Flyover: The Stories We’ve Missed

The stories we've missed: Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving offers us an annual pause from the pace of life return to places we do not often visit and gather with people we do not often see. Indeed, I live in what some call a “flyover state” — Minnesota — a placed that many visitors fly over while hopping coast to coast. I know that it takes a Thanksgiving-like event to bring people here — often reluctantly.

We also have “flyover verses” — obtuse lists of names, places, and pedigrees that make for good skimming and quick page-turning. These genealogies appear to be intended for another time and place, where the names meant something — perhaps a millennias-old precursor to Facebook’s “Mutual Friends.”

Thanksgiving can not only be a return to our flyover states, but a reason to seek out these flyover verses.

Take this list from Matthew chapter 1 and carefully study it. Read every name as if it’s the first time you’ve seen them. If you can, print it out these names and circle the ones you recognize.

2 Abraham was the father of Isaac,
Isaac the father of Jacob,
Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,
3 Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar,
Perez the father of Hezron,
Hezron the father of Ram,
4 Ram the father of Amminadab,
Amminadab the father of Nahshon,
Nahshon the father of Salmon,
5 Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab,
Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth,
Obed the father of Jesse,
6 and Jesse the father of King David.
David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife,
7 Solomon the father of Rehoboam,
Rehoboam the father of Abijah,
Abijah the father of Asa,
8 Asa the father of Jehoshaphat,
Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram,
Jehoram the father of Uzziah,
9 Uzziah the father of Jotham,
Jotham the father of Ahaz,
Ahaz the father of Hezekiah,
10 Hezekiah the father of Manasseh,
Manasseh the father of Amon,
Amon the father of Josiah,
11 and Josiah the father of Jeconiah[c] and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon.
12 After the exile to Babylon:
Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel,
Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel,
13 Zerubbabel the father of Abihud,
Abihud the father of Eliakim,
Eliakim the father of Azor,
14 Azor the father of Zadok,
Zadok the father of Akim,
Akim the father of Elihud,
15 Elihud the father of Eleazar,
Eleazar the father of Matthan,
Matthan the father of Jacob,
16 and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah. — Matthew 1:2-16

You likely identified several patriarchs of the Bible: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David. You also likely recognized other stars of the Old Testament, including Boaz, Solomon, and Rehaboam.

The list calls out five women: Tamar, Rehab, Uriah’s wife (a.k.a. Bathsheba), Ruth, and Mary. While many of us are familiar with these names, these women are a curious addition to this patrilineal genealogy. While their names do not become branches, the author clearly views their inclusion as important. These women are known for various reasons, including incest, prostitution, adultery, being an outcast, and of course, giving birth to Jesus Christ.

Some of the lesser-known, down-list names are equally intriguing. In the generations following Solomon, seven of the men did evil in the eyes of the Lord — turning away, worshipping other Gods, or worse. At least five of names on the list were, for a portion of their life, considered refugees of political or religious persecution. And, several of the men were forced or sold into slavery.

In short, this list contains some of the most notorious names in the Bible — the worst of the worst. But, of course, it also contains some of the Bible’s most celebrated heroes.

Finally, I’ll ask the obvious, but most important question: What is this list?

It’s the lineage of Jesus. His family.

If you thought you had a messed-up family, look no further than that of Jesus.

Jesus’ family tree accounts for nearly every category of sin and dreadful human condition. It’s by no means a list of perfect people or the ideal family. Many of us might be embarrassed to call this our kin. Yet, while it’s tumultuous, there’s beauty in the chaos. The messiness reminds us that out of darkness and broken things spring forth in light and healing.

The author, perhaps, intended to send us this message. That message has, however, largely gotten lost to the curse of the flyover verse.

Thanksgiving, itself, is something of a flyover verse. In the past four centuries, we’ve commercialized and sanitized the story into one that is more legend than truth. I had simply glossed over the story until I traced my own lineage back to two of the Mayflower pilgrims. Then, I finally took the time to read the names and stories.

What I found was messy. The men and women who came on the Mayflower came as religious refugees and indentured servants. Once they arrived, they barely survived. Famine and disease claimed nearly half of them. Of those who did last through the first winter, some lived history-changing lives, others were complicit in acts ranging from murder to prejudice and deceit. It was messy and broken.

After uncovering this, I endeavored to tell the true, unvarnished story. When I put pen to paper, I found something spectacular. Out of brokenness and suffering came the vision for a new country founded on the idea of the freedom — particularly the freedom to worship. It took time, and patience.

God works through process, and sometimes this process can only be seen on a long enough timeline. By looking back, but not overlooking, we catch glimpses of God’s plan. Like beauty unfolding from the messy lineage of Jesus, we see the beauty unfolding in our nation, our families, and our own past.

This Thanksgiving, take a moment to pause and think about some of these flyover stories in your life, then consider what beauty might be unfolding from them.

Original devotion for Devotional Daily/FaithGateway by Jay Milbrandt, author of They Came for Freedom: The Forgotten, Epic Adventure of the Pilgrims.

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Jay Milbrandt

Jay Milbrandt is the author of The Daring Heart of David Livingstone and a professor at Bethel University in Minnesota. He formerly directed the Global Justice Program and served as Senior Fellow in Global Justice with the Nootbaar Institute at Pepperdine University School of Law. He has traveled throughout the world as a lawyer, managing global initiatives in Africa and Southeast Asia, and consulting with organizations engaged in human rights and legal development efforts.

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