Advent Midweek 1
Matthew’s Genealogy: Abraham’s Descendent
December 3, 2014
Trinity Lutheran Church – New Haven, MO
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There was an old Scots minister who was reading from the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. He started, “Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac begat Jacob, and Jacob begat Judah,” and as he looked ahead and saw the long list that followed, he said, “and they kept on begetting one another all the way down this page and halfway into the next.” That old minister says what most of us think when we come to the genealogies in Scripture. We see a name or two that we recognize, but then our eyes glaze over and we just end up skipping ahead to something a little less, well, boring.
Yet the Holy Spirit saw fit to inspire the holy prophets and evangelists to include a good number of genealogies in Scripture. And that’s how St. Matthew begins his Gospel. A biblos geneseōs of Jesus Christ—a book of the genealogy. These are the exact words of the Greek translation of Genesis 2:4—a book of the genealogy of the heavens and the earth—as well as numerous other Old Testament genealogies. Matthew puts Himself in a long line of biblical genealogies.
Matthew begins with Abraham and traces father to son until we arrive at Jesus. This genealogy is meant to show us from the outset of Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham that all nations would be blessed through his Descendent, or his seed. Jesus is that Blessing.
Jesus Is Abraham’s Descendent, through Whom All Nations Are Blessed
The first and most obvious feature of Matthew’s genealogy is the almost miraculous symmetry. Therefore, St. Matthew writes at the conclusion of his genealogy, all the generations from Abraham until David are fourteen generations; and from David until the deportation to Babylon are fourteen generations; and from the deportations to Babylon until the Christ are fourteen generations (v 17). The only problem is that Matthew plays pretty fast and loose with those numbers. A quick comparison to the Old Testament genealogies shows that Matthew leaves out 4 names from the time of the kings: Ahaziah, Joash, Amaziah, and Jehoiakim. In all other places in his Gospel, Matthew shows a thorough knowledge of the Old Testament, so surely he did not simply overlook these names. Additionally, to arrive at the three sets of fourteen, David must be counted twice.
Before we look at Matthew’s numbering, let’s first consider who he sets up His genealogy. He doesn’t actually say, Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac was the father of Jacob (v 2 AAT), etc., but he uses a different word. It’s the verb form of the word for genealogy, which is what the King James Version, read by that old Scots minister, translates “begat.” In English, we might say, “Abraham gave rise to the generation of Isaac,” or, more simply, “Abraham generated Isaac.” In the case of Abraham and Isaac, this was a father-son relationship, but you could just as easily say, “Abraham gave rise to the generation of Jacob,” even though Abraham is Jacob’s grandfather.
This is not so difficult to deal with—Jesus is often called the Son of David, even though David is a great-grandfather of many generations. Likewise, when the Lord blessed Abraham, He said that in him already was the blessing. So the omission of the four names shouldn’t cause any problems, genealogically speaking. So what was the purpose of this loose way of counting?
Many attempts have been made at reconciling Matthew’s genealogy with the genealogies of the Old Testament, but the majority of them rely on speculations with no proof. So I’ll offer this. Matthew’s genealogy and the Old Testament genealogies agree on the fourteen generations from Abraham to David. Counting ahead another fourteen generations from David gets you almost, but not quite to the Babylonian Captivity. And from the Babylonian captivity to Christ is fourteen generations. The number fourteen is a good biblical number because it’s two sets of seven, the number of creation. By recording his genealogy in the way he did, Matthew is making a theological point—not of three groups of fourteen, but of six groups of seven. And the only thing better than six groups of seven is seven groups of seven.
The implication of Matthew’s genealogy is that there’s another generation that’s yet to come, and that you, by hearing this Gospel of Jesus Christ, are begotten into the same genealogy. That is to say that you are an heir to the promise given to Abraham, just as you will sing tonight in the Magnificat: He hath holpen His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy/as He spake to our Fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed forever. You are a part of the last set of generations—the generation from Christ until the renewal of all things, the generation of the Church.
There are a few other peculiarities to Matthew’s genealogy. Usually ancient genealogies are patriarchal, recording only fathers and sons (or grandfathers and grandsons). But Matthew introduces four women in His genealogy: Tamar (mother of Perez and Zerah); Rahab (mother of Boaz); Ruth (mother of Obed); and Uriah’s wife (Bathsheba, mother of Solomon). But what makes this inclusion more unusual is that these are four notorious women from the Old Testament.
Tamar is the one who gave birth to twin sons, who were fathered by her father-in-law—and, oh, by the way, she tricked him into doing it by dressing as a prostitute. Rahab didn’t even pretend to be a prostitute—she was one by profession. Ruth was the Gentile who scandalously propositioned Boaz into marrying her. And Bathsheba doesn’t even get named—the adulterous wife of Uriah, who David murdered to cover up his sin. These are women whose reputations would cause a collective gasp if they walked into our Church today. Yet they are included in the lineage of Christ.
First, the inclusion of these women show that the Christian Gospel is equally for women as much as it is for men. A patriarchal genealogy isn’t possible without the mothers who bear their children and raise them. Second, it reminds us that Christ came into this genealogy to save sinners—especially the most notorious of them—and that we are justified not by living a decent life, but by the Word and promise of Christ. God remains faithful to His promise in spite of our sinful rebellion.
And lastly, these four women are a defense against the slander that Jesus was an illegitimate son of Mary by another man. The scandal of the incarnation is too much to bear for those who justify themselves on account of their own works. For them, it isn’t necessary for God to become man, because man is busy at work trying to become like God. And so the Virgin birth has to go, and Mary must be a promiscuous young woman who went and got herself pregnant. But Matthew points out that the heroes of the Hebrews are notorious sinners whitewashed to remove all blemishes, and in a sweet reversal shows that what appears to be the illegitimate birth is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy—behold the virgin conceives and bears a child.
Matthew’s genealogy differs from Luke’s, which will be our meditation next week. There are lots of different names. Again, there are many suggestions as to why these genealogies are so different. The most compelling argument is that Matthew presents the genealogy of Joseph, while Luke presents the genealogy of Mary; both of them tracing their line back to David.
The structure of Matthew’s genealogy, with fathers begetting sons (or grandsons), brings us to the household of Joseph. This would mean that in a legal sense, Jesus is a legitimate heir to David’s throne. He is no outside usurper. Even from Jesus’ birth, King Herod recognizes this claim and seeks to destroy the Child. And it’s this claim that ultimately gets Him crowned with thorns and enthroned on the cross.
Finally, this genealogy is the genealogy, Matthew writes, of Jesus, who is called the Christ (v 16). Jesus is called the Christ because He is the One promised to descend from Abraham to bless all nations. The Christ is the Anointed One. Like the prophets, priests, and kings who populate Jesus’ ancestry, Jesus is the One who is anointed and set apart as the Righteous Branch of Abraham’s family tree, sprouting from the stump of Jesse, born into the household of Joseph, but of a virgin mother, David’s Lord become David’s Son and Heir. The King crowned with thorns and enthroned on a cross, who is now raised to heaven to sit at God’s right hand, with all the world under His nail-pierced feet.
Jesus. He will save His people from their sins, the angel tells Joseph. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, saved from their devious trickery. Judah and Tamar saved from their incest. Rahab from her prostitution. Ruth saved by her Redeemer. David and Uriah’s wife saved from their adultery and murder. And the list goes on.
And he saves you, a branch in the seventh and last generation, a generation that joins this genealogy by faith.
In + Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard
 Ray Stedman, The Beginnings (Waco: Word Books, 1978) cited in the article “Coming to Grips with Genealogies” on Bible.org.