Jesus' Genealogy at Christmas

A few days ago, Alan Knox wrote a post titled “What’s With The Begats”? From there, he proceeded to offer a number of insights on the genealogy of Jesus. I was particulary interested in this post because the Sunday before (12/16/07) I had actually preached on the genealogy; something I’d never attempted before. (I think that visiting the graveyard last week where a number of my relatives are buried is what ultimately got me reflecting on the genealogies.) Anyways, as one who is highly interested in using the social-sciences to interpret the Scriptures, that is the angle from which I approached Mt. 1.1-17. What follows are some insights into Jesus’ genealogy at Christmas (or any other time of the year for that matter).

To begin, we should keep in mind that in Jesus’ world, honor was the thing most sought after and shame was the thing most avoided. It has been said more than enough that antiquity was an honor/shame culture. When reading Matthew’s genealogy, then, and the rest of the birth narrative for that matter, I think we see Matthew doing all he can to show that Jesus is due honor. As would be expected, Matthew even uses the infamous 3 g’s (gender, geography, genealogy) all within the scope of 1.1-2.1.

For example, Matthew’s opening verse notes that Jesus is a “son” of David and a “son” of Abraham. That might seem simplistic to us and there may be a tendency to gloss over it but the fact is, in the 1st century Mediterranean world, the birth of a “male” was usually more honorable than the birth of a female. Gender is doubly emphasized in the first sentence of the New Testament!

As for genealogy, we see that in 1.1 as well. For Jesus to be a “son” of Abe and Dave is an incredibly honorable thing. To be part of their lineage automatically, in Jewish eyes, attributed honor to Jesus. Moreover, the simple fact of being listed with these great “men” of faith, was an honor in and of itself. So, in Mt. 1.1 we already see a number of ways that Matthew is making the point that Jesus is worthy of being honored. In 2.1 we read that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea. This is a “geography” reference. I will abstain here from going into a long speech about how “place” of birth or “place” of dwelling determined whether or not one was attributed honor or shame and say that, for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem was an honorable thing. This was the birthplace of King David and any Jewish male born there would have been ascribed some sort of honor because of it. (*Note: When we read things like “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” we should see this as a shaming technique. Evidently, those challenging Jesus thought that living in Nazareth was not worthy of honor.)

So, at this juncture, we’ve seen how in 1.1-2.1 Matthew has used the 3 g’s to bring up Jesus’ honor. I submit that he does this on purpose and that, even more, this is likely his main purpose in telling the birth narrative! Matthew wants persons to pay Jesus honor. This is also why Matthew includes magi bringing Jesus gifts (though, in some circles these magi would have been despised), angels visiting Jesus’ parents and giving directions that would ensure the baby’s protection, cosmic phenomenon, etc. All of this is to reveal Jesus’ honor.

But there is something else that Matthew does too: he includes 5 women in the genealogy. Why exactly does he do this? Well, I am of the persuasion of R. Brown that when we place the 5 women and their stories side-by-side, we notice something: each of them was, at some time or another, surrounded by what appeared to be (or was) sexual scandal. (I will not recount the stories of each of the women here.) However, another thing that they share in common is that despite the seeming scandal, in the end, God vindicated or used them to accomplish some divine purpose. Thus, Matthew’s reason for including them is to essentially say: “Look, people are questioning Mary’s pregnancy; they think she has committed some scandalous sexual act. Yet, if you look at those in Jesus’ genealogy and you reflect on their lives, you will see that, at some point their lives were shrouded in scandal but really, it was God at work. The same thing is happening with Mary!” Thus, what appears to be a shameful act on the surface, actually becomes a way of honoring Jesus; God the Father is acting on behalf of Jesus and His parents. This is an honorable thing indeed!

Apart from the fact that Joseph, Jesus’ father is pictured as such a righteous and honorable man (which automatically gives Jesus some honor), Matthew also desires to portray Jesus as the new Moses (even the overall book is arranged in 5 parts). Jesus is now the prophet par excellence—an honorable thing indeed. Because may books have already been written and still could be written on this topic, I will not say much more about it here. There is one more thing I should point out, though. It seems to me that Matthew is using numbers to bring honor to Jesus as well.

