The Gospel of Matthew opens with a great list of names. Maybe because of all the ‘begats’ in the book of Numbers, we see a genealogy like this and skip to verse 17 where the hard-to-pronounce names are no longer present. Maybe because we see little purpose in reading through the repetitive sentences, we move on to the ‘story,’ convincing ourselves that we’re reading efficiently, to get to the good stuff. But, we’d be wrong.
Even if it slows us down a bit, it’s good to engage in a genealogy–especially the one that opens the New Testament. Matthew has purpose in giving it the spotlight in his opening scene. He includes it because it tells an important story about who Jesus is and what He’s about.
Visually, my page one of Matthew has an inviting structure: two lines framing top and bottom with three passages of names blocked off in between, each formed by 13-14 lines–all of which hints at purpose. In fact, in verse seventeen, Matthew explains the structure: fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen between David and the Babylonian exile, fourteen from the exile to the Messiah.
Much has been said about this structure in commentaries, but here’s one truth: these lists are not comprehensive. In fact, ancient genealogy is actually a genre of writing in which exact genealogies are condensed in order to achieve the author’s purpose. That’s the case here. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus Christ is less about precision and more about purpose–specifically: identity, history, fulfillment, and foreshadowing.
Remembering Matthew’s audience is mostly Jewish, we can look at his choice of opening with a genealogy and have greater understanding. Matthew wants to prove to his audience that Jesus of Nazareth has the appropriate family line to be deemed Messiah–because in their culture identity is intimately wrapped up in one’s ancestry.
Matthew starts off immediately affirming three aspects of Jesus’ identity: as the Messiah and as the son of David and Abraham (Matthew 1:1). The rest of Matthew’s gospel pulls from these three truths about who Jesus is and gives literary structure to this genealogy. The first group of fourteen is based on Abraham and the second is David. Then the third grouping leads to Jesus, as Messiah.
The genealogy starts with Abraham because for Jews, it all begins with Father Abraham. God covenants with Abraham to claim all his children and their children as His own. God promises to make the people of Abraham so vast and numerous as to be uncountable, and when we trace each person throughout this genealogy, we get to see one line of Abraham’s family–but it’s the one God has made His chosen people.
As we read Abraham’s descendants, we might recognize some of the names, like Isaac and Jacob, who actually bore the twelve sons who became the twelve tribes. But it’s Jacob’s son, Judah, who makes this list because it’s his lineage that produces the promised Messiah (Genesis 49:9-10; Revelation 5:5). We might know the names Boaz and Rahab and Ruth from their stories in the Bible or even remember the father of David, Jesse, as the one who stands with Samuel as his young shepherd son is anointed king in his home (1 Samuel 16:13).
As we read David’s offspring, King David’s son, Solomon, and grandson, Rehoboam, have great renown in the histories of Israel’s kingdom–one who built the temple and brought in much wealth; the other whose greed split the nation in two. The rest of the names are kings who reigned till the exile; they might be less familiar but a few jump out. Like Hezekiah and his tunneling renown and Assyrian defeat (2 Chronicles 32 and 2 Kings 19).
The tracing of names through the exile is the least familiar to us because we have so little documentation in our Scriptures. But the great genealogists kept record so that we see Joseph’s ancestry laid bare. And, we should pause here because we know Joseph is not Jesus’ biological father. On the chance we want to negate this legacy, it’s important to know that when Joseph adopts Jesus formally by marrying his mother and naming him (Matt 1:24-25), he also adopts him into his lineage.
Jesus is born a Jew, and in this culture identity is intricately linked to family. Jesus, as Joseph’s son, comes from the strongest of families, so His identity is secure.
By looking at the individuals in this list of names, we recall each of their stories. But their stories as a whole weave together to tell God’s story. Their collective history comes down to this one important moment in time: Jesus’ birth.
God’s story is one of redemption. From the time sin enters the world in Genesis, God has been working out His plan to redeem His creation back to Himself. At certain points of Jewish history, God’s plan expands to include more and more people. With Abraham, God covenants with one man’s family. By the time King David comes along, God extends His covenant to include an entire nation.
With Jesus Christ, the covenant is broadened to include all people of all nations, to anyone who will believe Jesus as Messiah.
This is God’s story–His great Rescue Plan, as Dr. Sandra Richter calls it (Epic of Eden). The story is laid out in God’s mind from the beginning. There has never been a Plan B because the original plan is enough, unfolding over history till the world is ready for Jesus.
Another layer unveiled in the story Matthew’s genealogy tells is that of prophecy fulfillment. From the beginning with Abraham to David and through the exile, Jesus is always the promise.
God’s initial call to Abraham contains a promise of the coming redemption for the whole world:
“I will make you into a great nation,(Genesis 12:2-3)
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
“All peoples on earth will be blessed through you” is fulfilled in Christ, who tells His disciples to go to all nations with His message (Matthew 28:19). The early church understands this fulfillment as we see Peter teach the Jewish crowd, “Indeed, beginning with Samuel, all the prophets who have spoken have foretold these days. And you are heirs of the prophets and of the covenant God made with your fathers. He said to Abraham, ‘Through your offspring all peoples on earth will be blessed’” (Acts 3:24-25).
God’s story of redemption includes all people, and when we look back to the original covenant with Abraham, that promise is there. And through Jesus, that promise is fulfilled.
And there are more fulfilled promises and prophecies tucked into this genealogy: like when Isaiah prophesies the Messiah will descend from Jesse (Isaiah 11:1-10) or the time God promises David that his throne will be established forever (2 Samuel 7:16).
Here’s the craziest part of Matthew’s genealogy–it not only looks backward to all the family connections and fulfilled prophecies, but it looks ahead to what’s to come. Specific people in this list hint at what Jesus will do, and their names jump out at us because they’re women.
The Jewish culture is patriarchal, which means genealogies are listed by the father’s names. So, for Matthew to include five women’s names indicates much. One such indication hints at a coming change. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Uriah’s wife (Bathsheba), and Mary are listed as part of the Messiah’s genealogy. Their roles are important to the story, and they foreshadow the way Jesus brings women into His fold and church.
A second idea foreshadowed by incorporation of the first four women in this genealogy is that of Gentile inclusion in the family of God. Tamar and Rahab are both Canaanites (Genesis 38 and Joshua 2). Ruth is a Moabite (Ruth 1:4), and Bathsheba’s husband is known as Uriah the Hittite (2 Samuel 11:3), implying her connection to that nation. These four foreign women foretell the way Jesus extends His hand to all people–Jew and Gentile.
Until recently, I didn’t know there could be so much packed into a list of names! So, it’s my hope that as you reread Matthew 1 you’ll do so with curiosity and an eye for detail, recognizing that Matthew’s purpose in including it is multi-faceted. It looks back, tells a story, and points ahead to all that Jesus does while on earth. Here’s to the stories a genealogy can tell!
I’d love to hear what else you uncover as you read this genealogy with renewed gusto, so comment below.