To some of us, this tongue-twisting genealogy that Matthew gives at the very outset of his gospel account may elicit a smile or the slight rolling of the eyes. But the list is not accidental. Matthew, a Jew, is trying to be convincing. His first-century hearers would be fascinated in genealogy, and Jesus’ pedigree to be the Messiah, the King, would need to trace a lineage back to King David, son of Abraham. In Matthew’s memory, there are 3 sets of 14 names in his genealogy. Fourteen is 2 times 7; 7 is the perfect number; 14 is twice as perfect as 7, and 3 is a complete number. Those looking for proof of Jesus’ lineage through numerology will be satisfied. To some people, the numbers mattered. Also, remember, Matthew writes his gospel account before there are books, and before there is widespread literacy, so having 3 sets of 14 names is a helpful mnemonic device for remembering and repeating an oral history… and Matthew’s listeners and Jewish generations to come would indeed need to hear this genealogy repeated aloud. Throughout the New Testament, we hear of Jesus’ Davidic pedigree as a litmus test for his authority as Messiah. (1)
It so happens that the first 14 names in Matthew’s genealogy cover the span from Abraham to David, who was Israel’s greatest king. The second set of 14 names moves from the glory of David through the Jews’ exile in Babylon, the lowest point in their history, a time of shame and hopelessness. The third set of 14 names traces from the exile to the birth of Jesus, whom Matthew immediately calls “the Christ,” the long-awaited Messiah. But this patriarchal list includes some real crooks and the epitome of immoral scoundrels. And this same dark side of Jesus’ genealogy continues with Matthew’s choice of women. He could have chosen saintly matriarchs such as Sarah, or Rebekah, or Rachel. But no. On Matthew’s list is Rahab, who was a prostitute in Jericho; (2) Ruth, who was not even a Jew but a Moabite, who are cursed; (3) Tamar, who was a seducer and adulteress; (4) and Bathsheba, mother of Solomon, who was the woman David seduced from Uriah, her husband. (5) Matthew’s genealogical selections are signaling that the barrier between Jew and Gentile is down; the barrier between men and women is down; the barrier between saint and sinner, between purity and inclusivity is down. (6)
This genealogy is how Matthew opens his defense on why Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, the Savior of the world. This list would have authority, certainly for early-century Jews learning about Jesus. What about for you? If Matthew’s list does not have authority for you – let’s say you’re not into numerology; or you can’t even pronounce the names much less make meaning of them; or you have the American pioneer spirit, not much interested in pedigree – if Matthew’s genealogical defense does not have authority for you, what does? Why are you now, why are you still a follower of Jesus? What makes Jesus real to you now? What do you know, what do you need, that makes Jesus’ presence, Jesus’ promise, Jesus’ provision real to you now? What has authority?
How do you now account for being a faithful follower of Jesus Christ? (7) Claim your current experience and give thanks to God. If your experience is not current but only archival, take some time these remaining days in Advent to remember how it is you’ve gotten to be where you are, how Jesus’ presence has been and is real for you. And if you still come up short, you’re blank why Jesus is your Messiah, ask Jesus for a revelation. Ask for it. The Gospel birth narratives about Jesus are chock full of revelations. If you need a revelation, pray for a revelation. Revelations are very convincing. Matthew had his; you need yours. If you need a revelation, pray for a revelation.
- Jesus’ Davidic ancestry is referenced, for example, in Matthew 12:23; 15:22; 20:30; 21: 9, 15; Acts 2:29-36; Romans 1:3; 2 Timothy 2:8; Revelation 22:16.
- Joshua 2:1-7.
- Ruth 1:4 and Deuteronomy 23:3.
- Genesis 38.
- 2 Samuel 11 and 12.
- I’ve drawn insight on Matthew’s genealogy from the scholarship of William Barclay in The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1, pp. 11-18; and Raymond E. Brown in A Coming Christ in Advent, pp. 7-26.
- A riff on 1 Peter 3:15: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.”
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