A book of the genesis of Jesus the Messiah, son of David, son of Abraham.
Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.
So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.
Most of us have at one time or another started ‘Matthew’ at verse 1 and skipped right to verse 18. We might not all be writers, but surely, we think, there is a better, more compelling way to kick off ‘the greatest story ever told’ than with a genealogical record. We have three other performances of the Gospel to prove it: ‘Luke’ gives us a short prologue about his aims, ‘John’ a theological riddle, and ‘Mark’ kicks into action in a hurry. ‘Matthew’ just reminds us of the First Testament’s census records, which, if we’re honest, we also gloss over. But the genealogy isn’t just something we should forgive ‘Matthew’; ‘Matthew’ is telling us what it’s about, just like the other gospels do. What we might not get is that this genealogy isn’t just the driest possible way to start our story; it is a story—or, rather, a set of stories, a meta-narrative.
If the genealogy reminds us of the First Testament, it’s doing its job. It’s using a Hebrew form to re-present in the shortest possible summary the story of Israel, and we should get used to this; as we’ll see, ‘Matthew’ is the Jewish gospel. The record isn’t comprehensive, and it includes numerous gaps in order to get its 14+14+14 math, but note what ‘Matthew’ doesn’t include. It does not begin with Adam; it doesn’t even include Abram’s father, Terah (Gen 11:26). Why? According to the Bible, isn’t Terah, etc., a legitimate ancestor of Jesus? Presumably, ‘Matthew’s scope is not cosmological but Jewish. The story of Jesus that it’s about to tell speaks into the story of the world, yes, but that’s not the story that ‘Matthew’ has for us. The one ‘Matthew’ has crafted is most directly going to bear on a story that starts with Abraham—that is, with the calling of Abraham into relationship with Yhwh that formed the basis for Israel’s social, political, religious identity. Jesus may be the savior of humanity, but for ‘Matthew’s purposes, Jesus is first and foremost Israel’s Messiah (1:1)
So much for the scope of the genealogical story, but what’s its content? In a word, total. We read, ‘Abraham was the father of Isaac’ (v. 2), so let that bring to mind Abraham’s story. We read, ‘Isaac was the father of Jacob,’ so let that bring to mind the stories about Isaac. ‘Matthew’ is assuming and building on all of this knowledge, which, for most of us Christians compared against ancient Hebrews, is pretty week. But ‘Matthew’ doesn’t let us only call to mind all of the glorious narratives about Israel’s virtue and righteousness; that’s never the story the Bible ultimately tells. The genealogy ultimately makes a point to remind us of some of the darker chapters, and it goes out of its way to do this when it names women, who traditionally don’t belong in genealogies. These include Tamar, who conceived when her father-in-law’s children when she pretended to be a prostitute because he didn’t do his familial duty in providing her a new husband (Genesis 38); Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute (Joshua 2); and ‘Uriah’s wife,’ who became the occasion of David’s adultery and murder (2 Samuel 12). All of this and more is conveyed in the shorthand of the names listed, as well as three key events in Israel’s history: (1) Abraham’s promised fathering of Isaac, (2) David’s promised kingship and (3) Israel’s promised exile as a result of unfaithfulness to it covenants.
This brings us back to v. 1 and my choice of translation. The NIV has ‘The record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ,’ the NRSV, ‘An account of the genealogy . . .’ These translations provide a fine heading for the genealogy, but I would suggest that they treat the genealogy as front matter separated from the biography that begins in v. 18. A more literal rendering of ‘Biblos geneseōs‘—’book of the genesis/becoming/beginning’—dares to be a heading for the entire book, beginning with the genealogy, beginning with the words, ‘Abraham was the father of Jacob.’ This is how ‘Matthew’ chooses to begin its story of the Messiah.
Thus, in the end to say that Jesus is the offspring of incest and Gentiles and adultery isn’t mere shock value; it’s rather to say that, whatever the Messiah is, he was born into Israel’s whole story, into this broken story. It’s to suggest that, however Jesus is going to be Israel’s Messiah, it’s necessarily going to have to deal directly with these broken chapters, as well as with Israel’s crushing exile. And we won’t be two chapters in before ‘Matthew’ connects this suggestion directly to into Jesus’ story, as long as we understand that for ‘Matthew’—even before Mary conceives—Jesus’ story has already begun.
Bringing it Home
History is important to ‘Matthew’s Jewish author, so it becomes important to who Jesus is as Messiah. Whether we acknowledge it, history is also important to who we are. Who each of is right now is the result of our communities and the history of our communities. This includes our families. This includes our grandparents and our great-great-great-great-grandparents. Alcoholics get this, especially if they had an alcoholic parent; from genetics, from social learning, and from attachment disorders that addictions tend to create and cause, addiction is a family business. And this is just as true for children of alcoholics, regardless whether they ever have the same substance-abuse problems; their relationship with alcohol and the healing they will need to pursue in life are what they are because of who their parents are. When they find healing, they find healing for wounds that cut across generations. Just so, when we come into relationship with Jesus the Messiah, we don’t come as human atoms in a vacuum; nor do we come with only our own individual baggage. We approach the Messiah both as products of our community and family histories and as bearers of their wounds.
Think of the histories in which you are a chapter. What are some of the stories that are hidden in your blood—good and bad? What are some of the wounds in your DNA that need healing? While we anticipate how ‘Matthew’ will position God as savior of Israel’s story through Jesus, how might you anticipate the ways Jesus might become the Messiah of your history through you?