Commentary on Matthew 1:1-17
Perhaps few of us will get excited about reading, teaching, or preaching a genealogy. But this one is worth noting.
As best scholars understand, 1st century people expected ancient genealogies to be accurate for about three generations past but not beyond. Accurately noting every ancestor wasn’t their purpose. Instead, ancient genealogies established a family’s honor in a culture where honor was a pivotal value. Accordingly, our gospel writer has arranged Jesus’ genealogy into three neat sections of 14 generations each, and then connected each section in turn to Abraham, David, and the return from Exile. In doing so our writer asserted to a 1st century audience that Jesus is a true son of Israel from an honorable line of Israelites. A quick scan of this genealogy by 1st century people would have made this point about Jesus’ family honor clear to them.
But a slower, more careful reading shows that this genealogy also makes some fascinating theological and political claims about the story Matthew is telling. I add “political” to this description because in the 1st century world there was no separation of church and state. Religion and politics were intertwined. For example, the Jerusalem chief priests were also the local political rulers in 1st century Judea.
The opening verse
First among those fascinating claims is the genealogy’s beginning. English readers find translations like: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah” (New Revised Standard Version), or “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ” (New International Version). But the Greek actually reads, “The book of the genesis of Jesus the Christ.”
Our Jewish forbears understood from the prophets that God had promised to renew all of creation in the Age to Come, Messianic Age, or (as Jesus preferred) the Kingdom of God (see, for example, Isaiah 65:17-25; see also the commentary on Matthew 1:18-25). Matthew’s use of the word “genesis” for this genealogy at the beginning of this account of Jesus signals to his audience that a new creation story, a renewal of God’s creation as God had promised, is underway in Jesus the Christ.
While western Protestantism has tended to focus its theology on the salvation of individuals, the New Testament, including Matthew, declares that God has acted in Jesus to renew all of creation. Attention to individual salvation isn’t wrong. But the New Testament calls us not to stop there. According to the New Testament, all of creation is encompassed in God’s salvation and renewal.
In addition, our writer calls Jesus “Son of David, son of Abraham” in the opening line of the genealogy. Given that Jesus was just affirmed in verse 1 as the “Christ” (or “Messiah” in Hebrew), a 1st century audience familiar with Jewish traditions would have expected “son of David” since they understood the Messiah would come through the lineage of King David (see, for example, 2 Samuel 7:11b-13; Isaiah 11:1-9). Matthew, more so than the other gospels, presents Jesus as “king” from David’s house (see, for example, Matthew 2:2, 25:3-34).
But our writer also insists Jesus is not a king like David who defeated his enemies with weapons of war (see Matthew 26:51-52). Instead, Jesus is also “Son of Abraham” which hearkens back to the beginning of Israel’s story and God’s promise that through Abraham and his offspring “all the families of the earth” would be blessed (Genesis 12:2-3). So, Matthew affirms Jesus Messiah as the promised king from David’s lineage, a clear political claim in that time. But Jesus does not rule Israel as David had done. Instead, he comes to bless all nations and all people in a renewing kingdom which belongs to God, not Caesar.
There is a final fascinating feature of the genealogy: the unexpected women who are part of it. A quick peek at any genealogy in Genesis shows that lineage was traced through fathers in the ancient world (see, for example, Genesis 5, 36). Matthew adheres to this patriarchal model of ancestry except for four women who appear: Tamar (1:3), Rahab (1:5), Ruth (1:5), and “the wife of Uriah” (in other words, Bathsheba, 1:6).
While including any women was unexpected, the inclusion of these particular women would have shocked many first century folks. Two were foreigners (Rahab and Ruth) and one was married to a foreigner (which may be why Matthew calls Bathsheba the “wife of Uriah” who was a Hittite). All four suffered as a direct result of the male-dominated rules and traditions of their time (for example, levirate marriage, no opportunity to work to support themselves and their families, et cetera). All four were “sexually suspect” in their day. To bring hope to their families, all four took active, even aggressive actions, which women in their worlds were not to do.
So, they were the “wrong kind” of women in their time. But their supposedly “wrong” actions contributed to God’s purposes despite their wrong nationalities. Matthew includes them in the story of God’s work in the world to bring history to the moment when God’s renewal of all creation was launched in Jesus Messiah.
Matthew’s genealogy, then, announces immediately that God is fulfilling promises to renew creation, that Jesus Messiah is a “king” in David’s lineage who has come to bless “all the families of the earth” as a son of Abraham. Welcoming and blessing all people is a key aspect of God’s renewal (see, for example, Isaiah 2:2-4, Matthew 28:19). Therefore, Jesus is not a king like David (as Matthew’s story will show) who used violence and ruled Israel against other nations. The blessing of “all” includes those whom others have judged harshly as dishonorable and “slutty” but whom God saw differently and through whom God worked. Therefore, this genealogy can call to us to ask ourselves if our understanding of salvation is large enough to receive the renewal which God has launched. And it challenges us to question our judgments regarding who is honorable and who is not, who is included in God’s renewal and who is not, and those whom God uses and does not use.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Holy Parent, you blessed Jesus with a rich line of diverse and interesting ancestors. Bless our families; those related by blood and those brought to us by love. For the sake of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.
All are welcome ELW 641
If you but trust in God to guide you ELW 679, H82 635
Blessed Jesus, at your word H82 440
Under the Stars, One Holy Night, Jocelyn Hagen
God of our life, Sally Ann Morris
Come, Let Us Anew, Mack Wilberg
January 1, 2023