Jesus’s genealogy, in 𝘔𝘢𝘵𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘸.

by K.W. Leslie, 05 December

Matthew 1.1-17.

Christ Jesus has two different genealogies. I dealt with it elsewhere, so if the contradiction (or “difficulty,” as Christians prefer to call biblical contradictions) makes you anxious, go read that piece. Today I just want to look at the genealogy in Matthew, ’cause the author of that gospel decided to begin with it, ’cause he considered it important. And away we go.

Matthew 1.1 KWL
The book of genesis of King Jesus, son of David, son of Abraham.

Other translations are gonna have “Christ Jesus” or “Messiah Jesus.” Mostly because they’re going for literalness; the Greek word is Χριστοῦ/Hristú, “Christ,” which itself is a translation of מָשׁיִחַ/Mašíakh, “Messiah.” But a literal translation isn’t always the best one.

Culturally, to first-century Israelis, Hristós doesn’t merely mean “an anointed guy.” It means king. It’s a title of the king of Israel—who was, if everything had gone as it shoulda, anointed by the LORD to rule his people, same as Samuel ben Elkanah had anointed Saul ben Kish and David ben Jesse. We Christians claim Jesus was anointed by God, same as those guys, to rule Israel. And the world. So Christ isn’t merely Jesus’s last name, nor does it signify he’s a religious guru. It means he’s our king. Our only king; human kings are usurpers and false Christs, and every last one of them has got to go. Even the nice ones. Especially the ones who claim they’ve come in Christ’s name.

Pharisees had readied first-century Israelis with tales of a Messiah who’d conquer the world. If the prophecies about him meant what the Pharisees claimed—and the Pharisees weren’t wrong, were they—this’d be the guy who finally threw out the hated Roman occupiers, established Israel’s independence, then went forth to conquer a ton of territory and establish a new Israeli Empire. One even better than the Roman Empire, ’cause now it wouldn’t be run by dirty gentiles. Now gentiles would be the second-class citizens in their new Empire. Semite supremacy!

Yeah, there was a lot of nationalism and racism wrapped up in Pharisee ideas about Messiah. Unfortunately that’s still true in popular interpretations about Jesus’s second coming. But I digress. Distorted perspectives aside, “King” is still the best interpretation of Hristú.

And though Jesus is a literal descendant of both David, the third king of Israel, and Abraham ben Terah, the ancestor of the Arabs, Edomites, and Israelis, the more important thing is Jesus is the fulfillment of their relationships with the LORD. Without Abraham’s faith in the LORD these people-groups wouldn’t even exist, much less be monotheists who pursued a living God instead of ridiculous pagan myths. Without David’s loyalty to God, the LORD wouldn’t have responded with any promise to make one of his descendants the greatest king ever. There’s a lot of theological baggage in Matthew’s simple verse.

There’s a fair amount of baggage in the rest of the genealogy too.

Jesus’s ancestors.

If certain names don’t sound familiar, it’s because I’ve gone with their proper Hebrew transliterations. Except, obviously, for some of the more familiar biblical personages.

Matthew 1.2-16 KWL
2 Abraham fathers Isaac.
Isaac fathers Jacob.
Jacob fathers Judah, and his siblings.
3 Judah fathers Peréch and Zerákh by Tamár.
Peréch fathers Khechrón.
Khechrón fathers Ram.
4 Ram fathers Amminadáv.
Amminadáv fathers Nakhšón.
Nakhšón fathers Šalmá.
5 Šalmá fathers Boaz by Rahab.
Boaz fathers Ovéd by Ruth.
Ovéd fathers Jesse.
6 Jesse fathers David the king.
David fathers Solomon by Uriah’s woman.
7 Solomon fathers Rekhavám.
Rekhavám fathers Aviyáh.
Aviyáh fathers Asá.
8 Asá fathers Yehošafát.
Yehošafát fathers Yorám.
Yorám is the ancestor of Uzziyáhu.
9 Uzziyáhu fathers Yotám.
Yotám fathers Akház.
Akház fathers Khizqiyáhu.
10 Khizqiyáhu fathers Menaššeh.
Menaššeh fathers Amón.
Amón fathers Josiah.
11 Josiah grandfathers Yekhanyáhu and his siblings
at the time of the Babylonian exile.
12 After the Babylonian exile,
Yekhanyáhu fathers Šehaltiél.
Šehaltiél fathers Zerubbabel.
13 Zerubbabel fathers Avihúd.
Avihúd fathers Elyaqím.
Elyaqím fathers Azzúr.
14 Azzúr fathers Chadóq.
Chadóq fathers Ahím.
Ahím fathers Elihúd.
15 Elihúd fathers Elazár.
Elazár fathers Mattán.
Mattán fathers Jacob.
16 Jacob fathers Joseph, Mary’s man.
Jesus is mothered by her—
Jesus, who is called King.

