The first seventeen verses of Matthew's Gospel list the generations of over two thousand years from Abraham to Christ. It may be impressive that sufficient records were on hand to make this possible, but, as the opening statement of the book, it looks extremely dull! The temptation to the contemporary reader is to skip the section and begin at verse 18, 'This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about...' which appears much more interesting! But that would be a mistake. In these first seventeen verses, forty six names are mentioned in succession, in addition to Christ, tracing his genealogy backwards from Joseph, the husband of Mary, to Abraham and summarised in three neat groupings of fourteen generations each. Fourteen from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile, and fourteen from the exile to Christ. By any measurement, the ability to trace ancestry back so far with so much detail is a remarkable achievement. Apart from royalty, few could do it today. The Old Testament from its earliest period is particular about such records. The line from Adam to Noah is given in Genesis 5, the line from Noah to Abraham in Genesis 11. The first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles devote themselves to tracing Noah's descendants through the many centuries to the time of the Babylonian exile, including each of the eighteen generations from David onwards who occupied his throne in Jerusalem until that time. So important was the keeping of family records that on return from the Babylonian exile many of the Levitical priests who had lost their family records were denied a claim to the priesthood (see Ezra 2:62). Such was the importance of family pedigree.
Why does Matthew commence his record in such a tedious way? In the light of the claims to be made in this gospel, the question of first importance concerns not, 'What did Jesus do?', but 'Who is he?'. To the first Jewish readers, if Jesus is himself insignificant, then what he says is unimportant. If he himself is significant, then what he says is important. He was dismissed by his contemporaries in Nazareth as they observed, 'Isn't this the carpenter's son? Isn't his mother's name Mary, and aren't his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren't all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get this wisdom? And they took offence at him' (Matt. 13:55-57). They said in effect, We know who this man is and who he is, is insignificant—he is just the local carpenter—therefore what he says is unimportant. Don't take him seriously!
Matthew's opening statement is saying to the Jews who form his first readership, 'I want to show you first who Jesus Christ is. What he says is to be taken seriously because of who he is'. So who is he? The opening statement of the book states, 'A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham'. Two of the key men in Israel's past are introduced in that verse: Abraham the father of the race, and David the father of the royal family. To both of these men was promised a son, who would be the means of some significant development,—but despite the promises God made, the story played out in both sons came to failure. Now says Matthew, this Jesus about whom I am to tell you, comes as the son of both these men.
When God called Abraham from Ur of the Chaldeans, he took him to the land of the Canaanites that was to become known as 'Israel'. On getting to the great tree of Moreh at Shechem, God revealed his plan, 'To your offspring I will give this land' (Gen. 12:7). Later he promised to this childless man, 'a son coming from your own body will be your heir' (Gen. 15:4). Literally, Genesis 12:7 says, to your seed I will give this land', and we shall see shortly that Paul makes significant issue of the singular 'seed' in his letter to the Galatians. To understand the importance of this in relation to Jesus Christ, as inferred by Matthew, we must know a little of Israel's history.
Abraham was seventy five years of age at the time God revealed all this to him, his wife Sarah was sixty five, and she is described as 'barren'—they had no children. Nevertheless, 'Abram believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness' (Gen. 15:6). Twenty five years later their son Isaac was born. God's purpose was, of course, greater than the expansion of Abraham's family, for he had revealed back in Ur of the Chaldeans, 'I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you' (Gen. 12:2-3). Isaac makes little real contribution to the story other than as the son of Abraham he fathered twin sons, Esau and Jacob at the age of sixty. These two were in stark contrast to each other. Esau, the older of the two, was 'hairy' and independent, enjoying the outdoor life. Jacob was 'smooth' and crafty. He obtained for a bowl of stew the birthright that belonged to his brother as Isaac's first born son, then through a high risk act of deceit, received from his father the blessing that accompanied and validated the birthright. The line would now go through Jacob rather than Esau. Jacob married and fathered twelve sons, who in turn became the fathers of the twelve tribes by which Israel as a nation would be constituted. Various twists and turns in the tale bring the book of Genesis to its close with the family of Jacob having left Canaan and gone to live in Egypt. In the four centuries between the closing of Genesis and the opening of Exodus, the Israelites have descended from being honoured guests in Egypt, the relatives of Joseph who had saved them from the consequences of drought, to being slaves, used and abused at the will of their masters.
