The Christmas Story. 2. The Genealogy of Jesus

In a lot of the posts in this series, I’ll quote from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible (RSV). It’s still a very good translation and a great study Bible. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is also excellent. One of the things no one thought about in producing the RSV was inclusive language. the NRSV rectifies that, but it may go too far in representing some passages as inclusive when they are intentionally not. A minor defect and all translations have some. Anyway, the RSV is online and free, it’s nearly always superior to the King James Version (KJV) [see also here] and I’ll point out a few places where that’s important for the story of Jesus’ birth as I go along. (Sometimes I will use the New English Translation (NET) also free online, and the English Standard Version (ESV) a few times.)

Matthew chapter 1 begins with the phrase (RSV) “The book of the genesis of Jesus Christ, the son of David, and the son of Abraham.” Matthew knows what he is going to write in his Gospel, and this introduction is perspicacious. Two things: people at the time (ca. 70AD+) will not likely read this, they will hear it, and it was written in Greek.[1] Matthew begins with the word “genesis” (in Greek) and that’s the same Greek word that came to be used for the first book of the Hebrew Bible—Matthew’s story is styled as a New Genesis. There is a new creation, a new “God’s people” if you will, and the colophon above has things in a new order. Jesus comes first, then Abraham. And of course, David. The kingdom is always in view for Matthew. And it’s clear that for Matthew, the Christmas story begins with Abraham. Right away you can feel the tension over Jew and Gentile, and what it means for a gentile to become a Christian.

What is the significance of the genealogy for the story of early Christianity?[2] First of all, it’s a rather interesting selection of personalities. “Isaac begat Jacob and Jacob begat Judas (Judah) and his brethren.” Isaac is the father of Esau and Jacob, but only Jacob is remembered. Esau was a rustic person, sure, but Jacob was a liar. Judas (Judah) sold Joseph for a pile of silver. Not a great guy. If anyone in that group could be called noble, it’s Joseph, not Judah.

Matthew divides his genealogy first from Abraham to David, and that suggests the promise to Abraham that Israel will have its own land (and a king to go with it). Abraham starts with nothing and ends out with the kingdom in Saul/David. Matthew keeps mentioning descendants of David, leaving out some (he is interested in the number 14—in Hebrew 14 stands for David). The next break in the genealogy occurs with the exile to Babylon. That’s a huge national and ethnic disappointment. So you get, rise to David, fall to deportation (no Mormon could look at this and not see in it the failure of Missouri Zion).

Stained glass and St. Denis. Genealogy of Jesus.

South transept stained glass at St. Denis. Genealogy of Jesus.

There are a couple of things at this point that are worth noting. First, the people in the list are not perfect by any stretch. Perhaps this is a reference to the grace of God. He can and does work through the imperfect, and it’s almost a sin to cast God’s instruments into some kind of perfect mold. God loves us in spite of our weakness and tarnished motives. He can use us and does use us for his ends, grace comes upon us, whether high or low. It’s not deserved, but it can come by faith—even faith alloyed by doubt and weakness. Many missionaries return with some sense of this I think—whatever happened. They know they are beset with all sorts of failure, but God employs them often without their knowledge, even in that failure, to do his work. And that may be a part of what Matthew displays here.

Another thing is the rise and fall motif that repeats through the list. We value progress and in fact, we depend on it. We even measure our faith (in both senses) by it—though Joseph Smith’s continual experience was that progress can be a fleeting thing. By breaking his list the way he does, Matthew may suggest that even in our disappointment and disappointing, our downtimes, our decrease, our failure, God still works through us and for us. And that’s important I think. It’s grace again. God is still at work even in our failure, as individuals, families, as a people, even an institution. Something to acknowledge. It’s part of God’s way of doing things. Humility is advisable (and of course one can learn from mistakes).

After the deportation to Babylon, you get a group of names, some are known, most not. Most of them never made it into history. The list begins with Patriarchs, goes to Kings, then these virtually anonymous people. Even Jesus has a group of titular ancestors that no one ever heard of. There are bragging rights when you find you’re related to someone famous or the sister, brother, or friend of someone important, a descendant of a prophet or some such. But the no-names are just as important. In fact, they make up the real foundation of things.

There are names of women in the genealogy. This is a royal genealogy and one thing is important to remember, to be a Jew, you have to have a Jewish mother, and there are some curiosities in that. If one is going to mention women, where are Sarah and Rebekah and Rachel and so forth? Matthew chooses the unexpected. Of the four women in Matthew’s list, only one is a Jew. Tamar and Rahab were Canaanites. Ruth, a Moabite. And even though Bathsheba makes the list and was an Israelite, she’s not named as that, she’s named through her husband, Uriah, and he was a Hittite. So in effect, none of these women are acknowledged as Israelite women. Maybe there is a clue here that Jesus, by Matthew’s time (ca. 40+ years after Jesus’ death) is received far more extensively by those outside Israel, and that this (despite Paul’s hopes) was the obvious continuing trajectory.[3] This may connect with Matthew’s final words in his Gospel: go and teach all nations. Perhaps Matthew is using this genealogy to reconcile his listeners with the fact that in this New Genesis there are outsiders. And Matthew continues this when he chooses to relate the story of the Magi, Gentiles from the East, over against the faithful Jew, Joseph (see part IV to come).

