An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Matthew 1:1 (NRSV)
One of the things I recently talked about in Sunday School was the concept of how and why history was written in the ancient Near East. Among either things, a key point is that communicating the meaning of the history is far more important than what we consider accurate news reporting. It’s ok to jostle the sequence of events, maybe have different people show up, maybe fiddle with the time or location, as long as those changes better serve to communicate the meaning.
In Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, we are confronted right away with Matthew’s main points. This Jesus is a descendant of David who is a descendant from Abraham. As we read on through the genealogy Matthew concludes with this observation:
So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.
Matthew 1:17 (NRSV)
This seems almost too coincidental to be true, and in terms of raw accounting, it probably is. Matthew has to tweak here and there, omit this person, include this other person, and little operations like that to create a genealogy where this scheme works out.
The wrong question to focus on is: what’s Jesus’ real genealogy? The right question is: why does Matthew arrange things to get this David-Abraham-Babylon-Jesus sequence?
As far as I know, the number fourteen does not have any special significance in Judaism, so it’s possible that fourteen was just the easiest number Matthew could use to make the genealogy work. It requires the least shuffling, as opposed to trying to get twelve generations or ten generations or some other highly significant number (although fourteen is 2 X 7).
But the signposts are very important.
Abraham is the beginning of Israel. He is the elected one who has faith in YHVH and, as a result, becomes a great nation. He is the patriarch who receives the Promise – a concept that will carry through the Old Testament and well into the New. This Promise is about God being his God, giving him a land and countless descendants, and pouring rich blessings upon him so that he might bless the nations. Abraham is recipient of this Promise and the Promise is for him and his descendants.
But the Abraham project is set upon by opposing nations, and thus we get David. David is Israel’s great king and widely considered to be the golden age of the Old Testament monarchy as far as Scripture is concerned. David’s faithfulness keeps God’s hand on Israel, most notably in the ability to defeat nations much greater than Israel. YHVH does the fighting. David receives an extension of the Promise – that Israel would always have a descendant of David on the throne and the kingship would not leave his house.
Both of these promises face their greatest difficulty, however, when Babylon conquers Judah. What has become of Abraham’s great nation? Who rules Israel now? From the looks of it, God’s promises have been thwarted and Israel has nothing to look forward to but life under exile. And yet, we hear in the prophets the hope for a repentance and a renewal of the people’s hearts that will result in YHVH delivering them and restoring them into a new age that will make the present one not even worthy to be considered. But this hope seems very far off compared to the reality.
This is the framework that Matthew places Jesus in. Jesus is the next phase of the story of Abraham and Israel. He will recover the promise to Abraham by re-forming Abraham’s family out of those who share Abraham’s faith. The descendants will be numerous, again, and be YHVH’s people and He their God, and they will dispense guidance and blessing to the nations.
Jesus is the revival of the Davidic dynasty – the restoration of David’s tent. He is the king of Israel. His faithfulness will move God to favor Israel once more. He will overthrow Israel’s enemies, not with superior tactics or larger armies, but by committing Israel’s safety to God.
And Jesus comes to end the exile. Babylon, Persia, Greece/Selucids, and now Rome. In the holy land, out of the holy land – God’s people are still in exile, and it has been so long that few are waiting for the restoration of Israel, although they are certainly out there.
It is important to truly understand the actual expectations here before we start making spiritual categories out of them. In Matthew’s mind, Abraham’s covenant and David’s kingdom are not just Old Testament physical pictures of New Testament spiritual realities like heaven or “being lord of my life.” No, they are physical and spiritual realities that he has seen arrive in Jesus. This is the meaning he wants to invest that word “Christ” with. Before any of the various spiritual or sin issues we might think of Jesus addressing, first is the restoration of Israel under their new king, starting with a gang of restless fishermen.
It seems rather clear from Matthew’s introduction that this is primarily what the advent of Jesus is all about and what merits the title of Christ – not a savior of my individual spiritual condition, but a restoration of the covenant kingdom. This will almost certainly change the individual spiritual conditions of the people, but it’s not Matthew’s primary focus.
As Christians in America, we might be familiar with a story about Jesus dying to pay for our sins to save us from Hell, but that’s not really the story Matthew is telling. His story is about Abraham, David, and Babylon. His story is about the rise, fall, and resurrection of the people of God, and Jesus is the next and greatest stop in that story.
One application of this is the desperate need for us to let Matthew (and the other books of the Bible for that matter) tell us their own story. Let’s not force their story to be ancient versions of our own. Let’s not make them answer our theological questions and settle our disputes. Let’s let them say what they have to say and then figure out how that story connects with ours.
And I don’t believe the original historical significance of the stories are all that disconnected from our own story. Because God will do something shocking in restoring Israel – he will open up his renewed Israel to the Gentiles. I am a follower of God, today, because Jesus re-created Israel. Jesus’ God is my God, and it is because of what God accomplished in Jesus Christ that I am compelled by the promise of that kingdom come and my heart belongs to her king. The story of the restoration of Israel under her new king is the prologue to your story and mine, just as the Old Testament was the prologue of the story of the Jews in Jesus’ day.
The story is our story, the promise is our promise, the God is our God, the king is our king, and the mission is our mission. But it may all look very different 2000 years ago. Stick around.
- It has been said that the Jews of Jesus’ day misunderstood him by expecting something political instead of spiritual. Is that a misunderstanding? Was Jesus’ mission only about an individual’s spiritual condition, or did it have broader impact?
- We all come to the Bible with a preexisting framework that comes from our background, our culture, and our experiences. Knowing that nobody can come to the Bible without this framework, how might being aware of it impact the way you read Scripture?
- Take a look at Abram’s call in Genesis 12:1-3. If this is the beginning of Jesus’ story, how does Jesus accomplish these things? If this is also your story, what implications does it have for you and the church in the world, today?