Christmas Stories in the Bible, Part 5

“The book of the genesis of Jesus Messiah Son of David Son of Abraham.” This is how Matthew begins his story of Jesus. Over the first two chapters of his gospel, Matthew has a genealogy of Jesus starting from Abraham, and then the story of Jesus’s conception, birth in Bethlehem, visit from the Magi, attempted assassination by Herod, escape to Egypt, and return to live in Nazareth. So many of us know this story. But why does Matthew tell it this way? Over three posts, I will show at least partly how and why Matthew begins his gospel this way.

As anyone who has read through the Old Testament knows, there are lots of genealogies. “So-and-so begat so-and-so begat so-and-so” is so common and often skipped over as boring. But for the Jews, genealogies were highly important for their understanding of inclusion into the chosen people of God. Two types were even more important, the royal genealogy for descent from David and the Levitical genealogies for priestly service—the name Cohen (Hebrew for “priest”) is a product of those same Levitical genealogies today. So Matthew begins right where a Jew would begin in talking about a particularly important person, with a genealogy, and he even uses the language ”book of the genesis” seen the first genealogy in the Bible, Genesis 5. 

While genealogies may seem perfunctory, a close look yields many interesting tidbits and Matthew 1:1-17 is no exception. First, Matthew explicitly structures the genealogy around Abraham (1:1, 2, 17) , David (1:1, 6, 7, 17 (2x)), and the Babylonian exile (1:11, 12, 17 (2x)), and he tells us that fourteen generations separated each as well as from the exile to Jesus. When Matthew names David in verse 6, he explicitly and uniquely calls him “David the king” despite the other kings who follow. So when Matthew begins verse one with Jesus Christ (or Jesus Messiah), Son of David, Son of Abraham, he is making a distinct statement about the identity of Jesus as God’s chosen Messiah promised in the Old Testament.

But there is so much more here. The genealogy is not intended to show the perfect lineage of Jesus, but actually to highlight the imperfect and flawed character of the genealogy. The generations were neither perfect nor pure. Matthew indicates this through the insertion of a number of women whose stories are well-known. Tamar was the daughter-in-law of Judah who uncovered his duplicity (Gen 38). Rahab was a prostitute from Jericho, thus a Canaanite. Ruth was a Moabite. “The wife of Uriah” (Bathsheba) is interesting because she was likely a Hittite like her husband Uriah, and David had him killed. Impure and flawed indeed, even the king! By highlighting the exile to Babylon, Matthew shows that the entirety of the Jews were flawed and in need of a Messiah. Finally, Matthew mentions Mary, who was from the outside seen as having an illegitimate baby. So the genealogy of Jesus (actually of Joseph, his assumed father) was full of inter-racial marriage and immorality! Jesus came as savior to all races and to take care of all sins.

Matthew has a quandary though. How does he show Jesus as the pure Son of God? He first implies the story of Jesus’s virginal conception in the genealogy, then makes it explicit in the story of his birth. Thus, the final verse of the genealogy is strange: “then Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, from whom was born Jesus who is called Messiah (Christ).” None of the other instances where the mother was named is put this way.  Matthew sets up his birth story with this interesting phrase that implies something different about Jesus’s birth and names him as the Messiah of the Jews.

Matthew then summarizes the whole in verse 17: “Therefore all the generations from Abraham until David were fourteen generations and from David until the Babylonian exile fourteen generations and from the Babylonian exile until the Christ fourteen generations.” He succeeds in mentioning Abraham once more for a total of 3 times , David twice for a total of 5 times and the Babylonian exile twice for a total of four times. He then makes one more surprising statement: he does not say “Jesus Christ,” but simply “Christ.” The genealogy is not simply to highlight a person, Jesus, but who that person was, the Messiah, the one who had had come to redeem the people.

In the genealogy, Matthew “sets the table” so to speak for his entire gospel, the unfolding of the story of Israel’s Messiah, who would not be a conquering king, but crucified as a criminal with the title “king of the Jews” above his head, and whom God would raise from the dead to affirm that he was truly “King of kings,” Messiah, and Savior of the world.

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