Matthew’s Genealogy, Part 4: The Virgin Birth

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This post is part of a series. To get the entire context, be sure to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 first.

The Virgin Birth

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it is integral to note Matthew’s telling of the virgin birth. Toward the end of the genealogy, Matthew ends with his listing in verse sixteen with Joseph and Mary: “…and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Christ” (Mt 1:16, ESV). This is curious ending for one very striking reason: Matthew does not list Jesus’ father. Throughout the passage, Matthew begins each generation with the father; however, in this verse, Matthew does not do that. Benedict explains the anomaly:

Mary, who truly marks a new beginning and relativizes the entire genealogy. Throughout the generations, we find the formula: “Abraham was the father of Isaac …” But at the end, there is something quite different. In Jesus’ case there is no reference to fatherhood, instead we read: “Jacob [was] the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (Mt 1: 16)… So the final sentence turns the whole genealogy around.[1]

This is a curious change; and there are several theories as to why Matthew leaves out Jesus’ father. For instance, France proposes that “by introducing [Joseph] here as the ‘husband of Mary’ rather than the father of Jesus Matthew prepares for the explanation of Jesus’ actual parentage”.[2] This is of course doctrinally true. Jesus is the eternal Son of the Father, as the Nicene Creed says. And yet, as Bruner challenges, God could have incarnated his Son with or without a human father.[3] All things are possible with God, including a non-virginal birth of the eternal Son of God. Thus, the creedal import of divine Fatherhood can and probably should be connected the virgin birth, but not necessarily so. This is, of course, not to say that the virgin birth is not important, but simply to say that the importance of it might be located elsewhere. The question is then of what importance the virginal birth has. After wrestling with the many liberal arguments against the historicity of the virgin birth, Bruner lands on its historicity and importance, deriving an argument from Karl Barth. Bruner says this about the virgin birth:

The permanent value of the creedal doctrine of the Spirit’s conception of Jesus in Mary is this; it is the Holy Spirit and not human initiative that brings Jesus into personal life (then Mary’s, now ours). When Jesus comes to anyone in history, even in his Advent coming to Mary, it is always the work of the Spirit, not of human preparation or enterprise.[4]

Bruner explains that the virgin birth is a “pictorial” version of salvation by grace and not by works. God comes not by the work of man, but by the supernatural grace of the Holy Spirit. Benedict agrees with Bruner, saying,

The Virgin Birth is not a lesson in asceticism, nor does it belong directly to the doctrine of Jesus’ divine Sonship; it is first to last a theology of grace, a proclamation of how salvation comes to us: in the simplicity of acceptance,as the voluntary gift of the love that redeems the world… In Jesus, God has placed, in the midst of barren, hopeless mankind, a new beginning that is not a product of human history but a gift from above.[5]

Benedict’s explanation is particularly helpful for the thesis of this paper. He pictures human history as barren, not having produced the fruit of obedience. Thus, God must do something apart from man’s work through the virginal conception. Benedict makes a further insight in another work, saying, “Mary is a new beginning. Her child does not originate from any man, but is a new creation, conceived through the Holy Spirit”.[6] Jesus Christ is properly a totally new ordering of things, not according to Israel’s works, but according to a new creation.

If this is indeed what Matthew means to communicate through his record of the virginal birth, the implications are manifold: the long history of Israel has been fruitless, and she has not upheld her end of the covenant. Yet God through his faithfulness to the promises, is upholding the covenant by another way: through the work of his Son. Thus the virgin birth is the last way Matthew means to display God’s covenant faithfulness.

