I’ve been reading through Matthew’s gospel lately and thought it worth “defending” (for want of a better word, not that scripture needs defended!) the genealogy it starts with.
It’s worth remembering that Matthew’s intended audience was primarily Jewish (the repeated use of many Old Testament prophecies and criticisms of how the Pharisees interpret the law lend themselves to that conclusion), and genealogies were one way in which Jews would examine someone’s credentials, particularly if they were doing something so radical like claiming to be the promised Messiah.
The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Matthew’s opening echoes many such statements in Genesis (eg Genesis 5:1) describing various figures in humanity’s past who promise much, but ultimately fall short of being the serpent crusher promised in Genesis 3:15. Thus, he links Jesus back to the very beginning, with the greatest king, and with Israel’s greatest ancestor. He divides the genealogy into three blocks of 14 (he very definitely misses generations out to get this number, but this is not uncommon- I speculate that he probably struggled to get the 14 in in the third block…) .
First 14: Covenant promised, covenant delivered
Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, and Ram the father of Amminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king.
Abraham is promised to be the father of a mighty nation, and this appears to manifest itself when King David takes the throne- Matthew stops here, potentially to emphasise that this is a high point for Israel.
But then he continues.
Second 14: Covenant broken
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
He starts by mentioning David’s infidelity with Bathsheba, thus starting the story of Israel’s eventual decline and deportation at the hands of Babylon, when it seemed almost certain that God would abandon Israel who seemed beyond salvation as far as the covenant was concerned.
But he continues.
Third 14: Covenant fulfilled
And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel, and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.
The kingly line continues, and hope comes in the form of Zerubbabel, whom the prophet Haggai promised God had chosen to use as a ‘signet ring’ (Haggai 2:23). Things look up until Zerubbabel is followed by a bunch of historical nobodies until a (seemingly) random carpenter from a nothing town (John 1:46) is named as the father of the one called Christ.
So, in his opening, Matthew has taken his readers through a journey to tell them truths about God and Jesus: God does not forget his covenant, and Jesus, through kings, patriarchs, sinners, and ordinary people fulfils the line of kings and patriarchs, the promised saviour.