It’s tempting to skip past the genealogies that occur in several parts of the Bible. How many sincere endeavours to read from Genesis to Revelation make it past the details of offerings in Leviticus only to flounder on the names in Numbers? What could be edifying about lists of names? Did Paul intend to include the genealogies when he talked about all Scripture being God-breathed and profitable?
It’s with a genealogy that Matthew opens his gospel and his account of the birth of Jesus. There is a hint that he might be up to some arranging here and there when he talks about the three periods of fourteen generations: it looks as though he has skipped a few generations here and there and even that he is not very accurate in counting to fourteen in one of the groups.
It seems that the adjustments he makes are done in order to underline a point. The clue is in verse 1: “Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.” Matthew wants us to understand Jesus’ connection with these two great figures in the Old Testament whose stories are among the best known. It was to these men that God made some significant promises: to Abraham, among other things that all nations would be blessed through him; and to David, that there would be a descendant on his throne. When you realise that Hebrew names had numeric values and that the numeric value of David was 14, you begin to see what Matthew was doing. He did not have the option of using bold or underlined typeface, but he had other means at his disposal, including a carefully structured genealogy.
(By the way it’s not that we should think that he has fabricated the genealogy, just that he has arranged it to fit his purposes).
The other striking and unusual feature of his genealogy is the fact that he mentions four (five, to include Mary) women. It was the exception rather than the rule to include women in Jewish genealogies and you’d have to think that if Matthew had only wanted to include a limited number of women, he might have selected Sara instead of Tamar.
Here are the names of the four women, with a little bit of information about their stories:
- Tamar – from the time of the Patriarchs. Twice widowed, childless, deceived by her father-in-law, Judah whom she in turn tricks into fathering a child with her.
- Rahab – former prostitute/innkeeper in the doomed city of Jericho. According to other New Testament writers demonstrated faith in God by sheltering the spies and asking for safety.
- Ruth – from the rank outsider nation of Moab. Found her way to Bethlehem and into the heart of a man called Boaz who married her.
- Bathsheba (although she is not named) – wife of Uriah. The object of David’s lust which led to adultery and murder. Eventual mother of Solomon.
Scholars have proposed, evaluated and critiqued various theories about the inclusion of these women. Is there a common denominator? If so, what is it? There is certainly something unusual about all of the stories: scandalous even, at least in most of them. Did Matthew include these in an attempt to deflect from the hint of scandal that surrounded Mary and the birth of her son?
A couple of observations:
1. Each of these unusual stories represents a step forward in God’s plan to bring Messiah to the world: and they were unusual. Some of the stories were messy and involved sinful behaviour (Judah – with Tamar and David – with Bathsheba – were guilty of terrible behaviour). God draws straight lines with crooked sticks. He is a redeemer. Does Matthew want us to understand that if such unusual stories were part of Messiah’s line in the Old Testament, then there is no reason to baulk at the miracle of virgin birth?
2. Several, if not all of the women were Gentiles and all of the stories include Gentiles (Uriah was a Hittite). If the preparation of the line of Messiah included the stories of faithful Gentiles (whose faith and faithfulness sometimes stood in contrast to the unbelief prevalent among their Jewish counterparts), it is hardly a surprise to know that the kingdom of this Messiah will not be a kingdom with racial boundaries. The kingdom is open to people of every nation who like Rahab (with her request to the spies), or Ruth (with her decision to go to Bethlehem and lay claim to redemption) will receive the blessings Messiah brings.
It would not be too long after the birth that Gentiles would come to worship from the East, following a star. They were welcome. By the end of Matthew’s gospel, the disciples were commissioned to disciple all nations.
As another gospel writer put it through the words of old Simeon, Jesus would be ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles….’