There are some passages of scripture that we tend to merely skim before quickly moving on. For me, the genealogies were definitely that kind of content. Sure, I believed that all scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching and instructing in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). But it was awfully hard for me to see how the genealogies would actually impact my life as a believer or be relevant in evangelism. “Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram” is not exactly the inspirational material that typically shows up on Christian embroideries. Sure, the genealogies served an important historical purpose, but I assumed that was about it. I would be proved powerfully wrong.
When my friend *Hama agreed to read the Bible with me, we started in the book of Matthew, probably for the simple reason that it was the first book in the New Testament which I had given him in his language (The Old Testament wouldn’t be published for another 8 years). As a twenty-year-old new to the Middle East, this would be my first time studying the Bible with a Muslim friend. So why not start with Matthew?
I was not expecting the first half of the first chapter to deal such a blow to my friend’s worldview.
“Bro,” Hama said. “Jesus is incredible.”
“I agree. But why do you say that?” I replied.
“Look at his family line… look at all of the prophets in his line. There are so many, starting all the way back at Abraham. Bro, I never knew this.”
“And?” I was not understanding why we shouldn’t just take note of this neat historical content and move on the meatier portions.
Hama’s eyes had that far-off look he got whenever his mind was working hard. He seemed conflicted.
“…Mohammad doesn’t have a family line like this… he doesn’t have any kind of lineage to compare to this.” Hama was disturbed.
I didn’t know this at the time, but genealogy, specifically the father-line (patrilineage) is a cornerstone of Middle Eastern and Central Asian identity. You are who your fathers were. Their honor and their shame is imputed to you and your success and the success of your descendants depends on being able to draw upon an honorable reputation rooted in ancestry. A traditional Middle Easterner must be able to name their male ancestors at least to the seventh generation. Even though this is becoming a little less common among the modern and urbanized, it still is a primary lens through which people understand who they are and who others are. Your father-line makes a claim about you; it is a message in itself.
Hama was seeing something in Matthew in his first reading that I had never seen despite many years of devotions in Matthew, sermons, and bible classes. His Middle Eastern culture was helping him to understand implications of the text that I had missed as an American raised in Melanesia. In this and many other areas, Hama’s culture was not too far off from Jewish New Testament culture. He saw Matthew 1:1-17 as a devastating blow against what he had been taught his whole life – that Mohammad’s lineage was just as strong as that of the other prophets.
Yes, Islam maintains that Mohammad was descended from Abraham via Ishmael, but from Ishmael to Mohammad spans over two thousand years of plain old human without a whiff of inspired revelation. But Jesus, his line contained Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, David, and Solomon! And all of them descendants of Abraham through Isaac’s line, not Ishmael’s. Jesus’ claims therefore to be The Prophet of Prophets are bolstered by this amazing pedigree. Mohammad’s seeming emergence out of nowhere six hundred years later as “the seal of the prophets,” in this light, appears to be unnatural and not in keeping with how God acted in history – always sending his prophets through Isaac’s line and with a strong prophetic father-line.
It was a blow that shook Hama’s world. It’s easy to take for granted religious claims that everyone around you simply repeats your whole life. But when faced for the first time with a compelling counter-claim, that’s when we get a true sense of just how strong a case our belief actually has. Sure, everyone in the bazaar says that Mohammad’s descent from the prophets legitimized his claims. But Matthew, in a thoroughly Middle Eastern way, had just thrown down the gauntlet.
It wasn’t the only way in which God would vindicate the gospel’s truth to my friend Hama, the jaded wedding musician. But it was a powerful start. One that I at least had never anticipated. Yet this is exactly what happens when we work through scripture with those who are different from us. We see new aspects of the text’s meaning, not different meaning, but insights uniquely apparent to those from other cultures. The diamond gets turned to reveal new beauty that was there all along. The Holy Spirit uses passages we gloss over as the vehicle for his convicting work. This argues, by the way, for the importance of working through books of the Bible systematically in our cross-cultural evangelism and discipleship – we just don’t know where exactly in the text the lightning is going to strike. And it may be where you never expected it.