Jesse Tree Window from the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris
Matthew 1: 1-17
1 An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4 and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of King David.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, 7 and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, 8 and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, 9 and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10 and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, 11 and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13 and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14 and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15 and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.
17 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.
This is not the way we would begin a story today. If you are like most modern readers when you reach the numerous genealogies in the bible you either skip them entirely or skim them quickly and move along but I want to invite you to slow down a dwell here for a little bit. The way we tell our stories matter. As a person who has grown up during the end of the twentieth century and has lived much of my adult life in the twenty first, I grew expecting stories to tell me about the person who crafted their own path through life. Our stories are of self-made men and women who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and though they may be aided by others along their heroic quest for a position, power, wealth, the love of a man or woman, or in the realm of both fiction and occasionally nonfiction to save the world, we follow the development of the man (frequently) or woman (less frequently) as they encounter struggle, as they grow and develop their identity and in most of our stories overcome the incredible odds stacked against them to succeed. The stories we read also shape the way we understand our own lives and the culture in which we live in profound ways.
It wasn’t very long ago, in the realm of history, that people thought very differently about their stories. There has been a massive philosophical shift in the way we understand who we are and how we construct our lives. One of the great gifts of my job is getting to listen to people’s stories and over the last fifteen years as a pastor I’ve had the opportunity to hear many stories of people from across the spectrum of experiences and from the past several generations. We are losing the last generation of people believed their stories were handed on to them by their parents and by the expectations of the society around them. Particularly women of that generation had very few opportunities to choose from: their main choices included being a mother, teacher, secretary or nurse. I can celebrate that my own daughter will have a seemingly endless set of possible career and lifestyle paths before her, and many of these new choices came through decades of struggles of women (with some men as allies) trying to break through many of the barriers set before them. Yet, there is a psychological toll that has come from the new responsibility that people feel in creating their own stories.
We once received our identity from our parents and from the society around us. Modern beliefs in social mobility where we are capable of charting our own paths and creating our own future are modern beliefs, they are not timeless. One of the struggles of people today is spending our lives attempting to figure out who we are and searching for a life that is worth living, rather than accepting that our parents and grandparents would pass on to us the life we would live. My father was a firefighter and my mother worked for a bank, my parents were both very intelligent but neither had the opportunity to pursue a bachelor’s degree out of high school. They both would work their way up through their respective workplaces and through life, but the life they pursued would be very different from the life that I would have. Another change I experienced, partially due to education and career choices, was frequently moving to new areas of the country. My parents once they settled in San Antonio continued to work there throughout their adult lives. My son grew up living in Louisiana, Iowa, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and finally graduated high school in Texas. The days where most employees will work for one company throughout their careers or only hold one type of job until they retire are nearly gone. Companies no longer offer the type of guarantees they once did for their employees, the technological landscape has changed things dramatically to where workers will be continually expected to learn new skills throughout their lives and most critically the responsibility for navigating all of this has been increasingly placed on the individual in the workforce rather than the employer.
Why this matters to hearing the story Matthew’s gospel wants us to hear is highlighted at the very beginning of the gospel. How we begin a narrative gives the reader a clue to the story we are about to tell. If I begin a story, ‘once upon a time’ you know I am most likely beginning a fairy tale, or if the first thing you see is a date and place you might suspect I am going to narrate a historical tale (December 7, 1941 in Hawaii might be used to start a story with the United States involvement in World War II). Beginnings matter and each of the four gospels has their own unique way of beginning the story. Mark’s gospel simply announces, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” launches into a composite quotation of scripture and then launches into the story with John the Baptist appearing in the wilderness. Luke’s gospel begins with an address to a reader, Theophilius (who may be a real or fictional reader, Theophilius means ‘friend of God’) letting us know that what is to come is an orderly account of the life of Jesus received from eyewitnesses and then begins by fixing the time telling us we are in the time of King Herod of Judea. John’s gospel begins with the poetic prologue, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ John’s poetic introduction wants us to understand the significance of the one referred to throughout the gospel. Matthew’s gospel begins with a genealogy.
