A Rag-Tag History

In the last blog post we saw how the genealogies in the first chapter of Matthew are purposefully organized to show how Israel’s history pointed to Jesus. In this post I want to dig deeper into what Matthew wants us to teach us (through the genealogy) about who Jesus is.

If we are at all familiar with the stories in the Old Testament, we will see many familiar names when we read through the first chapter of Matthew. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and Solomon, to name a few. Because we know those stories, it’s easy to forget what Matthew is trying to tell us.

This is Jesus' family tree.

These are His ancestors. When God promised to bless Abraham and make him a blessing (Gen. 12:2), and promised David he would establish his kingdom (2 Sam 7:12), those promises were ultimately about Jesus. They are fulfilled in him.
Matthew is telling us that story. He is telling us the story of how the promises became a reality. But what a strange story! This isn’t a story to boast about. Jesus’ ancestors weren’t figures that invoke pride. This isn’t a line of pure-blooded saints, with Jesus as the culmination.

And the faults of these characters aren’t difficult to see, and Matthew doesn’t attempt to hide them.

There are the patriarchs, of course – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – all of whom were characterized by deep sin and selfishness (the story of Jacob is, essentially, one bad decision after another).

And these are followed by Judah, who gave the name for the tribe from which the kings of Israel would come. His story in Genesis 38 is almost too scandalous to describe in detail.

Add to this the similarly shocking exploits of King David, of Solomon, and certainly of the many wicked kings of Israel (there are seven particularly wicked kings in Matthew’s genealogy, along with seven relatively good kings).

In the line of Jesus, it is the sinfulness of man, going all the way back to Adam, that seems to be emphasized. Jesus is not just another in a line of saints – he is the only sinless one, the one true king in a line of pretenders. He is not like those who came before, but He has come to save them (as well as us).
And it isn’t just the sinfulness of David’s ancestors that stands out here. There’s also a strong “countercultural” undercurrent in how God chose to pluck many of these figures out.

First, there are the “younger siblings” chosen to carry on the royal line. In an age of birthright favoritism, where the eldest (particularly the eldest son) was to be primary heir, the genealogy of Jesus turns this favoritism on its head. Isaac is the second son of Abraham, Jacob is the second son of Isaac, Judah is the fourth son of Jacob, and on and on, with a list that includes David, Solomon, and many of Israel’s kings. The younger, in Jesus’ line, is emphasized, while the elder is passed over.

Second, Matthew gives a significant place to women in his list. In a time where genealogies would have been focused exclusively on men (just as the birthright was bestowed primarily on the firstborn male), Matthew takes the unusual step of including four prominent women into Jesus’ history. And these aren’t just any women. Of the four women, three (Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth) are gentiles (thus, in the minds of many Jews, polluting the blood of Jesus’ line).

But Matthew doesn’t stop there! Three of the four are also women whose lives are at least partially characterized by sin. Tamar is famous for dressing up as a prostitute to seduce her father-in-law. Rahab was also described as a prostitute. And Bathsheba is not even named here specifically, but described as the “wife of Uriah” (v. 6), emphasizing her adulterous relationship with David.

This is all very interesting, but what does this information tell us? Is it simply there so we can know that Jesus, like all of us, has some scandal in His family tree? Does it just make Him relatable? No, it shows us something far more important:

Jesus’ lineage reflects Jesus' mission.

The depravity we see in Jesus’ family is the same depravity He has come to redeem. The inclusion of women and gentiles (including prostitutes and adulterers) reflects the outcasts He came to bring into His Kingdom.

By spending just a bit of time reading through this name list Matthew begins his Gospel with, we see more clearly who Jesus was and what he came to do. It gives us a solid stepping stone to enter into the story of Jesus Matthew is about to tell.