Matthew 1:1-16, JESUS THE JEW

Today I start a series of commentaries on the gospel of Matthew. I plan to write one post once per week on this topic for a while, to see how they are received.

When studying a gospel account of Jesus’ life, we should first consider the author’s intentions. Every gospel author sought to offer a particular and unique understanding of Jesus. Comparing Matthew’s opening line to the one in John’s gospel, for example, we find that John is mainly concerned with Jesus as God, while Matthew is more interested in Jesus the man. Specifically, Matthew sets out immediately to present Jesus as a Jewish man, the “son” of David, who is the “son” of Abraham. From a Jewish point of view, these are arguably two of the most important Jews who ever lived.

At the outset, then, we find Matthew writing as a Jew, to Jews, about a Jew.

He quickly places Abraham in Jesus’ genealogy to establish Jesus’ Jewish credentials. And with David, he goes further to establish Jesus as the right kind of Jew. It is Matthew’s contention, after all, that this Jew is the messiah, and all Biblically literate Jews were aware that the messiah would descend from David, as can be seen in Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Later in Matthews’ Gospel he will record the Pharisees’ understanding of this, and he will show that a pair of blind men understand it, which indicates that it was known even by Jews who could not read the Hebrew scriptures.

Matthew’s Jewish approach is also seen in his use of the word “son,” which is a kind of metaphor meaning “descendant.” This metaphorical treatment is seen again in the genealogy to follow, where, because several kings are left out of Matthew’s list, some of the “fathers” are really grandfathers or great grandfathers. Matthew’s symbolic use of these nouns and his omission of certain generations from the lineage are common in the Jewish tradition. One finds it often in the Talmud, and it is likely there are also generations missing from the genealogies in the Torah’s book of Genesis. If not, then Abraham was born only 2 years after Noah died and his grandfather Nahor died before his great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather Noah. Also, if the Genesis genealogies did include every generation, then Moses’ grandfather would have already had 8,600 descendants before Moses died. This is very unlikely.

Rabbinic tradition holds that the scriptures speak on several levels. Especially when reading scriptures intended for a Jewish audience (most of the New Testament and all of the Hebrew Scriptures, or “Old Testament”), these levels of meaning should be kept in mind. The four most common are:

P’shat (“simple”) – the plain sense meaning.
Remez (“hint”) – the implied, or broader meaning.
D’rash (“sermon”) – the meaning gleaned in connection with other scripture.
Sod (“concealed”) – the mysterious, or divinely hidden meaning.

In presenting Jesus’ genealogy, we find Matthew revealing his Jewish roots with a generous use of remez. Note the “…father of…” pattern he establishes. A careful reading reveals three breaks with this pattern. Each break hints at something.

First we notice that he only mentions brothers twice (Judah’s brothers and Jeconiah’s brothers).

By emphasizing Judah “and his brothers,” he reminds Jewish readers that not all Jews are equal in God’s eyes simply because they are Jews. Remember what Judah and his brothers did to Joseph. As Paul wrote elsewhere, the Torah makes it clear that one’s bloodline is not enough to claim God’s favor. The “promise” given to Abraham must also be accepted, as Abraham did, with belief.

With his enigmatic reference to Jeconiah “and his brothers,” Matthew provides another hint intended to direct a Jewish reader’s thoughts to several important truths. Jeconiah is another name for Jehoiachin, the king taken into captivity by Nebuchadnezzar. Given the later events of Jesus’ life, this should remind Jewish readers that God can use human weakness and suffering to achieve His will, something even Jesus’ disciples failed to understand at first. It was also Matthew’s way of hinting that the messiah would not be an earthly king. This hint also answers one Jewish objection to the genealogy. In Jeremiah, the descendants of king Jeconiah (Jehoiachin) are cursed with rejection from “the throne of David.” How then can Jesus be a “son of David’s” and a “king”? Matthew directs us to the solution. Joseph’s ancestor Jeconiah belonged to the line of David through David’s son Solomon, while Mary’s connection with the throne of David was through Solomon’s brother Nathan, who was of course also in the Davidic line. This is one reason why the virgin birth is so important, since it means Mary was Jesus’ “natural” parent while Joseph was a “step-parent,” thus Jesus actual blood line was not through Jeconiah. (We will explore the virgin birth in an upcoming post.)

Note that both Nathan and Solomon were sons of Bathsheba, the famous adulteress. This brings us to a second remez Matthew embeds within his genealogy of Jesus. He violates the “…father of…” pattern five times to mention women.

Next week I will explore the implications of Matthew’s enigmatic references to women here in this first section of his gospel. In the meantime, I encourage you to identify the women Matthew mentions in the genealogy (one of whom is not listed by name), ponder their similarities, and consider what those similarities imply about Jesus and his Way.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:06 AM  


BJ said... June 28, 2007 at 5:24 PM  

Very, *very* interesting, Athol.

Please, sir, may I have some more?


Rachel Hauck said... June 29, 2007 at 9:20 AM  

Great blog and series idea!

I started one on Song of Solomon and admit, got overwhelmed with it. I tried to do too much.


grd said... July 3, 2007 at 7:31 AM  

The connection between the four levels of meanings and Matthew's genealogy is very interesting. Keep up the good work.

dennis moel said... January 10, 2009 at 9:17 PM  

The genealogy given in Luke 3 is also Joseph's. Questions: How could a man have 2 fathers? How could a man have 2 different genealogies?

Answer: In the Torah (Deuteronomy 25:5,6), if a man died childless, his brother or near-kinsman married the widow and raised the first child in the name of the deceased.

Therefore, Heli, the legal father of Joseph, died childless. His widow was married by Jacob, the son of Matthan. This Jacob was the natural father of Joseph. Thus, Joseph had 2 fathers. These 2 genealogies were futher evidence to Jewish readers in the early days of Jesus' authenticity.

Furthermore, Mary was likely of the tribe of Levi. But, this mattered not, because in those days family descent was patrilineal among the Jews.

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