Many modern readers feel that the New Testament begins in the most boring way possible: a list of unusual and hard-to-pronounce names.
However, ancient readers would have found a number of interesting things in this list.
Women in the list
The ancestors of Jesus, the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham:
Matthew wanted to present evidence that Jesus is the Messiah. Everyone expected the Messiah to be descended from David, so Matthew began by showing that Jesus meets that requirement.
Biblical genealogies usually list only men. Matthew’s list is unusual because it includes five women.
Even more surprising, Matthew did not mention women who were highly esteemed—Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah. Instead, he mentioned women who were somewhat embarrassing:
1) Tamar, who committed incest. Genesis 38 tells the seedy story. Judah and a Canaanite woman had three sons. The first one married Tamar, but he died before they had any children. Following ancient Middle Eastern custom, his brother was supposed to marry the widow and engender an heir for the dead brother. The second son did not want to do this, and he died. Time passed, and Tamar saw that Judah’s third son was not going to marry her, so she pretended to be a prostitute and had sex with Judah, her father-in-law. Her twin sons became the ancestors of most of the Jewish people.
2) Rahab the prostitute. When the Israelites were about to conquer the land of Canaan, they sent spies into Jericho, who stayed at “the house of a prostitute named Rahab” (Joshua 2:1). The king of Jericho wanted to kill the spies, but Rahab helped them escape. When Jericho was destroyed, Rahab and her family were spared (Joshua 6:25). The Old Testament does not tell us what happened to Rahab, but Matthew tells us that she was an ancestor of King David.
3) Ruth the Moabitess. The biblical book of Ruth says that a Jewish family moved to Moab, and the sons married Moabite women. The men died, and two of the widows moved to Bethlehem. Following ancient custom, a relative was supposed to marry the young widow so the dead man would have an heir. So Boaz married Ruth. Deuteronomy 23:3 says that Moabites could not “enter the assembly of the Lord, even down to the tenth generation.” Nevertheless, in fewer than 10 generations, God anointed one of those descendants as Israel’s king.
4) The wife of Uriah the Hittite. Curiously, Matthew does not mention her name. But his readers would know the story of Bathsheba from 2 Samuel 11. While Uriah was fighting battles for David, David was stealing his wife. Bathsheba became pregnant, and David arranged for Uriah’s death. The child died, but David’s second child with Bathsheba was Solomon, the next king.
5) Mary, mother of Jesus. Mary was accused of a scandal, but Matthew explains that there was no scandal: Mary became pregnant before marriage by a special act of God (Matthew 1:18).
Why these women?
Why did Matthew mention these women? One theory is that the women were immoral. Indeed, some were, but Ruth was not, and the way in which Rahab become an ancestor of David is not known; she may have been completely moral after coming to know God. Nor would Matthew want to imply that Mary was immoral.
Another theory is that the women were Gentiles. Some were, but we do not know about Tamar and Bathsheba. Matthew says that the gospel should be preached to all nations (28:19), and it would indirectly support his point to mention Gentiles in the ancestry of the Savior. Although genealogies were often designed to support ethnic authenticity, Matthew uses his genealogy to point out ethnic impurity.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Michael Morrison in 2011. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.
Perhaps Matthew’s purpose was simply that all of the women
are irregularities in the royal lineage of Judah, and that people should
therefore not be surprised that the birth of the Messiah involves some
irregularity as well. Jesus was not born as a “pure” person, but as an ordinary
person, with moral and ethnic impurity in his ancestry, just as we all have.
The Greeks Had a Word for It
Matthew’s genealogy uses the Greek word gennaō 39 times to indicate the father-son relationship; in the King James Version, one man “begat” another. But in a few cases, generations are missing. Verse 8 says that Jehoram was the father of Uzziah. But from 2 Chronicles 22-24 we learn that the list should be: Jehoram, Ahaziah, Joash, Amaziah, and then Uzziah.
These omissions show that gennaō does not mean “to cause conception.” Nor does it refer specifically to birth. It is a more general word indicating ancestry. In verse 20 gennaō refers to the fetus in Mary’s womb; in Matthew 2:1 it refers to Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Like the English words “generate” and “produce,” it is flexible in meaning.
Dr. Michael Morrison teaches classes in the New Testament at Grace Communion Seminary. More information about the seminary can be found at: www.gcs.edu.