Matthew, in the opening genealogy, emphasizes Jesus as the Davidic Messiah, whom God has sent to enact Israel’s restoration from exile and to include the Gentiles in God’s kingdom.
Key Themes of Matthew 1:1–17
It may seem surprising to find a genealogy at the opening of Matthew’s Gospel, but genealogies were a common means for establishing and substantiating the identity of a person. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus demonstrates that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah-King, from David’s royal line. Introducing Jesus’ identity at the very beginning of the Gospel sets the tone for the next four chapters (1:1–4:16), which focus on elaborating the identity of Jesus as the Davidic Messiah-King who enacts Israel’s restoration from exile, as faithful and obedient son, as Gentile hope, and as “God with us.” In relation to the rest of Matthew 1, the genealogy poses a conundrum that Matthew will solve in 1:18–25: how Jesus can legitimately appropriate Joseph’s lineage even though his biological connection is to Mary (and not Joseph [1:16]). Matthew highlights Joseph’s adoption of Jesus through his naming of Jesus (1:21, 25).
1:1 the genealogy of Jesus. Ancient genealogies have some recurring features. First, they routinely followed lineage through the male, firstborn family members. Thus, the inclusion of some women (1:3, 5–6) and a few nonfirst sons (e.g., Judah in 1:2; Solomon in 1:6) would have caught the attention of Matthew’s original audience. Second, since the form of a genealogy is quite patterned (the repeated “the father of . . .”), additional commentary within the genealogy is a clear way of introducing a theme (e.g., “and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon” [1:11]). Finally, it is not unusual for a genealogy to skip some generations; this fits the way ancient genealogies were shaped. Thus, Matthew’s formation of Jesus’ genealogy into three groups of fourteen is a way of highlighting a thematic or theological point (see below).
the son of David. Given David’s role in Israel’s history as the prototypical king and the prophetic longing for the return of Davidic kingship (e.g., Isa. 9:7), this phrase can carry messianic connotations at the time Matthew writes. So his first readers or hearers would have understood “son of David” to point to Jesus as the Messiah, especially given Matthew’s explicit affirmations of Jesus as such (e.g., 1:1; cf. Pss. Sol. 17:21) (see the sidebar “First-Century Messianic Views” in the unit on 11:2–19).
the son of Abraham. Because Abraham was the patriarch of the Jewish people (Gen. 12:1–3), Matthew’s choice to trace Jesus’ genealogy back to Abraham indicates an emphasis on the Jewish identity of Jesus (cf. the genealogy in Luke 3:23–38, which reaches back to Adam).
1:1, 17 Messiah . . . David . . . Abraham; Abraham . . . David . . . Messiah. Matthew frames Jesus’ genealogy with the structural device of chiasm, here an A-B-C-C-B-A pattern. By it, he highlights the Jewishness of Jesus’ lineage and especially his Davidic ancestry. (David is prominent in the genealogy in that he is the only ancestor of Jesus to be described with a title, “King” [1:6].) In fact, “son of David” is a favorite identity phrase for Jesus in Matthew (9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30, 31; 21:9, 15; 22:42) and is essentially synonymous with “Messiah.”
1:2, 11 and his brothers . . . and his brothers. The repetition of the phrase “and his brothers” highlights two important moments of the Old Testament story when Israel was away from the land promised to Abraham and his descendants: the time in Egypt (“Judah and his brothers”) and the time in Babylon (“Jeconiah and his brothers”). Since Matthew’s genealogy emphasizes Jesus as the Messiah (King), who brings God’s restoration, these two junctures emphasize the motif of exile that necessitates restoration. Exile and restoration did not only describe particular historical moments in Israel’s history; these motifs also carried theological weight to describe Israel’s continuing “exile” under foreign oppression (even for those Jews in Judea/Galilee during the Second Temple period), while awaiting God’s full restorative work.
