‘This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham’ – Matthew 1.1
The Skeletons in the Genealogical Closet
After having heard one too many times on a Sunday morning about a particular life-changing book, one may find themselves sitting with the bible open on their lap after making a new resolution to read the bible every day. Deciding to start with the New Testament, they flick through to the beginning of the first of the four Gospels: Matthew chapter one – the Genealogy.
For a first timer or a regular bible reader this can seem a bit of an anti-climax. Rather than an amazing encounter of God’s powerful work or a parable to ponder over, we are faced with a list of names staring back at us. The temptation is to immediately shut the book and put it out of our minds, either deciding to come back to it later (yeah right!) or that the bible is boring and not at all useful; pass over the section onto something a little more exciting; or read through it whilst letting your mind wander and consequently not getting much out of it.
The sad thing about this is that the bible is in fact an amazing book – the most amazing book ever written! If this vast family tree gives us a bad first impression and potentially stops us from experiencing how beneficial the bible is then it is a big shame. Why did Matthew deem it necessary to throw Jesus’s ancestry at us before we had even read about His birth? Can any of us really view the genealogy as useful in any way?
The answer is yes! The genealogy is actually really cool if you take a moment to look into it.
In real life most of us love genealogies. They give us those details of someone’s history that would sound too nosey to ask for outright. They are pretty useful too – when we go to buy a dog we automatically become interested in the animal’s pedigree (or genealogy). Our own genealogies are perhaps the most interesting to trace, particularly if we find out our distant ancestor was significant in the history books (good to drop into conversation too!). At the beginning of Matthew he lists out for us Jesus’s genealogy for us to nose into before we even start hearing about Him. He fills us in on the whole background history of who Jesus’s family were in a couple of pages, ready for us to refer back to if we get muddled.
The one problem with genealogies is that they inform us that some of our predecessors were not such great people after all. There are often skeletons in our genealogical closets, and this genealogy has many more than you might expect! After all, the names listed were real people, so they were naturally a long way from perfect. Even Abraham failed miserably when you look into the tale behind his long awaited son, Isaac. What we discover through this is that the blessings God pours on His people are based upon the grace and mercy or God, despite what they have done.
In the genealogy, it seems perhaps that Matthew reflects the whole gospel – that God can overcome and forgive sin, and can use those who have previously sinned but are now remorseful for his great purposes in history.
One of the most exciting things about the genealogy for me is that there are four women included! This is a very rare occasion, especially in Matthew, that the women should be classed important enough in Jesus’s ancestry to be finalized into this list of names. It begins to reflect the early signs of the equality and righteousness of God. They also were not symbols of perfection… far from it. This is another way in which Matthew is preaching the Gospel – that Jesus came ‘not for the righteous, but for sinners’ (Matthew 9:13).
It highlights that Jesus did not only come for the sinners, but through the sinners.
Who likes a mystery? Well, here’s one for you: there are two genealogies in the Gospels, one in Matthew and one in Luke. They are both genealogies of the same guy… but they’re different. Some people believe that one is of Mary’s side of the family and the other Joseph’s; others think that one follows the biological lineage and the other includes the occasion of levirate marriage. Their styles are certainly different, most noticeably that Matthew’s genealogy works from the oldest relative forward in time to Jesus, but Luke’s starts with Jesus and works backwards. Nobody can know for definite the answer to why the names are different… it is a puzzle left for you to decide which you think is right. Who knew a genealogy could be so exciting?
There is a distinct order to the genealogy in Matthew. It is written in three sections of fourteen names. In the first section from Abraham to David things seem to get better and better, overall portraying the mercy of God with the inclusion of the Gentile women. The second section juxtaposes the times when the kingdom was at its best, with when all is divided and unity has gone out the window. Finally, the third section brings hope as God delivers his people from Babylon back to Israel. But what can we understand from this order in such a time when many lives were a mess?
God was, and is, in complete control the whole time.
Three times fourteen – the equation for the history of Jesus. Throughout all of the chaos, God had a plan and a promise to fulfil. To the people living at the time, things may have looked a bit messy, but the outcome was certain. When we look back at the history of Jesus, we see that through all of the sin and disharmony the order was steady and consistent. God did indeed have his own divine election. It is reassuring to know that now, whatever may be happening or what we may be going through, Matthew reminds us at the beginning of his Gospel that God has a plan mapped out for us.
We have now discovered that in this vast family tree, the foundation of the gospel has already been spoken several times. On the page it may appear an irrelevant list of names, but once we have read between the lines there is a whole load of truths for us to discover in this cleverly created genealogy.
Maybe next time I write I shall start with a genealogy… if it’s good enough for Matthew, it’s good enough for me.