These women are not only outsiders, they are in rather interesting circumstances. They are outside the ideal. Tamar: “And Judah (Judas) begat Phares and Zara of Tamar (Thamar)”. How does Judah father Phares and Zara? The Genesis story is this: Tamar was married to one of Judah’s sons. He died, and Judah didn’t bother to fulfill his duty in finding her another son as a husband to raise up children to the dead son. He neglects his duty, and Tamar is left without children. Tamar takes action: she disguises herself as a prostitute and waits in a place where she knows Judah will see her (she knows his habits apparently) and he has sex with her. She gets pregnant. Judah asks her how she got pregnant. She tells him what she did. Judah finally recognizes that She has done God’s will, and he failed to do it. (The sex business is really a side issue and virtually dismissed.) Matthew effectively says that without Tamar’s devotion to the greater commandment, there would be no Jesus. This “greater commandment” language is redolent of the Mormon picture of the fall of Adam and Eve and there are some parallels.

Something similar happens with Rahab, a prostitute. “And Salmon begat Boaz (Booz) of Rahab (Rachab).” Rahab is famous for helping the Israelite spies. She is in effect the mother of the conquest of Canaan.

Rahab and the spies. Pickersgill. (Image: Wikipedia)

Rahab and the spies. Pickersgill. (Image: Wikipedia)

Ruth is a noblewoman in Moab. But she decides to place herself in strange circumstances. Her husband dies in Moab, and she migrated to Israel with her mother-in-law, an Israelite. Her mother-in-law is somewhat incredulous about this. Ruth pronounces a version of the covenant: your God will be my God, your people will be my people, she joins Israel. But none of the relatives want to do their duty by Ruth. She essentially has to seduce one of the males in the family. And she becomes the great-grandmother of king David.

Bathsheba. A victim of David’s power and lust. David murders her husband Uriah, not by his own hand but he draws in others as complicit (something it seems he was good at). She becomes the mother of, and advocate for, Solomon.

None of these women seem paradigms for various reasons, they are not even Israelites in some respects, yet Matthew notices them purposely. The spirit and grace of God works in and through them, and they are in a more careful view, powerful figures. God acknowledges them to be pillars.

And of course, Matthew is preparing to tell the story of Mary, who becomes pregnant out of wedlock. So I think Matthew chooses the genealogy to convey something important about God—that he works in ways that are unexpected and manifest grace. And he reminds us that God chose women to play key roles in carrying out the divine will, and not in the way prejudice or cultural expectation might demand. All this I think points to Mary, who has no genealogical heritage, she isn’t from the kingly lineage. She’s a humble girl and God calls her to greatness in the Christian story.

I mentioned that Matthew does his genealogy with reference to the number 14. He wants to advertise a divine plan: generations from Abraham to David—14. Generations from David to Babylon—14. Generations from Babylon to Jesus—14. Matthew is not very good at math, but this probably has reference to the idea that David’s name in Hebrew corresponds to 14 (you add up the numerical value of the Hebrew letters in David’s name) and Matthew reckons that this is some great plan by the God of Israel. Indeed, for Matthew, Jesus as successor to the throne of David is a key theme of his Gospel.

The end of the genealogy breaks the pattern. Matthew: “Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.” (RSV) In his way, Matthew creates the possibility of recognizing the kingship passing to Jesus. Matthew conveys some kind of consistency in the way God works, from the Patriarchs on down to Jesus and in the life of Jesus and he sees his story developing the same way through the characters who come after, the imperfect Peter and Paul, say. Why does God choose strange people like this? He doesn’t make the obvious choices. It’s consistent in its inconsistency if you will.[4]

What Matthew does is very like what you see with newly called church leaders. We can’t help but delve back into their lives, looking for evidence that God has been preparing them, and that sort of thing is not confined to religious change/veneration. Humans look for cause and effect (cf. Freud, Aechylus). And find it, even if they have to do genealogy like Matthew, so to speak. Mormons have done this with preexistence with mixed results. And when there are less successful figures, they have done the same thing. Matthew rises to this through his whole Gospel.

Next time: more Matthew


[1] One of the more useful modern examples is African American preaching in Antebellum America. Slave illiteracy probably contributed to the story-telling form in black preaching. Henry H. Mitchell, Black Preaching: The Recovery of a Powerful Art (Abingdon, 2010).

[2] Luke has a genealogy too, but he places it after the baptism, where the Father acknowledges Jesus as his Son (it’s not at all clear who recognizes this sign of the dove business–but that’s another story). This probably has a different purpose, coming as it does at the beginning of Luke’s narration of the ministry of Jesus. It’s a Mosaic parallel instead of an Abrahamic one since it’s placement follows the pattern of Moses’s genealogy, which appears after his infancy narrative (something that was probably added in after the rest of the story was formed). Luke has 77 names (this varies in manuscripts likely because many of the names are almost entirely unknown otherwise) but it seems based around the number 7, and it runs back to Adam, and finally, to God, matching the declaration. It’s not clear where Luke gets his names, they touch but also diverge from Matthew and there has been thought in the direction of “official” genealogies here. Something like what Mormons term “line of authority.” But all this is out of the stream of these posts, so I leave it here.

[3] At the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans it seems as though, despite all the water under the bridge over the Gentiles, Paul sees the failure of the gospel among the Jews as God blinding them to the truth, but it won’t continue forever, the Gentiles are simply a wild branch on the tree of Israel, and one day the Jews will come into the fold. I don’t know if Paul is partly posturing, but Luke has a more distant perspective, writing from the 80-90s. He knows this isn’t going to happen, and he ends the Acts on a rather discouraging note in that regard (Acts 28). The day of the Jews is over for Luke.

[4] Our culture today seems just a little like an extension of the Edwardians and perhaps for the same reasons. We have some grounding fear that honesty may breed chaos. I’ll come back to this later just a bit. On the Genealogy, see Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 57-95.

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