1:3, 5–6 Tamar . . . Rahab . . . Ruth . . . Uriah’s wife. The women in the genealogy would have caught the attention of Matthew’s original audience, since genealogies typically were limited to the male line. What might Matthew be highlighting by including these particular four women? Some have suggested that each woman reflects an Old Testament story that hints of impropriety, thus preparing the reader for the unusual circumstances surrounding Mary’s pregnancy (1:16, 18). Jerome (AD 347–420) even suggested that all four women are the sinners of Matthew’s genealogy (Comm. Matt. 9)! More likely, Matthew is emphasizing Gentile inclusion in Jesus’ own ancestry by including these four particular women, since Tamar and Rahab are Canaanite (Gen. 38:1–6; Josh. 2:1), Ruth is Moabite (Ruth 1:4), and Bathsheba, whose national origin is not specified in the Old Testament, is explicitly called “Uriah’s wife,” emphasizing her connection to her Gentile husband, Uriah the Hittite (2 Sam. 11:3). If so, these women are connected not to Mary in the genealogy (1:16) but rather to a handful of Gentiles who appear in Matthew’s narrative to signal God’s inclusion of Gentiles in the restored kingdom (e.g., the magi, a Roman centurion, a Canaanite woman, and Pilate’s wife).
Comparing Matthew’s and Luke’s Genealogies
A historical question often posed is how Matthew’s genealogy compares to Luke’s (Luke 3:23–38), since they are not identical throughout. In fact, the two agree only about a third of the time (from Abraham to David, two names at Matt. 1:12 // Luke 3:27, and Joseph and Jesus). Some have suggested that Matthew draws on Jesus’ royal (legal) lineage, while Luke focuses on his biological ancestry.[a] A popular though speculative suggestion is that Luke’s genealogy follows Jesus’ descent from Mary’s family (but see Luke 3:23). While there is no easy answer to this historical question, it is helpful to read each genealogy within its own narrative context to hear the strategy of each evangelist in using a genealogy. Luke includes Jesus’ genealogy to tie into his emphasis on Jesus as God’s son in the baptism scene (3:21–22, 23–37), while Matthew draws upon the genealogy at the very beginning of his Gospel to evoke Israel’s story from Abraham onward and to introduce themes of kingship, exile and restoration, and Gentile inclusion.
1:11–12 the time of the exile. The exile emphasized at this second hinge of the genealogy is the exile of the southern kingdom of Judah to Babylon in the early sixth century BC. As the book of Kings narrates, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem during the reign of King Jehoiachin (called “Jeconiah” in Matt. 1:11–12) and took many captives from among Jerusalem’s elite, soldiers, and artisans (2 Kings 24:8–16).
1:16 Mary was the mother of Jesus. Matthew makes it clear that Jesus is the offspring of Mary, but he does not tie Jesus biologically to Joseph. In the Greek text a feminine singular relative pronoun (hēs) is used to specify that Mary (not Mary and Joseph) “begat” Jesus. This point is important (and will be emphasized again in 1:18) because it raises a genealogical conundrum. Matthew has just traced Jesus’ Jewish and Davidic ancestry through Joseph’s line, yet he problematizes that connection by indicating that Jesus comes from Mary (and her line) and not Joseph. Matthew will solve this conundrum in Jesus’ birth story by accenting Joseph’s choice to adopt Jesus as his own son (1:18–25).
1:17 fourteen generations. Matthew explains that he has structured Jesus’ genealogy in three sets of fourteen generations. Questions arise from this facet of the genealogy. First, since generations may be omitted in an ancient genealogy, it is not problematic if Matthew has done this for some larger purpose. Second, commentators have noted that the final set of fourteen actually contains thirteen generations, unless Jeconiah is counted in the final section (which shortens the middle section by one). As a solution, some have suggested that David be counted twice, given the emphasis on his title as king and his prominence in the genealogy’s frame (1:1, 17). Given these numeric difficulties, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Matthew has chosen three sets of fourteen for a particular thematic purpose, although interpreters have debated its precise meaning. Two primary options are typically raised. First, the importance of the number “seven” to signal completion might indicate that Matthew has arranged his genealogy in multiples of seven (three groups of 2 x 7 = six groups of seven) to signal that Jesus the Messiah ushers in the time of fullness—the seventh period of sevens. Working against this thesis is that Matthew highlights explicitly fourteen rather than seven. A second possibility is that Matthew uses fourteen to stress Jesus’ Davidic ancestry, since fourteen is the sum of the numerical equivalents for the Hebrew letters of David’s name.
The use of such numbering systems, called “gematria,” for symbolic or thematic purposes is common in Jewish circles of this time period. Whether or not all early readers of Matthew would have recognized this gematria, it is likely that Matthew uses it to reemphasize David’s importance in Jesus’ lineage.
