The Genealogy of Jesus
The genealogy in Matthew’s Gospel has been called a “valley of dry bones.” A list of people who are dead and gone. But my opinion is that this list contains buried treasure. Though the list looks like a litany of dead ancestors to us, the imagination of a Jewish audience would have been triggered to think of some of the stories that had gathered around most of these names.
But even if we find the list boring, we would be remiss to skip over what Matthew placed at the front of his gospel in order to command our attention. Each of the Gospel writers had limited space to tell their story. They cannot include everything they would like to tell about Jesus. They must select from a mass of material the things they count the most important. Obviously Matthew thinks this information is important enough not only to include, but also to place first in his account.
Let me share a few reflections on this catalogue of names.
This is no way to start a novel.
Novels should begin with phrases like “It was a dark and stormy night…” and get us immediately into the action of the story. But Matthew is not writing a novel. He is not writing a fairy story that begins, “Once upon a time in a land far far away…” Nor is Matthew intent upon writing a fable or an extended parable.
He places this genealogy at the very beginning, to let us know that what he describes took place right in the middle of history. It is the record of what took place at a very specific time and a very specific place. It took place in Palestine, in the days of Herod the great, and we can trace the parents and ancestors of this person he calls the Christ.
There is a second reason for this genealogy.
This is a declaration that Jesus is qualified to be the Messiah.
Judaism knew that the coming Messiah must be of the Jewish race. He must be of the family of Abraham, not Lot. He must be from Isaac, not Ishmael. He must be from Jacob, not Esau. He must be descended from one of the 12 tribes of Israel. The first 3 names of the genealogy assert this.
Then he must not only be from one of the twelve tribes of Israel, but the Messiah was expected to come from the tribe of Judah. And the genealogy tells us very specifically that Jesus came from the tribe of Judah
But the records were clear, The Messiah must also be descended from David the King. It is here that Matthew gets more direct. In the very first sentence of his book he calls Jesus, “the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.” Jesus is of the house of David, and then Matthew traces the generations from David the King all the way to Joseph his adopting father.
Jesus is qualified by family lineage to be the Messiah. To you and me, genealogies are not very important. To many Jews it was not crucial either. But if a man was being considered as a priest or king, then proof that he was of the right family was crucial. It was an important part of the resume of a candidate for high office. This genealogy tells us that Jesus is qualified to be the Messiah.
The History of a deep longing
This genealogy also served another purpose. The History of Israel was the story of a deep longing that stretched from Abraham to that very moment in time. Israel believed that history had a destiny. That it was going somewhere: that there was an ultimate purpose to the universe and to their own history. A promise had been given to Abraham. It looked like it was coming true in David, and then was shattered in the exile. But hope blooms eternal in the human heart, and so Israel was always looking in two directions: looking back to where it had come from, and looking forward to where it might be going.
Matthew is letting us know that Jesus has come to fulfill the ancient dream, and to bring healing to the terrible damage they had suffered.
The Strange Inclusions
But Matthew has another purpose for writing his genealogy in the way he does. Notice the strange inclusions.
He includes people who would not normally be advertized in a person’s genealogy. He adds four women who are found in the Old Testament. This was very unusual in a Jewish genealogy and asks for an explanation. The four women are TAMAR, RAHAB, RUTH, and THE WIFE OF URIAH (known to us as Bathsheba.)
Considerable speculation has gone into the question; why does he include these four? He could have included the more famous ones such as Sarah, or Rachel or Rebekah. Obviously, in Matthew’s mind, they would not do as well as the four he chose.
What do these four have in common?
First of all, they are all women.
That may be important to Matthew. Judaism had focused its best energies upon men, and women had been marginalized. Some tell us that in the Synagogue this prayer was offered, “I thank You Lord that you did not make me a Gentile or a slave or a dog or a woman.” I hope that is not true!
The new reality, however, for the Christian Church is that as far as God is concerned women and men are both invited to be part of the Kingdom of the Christ. In Christ there are no male and female distinctions, but all persons are of great value and equal value in God’s sight.
Some have considered them all to be Sinners.
Tamar plays the part of a prostitute and becomes pregnant by her father-in-law. A pretty sordid story that almost gets her executed.
Rahab is the woman who was a prostitute in the city of Jericho, who helped the spies of Israel escape, and whose life was spared in the destruction of that city. Hardly a class “A” citizen.
Ruth gives us far better feelings. But what she did was certainly a no-no. She went to the threshing floor of Boaz at night and slipped under the blanket and lay beside him. About midnight he awoke with surprise from sleep. She offers a proposal of marriage and then stays the rest of the night until morning. We are probably right in presuming Boaz to be a gentleman and did not take advantage of the situation, but nonetheless it certainly was not proper behaviour.
