I’m blogging my way through all four Gospels, in the order they appear in Scripture. Click here to read my introduction to this project.
2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4 and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of King David.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, 7 and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph,[c] 8 and Asaph[d] the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, 9 and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10 and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos,[e] and Amos[f] the father of Josiah, 11 and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13 and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14 and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15 and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.[g]
17 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,[h] fourteen generations.New Revised Standard Version
The Gospels begin with the story of a people, told in the form of names, divided into three groups of fourteen names each. The three groups are all distinctive their own ways. The first, from Abraham to David, is the classic story of the Jewish people, and is notable for including women who are prostitutes and foreigners. The second group is made up of kings of Israel. In order to get to fourteen generations, the author leaves out four kings we know of from the books of Chronicles, and a queen as well. The final group is mostly unknown people, common names from this era, marking the time from the exile to the birth of Christ as a time of anonymity and far from the centers of power. This is no dry history; it is not a literal genealogical record we are reading here. Matthew 1 is not Ancestry.com.
Matthew has manipulated and reshaped the story of the Jews, leaving out names, changing others, moving folks around, in order to get us to these three groups of fourteen generations each. Three is obviously an important number to Christians, invoking the Trinity. Fourteen is as well. Besides being the first multiple of seven (a holy number in Judaism), it is also the number you get when you add the numerical values assigned to the letters that make up the name “David” (Jesus’ most illustrious and kingly ancestor.) David in Hebrew is three letters: dalet, vav, and dalet. Dalet – ד – is also a stand in for the number four, while vav – ו – is 6. Add those up, and you get 14. Matthew is intentional choice of three groupings of fourteen generations. He is telling a story, of three eras, each of which point to the Messiah, the Son of David. He is willing to exclude names, and include otherwise unsavory characters, in order to get there.
All in all, the genealogy of Christ offered by Matthew is, as the footnotes in The Jewish Annotated New Testament point out, “unusual in citing women, non-Jews, and morally questionable characters” in the recounting the pedigree of the Messiah. This may seem a rather innocuous observation, but it is important to stop here and recognize that it is anything but. In ancient literature, genealogies are a tool of establishing importance via a link to a glorious past, through the image of heroes and exemplars of virtue. But the Jewish tradition that culminates here in Christ rejects that kind of mythologizing. Instead, the genealogy of the Messiah is made up of those who are rejected from society – sinners, women, immigrants, the unclean, the morally suspect. It’s not a very good way to make the case for a powerful, conquering king. But it’s a really good way to be introduced to Jesus Christ.
Christ made a career out of accepting and loving those who were otherwise unacceptable and unlovable to polite society. The story this genealogy prefaces is one where the outcast, the oppressed, the forgotten, the poor and the weak are placed before the powerful, the rich, the strong. It is a story where those who the religious establishment of the day would have regarded as unworthy of glory are given the keys to the Kingdom, are called on to lead the Church that rises up in Christ’s memory. By including such unorthodox names in Christ’s pedigree, Matthew is laying the groundwork for a Messiah who isn’t coming to confirm everyone in their comfortable, exclusionary way of being; instead, we are to understand right off the back that this story is one of inclusion and acceptance for all. If Christ can descend from the line of Tamar, of Ruth, of Bathsheba, then the Body of Christ can welcome immigrants and homeless people and trans folks with open arms.
The manipulation and twisting of the members of Christ’s genealogy in order to get it to fit into the three groups of fourteen is important as well for how we approach Jesus’ story. The story of Christ is one that always makes room for us to see God in Christ. It’s a reminder: this is God’s world, and we are living in it. God can make God’s self known in the way God needs to, even if it upends the rules and orders we are comfortable or familiar with. In fact, God at times seems to relish upending things in order to bring about the Kingdom, just like Matthew didn’t see a problem fudging the names and the numbers a little to invoke King David.
One last note I want to make about this genealogy: it is also a specifically Jewish story Jesus is taking part in. That’s important to remember, even as we emphasize the universality of God’s Kingdom. Jesus was a Jew. The Gospel of Matthew was a story written to remind readers of Jesus’ Jewishness. That will be an important note to keep in mind as we dig further into this Gospel.