            [1] Benedict XVI. Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, 7

            [2] Richard T. France. The Gospel of Matthew, 39

            [3] Frederick Dale Bruner. The Christbook: Matthew 1-12, 39

            [4] Ibid, 24

            [5] Benedict XVI. Introduction to Christianity. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004, 278

            [6] Benedict XVI. Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, 7

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Matthew’s Genealogy, Part 3: The Four Women

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This post is part of a series. To get the entire context, be sure to read Part 1 and Part 2

The Four women

Thirdly, Matthew communicates God’s covenant fidelity through his mention of four women within his genealogy. In verses two through six of the genealogy, Matthew mentions Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and (indirectly) Bathsheba. It may seem strange to surmise that Matthew might mean anything at all by including these women. Women, after all, are necessarily included in genealogies! However, as Bruner rightly puts it, “the simple fact that women are mentioned at all is noteworthy”.[1] Men were usually included in Jewish genealogies, and their presence sufficed for the entire household. For this reason alone, Matthew’s inclusion of these women calls for attention.

However, there is even more room for pause, considering the character and background of the women. First of all, it must be noted that all four women are non-Jewish. “Tamar was a Canaanite, Rahab a Jerichoite, and Bathsheba, through marriage, a Hittite”.[2] What is worse, the women’s

stories do not fit comfortably into traditional patterns of sexual morality. Tamar’s seduction of her father-in-law, Rahab’s prostitution, and Bathsheba’s adultery are all explicitly in the OT, and while Ruth 3-4 records without moral censure how her marriage to was arranged, the euphemistic language recounting the events at the threshing floor leaves many modern interpreters uneasy.[3]

Matthew therefore places four women in the genealogy that, for all intents and purposes, would make his Jewish readers uncomfortable. One wonders why Matthew would have done this. While there are several layered reasons Matthew could have done this,[4] it is striking that these four women are immoral and Gentile.

The church has historically used this detail of the genealogy to emphasize God’s embrace of outcasts. Bruner cites Luther, who in his commentary on Matthew, says that “Christ is the kind of person who is not ashamed of sinners—in fact, he even puts them in his family tree!”[5] This is indeed true. Yet there is a certain weakness in this position principally because the perpetrators in at least half of these women’s “sins” were the men! David was the perpetrator of Bathsheba’s adultery, and Judah was the one to purchase Tamar’s services.[6] For that reason, it is best to focus on these women as Gentiles who are included within God’s plan of redemption. In conjunction with Matthew’s constant focus on Israel’s mission to the Gentiles, it seems most easy to place this inclusion of the women under the Abrahamic promise: that through his promised seed, God will embrace the entire world. France explains,

Appropriate to Matthew’s own context is the view that the four foreign women prepare the reader for the coming of non-Israelites to follow Israel’s Messiah which will be foreshadowed in the homage of the magi in 2:1-12 and will be a recurrent and increasing theme throughout the gospel until it reaches its climax in the mission to the nations in 28:19.[7]

What’s more, what is established through this genealogy is the fact that God has already embraced Gentiles into the lineage of his promised seed. Not only is God moving outward to the world, but he has already done so through these women! This is of course exemplified all throughout the Old Testament, yet it is put explicit through Matthew’s genealogy.

With this in mind, it is most probable that Matthew means to call to mind God’s promise to Abraham, that one day his people would bless the nations; even more, that Abraham’s seed would include the nations. Thus, Matthew is proclaiming via these four women that God has and is fulfilling his promise to bless the nations through his Seed Jesus Christ. Thus, with the inclusion of the four women, Matthew tells his readers that God is fulfilling his promises to their father Abraham. He is being faithful to the covenant he made with him, to embrace the entire world in the family of God.

            [1] Bruner, Frederick Dale. The Christbook: Matthew 1-12. Dallas: Word Pub,1987, 9

            [2] Ibid, 9

            [3] Richard T. France. The Gospel of Matthew, 37

            [4] See for instance, Blomberg 55-56. He suggests, along with others, that Matthew means to combat allegations against Mary’s infidelity to Joseph

            [5] Frederick Dale Bruner. The Christbook: Matthew 1-12, 11

            [6] Ibid, 10

            [7] Richard T. France. The Gospel of Matthew, 37

Matthew’s Genealogy, Part 2: Babylon is Over

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This post is part of a series. To get the entire context, be sure to read Part 1

