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The Shoot of Jesse

A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots.

        Isaiah 11.1 (CEB)

 

This Isaiah verse shows up all the time in songs around now. ‘Sprout of Jesse’ (or shoot, or rod) shows up in ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ and ‘Lo, How a Rose ‘Ere Blooming’, and various other less famous works. Whenever I’ve sung these songs, I’ve thought: “What is this talking about?” Well, now I’ve taken the opportunity to dig deeper!

 

In today’s American society, there’s not a lot of emphasis put on ancestry and genealogy. It’s a hobby many have heard of, perhaps dabbled in by buying a “23 and Me” kit. But beyond some cursory interest, it isn’t something many people think about. So, when the bible talks about long lines of lineage, it can be lost.

 

Given the many references to ancestry throughout the bible, lineage was obviously incredibly important in those times. One had to be able to prove one’s ancestry for any number of legal things like inheriting land, and those that couldn’t prove long-lasting ties to their area were sometimes considered outcasts. Even when visiting ancestral homes (like, say, Bethlehem) one could show up at the house of distant relatives they had never met, recite a few generations, and then be welcomed into the home as family.

 

I found in my research that this idea of lineage wasn’t just important in bible times, but it was quite the inspiration in medieval times. There’s quite a lot of artwork showing the family tree of Jesse, but inverted from what we would normally see. Normally the oldest members of the family line appear at the top of family trees, but here Jesse is always at the bottom with Jesus at the top.

 

The upper section of the 12th-century Jesse Tree window at Chartres Cathedral in France showing Jesus at the apex and Mary below him.

 

Knowing one’s ancestry only became more important once Israel fell. This is what the ‘stump of Jesse’ refers to; the fallen Israel was now a stump. Jesse was the father of King David and appears in 1 Samuel 16.1-13. A relatively small part in the bible to constantly be showing up in our Advent readings and hymns. The fact that Jesus is related to a king has obvious implications, but I personally find it very interesting that Jesse is the one that Isaiah is constantly referring to in his prophecy.

 

Jesse was no king. His son, David, was a mere shepherd that was raised up to the title of king. I think the choice to refer to the commoner father over the royal son speaks to how Jesus is both king and one of us. This whole idea of important ancestry adds another layer to this. People of that time would have known that when Isaiah spoke of Jesse, that he was son of Obed, son of Boaz – who was married to Ruth, a gentile. So, not only is the coming messiah related to Kings and commoners, but he’s also related to gentiles. A powerful message that the coming savior was for all people.

 

So, the heights of Jesse’s lineage, the tree, were cut off and became a stump. But there was still life in that stump and a shoot grew out from it. What if we viewed this as more than talking about lineage and ancestry and viewed it as a message of hope. Even when things fall or come to in an end, when we feel there’s no more going forward, in Jesus all things are made new. Even when we think there’s no way for something to continue to grow, he shows us a new path, a new branch.




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