Although there is a rediscovered fascination with genealogy, for most of us we look at the first seventeen verses of Matthew’s gospel and wonder why the story would begin this way. We may rush forward to the second half of the chapter where we move towards the birth of Jesus but I want to encourage us to slow down and listen to the story being told by the beginning of the gospel in the way Matthew chooses. There are things that this beginning gives us important information about that will shape the way in which the rest of the story is to be heard. Remember that for most of history identities have been inherited. The people we are is due to the life that our parents and grandparents lived. As Matthew begins his story he enters into a story that has been woven for dozens of generations, it is a story of the Jewish people. From the very beginning this is a Jewish gospel and we are placed into the long running story that Matthew chooses to begin with Abraham. It is a story of struggle, triumph and failure, of faithfulness and unfaithfulness. It is not a perfect story but it is the story of the relationship between God and the people of Israel, and in particular Judah, and even though we enter a critical juncture in the story what comes from this point forward is related to what came before.
Before I enter into the genealogy itself, I want to state that I believe there is a lot to learn from this way of telling a story. Although we may celebrate stories of self-made men and women they rarely are what they appear. To use the example of the last two stories of the men who were elected President of the United States: one was incredibly wealthy and told his story in a way that he started with a loan from his father which he turned into a vast empire, one was the son of a divorced mother who would study at Columbia University and then Harvard Law School and move from community organizing into politics. The reality is that both of their stories is far more complex than this and both received assistance form their extended family networks in starting and continuing their stories. In my own case my parents made it possible for me and for my sisters to start our careers by attending college and they would assist each of us in various ways throughout the beginning of our adult lives. Our families may provide a more secure launching point and supporting role in our lives than we often acknowledge. On the other hand, families will pass on disfunction from one generation to another as well. You don’t have to spend very long looking into Family Systems models of understanding therapy to see patterns emerge that often go unseen. Values and biases are handed down, often unconsciously, from generation to generation. Our families can be sources of great support or they may damage us psychologically, and often they are a mixture of both. The social situation our families grow up within also dramatically shapes our values and ways at looking at the world. None of this even begins to approach the cultural, religious and social ways that school systems, communities of faith, neighborhoods, and countless other factors imprint upon our identities their values and beliefs. Our stories are far more complex than the narratives we often try to place them within. Our story began long before we took our first breath, it depends upon the family we are born into and the world we encounter even before we take our first breath.
Matthew reminds us of this Jewish story and the way he narrates this genealogy is important. On the one hand he structures the genealogy in patterns of fourteen to communicate that at each juncture there is a critical event in the story and the story of Jesus is the next crucial event in this running narrative. If we tell the story of our family we often do it in a way that highlights the best aspects of that family to bring honor and glory to ourselves and we often bury the portions that embarrass us. Sometimes this inability to talk about the unspoken secrets in the family does unspeakable harm because the patterns that emerge are never discussed, and so I find the way that Matthew relates the story of Jesus’ heritage refreshing. Matthew not only brings up the family secrets in these verses they are highlighted.
The Genesis of Jesus the Messiah
Beginning with verse one we have a linkage back to the very beginning of the story of God and God’s people. Throughout the genealogy we will be given a clue that the story that comes afterwards will be a Jewish story but one told within the expansive horizon of the call of Abraham (Abram) expressed in Genesis 12: 1-3:
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
The linkage with the story of Abraham isn’t only highlighted by Abraham’s primary position within the genealogy but also by the language of verse one which uses the Greek word genesis for genealogy. In this story not only will the children of Abraham or the children of Israel, his grandson, be blessed but this is a narrative in which all the families of the earth shall be blessed. This blessing is highlighted by an unusual addition to the normal patterns of genealogies.
The Women of Matthew’s Genealogy
The role of women in the society continues to change. Although we still have a long way to go in giving women an equal voice, the status of women in modern society is viewed much higher than would’ve been imagined in most ancient societies. The role of women in the Hebrew scriptures is complex: there are times where women occupy positions of extremely high positions, the women in the early stories in Genesis often are incredibly influential in how the stories are told, in Exodus women are often instrumental in resisting the decrees of Pharaoh, and there are stories, like those highlighted in the genealogy, where women boldly act to secure their own future and their own part of the story. Yet, the assumed role of women in the Hebrew scriptures is that they are the property of their fathers and then their husbands. When their voice is heard it is the exception, not the rule. In Matthew’s genealogy they will also be the exception, not the rule, but as it is throughout the remainder of Matthew’s gospel when they appear they are the outsider making a place for themselves among the promises of God. Like the Canaanite woman they refused to allow their circumstances to determine their future, they forced the men of the story to acknowledge their claim and they made a space for a more expansive reading of the boundaries of God’s promises to the people.
