The Christmas Stories 2
2. THE BIRTH STORIES IN MATTHEW: TREASURES OF THE FAMILY TREE
The first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel follow a simple pattern. In 1:1-17 Matthew offers a genealogy tracing Jesus’ descent through Joseph back to Abraham, In 1:18-25 he briefly describes the heavenly announcement and Jesus’ birth. Chapter 2 has the story of the wise men who follow the star, come to Herod the Great, find Jesus and return (2:1-12). For fear of Herod and warned in a dream, Joseph takes the family to Egypt (2:13-15); Herod slaughters the infants (2:16-18); Joseph returns only to find Herod’s son, Archelaus, equally dangerous and so makes his home in Nazareth of Galilee (2:19-23).
We begin to understand Matthew’s accounts in greater depth when we turn to each individual section. Having done so, we can then consider how the sections have been brought together and the role Matthew and his predecessors might have played in the process by their particular set formulations and patterns.
The line of descent from Abraham and David
genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham.
Family trees can be fascinating, especially if they are your own! The one we have in Matthew is a one-line family tree, a genealogy. Its history and formation are very complex and entail consideration of numerous minor problems. I can offer only a summary of the main points.
The numbers puzzle
The first thing to notice is that the genealogy is presented as having three parts, each with fourteen generations. This is something of a puzzle. Numbers were often symbolic in the ancient world. Three times fourteen does not ‘ring a bell’ as a significant symbolic pattern, unless we think of it as equal to six times seven. Seven was considered a complete number and the six sets could recall the days of the week, the seventh day being God’s day. A week of set periods in history was also frequently seen as the pattern of world history with the final end period coming through God’s intervention. Is the author using code language to say that in Jesus God’s day has come? This would carry more weight if the pattern had been six times seven and not three times fourteen. Perhaps the intention of the pattern is irrecoverable. It is in any event a pattern imposed on the genealogy which works only by counting some generations twice.
Lines and connections
The genealogy contains a number of discrepancies between its names and the names in Old Testament lists. It also skips three generations at one point by a simple error, it seems, of mistaking similar sounding names (1:8; 2 Kings 8:25). Luke also offers a genealogy of Jesus through Joseph, but at many points the two accounts do not match. In one period where Matthew has forty-one names, Luke has fifty-six. They mostly share the same names between Abraham and David, but between David and the exile they are totally different, and in the post-exilic period only the first and the last two names are compatible.
Matthew’s genealogy is too short for the time involved. Some doubt is cast on the possibility of accuracy of such genealogies because of the report that Herod the Great had destroyed family archives. Perhaps some popular David messianic lists were used. Much seems dependent on a reworking of Old Testament lists and the use of versions of the Old Testament different from ours, including use of the Greek Old Testament. The concern to produce a genealogy of some kind would have meant making the best use of what was available. As it stands, both genealogies are based on Joseph, who was, strictly speaking, not the father, so that in any case they can only have informal significance. Beyond any factual data they provide, their main purpose lies in what they are saying about Jesus himself and his spiritual identity.
When we look within the genealogy for clues about Matthew’s intention in using it, we can notice first of all the way the genealogy is linked with the major events and persons of Israel’s history, of God’s history with his people. That story comes to its climax in Jesus. The story of Jesus is sacred story. This corresponds to the way Matthew introduces the genealogy in the first verse of his Gospel. Jesus is ‘Son of David, Son of Abraham’. As Son of David he is the promised Messiah of David’s line. As Son of Abraham he is the true representative of Israel. Jesus is not a novelty on the stage of history as though we can turn to him and ignore what came before. He belongs within a succession of witness as well as being its climax. We cannot understand him without understanding what that earlier story was about. That story was about God’s involvement in the affairs of men and women in real history.
The special women
One more intriguing feature of the genealogy may take this issue further. The genealogy follows a set pattern of naming successive fathers, but the pattern is broken at five points by the mention of women. And the women mentioned are not the great heroines of faith like Sarah or Rebecca or Rachel, hut five very unusual and unorthodox women: Tamar who played prostitute (Genesis 38); Rahab, heroine and prostitute (Joshua 2 to 6); Ruth, the foreigner; the wife of Uriah, Bathsheba, who fell pregnant to David’s seduction and whose husband David murdered (2 Samuel 11); and Mary, a virgin bearing a child.
Most have non-Jewish connections. Is Matthew seeing these women as representing non-Jews and so symbolising the later mission of the church to non-Jews? That may be so, but it does not explain why only women are singled out for this purpose. Is Matthew countering rumours about Mary? We know anti-Christian propaganda from later times which suggested Mary was a rape victim of the Roman occupation. Later in the Gospel we find Matthew dealing with such anti- Christian propaganda. Jewish groups were maintaining that Jesus’ disciples had stolen his body from the tomb and had made up the story of the resurrection (27: 11-15). Matthew names it and counters it directly. It is possible that such stories circulated about Mary already in Matthew’s time and that he is countering them indirectly.
In our day Mary’s being a rape victim would not be understood as maligning Christian faith. Mary would be the symbol of the oppression of many. If Matthew knew such rumours, for him they had no credibility. But his choice of these women would be saying that God has used women in the past about whom rumours, true and false, circulated and whose marriages or sexual behaviours were highly irregular. This seems likely.
Hidden away in the genealogy Matthew has given us, therefore, a statement about grace in miniature. God does not write off sinners or those whom others write off, whether sinners or not. God is not the harsh moralist, the male prude trampling the unorthodox feminine. God is one who draws even the lowliest and despised into his purpose and they take their place in his sacred history. God continues to do so in the ministry of Jesus and in the world today.
Matthew puts the genealogy first in his Gospel because it proclaims from the beginning who Jesus is. He will show that it cannot be treated as a genealogy in the strict sense. The line is broken at Joseph. But the genealogy is nonetheless a gospel statement giving major clues about who Jesus is and about what he does. He truly represents God’s people and fulfils their hopes for a Messiah. He represents God and his promise. He will be the bearer of his grace.