This week, I was thinking about how the book of Matthew starts, and meditating on what it means for me and my neighbors to read that text. I’ve talked and written about the passage before, but it became clear to me that I’ve often glossed over what may be the most significant feature of the text for me, and for many readers like me, a feature which seriously affects our experience of reading the text: the names are weird.
Of course, “weird” isn’t an objective term, but names something important, even if subjective, that we experience in reading the Bible, particularly in texts like the genealogies. These texts are just chock full of names that are weird to me, that would be weird in our culture. By my count, of the 48 names in the genealogy, only about 10, a fifth, are regularly used by people in our culture. For every Jacob in the list that sounds familiar, there is a Zadok, a Jotham, an Abiud, a Nashon, and a Salathiel. My wife are in the process of picking baby names, and there is no way on God’s green earth she would let me use about eighty percent of these.
The fact of this unfamiliarity becomes abundantly clear in any type of group reading setting. Almost any reader will struggle through pronouncing all the names on the list, which makes sense given that nobody in our churches knows anybody named Jeconiah or Zerubbabel.
So what does that unfamiliarity do to us? I think it reinforces to us that we are non-natives when it comes to the world of the Bible. Even those of us who grew up hearing the names in Sunday School have to admit that for all our time as visitors to the Bible, or even as immigrants who have lived in its world, we are still a bit out of our own water.
It strikes me that this has long been true of Christian readers of the Bible, at least since Cornelius, the first non-Jewish convert. After all, I suppose many of these Semitic names would have sounded strange to the Gentile Christians of Rome, Ephesus, and Athens, just as they do to me. Even in those cosmopolitan centers of the Mediterranean world, the gospel message was cross-cultural, wrapped in strange and foreign garb. Quickly translated into greek, these Hebrew names signaled to our early brothers and sisters that they were joining a story that arose in another people, with another language and another culture. And yet, somehow, they found a home in that foreign text. They willingly immigrated to the narrative world of the Bible, learned to speak its language of faith, and made some version of it their own.
Even though we often ignore it, it’s a good thing to be reminded of the foreign weirdness of the scriptures from time to time. First, it reminds us that we have some translation work to do if the gospel is going to be intelligible to our neighbors—they may not be as used to moving through the Biblical weirdness as we are, glossing over the odd names and applying the bits and pieces of cultural information we’ve picked up along the way.
Second, it keeps us from pretending that we own the book. We take a little too much ownership of the Bible sometimes; it can be our way of domesticating it, pretending that we are fully aligned with it. In reality, we are always learning what it means to live in its world. Hearing and recognizing the weirdness of the names may also prepare me to read with humility and a little healthy caution about my ability to easily and naturally understand what is happening in these texts that come to me from another culture.
Finally, recognizing the foreign character of the scriptures prepares me to have a more cosmopolitan faith, one that can be conversant with other cultures besides my own. Recognizing that my faith is really an ancient Hebrew-Greek faith spoken in a Southern American accent prepares me to hear that faith spoken in other accents as well. The faith of the Bible is not an American faith, at least not in origin. So, when I hear other accents struggling to pronounce the genealogies, I can lay down any presupposition of superiority, knowing that I too had to learn how to say names like Hezron and Abijah, and that I too am a non-native to the language and faith of the Bible.
I have much to learn.