And then there is Bathsheba. She was the wife of Uriah one of David’s generals. We know the story of how David saw her bathing and they committed adultery. She became pregnant, and then David had her husband murdered and subsequently married her.
All of these women were sinners, to say nothing, by the way, of the other sinners in the list, who were male.
But why would Matthew want us to know that there were some skeletons in the closet of the Saviour? Could it be simply to remind us that Jesus not only came from a nation that was sinful, and a family that was sinful, but that he had come especially for the sinful. He would be crucified between two criminals on Good Friday, and be associated with them all through his life. It is only right that when he is born, there also he should be identified with sinners.
Some have thought these women were all Gentiles.
Tamar according to Jewish tradition was a Canaanite, as was the first wife of Judah.
Rahab was a Canaanite from the doomed city of Jericho.
Ruth was a Moabite girl, and intermarriage with Moabites was strictly forbidden in the Law.
And Bathsheba was married to Uriah the Hittite, a non-Israelite, and perhaps herself a gentile.
This is hardly good news when you read of the great concern in later Judaism for biological purity. Here was a lineage infected with horrible Gentiles. But the fact is, of course, that even King David himself came from that very same background as did many more than wished to own it.
Of course that is the function in Matthew’s Gospel for the wise men from the east coming to Jesus’ birthplace. Here are men who very obviously are from foreign lands. They are not Jews or followers of Judaism. They are Magicians, the followers of one of the pagan religions of the East. But it is interesting that whereas Herod and the priests will not go a few miles to investigate the story, Gentiles will cross that known world to see the child. It is not by error that we have called them wise men.
And Matthew wants to inform us that Jesus is not only for sinners as well as saints, not only for women as well as men, but he is for Gentiles as well as Jews.
But there is one other fact about these four women that may be central to understanding why they are included. They are all involved in very unusual pregnancies.
Tamar finds a very unusual way of passing on the lineage of Judah. (Read Genesis 38 for the full story.) He has had three sons. Two of them have married Tamar, but had not raised up children for themselves, and had died prematurely. Judah does not want his last son to marry her, even though levirate laws demanded it. (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). But Tamar plots and becomes pregnant by Judah her father-in-law and so passes on the family line of Judah. A very unorthodox way of acting to say the least, but fortunate for the continuance of the family of Judah.
Then there is Rahab. (Read Joshua 2 and 6:22-25) She should have been dead. All the residents of that city were doomed. Not one was to be spared. And yet, miracle of miracle, because of her loyalty, she is spared and marries a man from the tribe of Judah, and this woman becomes the great-grandmother of King David.
And the Ruth story too is about pregnancy. It looks like two family lines are coming to an end. But here is an older bachelor and a young widow who marry and bear a son who will be the grandfather of David the King.
And then there is Bathsheba. Solomon is the child of David by Bathsheba who will rule in David’s place and so pass on the Kingdom through David’s line. Each of the births was of great consequence to the welfare of Israel.
And of course Matthew is saying that the unusual birth to Mary is also of great consequence for Israel and for the world. Her pregnancy is a sign that this child, like the others born of these four women, is set for great things. But how great?
The Mathematics of the genealogy.
It is here that Matthew becomes a rather creative mathematician. He lists the genealogies from Abraham to David, then from David to the exile, and then from the exile to Jesus and declares his mathematical conclusion. Look at verse 17.
“So all the generations from Abraham to David were 14 generations,
and from David to the Deportation to Babylon, 14 generations,
and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ, 14 generations.
It is very obvious what Matthew is implying. All of history has been headed for this crucial day. What was begun in Abraham and continued in David, and threatened in the Babylonian Exile, has come to glorious conclusion in Jesus. All of history past was really His-story heading towards the moment when He would come. It is the fulfillment of the dream of the entire Old Testament. All that past ages had longed for, was to be realized in the coming of Jesus.
Look at the theme that runs through the rest of the birth story found in Matthew’s gospel:
1:22 “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet.”
2:5. “For so it is written by the prophet….”
2:15. “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet…”
2:17. “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah…”
2:23. “That what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled….”
Jesus is the goal to which all of history has been moving, and life only makes sense when he is its goal.
So what word does this have for us as we begin this Advent season.
We have every reason to enter into the season with thanksgiving and gratitude to God. He has sent us a Saviour who has come to fulfill the deepest longings of our own hearts.
He has come to accept us all as his sons and daughters, whatever our gender, whatever our nationality or ethnic background, whatever our moral character. To him it does not matter whether we were born legitimately or illegitimately, whether we were born of royalty or poverty, whether we have come through an easy life or a horrible set of circumstances, we are all invited to be part of his family. Thanks be to God.