The author traditionally known as Matthew, begins his gospel with a genealogy. That’s a bad idea, some might say – more of a boring than a flying start – and no doubt lots of people give it no more than a glance, if not a complete miss. But let’s take a closer look and see what we can find, and let’s begin with numbers …
Numbers are important in the Bible. 40 was the number of days the Flood lasted, and that Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism. 12 was the number of the tribes of Israel, and the apostles of Jesus. 7 is the perfect number, and so creation was completed in 7 days and, in the last book of the Bible, the author writes to the 7 churches, about the 7 spirits of God. 14, being twice 7, is doubly perfect, and so Matthew claims there were 14 generations from Abraham to David, from David to the Exile in Babylon, and from the Exile to the birth of Jesus. He engineers his lists to fit this triple framework, so it’s no surprise that his genealogy is significantly different from Luke’s. (Each author, by the way, gives different names to Jesus’ grandfather!) Matthew misses out some of the kings between David and the Exile to make sure he stops at 14, and yet he includes only 13 generations in his concluding list! Someone should have had a word with him, and demanded a recount !
Another thing worth noting is that, in addition to Jesus’ mother, Matthew includes 4 other women, contrary to normal Jewish practice, even more so in that they were all ‘suspect’, and yet each is said to be the mother of an ancestor of Jesus! Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute in order to be impregnated by her father-in-law. Rahab was a professional prostitute, but having sheltered Israelite spies, she was spared when the city of Jericho was destroyed. Furthermore, she wasn’t a Jew! and neither was Ruth, who belonged to the land of Moab. Bathsheba committed adultery with King David, who then arranged for her husband to be killed in battle. She gave birth to the eventual King Solomon, yet another of Jesus’ supposed ancestors.
What’s going on here? Maybe it’s something to do with allegations about the suspicious circumstances of Jesus’ birth which Celsus, for example, a writer virulently opposed to the Jesus movement, made much of. Perhaps Matthew is implying that his readers needn’t be troubled by scandalous stories – that however God goes about things, we can be sure it’s ok. As for the inclusion of gentile women, by the time of Matthew’s gospel, it was clear that Jesus’ short–term expectation of the imminent arrival of God’s Kingdom was mistaken. This needed to be ‘straightened out’ and so, in Matt. 28, Jesus’ final instruction to his followers becomes a long–term commission to “go to all peoples (gentiles) everywhere and make them my disciples“, a commission foreshadowed at the beginning of his gospel, by including these gentile women in his list of ancestors.
This genealogy, in my view, tells us something worth keeping in mind when reading the rest of Matthew’s book. The author clearly isn’t presenting historical information in our modern understanding of that concept – accurate, checkable, well sourced, fully evidenced facts. His principle concern is rather to persuade us to accept his interpretation of who Jesus was. To Matthew, he was the promised Jewish Messiah and so he presents him as being “a descendant of David“, the archetypal Israelite king, and “of Abraham“, the supposed original ancestor of the Jewish people, through whom even the gentiles (including Rahab and Ruth) would ultimately be blessed.
Let me be clear – I’m not launching an attack on Matthew’s gospel. That its principle concern is polemical rather than historical doesn’t mean it’s of no importance, or a pack of falsehoods not worth reading. I’ve been one of its readers for over 50 years! I’m simply saying that it needs to be read for what it is, not for what it isn’t. Matthew’s contrived genealogy makes me think about how we sometimes interpret, exaggerate, select from, or ignore facts of history – about how we judge, and make use of, the character, actions and supposed status of others – about our prejudices and discriminations, condemnations and exonerations, preoccupations and motivations, and so much more besides. If we not only read the lines of the gospels, but also between the lines, these lines become all the richer as a result. They hold up a mirror to ourselves, and invite us to give candid and careful consideration to what we see and, by extension, to what and how we read.