17 December 2012

Matthew 1:1-17

"An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham." (v. 1)


English translations rarely capture the ambiguity of some Greek phrases. The first two words of Matthew's Gospel which are literally "the book of the genesis". Most translators understand them to refer to the table of Jesus' ancestors that follows but it is also possible to see the first verse as the title of the whole Gospel (cf Mark 1:1) as 'genesis' can carry the sense of the history or the story of Jesus.

The table of ancestors seems designed to support the claim of the first verse, that Jesus is the son of David and son of Abraham. Both phrases are echoes of the covenants of the Old Testament (Genesis 17 and 2 Samuel 7). The claim that Jesus is the Messiah (or Christ) is to be understood as the fulfilment of God's promises, so it is not surprising that the Gospel is redolent with 'fulfilment' quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures.

The table itself is designed to emphasise this theological point and to support it with another - that there is a pattern in the history of the people of Abraham which leads to this moment. The division of 42 generations (actually only 41) into three groups of 14 is achieved by omitting some figures included in the biblical record.

One noticeable feature is that whilst, as we might expect, the ancestry is traced through the male line, there are (apart from Mary) four women included. Remarkably, all four might be seen as Gentiles (non Jews) - Tamar and Rahab (Canaanites), Ruth (a Moabite), and Bathsheba (married to an Hittite). None of the four is free from some taint of sexual scandal. Matthew is subtly introducing a tension that is going to re-appear in the Gospel - the fulfilment of God's promises to Israel in the story of Jesus is about more than Israel.

To Ponder

  • Is it troubling that only four women are mentioned in a narrative that implies forty-one mothers? Why?
  • Who do you think you are? has proved to be a popular TV programme. Give thanks for those who provide you with a history or at least a beginning to your story.

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Jonathan Hustler

Having been a Methodist circuit minister and a theological college tutor, Jonathan is now Ministerial Coordinator for Oversight of Ordained Ministries in the Connexional Team..