The narrative begins with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Although Matthew doesn’t mention the women of most of the story of Genesis (Sarah and Hagar, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah) Jewish people would know these stories. Yet, as we enter the story of Judah we encounter our first woman mentioned in the genealogy: Tamar. Matthew could have chosen to not mention this woman, he chose to exclude Sarah, Rebekah and Leah before her, especially as he links Jesus to the line of Judah, but he does. He highlights this lesser know story of Tamar and Judah, an odd story of a woman who refuses to be left out of the story.
The story of Judah and Tamar is told in Genesis 38. Tamar is most likely a Canaanite woman, like Judah’s wife who bears his first three sons, who is given to be the wife of Er the first son of Judah. Er does not live long enough to pass on an heir through Tamar, Genesis makes the theological claim that Er was wicked in the eyes of the LORD and the LORD caused his early death. According to custom Judah’s second son, Onan, was now to take on the role of husband for her and to continue the family line for his brother through her. Yet Onan refused to get Tamar pregnant because the inheritance would pass to his brother’s line instead of his and again Genesis tells us that this displeased God and that God caused him also to have an early death. Judah, fearing to give his last son to this woman who was probably viewed as cursed in some manner, promised her that when his last son was an adult she would be his wife but the promised union never came and she remained a widow in her father’s household. After Judah’s wife, the unnamed daughter of Shua, dies Tamar takes actions into her own hands. She sees that the final son, Shelah, had grown and she was not given to be his bride so she puts aside her widow’s garments, places a veil upon her face and waits. Judah, passing through the area, assumes she is a prostitute and sleeps with her giving her his signet and cord and staff as a guarantee of payment. Then Tamar returns to her father’s home, takes up her widow’s garments and Judah is unable to find the person he assumed was a prostitute to pay her the promised young goat from the flock. Three months later when it is discovered she is pregnant Judah goes to demand that she is punished for her infidelity by burning her, but through her father-in-law she produces the signet and cord and staff indicating that Judah is the father. Judah’s acknowledgment that, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her my son Shelah.” She would bear Perez and Zerah who the line of Judah would pass through. Like the one who will enter Matthew’s gospel in Matthew 15: 21-28, who is told that there is no place in the promise for her she will claim her own place, her own righteousness, her own promise. It may not be a story that brings great honor to Judah, yet it highlights the way in which the promise will be extended to her and she becomes the first of the women highlighted in Matthew’s story of Jesus heritage that points to an inclusive vision of what this story might become.
The genealogy continues through four more generations as we move through a time where the story of these generations disappear. Hezron, Aram, Aminadab, and Nahshon are a part of the lost generations from the time in Egypt and the first generation of the Exodus. One thing to understand about the genealogy is that it doesn’t necessarily include every piece of the story and it is possible that some of these generations truly were lost in the four hundred thirty years that the Israelites are recorded living in Egypt from when Joseph brought his brothers down until Moses liberated the people. While there is a lot that happens in the story of Israel through Moses, Aaron, and Miriam the lineage of Jesus’ father Joseph does not pass through the line of Levi but through the line of Judah. We will see how Jesus takes up the mantle and story of Moses and the Exodus shortly in Matthew’s gospel, but currently we are following the line of the kings of Judah, their story and the story that Jesus narrative is a part of.
