The Gospel of Matthew
Written by the disciple Matthew, a former publican (Matt 9:9), this was believed by the Church Fathers to be the first account of Jesus’ life – which is why it is placed first in the New Testament. This gospel was written for a Jewish audience and was often called The Gospel of the Hebrews in the early Church.
1:1-17: The Genealogy of Jesus
In the genealogy that begins this book, three things are emphasized.
The first is Jesus’ relationship to Abraham and to David. Abraham, of course, was the forefather of the Jews, but he was more than that. Every Jew, Christian, and Muslim is riding on the coattails of his relationship with God. There is no bigger forefather in the history of mankind’s religious and spiritual development. One of the promises God made to Abraham was that in him all the nations of the world would be blessed (Gen 18:18). Through Jesus this was about to happen. David was Israel’s greatest king, and it was through his lineage that God promised a messiah would come (Jer 33:15). Jesus is a part of that lineage – however humble his personal circumstances — and through Joseph’s bloodline, making him, legally at least, a direct male descendant of the royal household.
The next thing Matthew emphasizes is that there are three sets of fourteen people in the genealogy, from Abraham to David, from David to the Babylonian captivity, and from the Babylonian captivity to Jesus. Why he makes this threefold division isn’t clear. To do it he had to abridge the list of kings, a practice that does have scriptural precedence. And the last group, strangely, has only thirteen names. Many have speculated about this, but we have no clear answer. Dismissing it as a mistake doesn’t work. Clearly Matthew could count to fourteen. And so could the many scholars and scribes who followed him. A common explanation for the number fourteen draws on Jewish numerological studies, in which the name David has the value fourteen. According to this approach, emphasizing fourteen is another way of emphasizing His relationship with David.
The third thing emphasized is four of the women named. They serve as a bridge to the story of His birth. The first woman mentioned is Tamar. She was married to Judah’s first son Er, and was probably a Canaanite. Even though the Law was centuries away, the practice of Levirate marriage was already an established custom. Accordingly, if a man died without children, his widow would be married to his brother and any children this second marriage produced would be considered the children of the diseased husband. That way his name would be preserved. When Er died Tamar was given to the second brother, Onan. Onan, however, refused to honour his brother and God slew him. Judah then promised Tamar could marry the next brother, but he didn’t keep that promise. Desperate, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and took her father-in-law as a customer, and accepting his signet and staff as payment. When Judah learned that Tamar was pregnant, he ordered her killed as a punishment for her fornication; but when she produced his signet and staff he admitted that he was wrong not to keep his promise. Two children were born, and one, Pharez, is an ancestor of Jesus.
The next woman was Rahab. She was a prostitute, living in Jericho when the Israelites attacked the city. She hid their spies and in return was saved when Jericho was destroyed. She was given in marriage to Salmon and was the mother of Boaz, who married Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite woman, the widow of a Judean from Bethlehem. She travelled with her mother-in-law to that city and married Boaz, a kinsman of her late husband.
Tamar had to prostitute herself. Rahab was a prostitute. Ruth was a respectable widow, but when she threw himself on the mercy of Boaz she was taking a real chance. Boaz was an honourable man, but she didn’t know that. Like the others she was a gentile. A serious strike against her in the eyes of the Jewish community Jesus was raised in. The last woman mentioned was not only a gentile, Bathsheba is one of history’s most famous adultresses. Yet of all the wives and mothers that could have been listed, these are the ones honoured here. Each was subject to shame and humiliation in the eyes of those around them, and that was something they shared with the next woman named.