Something appears to have gone wrong! This is not being a 'great nation' whom those who bless are blessed and those who curse are cursed! They are being trampled under foot and cursed with impunity! The rest of their history follows an equally despondent path. There are the great times, like the dramatic release from Egypt and the conquest and reoccupation of Canaan, but for all of these good times there is even more failure and disappointment, with very few nations around experiencing either blessing or cursing because of their relationship to Israel. The promise seems to have come to little or nothing! As indicated in the previous chapter, for more than seven hundred years until the time of Christ, Israel has been dominated and abused by the super power of the day. It is little wonder the expectation of the Messiah had evolved into that of a military leader who would once and for all overthrow the tyrant of the day and give Israel her true role in the world.
The nation of Israel were the right people, but were completely devoid of power to fulfil their destiny. This was the legacy of Abraham and the promises made to him by God so long before. 'Now', says Matthew in effect, 'against this background of the failure of Abraham's descendants to fulfil their destiny, I want to introduce you to Jesus Christ... the son of Abraham'. Whenever God in Scripture speaks of his giving of a son, whether in the first place it applies to Israel, to Isaac or to Solomon, it ultimately speaks of Christ. The son of Abraham through whom all the promises would find their fulfilment is not Isaac, but Christ. This is part of Paul's argument in his letter to the Galatians, 'The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say "and to seeds," meaning many people, but "and to your seed," meaning one person who is Christ' (Gal. 3:16). The seed of Abraham is not the nation of Israel, but Christ. Everything God promised to Abraham and which Israel has failed to experience, is going to find its fulfilment in Christ. But there is more:
Abraham was the father of the race, and David the father of royalty. David too had been promised a son (2 Sam. 7:1243) and there were two aspects to his vocation, 'He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever'. He would build the temple, and his throne would never cease. The son who followed David to his throne was Solomon, and he did build the temple in Jerusalem whereby all the rituals and regulations God had given Moses in the Sinai desert as a means of removing sin and approaching him could find their legitimate function. Solomon's temple was magnificent, but despite the fulfilment of the rituals, the whole operation became increasingly detached from the realities they were intended to depict. By the time of the written prophets of the Old Testament, the temple rituals are scorned, as corrupt and displeasing to God, and at the time of the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem in 586 bc it was destroyed. All that God had promised seemed to have come to nothing again.
The other aspect of the promise to David's son was that his throne would be forever. For eighteen generations to the time of the Babylonian exile, a son of David sat on the throne in Jerusalem, but never again. All that God promised seem to come to nothing, yet again. When Jacob had blessed his sons in Egypt just before he died, he said to Judah, 'The sceptre will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his' (Gen. 49:10). Jacob foresaw Jesus Christ, who would rule and to whom the nations would bow. This would be the fulfilment of the promise to David. The writer to the Hebrews, quotes the statement God made to David about his son, 'He is the one who will build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father and he will be my son' (2 Sam. 7:13-14), and says in effect, This is God speaking about Christ, 'For to which of the angels did God ever say... I will be his father and he will be my Son' (Heb. 1:5).
The promise to Abraham of a son through whom all the nations of the world would be blessed, would never find its fulfilment until the 'seed' of Abraham came—Christ. The promise to David of a son who would restore communion with God, and whose kingdom would never end, would never find its fulfilment until the true son of David is born—Christ. Isaac and Solomon were sons of Abraham and David, but they never fulfilled the destiny promised to the sons of both men. They were only foreshadowing Christ.
This surely is the significance of Matthew's introduction. All the high expectations of a people descended from Abraham whose destiny was to bless the world, all the confidence of a people under the throne of David, whose king was to reign forever, now finds its expression and fulfilment in 'Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham'. To the Jewish reader with any discernment at all, this should excite them that all the potential of their history now narrows to one man, in whom it will truly find fulfilment. Don't confuse the promises made about Christ with the physical nation of Israel. It is in Christ that 'all the peoples of the earth will be blessed'. The physical nation of Israel provides the context in which he came, but Christ himself is the goal to which Israel's history was heading, and the pinnacle to which they must now look back.
It is interesting to note that at the conclusion of his gospel, Matthew records Jesus sending his disciples to, 'all nations', fulfilling the Abrahamic promise, and declares that 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me', fulfilling the Davidic promise. His conclusion to the book, fulfils the expectancy of its introduction.
One of the interesting features of the genealogy of Chapter one is the place given to five women in the record. In normal circumstances a woman would not be included in such a record In Jewish law a woman had no legal rights and was the possession of, first her father, and then her husband. She had no rights to divorce him, though he could divorce her. An orthodox Jew daily thanked God that he was not a Gentile, a slave, or a woman!
If the inclusion of women at all is a surprise, when we examine who these women were, it is even more of a surprise. They are Tamar (1:3); Rahab (1:5); Ruth (1:5); Uriah's wife—whom we know to be Bathsheba (1:6); and Mary (1:16).
