Sometimes my wife will ask if I want a salad with dinner. Nine times out of ten my answer is “no thanks.” I mean, I don’t need to waste stomach space and calories on boring leaves and the basic midwestern dressing of choice—Ranch. If I am at a cookout I am going to eat the burgers and dogs. If there’s pasta on the table, I’ll take a second helping of lasagna thank you very much. If we’re at a restaurant, I will have a side of fries and for my second side, give me the mac-n-cheese please.
For me, salads are usually a waste. An unnecessary accessory to an otherwise good meal.
I think most people view the genealogies in the Bible the same way. Genealogy chapter? No thank you. I will just take a little extra dose of the those memorable promises that make me feel good. Most Christians probably skip those chapters on the Bible reading plan. I mean, it’s just a redundant list of unpronounceable names. So and so was the father of so and so. Unrecognizable name was the father of another dude with a weird name…and so on the list goes.
I know. Boring right?
Well, people of antiquity did not feel the same. Genealogies served a purpose. They told a story. Like the foreshadowing tragedies that forge a super-hero’s destiny, genealogies told a story about a person’s identity—their origin story. They also served a legal purpose. Inheritances, property ownership, tribal membership, priestly lineages, and royal bloodlines were all determined and verified by genealogy.
In Matthew’s telling of the gospel, he includes a genealogy of Jesus. Matthew’s genealogy is particularly unique. Matthew and Luke’s genealogies differ in some very significant ways. Scholars debate on the reason for this. The most common answer some suggest is that Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage through Joseph and Luke traces it through Mary.
Matthew also leaves a lot of people out. A couple of Bible nerd details are in order here:
First, Matthew structures his genealogy in a way that very intentionally highlights Jesus’ connection to King David. Hebrew letters had numerical values and the numerical value of David’s Hebrew name is 14.¹ So watch this, Matthew structures his genealogy to highlight fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile, and fourteen from the exile to Jesus. Not only does he structure the genealogy to highlight Jesus’ connection to King David, but he also structures it to highlight those three significant periods in Israel’s history: the period from Abraham to King David, from David to exile, and from exile to Jesus. Notice the pattern? Rise, fall and redemption.
Second, one commentator notes that “It was customary among Jewish writers to arrange genealogies according to some convenient scheme, possibly for mnemonic reasons” and that “…the Greek verb translated as ‘was the father of’ (gennao, GK 1164) does not require immediate relationship but often means something like ‘was the ancestor of’ or ‘became the progenitor of.’”² Meaning, Matthew’s omission of some names in his genealogy would not have been viewed as an inaccuracy. Rather, his structuring the genealogy in this way was intentionally and artfully done.
It gets better, Matthew changed the names of some of the ancestral fathers by switching a few letters around. Some of our modern translations have fixed this because it was believed to be a textual error, but The Bible Project notes, “he changed the names of Asa and Amon to Asaph (the poet featured in the book of Psalms) and Amos (the famous prophet). Matthew is winking at us here, knowing that his readers would spot these out of place names. The point, of course, is that Jesus doesn’t just fulfill Israel’s royal hopes, but also the hope of the Psalms (Asaph) and the Prophets (Amos).”³
Matthew’s genealogy is unique in one more way. There are a couple of people who don’t belong. Matthew includes some unexpected names.The text reads, “Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac was the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of…” You get into this redundant rhythm of So-and-so was the father of so-and-so and...” until the author breaks rhythm and occasionally the text states, “..the son of so-and-so who’s mother was (insert mother’s name).” You would think that the names of the mothers included would be great heroines of the faith right? The great matriarchs of the OT.
Matthew includes a woman named Tamar who intentionally seduced a married man (Genesis 38). Oh, and the married man was her father-in-law. Did I mention she was a Gentile too? He then highlights a Canaanite prostitute from Jericho named Rahab (Joshua 2:1-7). Ruth gets her name in there too. She was from Moab—a nation that can trace its origins back to another famous sex scandal in the OT (Genesis 19:30-38). Do you remember Lot? Abraham’s nephew? Do you remember the whole Sodom and Gomorrah episode and how Lot’s wife looked back and turned to a pillar of salt? Yeah, the story gets worse if you have ever kept reading in Genesis. Lot’s daughters, on two separate occasions, get him drunk and sleep with him so that they can preserve their family line. The oldest daughter gave birth to a son named Moab. That’s where Ruth is from—Moab.
As if Matthew isn’t done reminding the reader of all the famous sex scandals in Israel’s history, he also highlights King David’s not-so-shining moment by mentioning that he was the father of Solomon “by the wife of Uriah.” He doesn’t name Bathsheba, but almost mentions her in this underhanded way by reminding the reader that David not only had an affair, but he murdered Uriah. Oh, and Uriah was also a Hittite. In other words, a Gentile.
Matthew breaks rhythm in his genealogy four separate times to mention four women who either were Gentiles or were closely connected to Gentiles, and who were all connected to some really messed up sexual sin in some way or another.
Why does Matthew mention these four women?
Matthew is telling the Gospel even in the genealogy. The good news that the Messiah came to rescue and heal and make sinners whole. The good news that the Messiah came to identify with sinners and in so doing, would take upon himself the weight of the fall.
In this genealogy, Matthew is proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is accessible to all people. That Jesus came for those people. Those godless, pagan Gentiles. Those shamefully sinful people. Those socially outcast members of society. Those people you’d often write out of the story God is intent on writing in.
Jesus identifies with the human experience in every way and he identifies with—stands with, alongside, in solidarity with…the sinner. Most acknowledge that he identified with the sinner in baptism and on the cross, but even in the genealogy that Matthew records Jesus identifies with a lineage that has sordid past. Every woman mentioned in the genealogy highlights a story from the OT that displays the failures of Israel. Jesus’s genealogy displays the sin and brokenness that pervades his family tree.
Some people need to hear this: Jesus is not ashamed to be associated with you.
He is not ashamed of your past. He is not afraid of your baggage. He isn’t going to reject you because of your struggle. He’s not embarrassed to be seen with you. Jesus is comfortable with being associated with “tax collectors and drunkards and sinners” (Matthew 9:10-17; Matthew 11:19; Mark 2:15-22; Luke 5:29-39; Luke 7:34).
Jesus is very comfortable being associated with the scandalous.
Not only that, Jesus is able to re-write the story and radically change the trajectory of your life. Jesus enters into a story that is riddled with brokenness and by his act of self-giving love he redeems the whole narrative. The whole story is interpreted through the lens of God’s redemptive work.
Your story can be too.
² The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. (p. 91)