Saturday, October 27, 2012

Matthew's Genealogy

I mentioned in the previous chapter that Matthew was Mark with five large sermons inserted, along with birth and resurrection stories added at the front and the back.  I personally like to think that Matthew was thinking of Moses and the first five books of the Old Testament when he did this. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are the five books of the Law in the Old Testament. I would argue that Matthew was implicitly comparing Jesus to Moses, implicitly claiming that Jesus is the final and definitive Moses, the authoritative interpreter of the Jewish Law.

So the first two chapters of Matthew give us material that Mark doesn't have.  Matthew 1 gives us Jesus' royal genealogy.  Although most of us find such things boring, there are some nuggets of insight hiding in this list of names. And it's important to know that in the ancient world, your family or genealogy was one of the biggest factors that told who you were.

We like to think in our world that we can be anything we want to be, anything we set our minds to do. We are an individualist culture in North America. We decide our own destinies. I don't have to do the job my parents do.  I can be a Republican even if my parents are Democrats. I don't have to live in the city my parents live in. I don't have to stay poor just because I come from a poor family, and I don't have to socialize with high society even though my parents did.  In America, we believe in setting our own destinies.

Not so in the ancient world--or in most of the world.  In most times and places, humans have been members of herds, not individualists. Despite our individualism, you can still see traces of this human instinct even in America.  We call it peer pressure in teens but in adults you see it in political parties and religious affiliations. I can know a lot about you even by what cable channel you watch all the time.

In the ancient world, identity was largely a matter of one's genealogy, gender, and geography.  What family are you from?  Are you male or female?  What is your race and ethnicity?  You were assumed to be a particular type of person depending on your answer and, chances are, you conformed to these expectations as part of your own culture.

So when Matthew gives this long genealogy of Jesus, he is telling his audience who Jesus is.  The answer is that Jesus comes from a royal lineage.  Jesus is the son of David and is thus eligible to be king. Matthew divides Jesus' family tree into three groups of 14. This is probably because 14 is the number of David's name.

In ancient times, the letters of the alphabet did double duty as numbers as well.  Since Hebrew largely does not write its vowels, David's name is D-V-D or the numbers 4-6-4, which add up to 14.  By dividing up Jesus' lineage into three groups of 14, Matthew poetically shouts out "David," "David," "David."  The Gospel of Matthew thus begins by announcing that Jesus is king.

Another very interesting aspect of the genealogy is the way Matthew mentions certain women.  It mentions Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and of course Mary.  What is interesting is that there is something somewhat scandalous about each one.  All of them except for Mary, for example, were foreigners, non-Israelites.  Jesus' family tree thus embodies the fact that the gospel is good news for the lost.

There was something further scandalous about most of them in other ways as well.  Tamar dressed as a prostitute to get Judah to do his fathering duty. Rahab ran a house of prostitution. Bathsheba had an affair with David, and Mary got pregnant before she and Joseph were married. Again, the implication is that God wants to save the sinner and that he loves those who have lived in shame.

These two aspects of Jesus' family tree--his royal identity and his embrace of the lost--prepare us for his birth story...

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