Beyond the Lectionary Text: Matthew 1:1-17
by Raymond (Randy) Blacketer
“This is the genealogy of Jesus…” So begins the gospel of Matthew. Frankly, it sounds a bit boring. After all, the genealogies are one of those the parts of the Bible that we skip over (unless someone is watching us and we feel guilty, because “all scripture” is supposed to be profitable, 2 Tim. 3:16). Other oft-skipped parts would be the first several chapters of the book of Numbers, or the Table of Nations in Genesis 10. It’s just a bunch of names that makes our eyes glaze over, as our minds wander to the latest sports score, or the things we have to get done by Friday. Maybe someone who has a new subscription to Ancestry.com and who is eagerly trying to figure out if they’re more Irish than Frisian will be excited by these opening words, but the attention-grabbing potential seems to be rather limited.
But it is there for a reason. So making work of trying to figure out why it is there, and why Matthew begins this way, is a worthwhile pursuit. Perhaps a careful study of the terms will help. The word translated “genealogy” in most versions is in fact “genesis.” Maybe Matthew is beginning his story by saying: “This is the genesis of Jesus Christ,” the origin of Jesus the Messiah, in terms of his human lineage. Or perhaps more intriguingly is the suggestion of some recent scholarship: This is the Book of Genesis of Jesus the Messiah, a new beginning. (In fact the Greek text is: Βίβλος γενέσεως). Just as God spoke his Word and began his work of creation, so the advent of Jesus Christ in the world marks the beginning of God’s ultimate work of redeeming that broken, bruised, and groaning creation. In that case, Matthew’s prelude may not be as different from John’s gospel as we tend to suppose. In addition, the term “genesis” might then refer rather specifically to the ancestry of Jesus, or more broadly to the birth narratives, or even more broadly still to the entire gospel of Matthew, as the new beginning in the story of God’s relationship to his creatures brought about by the advent of Jesus into the world, his ministry, his death, his resurrection, and the ongoing work of his followers in fulfilling the Great Commission of 28:16-20.
It is a temptation with sermons on the genealogies of Jesus (here in Matthew and in Luke 3) to swerve into an almost reverse-moralistic territory (for lack of a better term), delving into some of the stories of the personalities listed in the family tree. Jesus had sinners in his family line, and so we should take heart that Jesus came to save sinners like us. This is of course true and a legitimate emphasis; but there is more here, and we should be careful not to over-simplify the passage and thus miss Matthew’s emphases. Worse indeed would be to take a completely wrong turn and simply draw a few figures from the genealogy and make moral or spiritual examples out of them.
Note that unlike Luke, who appears to write for a more gentile audience and traces Jesus’ origins back to Adam (whom Luke indicates, interestingly, is descended of God, Lk 3:38), Matthew locates Jesus firmly in the story of God’s relationship with his people Israel, and the covenant promises made to them. Jesus is the Christ (Messiah), a term that Matthew feels no need to exposit for his readers. But he does repeat the term twice in this pericope, in verses 16 and 17, indicating that perhaps the main point of this text is to point out that Jesus is the culmination of God’s work of redemption, and that everything that came before reaches its climax and fulfilment and perfection in Jesus, and that humanity need not look to anyone beside Jesus or to anyone who might come after him.