“Begat” is the way the King James translates ἐγέννησεν/eyénnisen, “engenders”—or as I put it, “fathers” and “mothers,” depending on the parent. In verse 8 y’notice I had to translate it as “is the ancestor of,” and in verse 11 I made it “grandfathers,” because the author of Matthew decided to skip some generations. Ancient genealogies do that sometimes, and drop a few unimportant or embarrassing leaves out of the family tree. Matthew does it because the author was trying to create a pattern in the genealogy:

Matthew 1.17 KWL
So all the generations from Abraham to David are 14 generations,
and from David to the Babylonian exile are 14 generations,
and from the Babylonian exile to the King are 14 generations.

As a result, loads of Christian commentators attempt to read some kind of weird Christian numerology into the number 14. It’s two sevens; that must mean something. It’s as many days as there are in two weeks; that must mean something. Two must have one hidden meaning and seven must have another, and if you put ’em together you create some new, profound meaning… and then they try to imagine what these meanings are, or swipe ideas from rabbinic Judaism and Kabbalah and medieval Christianity and ancient gnosticism.

They try to connect the dots… but there are no dots. There were 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 generations from the exile to Jesus… but 18 generations from David to the exile. Well, the author of Matthew decided to make all the segments 14 generations long. He skipped Yorám’s son Akhazyáhu, his grandson Yoáš, his great-grandson Amachyáhu, and goes straight to his great-great-grandson Uzziyáhu (NIV “Uzziah”). He also skipped Josiah’s literal son Yehoakház and bounced to his grandson Yekhanyáhu (NIV “Jeconiah”). And now we have an easier-to-memorize pattern of 14-14-14. Handy!

If you’re a biblical literalist, you’re gonna try to invent all sorts of reasons why Matthew’s edit of Jesus’s genealogy still counts as literalism. I’m not a literalist, so I’m not worried about it. Neither should you be.

The point of Jesus’s genealogy.

I already mentioned how Matthew is trying to make the point that Jesus is the literal descendant of Abraham and David, and why that’s significant. There’s more to it, of course.

Y’might notice, if you look at other genealogies in the Old Testament, women tend to get skipped. Not always, but frequently. No, it’s not because women and mothers aren’t important. It’s because ancient Hebrew genealogies have to do with inheritance. It’s about who inherits which patriarchal fiefdom from whom, and who’s part of which family and tribe. If you’re Levite, are you a direct descendant of Aaron? And if you claim you’re the rightful king of Israel, are you a direct descendant of David?

Whereas if you’re an ancient Israeli woman, you’re not included in the family inheritance unless your father has no sons. Nu 27.8 You marry into a family, and don’t really take anything with you but your dowry. If your husband dies without any sons, it’s meant to go to the next closest male relative, Nu 27.11 but in practice the woman might administer his patriarchy Ru 4.9 till that male relative could combine it with his own property. And her ancestry didn’t enter into it; her late husband’s did, and the Law required them to keep the land within the man’s family. Yeah, there’s a lot of sexism in the system, but it’s how the ancients did things anyway, and the LORD simply took the guesswork (and violent family squabbles) out of it.

In Jesus’s case, the deal with his genealogy is whether he is, or counts as, a direct descendant of David. And since his adoptive father Joseph is a son of David, Mt 1.20 so is Jesus. Yes, adoption fully counts! If you’re one of those racists who insists it doesn’t, I got news for you: God doesn’t share your view in the slightest. Fortunately for us all; adoption by God is how we Christians inherit his kingdom.

Okay, so why does Matthew bring up five women in Jesus’s genealogy?—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, “Uriah’s woman” (i.e. Bathsheba), and Mary? Most of us figure of course Mary comes up, ’cause she’s Jesus’s mom; duh. But the other women?

The most common theory is a sexist one: It’s that the four Old Testament women are all sinners. Tamar tricked Judah into having sex with her, Rahab was a sex worker in Jericho, Ruth was a Moabite pagan, and Bathsheba cheated on Uriah with David. It’s to point out how Jesus is descended from sinners, but he conquered sin, so it’s all good.

I call it sexist for two reasons: If you wanna talk about sinners, lookit the men! A whole lot of them—particularly the kings—are profoundly awful people. Secondly, labeling all the women as sinners doesn’t hold up. Historical context (i.e. Judah wasn’t doing right by Tamar) and the absence of historical details (i.e. did Bathsheba have any say whatsoever in the matter of her affair?) makes this interpretation hugely problematic, and that’s especially true of Ruth: The scriptures say nothing against her. (Go read Ruth again. I’ll wait.) She deliberately left Moab to righteously follow her mother-in-law and the LORD, and married Boaz to follow proper Israeli customs about inheritance instead of chasing other guys. Ru 3.10 She’s a woman of good character, Ru 3.11 which turns this interpretation into vile slander. Probably slanders the other women just as much.

The other theory, which has way more merit, is these four Old Testament women weren’t descendants of Israel; they joined the people by marrying Israelis. Tamar and Rahab were Canaanites, Ruth was Moabite, and Bathsheba was likely the same ethnicity as Uriah, who was Hittite. It’s to establish Jesus is authentically Israeli… but he’s also the descendant of gentiles, because gentiles are also part of salvation history. Jesus isn’t just King of Israel, but King of the world. He came to save us all. And has!