What can a genealogical record possibly offer the devout Bible reader seeking spiritual edification, theological enlightenment and scriptural guidance? One might be forgiven for concluding that the genealogies in the Bible yield little of theological value and are merely included as (albeit important) historical footnotes in the wider canonical narrative.
Yet the apostle Paul informs his young protégée Timothy that ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’ (2 Tim 3:16 ESV). If we are to take these words seriously then all Scripture—including the genealogical records—deserves our attention, however dull such passages may appear at first glance.
Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus is actually of considerable theological importance. Firstly it establishes a direct ancestral lineage to David which is crucial to the biblical claims that Jesus is the Son of David (a title repeatedly attributed to Him throughout the gospels). The genealogy also establishes that Jesus belonged to the tribe of Judah. In the book of Revelation Jesus is attributed the title “Lion of the tribe of Judah” specifically within the context of His Davidic lineage: ‘And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals”’ (5:5 ESV).
Yet we have barely scratched the surface and there is more that the genealogy recorded in Matthew’s gospel offers the theological enquirer.
Even a cursory examination of the individual names who were Jesus’ ancestors yields all manner of colourful, sinful and even disturbing characters. For example, on two occasions Abraham insisted his wife was his sister to protect his own life (his son Isaac did likewise). Rahab was a prostitute. David and Bathsheba the wife of Uriah committed adultery. Moreover when Bathsheba became pregnant as a result David arranged for Uriah to be killed in battle. Another example is Manasseh who was surely Judah’s most idolatrous and wicked king and who shed much innocent blood. And yet these and others in Matthew’s genealogy were the ancestors of the sinless Son of God. There is so much that could be unpacked here (for example, discussions surrounding the ancestral transmission of original sin, why it seems to suggest sin is transmitted via the male, and so on).
It would be easy to stop there, satisfied that this genealogical passage has yielded its divine purpose and profitability, like the rest of Scripture. We might even get into more technical discussion about how Matthew’s record differs from Luke’s genealogy of Jesus, why that may be and what these differences yield theologically. Job done! No need to keep reading the repetitive formula, “So-and-so was the father of so-and-so, and he was the father of…” (ad infinitum).
It is true that we could stop there, satisfied we have understand why Matthew included this passage. The thing is, though, the Bible can be read and studied at various levels depending on the effort one puts in. Thus, it can be understood by a child, explored and yield food for thought for a decent sermon delivered to an adult audience, and leave theologians scratching their heads as they engage with the text in considerable depth.
By way of explanation let’s explore the numbers of generations and if they have any significance in Matthew’s genealogy. Note how the evangelist organises his material into three groups of 14 generations. That is, 14 generations from Abraham to David, a further 14 generations from David to the exile, and finally 14 generations from the exile to Jesus.
It is all very neat but what is striking is that if one examines the old Testament records carefully it becomes clear that the genealogical material there is not quite so symmetrical and Matthew has missed out several names.