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Ronald Hendel

Genesis and Jesus

Paying attention to the conversation.

At the Christmas season we see nativity scenes populated by shepherds, wise men, and barnyard animals, including the occasional reindeer (red nose optional). What we may not realize is that the nativity scene is a pastiche from the New Testament Gospels of Matthew and Luke, with some bits taken from each and other bits left out. Inquiring minds may want to turn to the New Testament and see what the Christmas story (or stories) actually say and mean. But to do this seriously we have to enter into the thought-world of the New Testament. I want to show that to understand the Christmas stories in the New Testament—particularly the version in the Gospel of Matthew—we must recognize that the story is in dialogue with prior stories in the Old Testament, primarily in the book of Genesis. Although Jesus isn't in the book of Genesis (more on this below), his story is deeply entangled with Genesis.

The New Testament begins with the words, "The book of the generations (geneseos) of Jesus Christ." This wording refers back to chapter five of Genesis, which begins, "This is the book of the generations of Adam." With this allusion, the Gospel of Matthew announces that the birth of Jesus is the continuation—and the redemptive climax—of the genealogy of Adam. The Greek word geneseos ("generations") means "origins" or "genesis." From this word the book of Genesis takes its name. The New Testament begins with a new Genesis, in which the birth of the savior is presented as a new beginning and a sequel to Genesis.

The Gospel follows with a long chain of "begats" that begins with Abraham and ends with the birth of Jesus. The "begats" create a link with the genealogies of Genesis. The Gospel continues: "This is how the origins (genesis) of Jesus Christ came about." The repetition of the Greek word genesis is no coincidence: the birth of Christ signals a new era, a "Genesis of Jesus Christ." The Gospel story, in its introduction and details, echoes the chords of Genesis.

Then comes a marvelous crisis: "His mother Mary being betrothed to Joseph, before they were married she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit." Joseph faces a crucial decision—will he marry her or not? Fortunately, Joseph is a "righteous man," like Abraham his forefather, and he does not want to shame Mary by abandoning her. While considering his options, Joseph receives a revelation in a dream. In words that echo divine revelations to Abraham and Hagar in Genesis, an angel says to Joseph: "Do not fear!" (Compare the same words to Abraham and Hagar in Gen 15:1 and 21:7.) The angel then reveals that the child was miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit and promises that "she will bear a son." An angel gives the same promise ("you will bear a son") to Hagar in Genesis 16:11, and God, accompanied by angels, promises the same to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18:10. This scene of divine revelation is called an annunciation. Its presence in the Christmas story, as here in Matthew and also in the first chapter of Luke, hearkens back to Genesis. This annunciation draws "the Genesis of Jesus Christ" into the circle of miraculous births in Genesis.

The remainder of the annunciation also recalls the Hagar story in Genesis. The angel says, "You shall call its name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." The angel had similarly said to Hagar, "You shall call his name Ishmael, for the Lord has heard your distress." (Genesis 16:12). The command to name the child is followed by an explanation of the name, which discloses the child's origin or destiny. The name Ishmael literally means "God hears," and it preserves the memory that "the Lord has heard your distress." The name Jesus (which represents the Hebrew name Joshua) means "The Lord saves." This name discloses the destiny of Jesus, who will "save his people from their sins."

However, this explanation of Jesus' name doesn't actually work in the Greek of the New Testament—the meaning of the name is only transparent in Hebrew. This is an indication that the Gospel story of Jesus' birth is predicated on the listener's biblical literacy, including the meaning of Hebrew names and the allusions to events in Genesis. Properly understood, the name of Jesus foretells his destiny, for Jesus will be the savior.

Matthew's account of Jesus' birth—his Christmas story—has many echoes of Genesis. These literary resonances make his Gospel into a biblical book, one that continues and fulfills the promises of Genesis. This way of telling the story makes Jesus into a fitting descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (and also Moses and David). His divine destiny is announced by the very circumstances of his miraculous birth. He has virtuous parents and receives the aid of God and angels. These echoes of Genesis make him a true biblical hero, the heir of the great biblical patriarchs. To sense the meanings of Jesus' birth story, we need to hear the conversation taking place between the Gospels and Genesis, as well as with other biblical books.

To many early Christian interpreters, Genesis also seemed to talk back in this conversation with the New Testament. Many read the New Testament through Genesis, as the Gospel of Matthew invites one to do, and they also read Genesis through the New Testament. In other words, they read Genesis as if it was talking about Christ, usually in a cryptic way.

For instance, the first sentence of Genesis reads: "In the beginning, God created heaven and earth." But some early Christian interpreters understood this verse as meaning "In the Son, God created heaven and earth." The first chapter of the Gospel of John provides the key to this understanding, where it says "He was in the beginning with God, and all things were made through him." If Christ was "in the beginning" with God at creation, then perhaps "in the beginning" in Genesis refers to Christ. By reading Genesis 1:1 in this way, Genesis and the Gospel of John were saying the same thing, one cryptically and the other openly.

But others regarded this interpretation as fanciful. The Church Father Jerome complained, "most people think that the Hebrew reads, 'In the Son, God made heaven and earth,' which the facts of the matter prove to be mistaken." Jerome was a good Hebraist, and he had no patience for obvious misreadings of the Bible. But he saw allusions to Christ in other verses of Genesis, which many today find fanciful. The interpretation of Genesis has many such twists and turns.

Genesis and Jesus have accompanied each other during the two thousand years of Christian culture. Elsewhere in the New Testament Jesus is depicted as a "New Adam," a "New Melchizedek," and a "beloved son" (like Abraham's son) who must be sacrificed. When Jesus returns, he will restore humanity to its original state of blessing in a new Garden of Eden. All of these concepts take their force from the New Testament dialogue with Genesis. The Christmas story too, as we have seen, has roots in Genesis, and draws on it to nourish its deeper meanings.

Ronald Hendel is Norma and Sam Dabby Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies, University of California, Berkeley. He is the author most recently of The Book of Genesis: A Biography (Princeton Univ. Press).

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