Genealogies Matter

Today, at mass in the chapel of the Catholic Church in Chatham, New York, where we are staying with a good friend and seminary colleague (that was a hell of a sentence, and I’m not proud of it), we got the genealogy of Jesus Christ from Matthew.

We weren’t supposed to, apparently, but the priest decided to read it as part of the daily reading, Matthew 1:18-25.

It’s a different genealogy that Matthew relates. Luke’s genealogy doesn’t begin his account of Christ’s life, ministry, death, and resurrection, and Luke goes backwards all the way to Adam, “the son of God” (Ἀδὰμ τοῦ θεοῦ, with “son of” understood from verse 23 onward here).

Matthew doesn’t send Jesus back that far. He begins his genealogy with Abraham, and then works his way forward. The two accounts differ in some essential aspects, but they converge in some important places — Zerubbabel, Shealtiel, David, Perez, Judah, Abraham.

A couple of things are important here about Matthew’s genealogy.

First, Jesus stands solidly in the lineage of Abraham and David. This is true of Luke’s genealogy as well, but Jesus stands more solidly in the kingly line in Matthew’s account. He is not just a descendant of David here, but a descendant of Solomon as well. Jesus is the legitimate king of Israel here, and is legitimate from the main line of David, and not just some cadet line through a son we only know of because he’s mentioned briefly in Chronicles. In fact, the lineage here in Matthew’s line includes most of the kings of Judah, while aside from David, the Luke account includes none of the kings of Judah.

Second, the Matthew account includes some women: Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah, who tricks her father-in-law into getting her pregnant; Rahab, the prostitute who betrays her own people and allows Israel to defeat Jericho; and Ruth, the “Plucky Little Moabite Girl”™ who seduces Boaz on his threshing room floor, thus finding a redeemer. Most of what these women do can be said to be scandalous. Not something respectable folks would be likely to include in a family tree.

And Mary, the mother of Jesus, the bearer of God, whose lineage we don’t actually know, though the Qur’an calls her “daughter of Imran” (66:12, Ex. 6:20) and the “sister of Aaron” (19:28), which, if taken metaphorically, means she is a Levite (and stands in relationship to Moses). But the Bible doesn’t tell us much about Mary, her people, or where she is from.

This is a family Jesus is effectively adopted into. We have, in this, the first announcement of Jesus’ adoption — the second coming when he is baptized in the Joran by John in 3:13-17.

Something else interesting in Matthew’s account, It specifically includes the exile in verses 11 and 12. Luke’s does not. Now, Matthew may mention this in order to frame the genealogy properly — 14 generations from Abraham to David, and then 14 more from David to the exile (Jeconiah), and then 14 generations from Jeconiah to Jesus.

But the exile is also an important event for Israel. And it may be that even with all the history that comes after, Matthew believes that the exile has not ended, and that — as both Ezra and Nehemiah pray — God’s people are now slaves in their own land.

Finally, I think the Matthew genealogy makes a very subtle point that Luke doesn’t — Jesus is Israel. While both Luke and Matthew clearly state Joseph is the father of Jesus (sic), Matthew takes it one step back by noting Joseph’s father was Jacob. (In Luke it was Heli.) Jacob was Israel, Joseph was his second-youngest and most beloved son, who was the father of Ephraim and Manasseh — the two half tribes, of which Ephraim would become one way of referring to the northern kingdom of Israel.

Jacob had twelve sons. But in reality, only four of them matter — Judah, Levi, Benjamin, and Joseph. Of them, Judah and Levi share Leah as a mother (Judah also includes Simeon). Benjamin is Rachel’s son, as is Joseph, and Ephraim is Joseph’s son through his Egyptian wife Asenath. Effectively, the northern kingdom is Joseph/Benjamin, and the southern kingdom is Judah/Levi. (Or, rather, the northern kingdom is Rachel, and the southern kingdom is Leah.) Leah was the younger daughter of Laban, and not Jacob’s first choice for a wife. He was tricked into taking her. And Judah was the youngest and last son of Leah, who inherits the birthright because the firstborn Reuben relinquishes it when he cavorts (ahem) with one of his father Jacob’s concubines, and then when Simeon and Levi are disinherited after they exact brutal vengeance on Schechem for defiling their sister Dinah.

Judah, the most important son, is the youngest son of the unwanted wife. That’s a stunning fact.

But back to Jesus being Israel. He is both north and south, being tied to Judah but also tied to Joseph as a kind of metaphor for Ephraim, the grandson of Jacob (whom Jacob blesses in his old age in exile in Egypt).

Jesus becomes both north and south, reuniting but also completely embodying Israel in himself. He is born in Bethlehem, the home of David, and yet he also lives and grows up in Nazareth, far in the north. He does much of his ministry in the north, but wanders south, to Jerusalem — David’s purpose-built capital right on the dividing line between North and South — where he cleanses the temple, is betrayed, and then crucified. In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus embodies, he becomes, the history of Israel, showing the purpose of God’s promise not in glory and conquest but in suffering, death, and resurrection. He is God’s promise for a regathering of God’s people, he is the land, the patrimony, the blessing, and all of God’s descendants. He is both promise and fulfillment. He is both God and Israel incarnate.

I’ve not really formed this idea past just considering it, but I’ve had it rumbling around my head for a few years. I’m basically trying it on for size here, seeing what anyone thinks.

But this is why the genealogies, as eye watering as they are, matter. Because even amidst all of the “son of” stuff which bores us no end (“that was a waste of time!” one worshiper muttered this morning after the priest finished the reading), there’s an important story being told — of who God is, and what God does.

And even what that all means.

2 thoughts on “Genealogies Matter

  1. Jesus certainly claims to be the embodiment of the temple. He is Israel in the sense that he is the one faithful Jew who shows how Israel ideally should have been the people of God. But afterwards, we still have the people of God in the sense of the church, and also Israel-after-the-flesh, which to Paul still seems to have an important corporate identity in Romans 11. I suppose the key is his identity as the bridegroom, who becomes one flesh with the people of God in every sense. The mutual indwelling of Father and Son is extended to Christ and the Church, so that he becomes our mediator and advocate with the Father.

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