As we exit these lost generations we come to Salmon and Rahab in this long line that is introducing us to the family story of Jesus. Once again, a woman is mentioned and once again she is an outsider. Rahab, in Joshua 2, is a recorded as a prostitute who welcomes the two unnamed spies of Joshua into her home and hides them from servants of the king of Jericho. Salmon may be one of these unnamed spies but the narrative of Joshua is silent on his name but records Rahab’s. She hides the two spies among the flax laid out on the roof but she is recorded relating to them:
I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. As soon as we heard it our hearts melted and there was no courage left in any of us because of you. The LORD your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below. (Joshua 2: 9-11)
In return for hiding them from the king’s servants, sending the king’s servants in the wrong direction to pursue them and providing them with a way out of the city and a way to avoid capture the two men promise to preserve her and her family if she ties a crimson cord in the window she let them escape through. When the Israelites come to the city of Jericho, Joshua instructs the two young men who were spies to bring Rahab and her household out, which they do, and they are spared. They are initially set outside the camp, but they come to be a part of Israel. As Joshua reports, “Her family has lived in Israel ever since.” (Joshua 6: 25)
Scholars have since debated whether Rahab was a prostitute or whether she kept an inn and there is within some Christian circles a discomfort with accepting the possibility of a prostitute being an integral part of the story of the people of God. Yet, throughout the gospel, Jesus will be accused of associating with the wrong type of people. Prostitution was also looked upon differently in the ancient world than we do today. If you ask most Christians what they think adultery is they will tell you it is, ‘sex outside of marriage’ but it is much more complicated than that in ancient Judaism. Adultery in the Hebrew Scriptures is related to sex with someone who belongs to someone else, whether a husband, a betrothed, or even a father and while prostitution was considered an occupation that a father was not to sell his daughter into, it was an accepted part of society. Prostitutes may have been considered ‘sinners’ and there are certainly portions of the bible that use prostitution as a metaphor for what is wrong in the worship or life of Israel, the metaphor works because the practice is well known. Still, to have Rahab, an outsider and one recorded in both the Hebrew Scriptures and in the two additional places she is mentioned in the New Testament (Hebrews 11: 31 and James 2: 5) as a prostitute who is highlighted in the lineage of Jesus’ family and story and like Tamar she creates a path for her story to be joined to the story of the people of Israel and ultimately to the story of Jesus.
Our story resumes with the mention of another woman, another outsider, and yet a story which has its own book dedicated to it in the scriptures. Boaz is the son of Nahshon and Rahab, a Canaanite former resident of Jericho, and he will end up marrying Ruth the Moabitess. Ruth’s story is better known than Tamar or Rahab, and yet it also is somewhat scandalous. Ruth has to create a place for herself within the story of Israel and within the family line of Judah. Ruth is a widow and a daughter-in-law of Naomi. Naomi and her husband Elimelech move during a famine to Moab to survive. While they are there they are apparently met with hospitality and arrange marriages for their two sons to Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Elimelech dies and ten years late Naomi’s sons Mahlon and Chilion (whose names may be symbolic in the story since they come from Hebrew roots for ‘sickness’ and ‘destruction’) also die leaving their wives widows as well. Naomi encourages her daughters-in-law to return to their family but Ruth refuses and returns with Naomi, now renaming herself Mara (bitter), and both Naomi and Ruth seem to have no future. Ruth uses the provision in the law which requires the leavings of the field to be available for the poor and goes out to glean during the barley harvest where she is seen and noticed by Boaz who extends his protection and ensures that she has an adequate gleaning. In his words he is returning the kindness she has shown for Naomi and he blesses her for seeking refuge under the wings of the LORD, the God of Israel. Naomi plots with Ruth to attempt to secure a future for them both after the conclusion of the harvest by having Ruth go and observe where Boaz lies down after threshing, eating and drinking. Ruth is putting herself at Boaz’ mercy and Ruth propositions Boaz, asking for him to extend his cloak over her and symbolically bringing her into his house as his wife. Boaz settles the matter the next day, takes over the role of not only kinsman-redeemer but husband of Ruth. Ruth the Moabitess, like Tamar and Rahab before her, would make a place for herself in the people of Israel and in the line of Judah that would lead to her great-grandson, King David.
The line from Boaz and Ruth to David is listed in both the book of Ruth and here in Matthew. David’s role within the Hebrew Scriptures transcends his individual story because he becomes almost an Arthurian character in the imagination of the people, a once and future king. King David’s dynasty would be near the apex of a very short period where the people of Israel were a unified people and they were active players on the world stage. The Son of David will be one of the titles often used for Jesus indicating his royal status. Yet, David’s story is full of drama, far more than can be mentioned in this brief coverage, but one critical moment is highlighted by the introduction of our fourth woman in this genealogy, a woman the genealogy doesn’t name directly but rather indirectly in a way that highlights the scandal of David’s action against both Uriah and Bathsheba.
