I was recently interviewed for an episode of the Language of God podcast. The topic was the genealogies in Scripture, particularly in Genesis and Matthew, about which I had just written a series of blog posts.
This is the description of the podcast that BioLogos posted:
At first glance, biblical genealogies appear to straightforward family trees, the kinds we see on ancestry.com that map out the precise relationships between parents and offspring, tracing back as far as we can go. But is that how the genealogies in the Bible are supposed to be read? It turns out there’s a lot more going on in the genealogies than just that straightforward accounting. Bible scholar, Richard Middleton, shares with us some of the historical context that helps us to see the genealogies as another part of the story of God’s creation.
The interview is based on blog posts that that BioLogos asked me to write on biblical genealogies (posted in July and August, 2021). They actually asked for one blog post, but I got so into it that wrote a four-part blog post addressing the genealogies in Genesis 4–11 (parts 1 and 2) and the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1 (parts 3 and 4).
I am privileged to teach at a Seminary that is associated with a liberal arts college. I have wonderful faculty colleagues at both institutions.
Northeastern Seminary is on the campus of Roberts Wesleyan College (in Rochester, NY) and while they are formally separate institutions, there is much practical overlap and collaboration between both the institutions and the faculty.
Of late, there have been joint meetings of the Seminary faculty with the faculty of the Department of Religion and Philosophy at the College. And, although faculty members find their home primarily in either the Seminary or the College, some of us teach in both institutions.
Here I want to highlight some of my faculty colleagues (in both institutions) who are presenting papers at the 2020 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, which is being held virtually this year (the first time in this format since I began attending in 1991).
In his paper, David examines the changes experienced by those who receive cochlear implants, including new relationships and a different sense of selfhood, to “shed light onto the experiential and subjective dimensions of the transformations that Paul describes in Philippians 3,” including his sense that what he previously viewed as “gain” is now counted as “loss.”
In her paper, Kristin examines competing suggestions for where Zechariah got his image, and ends up suggesting that it is drawn not only from the network of persons in ancient Persia known as “the eyes and ears of the king” (suggested by some scholars), but also from the portrayal of Mithra in Persian religion, who is “associated with fire, light, and eyes that roam throughout the earth for the sake of seeking out injustice.” She apples this background to Zechariah 4:10b, suggesting that the text uses this imagery “to encourage the people that YHWH, the Emperor of the cosmos and maintainer of justice, is at work to bring about a hopeful, purified future.”
He insightfully demonstrates that both Deuteronomy and Luke give similar instructions to those who are sent out, including an offer of peace to those they encounter and two possible outcomes depending on the responses of those they meet. Yet while Luke’s Gospel presents a battle with the powers of evil and the disciples are parallel to Israel’s soldiers, the texts diverge in that in Luke it is God and not the disciples who bring judgment.
My Own Paper Presented on December 1
Although I was scheduled to give a paper at SBL in a session on the Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures, the organizers decided to postpone the session until next year, when (hopefully) the SBL will meet in person (in San Antonio, TX).
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. (Matthew 2:16)
As long as I can remember, I’ve heard Christians bemoaning the commercialization of Christmas, the mad rush to buy gifts, the annual spending frenzy. “Let’s put Christ back into Christmas” was their recurring refrain. Although I’m sympathetic with the genuine concern here, I think it’s misplaced.
The commercialization of Christmas doesn’t actually exclude Christ. He’s there in the manger scenes we know and love, even in department stores and shopping malls. The Christ-child lies blissfully in a decorative, gilt-edged manger lit by neon and flashing colored lights, while the muzak drones, “Sleep in heavenly peace.” The problem is not that the commercialization of Christmas has displaced Christ. The problem is that this Christ doesn’t match the biblical portrayal. According to Matthew, Jesus did not sleep in heavenly peace. On the contrary he slept—if at all—in the midst of great danger and death. It’s difficult to sleep when you’re a refugee, fleeing for your life. It’s difficult to sleep with Herod around.
Unfortunately, the Christ that many Christians want to put back into Christmas tends to be a sentimentalized figure, strangely removed from the world of Herod—the real world of pain and brokenness. And so this Christ is largely irrelevant. A baby sleeping in heavenly peace is irrelevant to anyone grieving the loss of a loved one, to anyone who’s been sexually abused, to anyone living in a war zone. He’s irrelevant to the unemployed and the underemployed, to those struggling with doubt and disappointment. He’s certainly irrelevant to anyone sleeping downtown on a heating grate this winter. Tear-jerking manger scenes and soothing Christmas carols just don’t cut it in a world that’s full of the reality of Herod.
This is not to deny the traditional picture of the Christ-child lying vulnerable in Bethlehem with the wise men bringing gifts. But it’s important not to miss the point Matthew makes (quoting Micah) that the Messiah was born in small-town Bethlehem (no-place, Judah) because God bypassed glorious Jerusalem, the great city, where Herod ruled. And God bypassed Herod, king of the Jews, and chose to work through a poor peasant couple and a child of questionable birth-status.
And who comes to worship the child? Not Herod, nor any orthodox religious leaders, but pagan astrologers. This baby lying vulnerable in Bethlehem was perceived rightly by these “wise” pagans to be the true king of the Jews, whose birth had such cosmic significance that there was a new star in the heavens. Herod himself rightly perceived this baby lying vulnerable in Bethlehem to be a threat to his pretensions of power. So threatening, indeed, as to justify the frenzied slaughter of innocent babies.
This doesn’t mean we should never enjoy manger scenes or get teary-eyed when we sing carols or watch the kids acting out the nativity story. But let’s never forget why God showered his unfathomable love upon us at Christmas two thousand years ago: because he cared so much for our wounds, and for this suffering world, that he personally entered the fray, this bloodbath we call history, to redeem us—and history—from the bloodbath.
So, although I can appreciate the desire to “put Christ back into Christmas” in order to counter the commercialization of this sacred holiday, I want to suggest that we put Herod back into Christmas, and so counter the sentimentalized glitz with which the season has been papered over.
The fact is that Herod is integral to Christmas, because Herod places the birth of Jesus squarely in history. At one level that’s literally true. We date Jesus’ birth between 6 and 4 B.C. because Herod died in 4 B.C. and he ordered the slaughter of children under two. Herod places Jesus chronologically in history. But Herod also places Jesus in the harsh reality of history. Jesus didn’t come into some mythical, storybook, never-never land. He came into the world of Herod. The world we know only too well.
And he came to take Herod out. That’s what Christmas is all about: the decisive blow God dealt to evil, injustice, and suffering at the cross. But it started in Bethlehem, when a baby lying vulnerable in a manger threatened a tyrant. Can we, like the wise men, discern the cosmic significance of that this Christmas?
This article by J. Richard Middleton first appeared in The Catalyst (Toronto), vol. 16, nos. 8-9 (November-December 1993) and received an award in 1994 for best “Theological Reflection—Inspirational” from the Canadian Church Press.