For you and me today, the sight of a genealogy like the one in Matthew 1:1-17 is enough to make our eyes glaze over. It’s a long list of unfamiliar, hard-to-pronounce names that don’t hold much meaning for us. The modern western reader would be inclined to skip this part, so we can get to the good part, the actual story.
But Matthew was writing to mainly Jews. When it came to biographies, for the ancient Jew, most often the genealogy made or broke the whole story. Since royalty depends on heredity, Jesus’ pedigree would have instantly piqued the ancient Jew’s interest because it definitively established Jesus’ right to the throne of David.
Careful records had to be kept of every Jew’s family relationships in order to authenticate they were from the tribe and clan they claimed. At stake was each person’s claim to God’s inheritance in Israel, an actual plot of land.
But also at stake were the royal lineage of David in anticipation of Messiah, the priestly lineage of Aaron, in order to choose high priests, and the Levitical lineage in order to serve in the temple. All these public records were kept in the temple and were carefully protected along with the scriptures when the Jews went into exile.
You can read about how important the genealogical records were when the Jewish people returned from exile to Jerusalem, in the book of Ezra. Three families claimed to be descended from Levi, but because no records could be found to prove it, they were barred from returning with the rest of the Levites (Ezra 2:62).
The phrase “Son of David” referred to the Messiah, and could only be traced through the kings of Judah. The ancient Jewish reader would have understood Matthew wanted them to know Jesus’ lineage proved He was legitimately from the kingly line of David, and a direct descendant of Abraham. The presence of an unbroken record before and after the exile left no question Jesus was Who He claimed to be.
Matthew divided Jesus’ record into three sections. He left out names in Jesus’ genealogy on purpose. In the Hebrew language there were no vowels and no numbers. The vowels were intuited and Hebrew letters did double duty as numbers whenever needed. The Hebrew letters for “David” were “DWD,” which, when representing numbers, added up to 14. So, Matthew put fourteen names in each section, and made three sections, one for each letter in David’s name. Jesus’s genealogy also mirrored the three great periods in Israel’s history up to that point.
In our scientific, fact honoring age we would have wanted an exhaustive list as proof. But to the ancient Jewish mind, this was actually very convenient. Matthew was writing in a way to help people memorize his gospel because in his day not everyone possessed their own copy of the scriptures; memorizing was the only way people could have ready access to God’s word.
“Father of” meant direct genetic descendant of, and if they wanted whatever names were left out they could easily look them up given the material they already had in Matthew’s record. What’s more, if they knew their history well, since it’s all in the Old Testament, they could have mentally filled in what was missing.
Contrary to common custom, five women, including Mary, are mentioned in this genealogy. In Matthew’s day women were not valued too highly. In fact, they were so low in society, Pharisees would thank God every morning in prayer that they were not women. What’s more, Matthew on purpose included some unusual choices. I might have chosen Sarah, the wife of Abraham, maybe, or Rebekah, or perhaps Leah, all godly matriarchs, standing by their patriarchs.
But, if Matthew had ransacked the whole Old Testament, he’d have been hard pressed to find four more unlikely candidates for the Messiah’s genealogy than the following women.
Verse 3, Tamar – Was a schemer who posed as a prostitute to lure her father-in-law into bed with her and bore his twin sons out of wedlock.
Verse 5, Rahab – Was running a robust trade as a high dollar hooker in her own wayside inn, when she lied and betrayed her own country’s interests to help out two enemy Hebrew spies.
Also in verse 5, Ruth – Was a Moabitess whose husband had been a Jew even though God had said through Moses that no Moabite would ever be given a chance to enter the Lord’s sanctuary because of how they had treated the Jews.
Verse 6, Wife of Uriah – She is more well-known by the name of Bathsheba. Given to bathing on her roof, she found herself in bed with her nation’s leader and her firstborn child died under God’s judgement
Finally, down in verse 16, Mary – a girl who found herself unwed and pregnant.
<sound of a needle being screeched across a vinyl platter>
Let’s try that again, and see what Matthew saw, as he wrote, swept up in the Spirit’s prophetic power:
Tamar – despite how awful her first two husbands were, she was willing to do whatever it took to be linked with God and His people. In the end, Judah publicly confessed she was the righteous one, and he was dead wrong.
Rahab – had such a reverence for God, and awe of His power, she believed completely in His victory. She wanted to be saved along with His people.
Ruth – has a beautiful story of sacrificial love and redemption between every member of her story, it is well worth the reading.
Bathsheba – of all David’s sons it seems only one reverenced God and desired God’s wisdom – Bathsheba’s son Solomon. That’s saying quite a lot, knowing it was David who wronged Uriah and his wife, not the other way around.
Mary – in spite of the enormous hurdles and heartaches God’s will in her life would bring, she saw herself as God’s handmaiden, and willingly submitted to His command. If you look in Luke’s gospel, you’ll see she was also descended from King David, just through a different son. Joseph’s is the legal royal line, that gave Jesus His qualification to claim the throne of Judah. Mary gave Jesus the bloodline to King David, Abraham, and all the way back to Adam, the first man.
Though Matthew named some godly men, the patriarchs and good kings, many of the men in this list were not what we would call good men at all. They sinned, they were selfish, even cruel, wicked, rebellious against God, idolaters. But through them Messiah was born.
I wonder if Matthew, ex-tax collector and publican that he was, identified with these women and men at some level.
Through this record God is displaying His grace to sinners. Even in this genealogy Matthew was already giving us a clue there is something unique and earth-shaking about Jesus. Expect the unexpected. Carried along in the Spirit, the apostle Matthew was showing how God in Christ was taking down the barriers of sin and its curse.
As you look at Jesus’ genealogy you realize God chooses unlikely people for His purposes.
Ordinary people who offer their lives to Jesus to serve Him in whatever way He commands find themselves doing the extraordinary.
- A North Carolina farm boy from a small community became the most famous evangelist of the 20th century, bringing the gospel to millions and millions of people all over the world. (Billy Graham)
- A little known nun from eastern Europe, whose heart was deeply moved by God’s love, cared for the discarded and downtrodden in Calcutta, India in a way that continues to humble all the rest of us in this world. (Mother Teresa)
- A north African playboy who made this prayer to God 1,700 years ago, “O Lord, give me the grace to do as You command, and command me to do as You will,” became known as one of the most important teachers and leaders in the church of all time. (Augustine of Hippo)
God chooses unlikely people for His purposes when they are willing to put their faith in Him.
Maybe you think you don’t have much natural ability, or you’re in difficult circumstances, the kind that hem you in to the point you couldn’t possibly serve God in any meaningful way. Maybe, like some of the women in Jesus’ genealogy, there’s something in your background you feel might disqualify you, or like some of the men in Jesus’ family tree, you’ve done some awful things. But, what might happen if you prayed Augustine’s little prayer?
“O Lord, give me the grace to do as You command, and command me to do as You will.”?
(Thoughts taken from “Adventuring through Matthew, Mark and Luke” by Ray Stedman)[Hortus_Deliciarum,_Der_Stammbaum_Christi | Wikimwsia Commons, Public Domain]