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Bethany Evangelical
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Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Advent Genealogy 12/20

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I’ll bet you’ve never paid much attention to these verses.  They don’t make for very exciting reading, but they are surprisingly significant in Matthew’s portrayal of who he understands Jesus to be, because keep in mind the gospels are not and never were intended to be biographies of Jesus as we think of biography, but instead they are witness to who each of the writers believe Jesus is.  So the assumption is that Matthew begins his gospel with this genealogy for a reason. 

He starts us off by proclaiming who Jesus is in his eyes.  Jesus is the Messiah, he is the son of David and he is the son of Abraham.  All three of those identifications are important.  First of all, he must be the Messiah, the Christ or none of the rest of this is worth reporting; that has to come first.  For Matthew’s Jewish audience though, the connection to David was crucial because the Messiah was to come from the family of David; that prophecy had to be fulfilled.  The connection to Abraham would also have been important to Jews as they understood themselves to be descended from him, but Abraham may have been even more important to non-Jews as he and his descendents were to be a blessing to all people, not just Jews.  So, in this one verse Matthew has made a bold statement about who Jesus is as the Messiah for both Jews and non-Jews.

Then starts the list of names, which you can see come in three sections.  It begins with what is known as the patriarchal period, the earliest history of the people of Israel and in this section I would guess that there are some names you recognize, some you may not.  In his reporting of this though, Matthew makes some interesting choices.  He says that Abraham is the father of Isaac, but there’s no mention of Ishmael who was actually the first born of Abraham.  That might seem like an obvious choice as we understand Isaac to be the continuation of the Hebrew people, the fulfillment of the covenant promise to Abraham while Ishmael became the father of the Arab people.  On the other hand, since Ishmael and his mother Hagar became outcasts and Jesus was understood to be the friend of the lowly and outcast, you might have thought Matthew would have also included Ishmael; but no, only Isaac.

Then, Isaac is the father of Jacob, but there’s no mention of Esau, Jacob’s twin brother who wasn’t overly burdened with brains but who was much more honest than the sneaky, deceptive Jacob.  Then Jacob is called the father of Judah and his brothers but no specific mention of Joseph who was by all accounts the best of the brothers, favored by God, even modeling forgiveness as he forgave his brothers for selling him into slavery and in a sense he modeled salvation as he saved them and all the people from starvation.  You might think that Joseph was more representative of the story of Jesus rather than Judah who sold his brother into slavery and was also morally suspect for other reasons. 

In each of these cases Matthew is faithful to the Old Testament insight that God doesn’t always choose the best and the brightest or the most saintly.  God is not controlled by human merit and deserving but instead, time after time he reveals unpredictable, undeserved grace.  In this opening section Matthew is telling us that the story of Jesus is a story of grace and includes those we might think should be excluded, liars and betrayers as well as the immoral; that’s part of his message.

The first section then ends with David, who among other things was all of those bad things I just mentioned, but this section that began with Abraham who had no land but had a promise, ends with David, the king who rules over the promised land; so there’s a positive progression.  The second section then begins with David followed by a list of kings but it covers a time period that starts with possession of the land and ends with deportation into Babylon, the exile, a negative progression.  The pattern of the first section continues though in that other than David, who while regarded as the greatest of Israel’s kings was also deeply flawed, other than David only Hezekiah and Josiah would be considered good and faithful kings.  The others are an odd lot of idolaters, murderers and incompetent power seekers.  Solomon had his good points, but his lust for power ultimately got the best of him.

Yet this too is part of the story of Jesus.  The genealogy is a collection of individuals with various strengths and weaknesses but this section also addresses the institution of the monarchy which was flawed and subject to corruption as was the political leadership of the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus.

So the second section ends with exile but from this low point of exile, Matthew begins a third list of names that is essentially made up of unknowns other than Mary and Joseph at the end who are known to us but who would have been insignificant and unknown in their world.  There’s a Jacob in there too but remember this Jacob is the father of New Testament Joseph not Old Testament Joseph so this Jacob is unknown too. 

Of all the others only three or four are even mentioned in the Old Testament and none of them prominently.  Mentioned or not, they’re all obscure, Matthew’s point being that it was the supposedly powerful rulers of the monarchy that brought God’s people to the point of land loss and exile and that it would be the unknowns who would be the means of restoration.  God’s grace is revealed again as his purpose would be accomplished by those who others regarded as unimportant and forgettable.

Matthew’s choice of women to be included in this genealogy also reflects the patterns that I’ve pointed out.  There is nothing about the more saintly patriarchal wives like Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel; they all had their flaws too but there overall portrayal is good;  but instead of the likes of them, Matthew mentions Tamar, Rahab and Ruth in the first section and the wife of Uriah, Bathsheba, in the second.  Without going into a lot of detail, what they all have in common is that their marital history includes some element of scandal or scorn.  Yet, in some way each of them was an instrument of God’s spirit in the sacred line of the coming Messiah and they also provide a fitting introduction to the other woman Matthew mentions, Mary who as an unwed, pregnant teenager would be a potential target of ridicule, scorn and scandal in any time or place.

It’s with this genealogy that Matthew chooses to begin his story of Jesus, three groups of fourteen generations each, not necessarily presented in ways that we would expect, but in ways that do reflect the ways that God works in the world.  Most scholars think that Matthew was placed first among the gospels because this genealogy seemed to be a good bridge from the Old to the New Testament and that no doubt is true.  With a closer look at the names though it does seem evident that Matthew is making a point here, that being that it’s not just through the saintly and significant that God works, but often through a pretty mixed bag of people.

That’s good news, isn’t it?

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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