The Story in Jesus’ Genealogy

So all the generations from Abraham unto David are fourteen generations; and from David unto the carrying away to Babylon fourteen generations; and from the carrying away to Babylon unto the Christ fourteen generations (Matthew 1:17).

Matthew began his Gospel with the “book of the generation of Jesus Christ” (Matthew 1:1). For the modern reader this proves to be a burdensome decision; before they learn much of anything about Jesus they are confronted with a host of foreign names. Who are all of these people, and why does Matthew tell us about them before he tells us about Jesus?

One other book in the Bible begins with a genealogy: 1 Chronicles. The Chronicler begins his narrative proper with the death of Saul and the elevation of David as king; nevertheless, by beginning with an extensive genealogy, he associates and connects his narrative with the greater story of God’s people from Adam through Abraham and the twelve sons of Israel (1 Chronicles 1:1-9:44).

The choice of tracing the genealogy also tells us much about Matthew’s purposes. Matthew does not go all the way back to God and Adam, as Luke does; he begins with Abraham, recipient of the promise (Matthew 1:2, Luke 3:38; cf. Genesis 12:1-22:18). Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage through the kings of Judah to David, unlike Luke (Matthew 1:6-11, Luke 3:27-31). For that matter, while Luke begins with Jesus and goes back through time to Adam and God, Matthew ends with Jesus (Matthew 1:2-16, Luke 3:23-38). Thus Matthew emphasizes that Jesus is an Israelite; he highlights Abraham and David and the kings to show how Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of all which was promised to Abraham about the people and David about the kingship; he manifests confidence in Jesus as the Son of God, the Son of David, the culmination of the story of Israel. All of this can be seen in Jesus’ genealogy!

Matthew concludes his “book of the generation of Jesus Christ” by tying it together nicely: fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to the Exile, and fourteen generations from the Exile to the Christ (Matthew 1:17). It all seems to fit a nice pattern; we might find that impressive and then move on to the rest of the story.

Yet Matthew’s conclusion proves highly suspect to the attuned Western reader. The best evidence would suggest Abraham lived ca. 2000 BCE; David is dated around 1000 BCE; the exile took place in 586 BCE; Jesus was born around 5 BCE. The first set of fourteen generations spread across 1000 years, the second for a bit over 400 years, and the third 500 years? That seems a bit too convenient.

The major challenge, however, is in the midst of the genealogy of the kings. Matthew lists Joram as the father of Uzziah in Matthew 1:8, and yet J(eh)oram is the father of Ahaziah, the father of J(eh)oash, the father of Amaziah, who is the father of Uzziah (also spelled Azariah) in 1 Chronicles 3:11-12! Thus, in reality, it would seem that there are at least seventeen generations between David and the Exile.

How could this be? Are our copies of Matthew inaccurate? Some later manuscripts record the three “missing” kings; in light of Matthew 1:18 it is best to recognize that some later copyist is trying to solve the dilemma we have discovered as opposed to believing that Matthew’s original was distorted. We have every reason to believe that Matthew 1:8, 18 are as Matthew wrote them. Was Matthew’s source inaccurate? It is not inconceivable for Matthew’s copy of 1 Chronicles or whatever other resource he might have used for the king list to have omitted some names, but neither he nor we are dependent on genealogical lists to know about these kings of Judah: their story is told in 2 Kings 8:25-14:22 and 2 Chronicles 22:1-25:28. By all accounts Matthew proved to be a faithful Jew; he would have known about these kings. People might begin to think that Matthew is attempting to suppress some history or just made a mistake. Neither claim would honor the good confidence we have in Matthew’s inspiration.

How could it be that Matthew speaks of fourteen generations when he even knows that there are actually seventeen generations? In all of this we have assumed that Matthew intends for us to take his final numbers literally. Perhaps the time has come to reconsider that assumption.

Throughout Scripture numbers often mean things. They are often given or alluded to in order to convey some sort of spiritual truth. Three is a number which often evokes completeness; the Godhead has three Persons, and thus it makes sense for the history of Israel to be portrayed in a triune format. Each element of the triad points to Jesus in its own way: from Abraham to David features the development of Israel, looking forward to Jesus as the descendant of Abraham; from David to the Exile manifests the failure of Israel to uphold the covenant, looking forward to Jesus as the obedient Son of David; from the Exile to Jesus represents an attempt at faithfulness and survival in the midst of oppressive kingdoms, looking forward to Jesus as the eternal King and Christ. Abraham, David, and the Exile are prominent themes in the rest of Matthew’s Gospel; Jesus embodies and fulfills all such things.

“Fourteen” on its own does not mean much, and yet we have three sets of fourteen; we can re-imagine three sets of fourteen as six times seven. Seven is the number of perfection; God’s full work of creation was seven days (Genesis 1:1-2:3). Israelites worked for six days and rested on the seventh; in the same way they were to cultivate their fields for six years and let it enjoy a Sabbath rest in the seventh (Leviticus 25:1-7). If Jesus’ heritage features six sets of seven, such means that Jesus is the beginning of the seventh seven.

