Since we are nearing Christmas, it’s good to take a look at the way the gospels tell the story of Jesus’ birth. So I thought we might look at Matthew, one of the only two gospels to do so.
It often strikes modern readers as very peculiar – and boring – that Matthew begins his gospel (which is supposed to be exciting good news) with a genealogy. It seems like putting a batch of statistics on the front page of the paper.
But to the first century Palestinian Jewish readers for whom Matthew is writing such a genealogy is both interesting and important. Matthew gives us the clue as to why this is in the first verse: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” That is, Matthew is identifying Jesus with the two most important theological figures in Israel’s past and means to show that Jesus is the fulfilment of God’s promises to them.
For God has sworn two covenant oaths in the Old Testament that represent “insurance policies” for Israel. The first of these is the covenant oath that he swore to Abraham in Genesis 22. This oath not only insured the survival of Abraham’s seed, but also guaranteed that that seed – not Abraham himself, but his son (whom Matthew identifies as Jesus) – would be a channel of blessing to the whole world (Genesis 22:16-18).
The second covenant oath is the one sworn to David in 2 Samuel 7. In that covenant David had proposed the idea of building a “house” for God (i.e., a temple). But instead God, an inveterate punster, sent the prophet Nathan to tell David that God instead promised to build David a “house” (that is, a dynasty) and promises David a son (that is, a dynastic heir), adding, “I will be his father, and he shall be my son” (2 Samuel 7:14). It is this son, says God, who will build the Temple and God, for his part, tells David “your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16).
The fascinating thing here is that David himself understands this to mean more than a political realm: it is a priestly kingdom as well. That is why David sings in Psalm 110 in homage to his heir and calls him “my Lord”, declaring: “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek’” (v. 4). Melchizedek was the priest king of “Salem” (that is, Jerusalem) to whom Abraham offered homage and who gave to Abraham bread and wine after the battle in which he rescued Lot (Genesis 14:17-21). David sees in the priesthood of Melchizedek an older and more profound priesthood than the levitical priesthood of the Mosaic covenant and knows from Nathan’s promise that God means to make his heir a participant in that priesthood. And once again, Matthew identifies Jesus with the ultimate recipient of that covenant promise. For he is the Messiah or “son of David” that Israel has been awaiting.
Moreover, lest the Jewish reader find this simply too incredible to say of a peasant carpenter from a strange backwater like Nazareth, Matthew is careful to remind the reader that the acknowledged heroes of Israel’s history also arise from unusual beginnings. That is why Matthew goes out of his way to point out four women in the genealogy who are all “shady ladies”: Tamar (a Gentile who slept with her father-in-law Judah in order to force him to honour his obligation to care for her in her widowhood), Rahab (a prostitute and ancestor of David), Ruth (an ancestor of David and a Moabitess), and “the wife of Uriah” (i.e. Bathsheba, with whom David committed adultery and murder). Matthew’s purpose then is to ready the Jewish reader to listen to the admittedly amazing claims of the “son of David” in the gospel that will follow and to accept the reality that Jesus is the fulfilment of the promises made to Abraham and David.
Next time, we’ll take a look at a much more immediate ancestor in Jesus’ family tree: Joseph.