Matthew uses 14’s and 5’s in his first few chapters repeatedly. (e.g. 14 sets of generations, 5 dreams, 5 uses of the title Messiah, 5 women mentioned, etc. The 5’s are probably intended to hearken back to Moses and the Pentateuch.) But the 14’s suggest something else. I think that Matthew (not recounting all of Jesus’ ancestors by any means) is attempting to say to his people: “Look, at 14 generations God acted this way. 14 generations later, God did it again. Now, we’re 14 generations out, so, it shouldn’t surprise us that God is doing a similar thing yet again.” Thus, this is Matthew’s way of saying that God is acting in Jesus’ situation in ways similar to that of Israel’s history. Here, then, Jesus is intimately attached to Israel’s history (also via the Moses connections) and thus, much honor is assigned to Him.

What I have tried to show here is that from a socio-cultural perspective, that is, viewing the text through an honor/shame paradigm, reveals how passages that we often gloss over, come to life with new meaning. It is clear to me that Matthew’s original audience(s), would not have missed this as much as we do. Indeed, they would have much more easily gotten Matthew’s point that Jesus is due great honor. From the standpoint of modern application, we might teach and preach on this text during Christmas or any time of year asking those around us if honoring Jesus is as central to their lives as it might have been to, say, Matthew’s. In the end, preaching the genealogy isn’t that hard when we take into consideration its purpose (then and now): to give Jesus the honor that He deserves.

Comments

  1. Hey Michael,

    Interesting post. Thought I would add my reflections to the mix - these are part of a longer set of Advent reflections on what I called the three Nativities. My post on geneologies draws heavily on Brown

    http://monkeyltd.blogspot.com/2007/12/three-nativities-pt2-lineages.html

    After reading Knox's blog, I found myself reflecting that the three epochs that Matthew lays out for his salvation history might be seen as representing the fullfillment of three promises - the promise to Abraham of the land, to David of the nation, and to Jeconiah related to the restoration - Jesus filled-full that promise in the context of the other two.

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  2. Thanks for the rundown. I did some cursory exploration of the geneaologies for my sermon exegesis, but this clears a lot up.

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  3. John,

    I hadn't thought of it in that way before; I think you're on to something there (even if by way of Brown). I'll check out your posts as soon as I get a chance. Glad these were able to help you a bit. I've not found anyone who makes some of the points that I've made, so, your words are encouraging. Be blessed. Happy New Year.

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  4. Michael,

    Thanks,

    I had been wanting to do work with the whole honor-dishonor (dis-grace) notion since I did some study with Thomas Thangaraj this past spring on atonement theories.

    The Jeconiah "promise" (prophesy to him and other exiles) should probably be written in small letters rather than capital as one might consier the Davidic House, but it still works somewhat.

    I trust your holidays are goin well.

    Peace,

    John

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  5. You might want to take a look at the discussion of the 14 generations on my blog (to which Stephen Carlson replied), and my article on the alleged allegations that Jesus was illegitimate in JSHJ if you have access to it.

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  6. James,

    I read all three articles. I do see that there is some discrepency when counting. Nonetheless, Matthew makes it clear that he is going for 14's. How one arrives at that number, well, there are different ways of that happening. I just know that Matthew says "14" three times and that's what he's going for. So, from my vantage point, my post is neither wrong or moot (not that you were suggesting that).

    As for me, I do not see anything wrong with getting creative in how one adds up the 14's. Some might refer to it as fancy exegetical footwork but sometimes such footwork is necesarry, though, not always.

    From what I gathered in the short post about JC's illegitimacy, I would say you have some good points. I don't have access to the original article but I would say that it wasn't a human birth but a divine scandal (e.g. The HS actually did impregnate her). We may disagree on this, I don't know but that's my view.

    Thanks for the links and comments. Be blessed.

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  7. Michael,

    I have that article if you're interested in reading it. I can email it to you or just post a link where you can access it online. Let me know.

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  8. Here's a link to that article.

    It's easier this way than emailing it.

    Enjoy!

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  9. Thanks Nick, the link is much appreciated; I'll check it out.

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