from this story how onanism became a word for coitus interruptus, but I don’t understand how it became a synonym for masturbation.)
Of course, there was still the third son, but Shelah was understandably not too eager to do his duty as a brother-in-law “for he feared that he would die, like his brothers.” Shelah was apparently young, however, and Judah said to Tamar she should live with him “till Shelah my son grows up.”
Tamar, not surprisingly, is frustrated. When Judah, after becoming a widower, goes off to shear sheep, she dresses as a prostitute and intercepts him. Judah does not recognize her and assumes “her to be a harlot.” Apparently thinking that this is his lucky day, he said “Come, let me come in to you.” He offers a baby goat in payment, but she exacts some of Judah’s personal possessions instead. He enters her and gets her pregnant. Let’s pause here. Two of Judah’s sons have been struck down by the Lord for their transgressions, but not Judah. Apparently, perhaps because his wife was dead, his employing an apparent prostitute did not anger Yahweh. I guess Tamar got the heavenly pass because the Lord did not pay attention to women or she only wanted a baby and acted to keep it all in the family.
When it is clear that she is pregnant, Tamar produces Judah’s personal artifacts, and he realizes that he is the father. A form of happiness, or acceptance, results. Judah says, “‘She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my Shelah.’ And he did not lie with her again.” And the result is the birth of Zerah and his twin Perez, the ancestor of Jesus.
In reading this story the other day, I wondered at what age it is appropriate for children to read this semi-explicit sexual story. If you can’t say gay, can you talk about semen on the ground and “let me come in to you”? How would you answer questions from an inquisitive third grader about Judah and Tamar. Perhaps the Bible should be banned from at least grade schools.
This is not the only dicey sex that lurks in the genealogy, which also delicately states, “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah. . . .” Uriah’s wife, of course, was the beautiful Bathsheba spied by the peeping Dave. David could not keep his desire in check and impregnates her while she is still married. David, as military commander, sinfully makes sure that Uriah is killed in battle. The supposedly pro-life Lord punishes David by having this first issue with Bathsheba die in early infancy. Later David and Bathsheba produce Sol. (I discuss David, Bathsheba, and Uriah in my post of June 11, 2018. Search for Bathsheba.)
While Jesus, according to the Bible, results from a Virgin Birth, his genealogy also contains harlotry, seduction, onanism, voyeurism, and murder. I don’t think that Matthew presented the genealogy for this purpose, but while the miracle of his birth may indicate a divinity, he is also linked to very human ancestors. Perhaps true believers should remember both at Christmas.