Sunday, 3 February 2013

The Lineage of Jesus Christ According to Matthew

     Seeing that the first book of the New Testament displays such a strong Jewish orientation and cites more fulfilled Old Testament prophecies than any other Gospel, it should come as no surprise that Matthew begins with a genealogical record of Jesus Christ (1:1-17). If we put on our first-century Jewish glasses and examine Matthew from the vantage point of the original audience, notable features stand out that would probably be missed otherwise. But how many have been tempted to just skip over these less-than-interesting and seemingly irrelevant opening verses to get to the “meat” of the narrative? Reading this Gospel from a twenty-first-century western perspective leaves one susceptible to overlooking important details that are essential to the overall message.  
     Though by no means peculiar to Judaism, genealogies seem to have been of much greater significance to the Israelites. Careful attention to hereditary lines was necessary in view of such issues as land divisions, separation from the pagan world, religious duties, royal succession, and messianic hope, all of which were based on divine expectations and promises.
     In contrast to Luke’s report, which follows Christ’s biological descent all the way back to Adam (Luke 3:23-38), Matthew stops at Abraham – the father of the Jewish people. Jesus is immediately linked to God’s promise to bless all the nations of the earth through Abraham’s seed (Genesis 12:3; 22:18), while the lineage is traced through Isaac (not Ishmael), through Jacob (not Esau), and through Judah to whom the prophecy was made: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, Nor a lawgiver from between his feet, Until Shiloh comes; And to Him shall be the obedience of the people” (Genesis 49:10 NKJV). Moreover, as “the Son of David” Jesus is further recognized as the long anticipated messianic king (Matthew 1:1; 2:2; 9:27; 21:5; etc.).  
     Consistent with the attention to detail one would expect from a tax collector, Matthew shows an affinity for organizational patterns. This is clearly seen in these opening lines, where the Lord’s ancestry is neatly divided into three sets of fourteen generations apiece. The expressions “son of” and “begot” were commonly used not just to indicate immediate parentage but also for remote lines of descent (cf. 1 Chronicles 6:3-11; Ezra 7:1-5). As was typical in long genealogical tables, some names are omitted by Matthew no doubt to maintain this symmetrical balance (cf. 2 Kings 8:24; 1 Chronicles 3:11; 2 Chronicles 22:1). Having been written in a predominantly oral culture where few would have had the opportunity to own a copy of the text, this arrangement makes it easier for memorization.
     The first section traces the family line down to David, the great king of Israel (Matthew 1:6a), highlighting a period of the nation’s prominence and dignity. The second section leads to the Babylonian exile (v. 11), a time of humiliation and defeat. The third section brings us down to Jesus the Christ (v. 16), the culmination of Israel’s messianic expectations. It is interesting to note the corresponding parallels to the history of mankind, originally crowned “with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5), then plunging into the bondage of sin (Romans 5:12; 6:20), and ultimately granted the opportunity to gain freedom and victory through the Lord Jesus Christ (John 8:34-36). 
    The nine names listed after Zerubbabel (Matthew 1:13-15) are not recorded in any other literary source. These individuals lived during the intertestamental period: the four centuries between the close of Old Testament history and the beginning of New Testament history. Thanks to Matthew these names have been preserved, demonstrating how God continued patiently working to fulfill His noble purpose even during these “silent” years.
     Perhaps the most striking aspect of Matthew’s opening paragraph is the fact that five women are included in the family record. This is a highly unusual feature in a Jewish genealogy and stands in stark contrast to Luke. Even though women figure more prominently in Luke’s writings, not a single female is named in his description of Christ’s heritage, not even the Lord’s own mother!   
     Luke writes with a different purpose. While adhering to the ancient custom of excluding the names of women, he seems to be presenting the family tree of Mary. Having already established that Joseph was not biologically related to Jesus (Luke 1:26–2:7) and having reminded his readers that it was only “supposed” that Jesus was his son (3:23), what purpose would it have served to then give Joseph’s ancestral record? Luke is establishing the intrinsic connection between Christ and the human race through Adam. If the clause, “as was supposed the son of Joseph,” is parenthetical, it is Jesus who is the “son of Heli,” not in the sense of immediate descent but a veiled reference to His maternal grandfather.  
     Matthew, on the other hand, writing from a Jewish perspective to a Jewish audience, understood that in keeping with Jewish law, to be considered a legitimate heir, a legal relationship had to be established with the male parent. It was important to his readers that the recognized father of the messianic king was of Abrahamic and Davidic descent. Nevertheless, when Matthew references “Joseph the husband of Mary of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ” (1:16), the pronoun hēs in the prepositional phrase “of whom” is feminine, a subtle allusion to the virgin birth expounded upon later in the chapter.
     The other women mentioned in Matthew’s account are not those, like Sarah, Rebecca, or Rachel, one might expect. Rather, he includes Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, i.e. a temptress (Genesis 38:13-18), a harlot of Jericho (Joshua 2:1), a Moabite (Ruth 1:4), and an adulteress (2 Samuel 11:3-4). What was Matthew thinking?!
     The Talmud prescribed that a Jewish man offer the daily prayer: “Thank you God for not making me a Gentile, a woman, or a slave” (Menachot 43b-44a). Moreover, it is only in the First Gospel that the apostle Matthew is labeled “the tax collector” (10:3), even though tax collectors were particularly despised among the Jews of his day (see 5:46, 47; 9:10-11; 11:19; 18:17). Evidently Matthew knew what it was like to be detested and disparaged as an outcast in orthodox Jewish society and yet to be loved by the Lord anyway. It is only through Jesus, with such a remarkable family tree, that the walls of separation and discrimination are broken down.
     In the genealogy of Christ as recounted by Matthew, we find quite an assortment of unlikely characters with whom God has chosen to carry out His redemptive scheme. There are Gentiles and Jews, nomads and kings, the enslaved and the liberated, and imperfect men and women, all in serious need of divine forbearance and forgiveness. Jesus is both the culmination and the embodiment of a long history of God’s merciful kindness demonstrated toward His beloved human creation. Matthew’s Gospel begins with “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (1:1), and it ends with a call to “make disciples of all nations . . . baptizing . . . teaching” (28:19-20). What a fitting document to place at the beginning of our New Testament!
     “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26-29).
--Kevin L. Moore

First published (in modified form) in Gospel Advocate 153:1 (January 2011): 38-39.

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1 comment:

  1. The beginning and end of Matthew do bracket the son (descendant) of Abraham and the fulfillment of his seed (Christ) being a blessing to all nations--by sending his disciples to make new disciples among all the nations.
    The section of fourteen names that starts with David in the genealogy are all kings, most of whom "did evil in the eyes of the Lord." As you say, their humiliation was the exile (God's punishment against their kingdom due to its disobedience). This section of the genealogy helps prepare for the main plot conflict in Matthew's story: Jesus' kingdom of heaven versus the kingdoms of earth, beginning with the kingdom of Israel. Disobedient rulers of Israel will oppose the new king, from his birth to his death; but Jesus always focuses on his new kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, an international kingdom of disciples.