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”. 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”. 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. 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”. 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”. 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”. 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”.
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. 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.
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”. 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”. 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.
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. 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.