This is an account of the origins of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham... There were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah. (Matthew 1.1,17)
Among all the things the Bible is, it’s the exhaustive record of one family. It covers 62 generations in all, 20 from Adam to Abraham and then, by Matthew’s count, 42 from Abraham to Jesus. Treating the Bible as a dynastic saga leaves us uneasy, though, as if we’re forcing it into a genre beneath its dignity. It feels sacrilegious to imagine Holy Scripture sandwiched between the Caesars, Borgias, Bourbons, and Kennedys. But Old Testament genealogists and Matthew would argue God’s early dealings with humanity are family matters. From Adam to Abraham, the focus is bloodline. Ethnicity doesn’t emerge until God promises Abraham he will father a great nation, Israel, which approaches nationhood as a family matter by taking its name from Abraham's grandson, Jacob, and self-identifies as his “children.” After Abraham, Bible history is consumed by marital and reproductive crises. It’s no stretch to say, when the dynasty teeters, wars, invasions, coups, captivities, famines, and plagues take a back seat. God’s sacred oath to bless Abraham’s offspring is Israel’s raison d’être. Family comes first since its DNA holds the deed to God’s promise.
We resist approaching the Bible as a family saga because dynasties are horribly messy. Heroes are few. Scoundrels run riot. Usually it’s hard to tell one from the other. Titans crumble to lust, greed, and blood-thirst. Conspiracies abound, paranoia thrives, children rebel, parents grieve, tables turn, and heads roll. “Maybe that’s the stuff of opera, tabloids, and TV miniseries," we say, "but surely not the Bible!” Alas—and I’m guessing you’re already way ahead of me—it’s truer than we prefer to believe. To verify this, we need look no further than Matthew’s genealogy, which opens his gospel to establish Jesus’s bona fides as Abraham’s descendant and a rightful heir to David’s throne. In the process, he reveals more about Jesus’s background than he probably wants us to see.
Matthew lists an illustrious pantheon of patriarchs and kings: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Boaz, David, Solomon, et al. His first challenge is contriving a way to connect Jesus to this lineage, as He isn’t Joseph’s biological heir. The writer fixes this by including five women—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and, finally, Mary—who give birth to legendary sons. The importance of adding these women to the roster can’t be overstated for its implications to first-century readers and its affront to patriarchal mentality imbedded in Christian traditions to this day. Every one of them is a potential victim of chauvinistic legalism. Yet, while Matthew traces bloodline through the fathers, calling out five mothers allows him to stitch a thread of redemption into Jesus’s story. Like her four predecessors, Mary bears mention because she is God’s vessel of intervention to correct the dynasty’s waywardness and fulfill God’s promise. What Matthew can’t fix are warts on the dynasty’s most prominent men. In some ways, they’re extraordinarily heroic. In others, they’re hopeless scoundrels.
Abraham lets his wife become Pharaoh’s plaything in exchange for favors; then he disowns Hagar and Ishmael to appease Sarah’s envy. After Isaac gets tricked into marrying an ugly sister, he negotiates a new deal to wed the pretty one. Jacob steals his brother’s inheritance and swindles his father-in-law. After Tamar is left childless by two of Judah’s sons, he sends her from his house—a violation of Jewish custom—to spare his youngest boy from marrying her; he later mistakes her for a prostitute and impregnates her. Boaz, as next-of-kin to Ruth’s late husband, is legally bound to marry her. But he settles for letting her work his fields with other women until she sleeps with him. Then he claims her. Where do we start with David? He doesn’t avenge his daughter when her stepbrother rapes her, creating enmity between him and another son, who dies in a freak accident. He has a neighbor killed to marry the man’s widow. He murders anyone who gets in his way, Jew and non-Jew alike. Solomon collects 700 queens, plus 300 concubines, and unwisely turns from God to please his pagan wives. These are just the headliners. If we vetted Matthew’s genealogy line-by-line, few of its entries could boast of lifelong moral and spiritual integrity.
Matthew’s reasons for opening with Jesus’s genealogy are legitimate and noble. He’s undertaken the task of reworking Mark’s earlier account of Jesus’s ministry into a full-fledged biography. (Luke will do the same.) Since Mark begins with Jesus’s baptism, His birth is the first omission to be rectified. Matthew gives great consideration to framing his book for readers he hopes to reach. He intends to prove to Jewish converts that Jesus is the Messiah foretold by the prophets. Yet, even in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus distances Himself from the Messianic dynasty. When people call Him “son of David,” He never acknowledges it. In His last week of human life, He severs all ties to His lineage by asking the Pharisees, “Whose son is the Messiah?” They answer, “David’s son.” Jesus challenges them with Psalm 110, where David refers to the Messiah as “Lord.” He asks, “If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” (Matthew 22.45) The contradictions bursting through Matthew’s genealogy, combined with Jesus’s apparent disregard for His dynastic background, teach us a powerful lesson.
Family background doesn’t define us. Regardless how good or bad our “stock” may be, in the end, we alone are responsible for our identity and character. The best of families are riddled with scoundrels and hypocrites—some of them more twisted than any you’d find in “lesser” families. We shouldn’t accept shame or humiliation for our family’s flaws, nor should we submit to pressures to pretend to be something we’re not. Family façades are seldom accurate or truthful; admiration they generate is illusory. That’s the fallacy in keeping up appearances and worrying what neighbors think. In the end, Matthew’s genealogy does us a much greater service than confirming Jesus’s Messianic credentials. It proves authenticity of self is vital. Following Christ obliterates all stereotypes and false expectations—including those within and about our families. “I am the way and the truth and the life,” Jesus says in John 14.6. Christ comes to show us we can live truthfully as ourselves. Living truthfully is why we come to Christ.
(Next post: Scandals)
All family trees—including Jesus’s—hang heavy with scoundrels and hypocrites. Our origins may shape us, but they don’t define us.
Postscript: A Matter of Choice
Authenticity of self is a matter of choice—following Christ’s example. I recently found this inspiring medley of “I Choose Jesus” (written by an old family friend, Mosie Lister) and “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” performed by Fortunato Yabut III and the Centerville Presbyterian Church Chorale (Fremont, California). May this Christmas renew our confidence that following Christ, not family origin or anything else, is what defines us!
I CHOOSE JESUS
Some say life is just a series of decisions
We make choices, we live and learn
Now I'm standing at a crossroad
And I must choose which way to turn
Down the one road is all the world can offer
All its power, its wealth and fame
Down the other just a Man
With nail scars in His hands
But there is mercy in His eyes
And there is power in His name
I choose Jesus, Jesus
Without a solitary doubt
I choose Jesus
Not for miracles, but for loving me
Not just for Bethlehem, but for Calvary
Not for a day, but for eternity
I choose Jesus
I have decided to follow Jesus
No turning back
No turning back