1. Jesus is the Davidic king, who will rule God’s people. It is no accident that Matthew draws Jesus’ identity from the kingly line of David. David is that prototypical Israelite king, whom the prophets idealize in their depiction of restoration under a kingly descendant from David. For Matthew, Jesus is that rightful king from David’s line. Yet it will be Matthew’s primary task in the rest of his Gospel to show what kind of king Jesus is and what kind of kingdom Jesus brings. Preaching or teaching Matthew will necessarily mean maintaining a focus on Jesus, placing emphasis where Matthew does.
2. Jesus is the Messiah, who brings restoration of Israel from exile. The pattern of exile and restoration is an important theological motif in both Testaments. According to Matthew’s shaping of the genealogy, Jesus is God’s agent who brings restoration from Israel’s physical and spiritual exile. The time of God’s final restoration has actually begun in Jesus the Messiah. Matthew announces this crucial and amazing truth at each hinge of the genealogy:
As we teach or preach this passage, we cannot underscore enough the monumental nature of what God has begun to do in Jesus. All the Old Testament prophetic hopes for restoration converge in this person, Jesus the Messiah.
3. Matthew accents the inclusive nature of God’s kingdom. The unexpected presence of Gentile mothers in the genealogy (as well as sons other than the firstborn, such as Judah and Solomon) intimates that God’s kingdom in Jesus will be one of unexpected inclusion. While some Old Testament prophetic texts indicate that Israel’s restoration will be the hope for Gentiles (e.g., Isa. 2:1–5; 51:1–5), Matthew especially emphasizes that God’s restorative plan includes Gentiles as well as Jews (cf. 8:11; 12:21). God’s restoration also focuses on the marginalized (9:9–13; 21:14–16), since mercy is at the center of God’s ways (9:13; 12:7).
The most likely tendency in preaching and teaching Matthew 1 is to skip over the genealogy. Yet Matthew’s theology shines through what we might consider to be simply a tedious list. It would be a shame to miss these important theological themes in our preaching or teaching of Matthew. On the other hand, we might be tempted to miss the forest for the trees. Matthew’s desire is not that we choose our favorite Old Testament characters who show up in the genealogy and make multiple connections between that character and Jesus (a kind of allegorizing). Instead, we should keep the big picture in view, since Matthew guides us to focus on major junctures of the genealogy. By attending to the broad strokes of the genealogy, we also get a sense of the full sweep of Israel’s history portrayed in it. In the genealogy we “enter the narrative world,” hearing how Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s history.
Jesus is the Davidic king, who will rule God’s people.
Human Experience: Sharing one’s genealogy is not a common way of introducing oneself in our day and age. Yet we routinely ask the question “Where are you from?” to get a sense of who a person is—their identity. The genealogy of Jesus is an answer to this question “Where are you from?” in Matthew’s context. And in a similar way, we learn something valuable from hearing about a person’s roots and personal location.
Jesus is the Messiah, who brings restoration of Israel from exile.
Mythology: In the Greek myth of Sisyphus, this famous king was sentenced to a terrible eternity for insulting the gods. In a never-ending cycle of endless toil, Sisyphus would roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down again. For eternity, he had no hope that the task would be completed. Israel’s hope of return from exile had been kindled at various points after the capture of Jerusalem and Judea in the sixth century BC—for example, during the return of exiles under Ezra and Nehemiah and during Israel’s brief years of freedom from Greek rule. Yet Rome had invaded and conquered Judea, dashing again their hopes of restoration. Not unlike Sisyphus watching the boulder roll down the hill once more, Israel had to again put their hopes on hold as they struggled under another oppressive regime. Yet Matthew announces that the definitive moment of history, restoration from exile, has arrived in Jesus.
Matthew accents the inclusive nature of God’s kingdom.
History: Typically, kings jealously guard their bloodlines, highlighting their noble origins and striving to produce a worthy successor. A good example is King Henry VIII. This king went to great lengths to secure an heir for himself, marrying six wives, two of whom were executed. His mania to divorce his first wife in the hopes of marrying a second was partly responsible for the formation of the Anglican Church. When the pope refused to grant him a divorce, Henry separated the English church from Rome. It is intriguing to note how diverse and messy Jesus’ lineage was, and how willingly Matthew highlights this by including non-Jews.