David’s notice of Bathsheba bathing upon the rooftops and the set of deceptions and betrayals his lying with her leads to is one of many troubling parts of David’s story. Uriah the Hittite is one of several outsiders who fought in David’s army and Bathsheba may have been a Hittite as well or may have been of another group or even a part of Israel, yet she was the wife of this warrior in David’s army and presumably (by the location of his house so close to the house of David) one of his well respected warriors. Bathsheba has often been portrayed as a temptress attempting to seduce David, but this probably is not accurate. David as king had the power to have her brought to him and she presumably had little ability to resist the king’s desires. Whether the union was rape or consensual the scriptures place the responsibility completely on David’s shoulders. When David is unable to cover up his part in Bathsheba’s pregnancy due to the honorable action of Uriah the Hittite, David gives orders for Uriah to be killed in battle by positioning him in the hardest portion of the fight and then abandoning him for his enemies to overwhelm him. Yet, Bathsheba will later ensure that the kingship will pass from David to her son Solomon instead of Adonijah. Bathsheba may not have had any choice about being brought into the story of King David, but once she was a part of that story, she refused to allow the line of kings to pass through anyone other than her son. She may have been an outsider and her place within the story certainly illustrates one of the scandalous portions of David’s rule as king, and yet she too would ensure that the story would not forget her or her original husband.
For the first fourteen generations listed in Matthew, I have included where their story is referenced in the Hebrew Scriptures here.
The Line of Kings and the Line of Nobodies
The first fourteen generations led us from Abraham to King David and even though there are some lost generations in this portion of the genealogy we enter the remaining two sections that I will refer to as the line of kings and the line of nobodies. David’s son, Solomon, will oversee what is recorded as the height of power of the United Kingdom of Israel but this will not last. Solomon is known by many Christians for his wisdom and the construction of the temple, yet all throughout 1 Kings’ narrative of Solomon’s reign there is an underlying criticism of Solomon’s drift away from faithfulness to the LORD the God of Israel. 1 Kings makes a theological judgement that it is God who is behind the increasing resistance at the end of Solomon’s reign. When Solomon’s son, Rehoboam is asked for relief from the heavy burdens placed upon the people during Solomon’s reign and he responds in a way that indicated he would increase the burdens on the people the kingdom splits in two with most of Israel following Jeroboam and the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remaining under Rehoboam and the Davidic line of kings.
The story of the kings of Israel and Judah can be a little challenging to follow and Matthew doesn’t list every king who would be in the family line of Jesus, there is also a theological point Matthew wants to make about God’s time and the orderliness of the number fourteen gives the genealogy its structure, but the kings that are listed are representative of the best and worst of the kings of Judah. I have provided a quick guide to the line of the kings of Judah here linking both to the narrative tellings of their reigns in 1&2 Kings and the parallel narratives in 1&2 Chronicles and, when applicable, to which prophets were ministering and writing during their reign. Although the Davidic line of kings will be a focal point in the hope of the book of Psalms, the prophets and the narrative of the scriptures, the kings of Judah will be deposed by Babylon and we will enter the line of nobodies.
The final fourteen people in the genealogy have no reference in scripture other than in this genealogy, they are a part of the lost generations who lived in exile in Babylon and who, at least in part, returned to Judea and Galilee in the years after Cyrus the Great of Persia allows for the remnant of Judah to resettle Jerusalem and the surrounding area. We simply do not know their stories, perhaps people in Matthew’s community may have known some of their stories but they are a line of nobodies in the remembrance of scripture. Yet, these nobodies and kings, patriarchs and the women who forced their way into the story make up the back story that Matthew sets his story within.
Luke 3: 23-28 also lists a genealogy for Jesus but it is not a parallel to Matthew’s genealogy. Luke’s genealogy starts earlier but also traces a different path from David to Joseph. Ultimately, there is no way to historically verify which genealogy is closer to the parentage of Jesus and both ultimately serve the story that each gospel writer wants to tell. For Matthew the linkage to the stories of Abraham, the women mentioned, and the line of David are important, where Luke wants us to understand Jesus’ linkage of God and all of humanity. Also, for Matthew the orderly pattern of fourteen allows us to see that Jesus is a closing of the chapter of exile and powerlessness that begins with he deportation into Babylon and the beginning of a new chapter for the people of God.