(This is a continuation of the notes for Matthew chapter 1.)
Matthew highlights the diverse elements in Jesus’ background. Jesus identifies with Israel and comes as Israel’s king, but the Gentiles noted in his ancestry pave the way for an important theme in Matthew’s Gospel.
Happily, we would not omit women in our genealogies today; most ancient genealogies, however, did so. Had Matthew wanted to include the most prominent women in his list, he could have included Israel’s most famous matriarchs: Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and (less directly relevant to Jesus’ line) Rachel. Instead, he highlights four women who were either Gentiles or had significant Gentile associations.
Tamar in 1:3 was a local Canaanite who bore Judah two sons; in Genesis 38, God vindicated her. Many of us are familiar with the story of Rahab in 1:5: she was a person in Jericho that God spared. In fact, the Book of Joshua has a large contrast between Rahab, who betrayed her people to serve Israel, and Achan of Judah, who betrayed his people Israel. Rahab hid spies on her roof; Achan hid loot under his tent. Rahab and her family were saved; Achan and his family were destroyed. The story shows that the issue is not one’s ethnicity or culture, but whether one is willing to be on God’s side. Matthew 1:5 also mentions Ruth. She was a Moabite, and Moabites were not allowed to join Israel to the tenth generation (Deut 23:3). Yet Ruth became part of Israel, and the immediate ancestor of King David; it was because she accepted the God of Israel. The fourth woman, Bathsheba, whom Matthew simply calls “Uriah’s widow” in 1:6, was probably an Israelite by birth, yet by marriage she took on an association with Gentiles: she had been the wife of “Uriah the Hittite.”
One purpose of Jewish genealogies was to highlight the purity of one’s Israelite ancestry. Why then does Matthew deliberately emphasize Gentiles in Jesus’ ancestry? Matthew wants us to see that God’s plan was for all peoples all along. There were hints of this in Jesus’ heritage: three ancestors of King David and the mother of King Solomon. This theme develops throughout Matthew’s Gospel—Magi from the east honor Jesus; a centurion displays exceptional faith, as does a Canaanite woman; Jesus’ Gentile execution squad becomes first to acknowledge him as God’s son after the cross; and so forth. The Gospel climaxes with a call to disciple all nations.
What does this emphasis have to say to us today? First, that God wants us to transcend ethnic, racial and cultural barriers. God’s love is not limited to a single group of people; he reached out to all of us, and invites us to do the same. Second, there is a mission emphasis in Matthew’s treatment of Gentiles. If we love all peoples, we must commit ourselves to reach all peoples with the good news about Jesus.
Matthew estimates three sets of fourteen generations, connecting significant events in Israel’s history: from Abraham to David; from David to the exile; and from the exile to Jesus.
Matthew’s point is not precise chronology: like genealogy writers in the Book of Chronicles, he feels free to skip less relevant generations. His point, rather, is that history moves in eras. God makes dramatic shifts in history at certain points. Israel had special experiences with God in the times of Abraham, David, and the exile. By the time Jesus was born, Israel was due, or past due, for another special experience in their history. Jesus was the climax of Israel’s history, the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and the promises of the prophets. The God of history is still at work today, fulfilling his promises and reminding us of the salvation he brought us in Jesus.