The Genealogy of Jesus

The Gospel of Matthew opens with a long, dry genealogy of Jesus. Actually, it's not really dry, if you look at it carefully. Let's do so.

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. (Mt 1:1)

We know that the theme of Matthew's Gospel is that Jesus fulfilled the OT prophecies related to the Messiah. We know it was addressed to a 1st century Jewish audience. From the first verse, Matthew points the reader to two important events in salvation history: the covenant God made with Abraham and the covenant He made with King David. Matthew's goal is to immediately raise these important events in the reader's mind, because his Gospel will prove how Jesusí new covenant will fulfill the promises made in those two covenants.

What follows is a standard Semitic genealogy connecting Abraham - through David - to Joseph, the legal father of Jesus. However, itís not quite standard and it is in those non-standard points we find Matthew setting a tone for his gospel - that Jesus is the Messiah come to restore all Israel under God's covenant with His people. In fact, Jesus will expand the boundaries of the covenant to include all peoples.

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, (Mt 1:2)

We have the standard genealogical format: A was father of B, and B was father of C, and C was father of D, etc. But almost immediately we have a break with the format, in that Matthew mentions the brothers of Judah. Why? Well, we can recall that Jacob (later named Israel, from which the nation gets its name), had twelve sons. The descendants of each son formed a tribe; Israel became a nation of twelve tribes. A civil war shortly after King David's reign split Israel into two nations, which were never reunited. The northern kingdom retained the name of Israel and the southern kingdom was predominantly the tribe of Judah and took that name. By the time of Jesus, Israel had long since been conquered and its people scattered through intermarriage; Judah, however, still existed as a nation. A prophetic promise regarding the messiah claimed he would restore all twelve tribes of Israel and this was a promise the Jews of Judah held dear. By reminding the reader of those other brothers, those other tribes, Matthew is triggering this memory in his readers. His gospel will ultimately show how Jesus gathers the lost tribes of Israel back into the fold.

Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar (Mt 1:3)

There are two non-standard templates in this line: the mention of Zerah and the mention of Tamar, the mother. This is a paternal genealogy and it is unusual to mention a mother. To understand Zerah and Tamar, we refer back to the story in Genesis, chapter 38. In summary: Judah had three sons; the firstborn was Er and he married Tamar. Er died before Tamar could have a child, so Judah made a promise to Tamar that his other son would marry her, after he grew up. Judah did not keep his promise, so Tamar disguised herself as a harlot, seduced Judah and gave birth to twins by him. During the birth, Zerah's hand came out first and the midwife tied a red thread around his hand, signifying that he was firstborn over the other twin. But Zerah pulled his hand back into the womb and his twin - Perez - came out first. In this "re-shuffling" of the firstborn, many Christians see the new covenant establishment of a Gentile church which replaces the older synagogue, the Jews being God's firstborn.

Some modern writers like to point out the four women mentioned in this genealogy, starting with Tamar, were of ill repute. But let's look at these four women and see what they share in common and why Matthew would mention them in a paternal genealogy. First is Tamar; we know that she was a Canaanite, not an Israelite. The child born of her and Judah was of both nations. The next woman mentioned is Rahab, whose son was Boaz. Her story is told in Joshua, chapter 2; she was a Canaanite harlot who helped Israel capture Jericho. For her help, she and her family were spared during the invasion. Rahab appears to have married the Israelite Salmon; their child - Boaz - was of both nations. Boaz married Ruth the third woman mentioned by Matthew, and their child was Obed, grandfather of King David. Of course, we know much about Ruth; she has her own book in the Old Testament. Ruth was a Moabite who moved to Israel, met Boaz and the two married. Again, the child born to Ruth was part Israelite and part Gentile. The pattern is clear: Matthew mentions the non-Israelite mothers to imply a new covenant - one that includes Gentiles grafted in. The fourth woman mentioned is interesting: it is David's wife Bathsheba.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, (Mt 1:6)

She isn't even mentioned by name. Why not? Because her name is meaningful: Bathsheba means "Daughter of the Covenant." Matthew expects the reader to wonder why her name isn't mentioned, leading to a reminder of the covenant. Bathsheba is, again, a Gentile; this is reminded by noting she was the wife of Uriah the Hittite. She was the mother of Solomon.

We see, then, that these Gentile women are mentioned as reminders that Gentiles were already grafted in to the royal lineage of King David and King Solomon. So shall the new covenant also graft Gentiles onto the covenantal family tree. But there is still more to see here. Both the OT stories of Tamar and Rahab mention red cords (read them yourself); what is the meaning? Red means blood and we Christians understand that blood means the Eucharistic Blood of Christ. Likewise, Ruth meets Boaz during the grain harvest and she lays down with him on the threshing floor Ė a matrimonial scene in a Eucharistic setting. And again, David first sees Bathsheba bathing, where he is overcome by her beauty; such is the power of the baptismal fount that makes us beautiful to God. All of these Gentile women stories incorporate sacramental images in matrimonial settings. Who better to image the Church and Her Sacraments than women, Gentile women, grafting themselves into the covenantal family tree through matrimonial events.

So, our modern commentators missed an important point about these women. They are not of ill-repute; they are beautiful images of Godís grace. Itís actually fitting that there are sins involved here (harlotry, adultery), as it reminds us that we are all sinners and Jesus came to save us from our sins.

Another interesting twist is this seemingly innocent lineage:

Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, (Mt 1:8-9)

The problem is that Joram was not the father of Uzziah; he was the great-great-grandfather of Uzziah. This is clear from 2 Kgs 8:16-25. Joram, son of Jehoshaphat becomes king of Judah in 2 Kg 8:16. Verse 18 explains that a daughter of the Israelite King Ahab was Joram's wife; Ahab was the wicked king of Israel (northern tribe) whose wife, Jezabel, led him to worship pagan gods. It seems Ahab's daughter brought that pagan worship to the southern kingdom when she married its king. Verse 25 says that Joram's son was Ahaziah, who became the next king of Judah. Later, Ahaziah's son, Joash, became king. Then his son, Amaziah, followed as the next king of Judah, followed by his son Azariah; Azariah also went by the name Uzziah. To recap: Joram -> Ahaziah -> Joash -> Amaziah -> Uzziah. So Matthew skipped three generations; why? Likely because Joram violated the basic covenantal precept to avoid pagan gods. This is explained by the first of the Ten Commandments:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. "You shall have no other gods before me. "You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Ex 20:2-6)

Note the underlined text; Matthew is blotting out those three generations from his genealogy, because of the sin of Joram.

Deleting these three also makes a nice, albeit artificial, counting device for Matthew's summary:

So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations. (Mt 1:17)

First, we notice three sets of fourteen; which are also six sets of seven - seven being the number of the covenant and six being the number of "not-the-covenant" (see another post). We see salvation history in terms of the covenant which finally culminates in Christ.

Second, we notice the successive breakpoints are Abraham, David, the deportation to Babylon, and Christ. Abraham and David represent two forms of the old covenant, Jesus the new. The deportation is mentioned as it put an end to David's dynasty around 575 B.C.; all kings of Judah were descendants of David until Babylon conquered Judah and ended that lineage. Jesus, a descendant of David, restores that lineage once again.

Finally, these three sets of fourteen also sum to 42. This refers back to the Exodus from Egypt under Moses. When the Israelites left Egypt and wandered in the wilderness for forty years, they made camp 42 times, leading them into the Promised Land (see Num 33:1-50). From the time of Godís promise to Moses, until the fulfillment of that promise, there were 42 encampments by Israel. So likewise there were 42 generations leading from God's promise to Abraham to the fulfillment of that promise in Christ.