Babylon is Over

Second, Matthew communicates God’s covenant faithfulness by including in his genealogy the details of the Babylonian exile. He not only includes the Babylonian exile, but as Hays makes clear, Matthew makes it part of Israel’s narrative. Hays says that Matthew “periodizes the story of Israel [within the genealogy] into three great chapters leading up to the birth of Jesus… from Abraham to David…, from David to exile…, from exile to the Messiah”.[1] This means that Matthew is making the Babylonian exile part of Israel’s identity: Israel is a nation exiled from their land and their God. This is curious, because Israel during the time of the birth of Christ was principally not exiled; they were back in the land, freed from the Babylonian captivity. If Israel were not in exile, Matthew should have included another period in her history: from exile to the land. Yet Matthew includes it into Israel’s narratival identity. NT Wright explains the strange emphasis on Babylon:

To get to the point, we have to understand one thing in particular. To put it simply, most Jews of Jesus’ day did not believe that the exile was really, properly over. Yes, they’d come back from Babylon… Yes, they’d built the Temple in Jerusalem. But the pagan foreigners were still ruling over them. They were still slaves even in their own land… The great promises of Isaiah and Ezekiel hadn’t yet come true.[2]

Indeed, Israel was out of exile, free in the normal sense of the word. But they were not truly out of exile. They were still under Roman rule. YHWH’s temple had been rebuilt, and yet Herod was the temple-keeper. Certainly this was not the freedom Israel had expected. For that reason, the Jews expected a greater exodus; a greater freedom. They still lived as those in exile: in the land and yet not of the land.

This is put in even more explicit terms when one considers the numeric order of Matthew’s genealogy. Matthew ends his genealogy with a strange outlining of numbers. “All the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to…Babylon were fourteen generations, and from…Babylon to Christ were fourteen generation” (Mt 1:17). Matthew lists a three-fold list of fourteen generations. This is, as is hopefully obvious, a literary and numerical device. The question is why Matthew uses this device. NT Wright explains that Matthew is most likely referring to a passage in Daniel 9 in which God promises that after seventy sevens, God will liberate his people from Babylon.[3] This prophecy also harkens to mind the pattern God had put into the liturgical year of Israel: every seven days was a Sabbath; even seven years was a Sabbath year; every seven-times-seven years was a Jubilee year of liberation and freedom. To put it more simply, God promised to the prophet Daniel that after a period of seven times seventy would be a “Jubilee of Jubilees”.[4] What Matthew calls to mind here is this pattern sevens, and thus the promise of liberation and Jubilee. But, as Wright says, “instead of years, [Matthew] does it with generations, the generations of Israel’s entire history from Abraham to the present. All the generations to that point were fourteen times three, that is, six sevens—with Jesus we get the seventh seven”.[5] What Matthew means to explicate here is that Jesus brings liberation from bondage and exile. Israel was in fact still in exile even while out of Babylon. And Jesus is the great liberator who brings an everlasting Jubilee and Sabbath for exiled Israel.

Matthew clearly intends to place Israel within the context of exile, awaiting the great liberation brought by Messiah. Even though Israel is technically free from Babylon, she awaits God’s redeeming action through a new exodus, with a new Jubilee, and a new Sabbath. As Robert W. Jenson aptly explains, Israel as placed in the context of exile is really Israel in the context of promise. Or put another way: Israel cannot save herself. She stands in need once again for liberation and exodus and freedom. Israel is thus repositioned into the situation

 …described for the patriarchs; [instead of Israel’s] ancestors, now the actual historical people, with all its fears and responsibilities, was called to live by hope rather than possessions, by what was promised rather than what already was, by hearing rather than by sight. Indeed, the screw was tightened far beyond what had been imagined for the patriarchs. For Israel was called to hope for what would be, in spite of what already was…[6]

As Abraham depended on the faithfulness of God in his wanderings, so now Israel, exiled from her reward, wandered even in their own land, hoping for the promised possession. In this way, Matthew once more makes the point that Israel depends on God’s covenant promises. She stands in need of a further and deeper liberation. And thus, she stands in need of God’s grace.