Tamar's story is found in Genesis 38. She was married to Judah's eldest son, Er, who died leaving no children. As custom required, Tamar was married to Er's younger brother Onan, who also died leaving no children. Judah told Tamar she must live as a widow until his third son, Shelah, was of age to marry her. He intended however that Shelah should not marry Tamar. Perhaps he was suspicious of the cause of death in his first two sons. Tamar realised this in due course, and one day when Judah went to the Enaim, where Tamar lived, to shear his sheep, she dressed in disguise and offered herself as a prostitute to Judah for the price of a young goat which he would send from his flock. In the meantime she accepted his seal and its cord as a pledge, and when Judah returned home he sent the goat by his friend only to have him return to say there was no known prostitute at Enaim. Judah was no doubt embarrassed by the whole episode and decided to let her keep the seal and its cord. Some time later he heard his daughter-in-law was pregnant, as a result of prostitution. Judah was so angry he called for her to be burned to death. As she was being brought out she held up Judah's seal and cord and announced herself to be pregnant by the man who owned them. Judah's response was to declare her to be more righteous than he, because he wouldn't give his third son to her as a husband. In due course she gave birth to twin boys, Perez and Zerah. Perez is listed in the genealogy of Christ.
Most of us if announcing our family tree would rather hide this kind of detail. Matthew pulls it right out into the open. Why?
Rahab also has a rather unsavoury history. She was a Canaanite and appears on the scene as a professional prostitute in the city of Jericho before its conquest by Israel. She hid the two spies sent by Joshua to report on the city, and in exchange for her protection of them, her life and that of her family was preserved, then she lowered a scarlet cord from the window of her house on the city wall, thus identifying herself as singled out for preservation by the invading Israelite army. After the conquest of Jericho, she was incorporated into Israel by marrying Salmon and became the mother of Boaz who features in the Old Testament story in his own right when he married Ruth. Why is this alien Canaanite prostitute specifically mentioned in the line of Christ?
The story of Ruth is a well known love story, but her inclusion in the genealogy of Jesus is even more surprising when we consider her identity. She was not a Jewess but a Moabitess. God had cursed the Moabites for their hiring of Balaam to curse the Israelites whilst in the wilderness, and declared of them, 'No... Moabite or any of his descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, even down to the tenth generation' (Deut. 23:3). Ruth came well within the scope of that rejection, yet is included in the line of the Messiah. Why is this woman from a cursed tribe mentioned as in the line of Christ?
Bathsheba is the fourth woman and is not mentioned by her own name, but rather described as the one who 'had been Uriah's wife'. King David had seduced her whilst her husband was fighting David's battles in David's army. He had made her pregnant, then arranged for the death in battle of her husband Uriah to cover his own infidelity, and leave the assumption the baby was Uriah's. When Uriah was dead he took Bathsheba as his own wife, and although the baby conceived through their adulterous association died at birth, she later conceived another son to David, and named him Solomon. Why mention her, and at the same time heighten David's sin by describing her pointedly as, 'Uriah's wife'?
The last women mentioned is Mary, the only obvious and inevitable woman to be named. It is Joseph's line that gives the legal line of descent to Jesus, and as Joseph's wife, and the mother of Jesus, she is named in the list.
Why are these specific women mentioned in this list. Matthew doesn't tell us, but I would like to suggest a possibility. In introducing us to the King, he is also giving us some indication of the kingdom he comes to establish. In Christ certain barriers are to be broken down. Firstly social barriers are broken in Christ. Gentiles (Rahab and Ruth) are united together with Jews. The sense of racial superiority that caused Jews to look at Gentiles as 'dogs', in whatever form that racism may appear, is to be broken and levelled in Christ.
Secondly, sexist barriers are broken in Christ. Sexism is that distinction made between male and female for the discrimination and exploitation of one by the other—usually the female by the male. Here male and female are on common ground.
Thirdly, sin barriers are broken in Christ. There is sin that makes people outcasts of society and there is sin that has been sanitised, tolerated and excused. Sin differs in its consequences of course, but in Christ the outcasts and the respectable are brought together in their common relationship to him. The pagan prostitute is in line with the respectable Jew. To the first readers of this gospel, this is revolutionary stuff! Paul affirms this levelling of the artificial barriers of human society when he affirms, 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus' (Gal. 3:28).
I suggest that in giving us this genealogy of Christ, Matthew is not only establishing the pedigree of the King, but he is giving insight into the nature of the Kingdom he comes to establish.