Both seven and the seventh seven are, each in their own way, manifestations of fullness, allowing something new to begin. As the seventh seven, Jesus is bringing the story of Israel to its fullness; everything which has taken place beforehand finds its embodiment and satisfaction in Him (Matthew 5:17-18). As Matthew himself will establish, Jesus will go through His own Egyptian sojourn, temptation in the wilderness, life in the land of Israel, exile in death, and return in resurrection (Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23, 4:1-17, 27:32-50, 28:1-20).

In the end, in fulfilling His role as the seventh seven, Jesus facilitates what can take place afterward. After the seventh seven the Jubilee is proclaimed in Israel (Leviticus 25:8-46): all the people of God are redeemed and freed from their debt. In this way Jesus died and was raised in power to redeem and free all those who come to God from their debt of sin (1 Peter 2:18-25). After the seventh day is the eighth day, the first day of the week, providing an opportunity for new creation. In this way Jesus arose from the dead on the first day of the week in the resurrection body, and through whom we can now become a new creation in God, and yearn for the resurrection of life (Matthew 28:1, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21).

Matthew is no fool; Matthew knows his Israelite history; Matthew did not make a mistake in Matthew 1:18. Matthew is telling a story in his genealogy of Jesus, forecasting all we will see in his Gospel. We will see Jesus bear the shame and yet fulfill God’s purposes. We will see Jesus fulfilling the promises given to Abraham. We will see Jesus as the Son of God, the Son of David, obtaining all authority in heaven and on earth. We will see the proclamation of freedom from sin and death through Jesus’ death. We will be able to become the new creation in Christ through His resurrection. Jesus is the embodiment of Israel, the climax of the history of the people of God. May we serve Jesus the Son of David, the Son of God, receive remission of sin in Him, and through Him obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus’ Genealogical Surprises

The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judah and his brethren; and Judah begat Perez and Zerah of Tamar; and Perez begat Hezron; and Hezron begat Ram; and Ram begat Amminadab; and Amminadab begat Nahshon; and Nahshon begat Salmon; and Salmon begat Boaz of Rahab; and Boaz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse; and Jesse begat David the king. And David begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Uriah (Matthew 1:1-6).

When we come to the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, it is easy to fall into the temptation of “skipping over” the first few verses that describe the genealogy of Jesus Christ.  After all, the Old Testament is full of such lists, and they are perceived as being quite “boring.”  What is one doing in the New Testament– beginning the New Testament, no less?

Yes, the genealogy does set forth how Jesus is the descendant of David and Abraham, which is significant for His claim of being the Messiah.  But there are also many surprises in Jesus’ genealogy.

First we come to Tamar (Matthew 1:3).  Her story is described in Genesis 38: she is married to Judah’s oldest son Er, who dies, and then is married to Onan, who dies, and is held in waiting for Judah’s youngest son Shelah.  When Judah does not marry her to Shelah, she takes on the garb of a cult prostitute and Judah hires her service.  When the whole situation is revealed, he confesses that she is more righteous than he (Genesis 38:26)!  And not only is she an ancestor of Jesus, she is explicitly named in the genealogy!

Next is Rahab (Matthew 1:5).  Her story is in Joshua 2.  She is the prostitute who maintains an inn in Jericho, and she hides the Israelite spies.  She recognizes that the God of Israel is the true God and does not want to share in the fate of her fellow countrymen.  Thus, we have a prostitute who deceives civic authorities who is an ancestor of Jesus the Christ, and she also is listed explicitly in His genealogy!

We also have Ruth (Matthew 1:5), and her wonderful story of faith in the book bearing her name.  She is a Moabitess who clings to the God of her mother-in-law Naomi despite all the adversity they were experiencing.  Yet another foreigner who is an ancestor of Jesus of Nazareth!

It is also interesting to note that Bathsheba is alluded to but not explicitly named in Matthew 1:6.  She is remembered as being the wife of Uriah the Hittite!

What are we to gain from this?  A woman willing to sell herself to her father-in-law to bring forth descendants, a lying Canaanite prostitute, and a Moabitess widow are explicitly named as ancestors of the Messiah, the Son of God.  Despite their flaws, and despite their methodology, they are women of faith.  Tamar ends up being “more righteous” and perpetuates the line of Judah.  Rahab acts as she does by faith.  All Ruth has is faith.

And Bathsheba?  She acted according to the dictates of King David, engaging in acts of faithlessness.  And she is left unnamed.

People of faith are not always pretty, and some of their actions may be hard to understand.  And yet Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth have the ultimate testimony: they can claim Jesus Himself as their descendant.

Let us consider the “surprises” in Jesus’ genealogy, and recognize that even when faith is found in the strangest of places, it honors and glorifies God.  Let us be found as people of faith!

Ethan R. Longhenry