Matthew prefaces the list of names by noting that Messiah Jesus is the son of Abraham and the son of David—names of great import in the story of God’s creation and redemption of the people of Israel. Church father Jerome writes that Matthew mentions these two figures “because the promise concerning the Christ was made only to them: to Abraham, when he said: ‘In your Seed, all the nations shall be blessed [Gen. 22:18], which is Christ [Gal. 3:16]’; to David, [in these words]: ‘I will place on from the fruit of your body upon your throne’ [Ps. 132:11].” (Fathers of the Church edition, p. 59). We could add that Abraham represents the founding of Israel as a people, and David represents the hope of future kingdom after the national and spiritual catastrophe that was the exile. In Jesus, the anointed one, a new Son of David has appeared who will fulfill God’s promise to Abraham that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3b), as well as God’s promise that the throne of David would continue forever. In Jesus, then, the promise of God’s redemption is brought back to memory, which came perilously close to being forgotten in Israel’s darkest days. Thus the carol O Come, O Come Immanuel resonates with the hopes of Israel in the days of Joseph and Mary, that the Christ would come and “ransom captive Israel / that mourns in lonely exile here.” Thus in only a few short words Matthew has proclaimed that Jesus is the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes for the restoration of her kingdom and calling, but also that Jesus is the hope for every nation upon the earth.
Matthew divides his genealogy into three sets of fourteen generations. Setting aside hypothetical symbolic meanings of the number, the sections include fascinating details. In the first section, four women are mentioned (if we include v. 6b). The fact that women are mentioned at all in a genealogy of that day and in a patriarchal culture is exceptional. Jesus is not only the Savior of men; he is also the one who heals the primordial animosity between men and women, and works to restore the mutual dignity, equality, and complementarity of men and women. In addition, all four of these women are (arguably) non-Jews, gentiles. Tamar and Rahab are Canaanites; Ruth is a Moabite; Bathsheba (whom Matthew dares not even identify by name) may be a Hittite (at least by marriage). This could very well support the main point that Jesus fulfills God’s promise to Abraham to bless all the nations. And all these women were associated with sin—though we should be careful to note that it was mostly not their own sin! Tamar was forced by Judah’s sin into humiliating herself. Rahab, though a prostitute, distinguishes herself by her faith and by risking her life to side with the LORD over her own countrymen. Ruth was a Moabite, which might entail guilt-by-association as descendants of Lot. And Bathsheba was the victim of David’s sin, and by no means an equal participant. The worst sinners in this list are Judah and King David himself.
Matthew’s family history of Jesus correlates well with what the Apostle Paul says in Galatians 3:28-29: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
These skeletons in the family closet point to the vicissitudes of Israel’s history, the long story of a very dysfunctional family. And that is good news for everyone who comes from a less than perfect family, anyone who has a few skeletons in the closet.
David Fishler grew up in a non-observant Jewish family. An accomplished debater, he encountered Christians who were passionate about their faith. David was eager to refute them. A fellow member of the debate team (and David’s romantic interest) by the name of Maryanne convinced him (in what can only be called an act of holy craftiness) to read the Bible in order to more effectively refute them. Pastor Neil Smith tells the rest of the story:
“David took her up on the challenge and started in Genesis. He read the entire Old Testament from Genesis to Malachi, which, of course, are the Scriptures of the Jewish people. Then David turned the page from Malachi to Matthew, from the Old Testament to the New, and read the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1. When he did, a light went on. He made a startling discovery that would change his life. He discovered that Jesus was actually Jewish! That may not seem like a startling discovery to you. You may think “Duh.” You may think that everybody knows Jesus was Jewish. But David didn’t know that. He had always assumed Jesus was a Gentile (non-Jewish), since just about all His followers who call themselves Christians are Gentiles. Reading the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1 and discovering the lineage of Jesus from the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, through the royal line of King David, was a huge turning point for David. It opened his eyes to the fact that Jesus was and is the Messiah God promised to the Jews, the Savior God sent to redeem and govern His people in righteousness and peace. God used the genealogy of Jesus to remove the scales from David’s eyes so he could see who Jesus really is. God used this list of the family line of Jesus to give birth to saving faith in David’s heart, to enable him to embrace Jesus as the true Messiah, the Savior and sovereign Lord in his life. It was not the only thing God used in David’s journey, of course, but discovering the Jewish ancestry of Jesus had a major impact in his coming to faith in Christ.”
David Fischler is now Reverend Fischler, married to Maryanne, and one of the pastors at First Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Anna, IL (Source: First EPC Staff)