            [1] Richard B. Hays. “The Gospel of Matthew: Reconfigured Torah.”, 6

            [2] N. T. Wright. How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, 69

            [3] Ibid, 70

            [4] Ibid, 70

            [5] Ibid, 71

            [6] Jenson, Robert W. Story and Promise: A Brief Theology of the Gospel About             Jesus. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishing, 2014, 25

Matthew’s Genealogy, Part 1: Abraham and David

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Introduction

The gospels are by and large some of the easiest and most popular books within the Bible. They are popular because, unlike doctrinal or historical books, the gospels are easily digestible and narratival. Mark, for instance, is just a short sixteen chapters, and moves rather quickly from scene to scene, covering the high points of Jesus’ ministry. Matthew is very similar to Mark except on a few points. One such point is Matthew’s introduction. Instead of beginning with the birth of Jesus like Luke, or with Jesus’ public ministry like Mark, Matthew makes the point to begin with a lengthy and quite detailed genealogy. For most in the Western world, genealogies have all but lost their significance. For this reason, NT Wright says aptly, “most [readers of the New Testament]…probably skip [the genealogy]. It’s exhausting, with all that begetting, but it’s also full of names that mean nothing to us”.[1] Richard Hays, commenting on Matthew’s genealogy says much of the same: “the genealogy may strike many readers today as nothing other than a dull list of names”.[2] However, for Matthew, this genealogy was not a dull list in any sense of the word. The reason the genealogy is not dull is because it is not after historical accuracy. Westerners so often associate genealogies with bare lists of names for mere historical purposes. However, genealogies within the biblical world were never used as bare lists. Even more, it is fairly obvious even after a cursory reading of Matthew’s genealogy, that it simply is not historically accurate. To be sure, Matthew is after history and his gospel involves real historical characters. However, he does not mention every name within Jesus’ lineage, nor does he even try. In fact, as will be covered, Matthew purposefully leaves out certain names and generations.[3] He even places in names that would have normally been left out! It seems quite odd that Matthew would do that. However, it comes to make sense when one considers that the purpose of this genealogy is theological rather than historical. As Nineham asserts, “the Matthean genealogy is a theologically highly-charged document”.[4] It is the purpose of this paper to argue just what kind of theological document the genealogy is. It is the thesis of this paper that Matthew’s genealogy is a theological explication of the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to Israel. Put another way: Matthew is arguing through his genealogy that God has lovingly and unconditionally vouched himself to fallen Israel’s cause in Jesus Christ. Despite their unfaithfulness, God has bound himself to them irrevocably through Christ. In this way, Matthew is, as Pope Benedict XVI explains, creatively using the genealogy “as a kind of heading to the entire Gospel”.[5] Benedict continues: “on this basis one could say that the genealogy… is truly a Gospel of Christ the King: the whole of history looks toward him whose throne is to endure forever”.[6] To put the thesis more narratively, Nineham says,

The genealogy…witnesses to…the implicit conviction that history is continually subject to the sovereign hand of God, so that his…people [Israel] have no ground to fear, and the explicit conviction that the time of Jesus’ birth was precisely the moment when it could have been foreseen that “the time was fulfilled and the kingdom of God would draw near”.[7]

In a series on essays, I will examine the genealogy as header-gospel or promise-fulfillment through four steps: Matthew’s reference to Jesus as seed of Abraham and David, his focus on the Babylonian captivity, his reference to four women, and finally his theology of the virgin birth.

Abraham and David

The first detail to examine within Matthew’s genealogy is his explicit connection of Jesus Christ with Abraham and David. Matthew begins the genealogy by explaining that Jesus is “the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1, ESV). Craig Blomberg says that Jesus’ connection to David and Abraham is “the main portion” of the genealogy.[8] Indeed, the entire genealogy structures itself around the characters of Abraham to David. This is to be expected since Abraham and David are main characters in Israel’s story. However, there is another character missing from the text, which clues the readers in to what Matthew wants to get across by centering his genealogy on Abraham and David. Richar Hays explains:

From the founding promise to Abraham there is an ascending movement to the Davidic kingship (Mt 12-6) , then a decline into exile (Mt 6-11) it is very striking that Moses does not figure in this sketch of the plot of Israel’s story; it is a story about promise, kingship, exile, and return – a story in which the Law of Sinai plays no explicit part. This does not mean, of course, that Matthew has no interest in the Mosaic Law – quite the contrary. Nonetheless, his narrative strategy of beginning with the genealogy has the effect of highlighting Jesus’ identity as messianic king, rather than as lawgiver.[9]

This is a significant omission! This is especially important because Matthew is known for his focus on Jesus as a new Moses. Matthew’s connection of Jesus to Moses is made painstakingly obvious as he details Jesus’ infancy story along the same plot points to Moses’ story in chapters two and three. And yet, here in this large genealogy, Matthew leaps and skips over Moses and the ever important Sinai covenant. One wonders what could be the purpose of this omission.

This curious detail has to do with the nature of the various covenants related to the characters of Moses, David, and Abraham. Michael Horton explains that “Reformed theology properly recognizes the crucial differences between different…covenants…in scripture”.[10] Covenants are key in regards to the Reformed interpretation of the biblical narrative. What is more, there are differing types of covenants that function is differing ways throughout the narrative of the Old and New Testaments. Horton distinguishes between what he calls covenants of law and promise; or “royal grants” and “suzerainty treaties”.[11] Horton explains,

The suzerainty treaty is akin t a contract between a greater and lesser ruler… [which involved] stipulations (commands) and sanctions (curses for violations, blessings for obedience)… However, the royal grant was a gift bestowed by the suzerain upon a vassal… Royal grants were an outright gift by a king to a subject.[12]

According to Horton and Reformed theologians, both the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants were royal grants or promises made by YHWH to Abraham and David/Israel. The Abrahamic covenant related to God’s promise to bless the world through his seed, and the Davidic covenant had to do with God’s promise to never forfeit David’s line; to provide an heir to David’s throne. However, “the covenant at Sinai certainly bears the marks of a suzerainty treaty”, remarks Horton.[13] There are stipulations, conditions, punishments, judgments involved with the covenant associated with Moses.

When one understands that Matthew leaves out reference to Moses, it becomes clear that he means to communicate that God’s action through Christ comes by way of promise and not by way of law. There is then, a distinction within Matthew’s theology of what Paul commonly calls law and faith: God’s actions in Christ come not by way of the law; rather, God came regardless of conditioned obedience, even despite disobedience because of his promise made to Abraham and David. This does not, of course, mean that Matthew has a disparaging view of the law. On the contrary, he highlights the Mosaic Law more than any evangelist. Nor is he saying that obedience to God is not important or needed. Indeed, Christ comes not to abolish the law, but to uphold it by way of a way new covenant. However, what Matthew means to highlight is that God’s fidelity to Israel comes by way of unconditioned promise. He has made a promise to Abraham and to David, and he refuses to be unfaithful to his promise; even if Israel has been unfaithful to their promise! Thus, Matthew’s focus on Abraham and David means that God has come in Christ because of promise and not because of law.

            [1] Wright, N. T. How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. New York: HarperOne, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2016, 67-68

            [2] Hays, Richard B. “The Gospel of Matthew: Reconfigured Torah.” HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies 61, no. 1/2 (2005), 5

           [3] France, Richard T. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2010, 30

           [4] Nineham, D. E., D.D. “The Genealogy in St. Matthew’s Gospel and its Significance for the Study of the Gospels.” Lecture, The Manson Memorial Lectures, May, 2017

            [5] Benedict XVI. Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. New York: Crown Publishing Corp., 2012, 4

            [6] Ibid, 4

            [7] D. E. Nineham, D.D. “The Genealogy in St. Matthew’s Gospel and its Significance for the Study of the Gospels.”

             [8] Blomberg, Craig L. Matthew. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992, 53

             [9] Richard B. Hays. “The Gospel of Matthew: Reconfigured Torah.”, 7

            [10] Horton, Michael Scott. Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007, 12

            [11] Ibid, 12

            [12] Ibid, 12-13

            [13] Ibid, 13