Open Matthew 1:1-17.
Matthew would never win a creative writer’s award. His first chapter is about as interesting as a Jewish telephone book. Why would he start with a list of largely unfamiliar names?
Matthew is convinced we can only understand Jesus as part of a larger story. These names trace the story of Israel. It’s like a kingship list—the descendants of King David who represent the Abrahamic family. For Matthew, Jesus must be understood in his Jewish context, as the king who fulfils Israel’s broken expectations of the kingdom of God.
Jumping into the Jesus story without understand this kingdom story is like diving into a theatre three-quarters of the way through a movie: you can see what they’re doing and hear what they’re saying, but you’ve little idea of why it’s happening or why it matters.
That’s why Matthew gives us a brief summary of the previous story: just a list of names, each representing a whole generation. The list itself tells a story! Here’s the plot:
Matthew 1:17 (NIV)
Thus 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.
Here’s the backstory according to Matthew:
- Abraham was the foundation of the Jewish story. God partnered with Abraham to establish a nation ruled by God, for the purpose of restoring the blessing of his reign to the other nations.
- David was the high-point the Jewish story. The promise that his son would always reign became more precious as the years went by. That’s why almost half of 1 & 2 Chronicles is devoted to the reign of David and his son, and the hope that this reign would someday be restored.
- The exile was the low-point of the Jewish story. Everything fell apart. God’s temple was destroyed. Israel ceased to exist as a nation. They lost their land to the Babylonian Empire. Instead of being ruled by sons of David who represented the heavenly king, they were ruled by earthly tyrants like Nebuchadnezzar.
- Jesus is the restoration of the kingdom of God, after 600 years of being ruled by foreign empires instead of enjoying God’s reign (the flat line on the graph).
Within that framework is a more nuanced story. The kings all are from the tribe of Judah, but that nearly didn’t happen. Judah’s firstborn was so wicked that he wasn’t allowed to live. Same with his second son. I won’t tell you how Judah’s line managed to survive: let’s just say it had something to do with Judah using what he thought was a shrine prostitute who was actually his daughter-in-law (1:3, compare Genesis 38). Not a great foundation for the tribe of kings?
Who’s Rahab (1:5)? The only Rahab we know from the OT was a Canaanite prostitute—rather embarrassing whichever way you look at her. Ruth (1:5) wasn’t an Israelite either.
After these ups and downs, we finally get to David, the ideal king. Well, actually, David abused his power by “borrowing” the wife of one of his soldiers, and then arranging the guy’s death so he could keep her (1:6).
That’s how King Solomon was born, and it all went downhill from there. The kingdom split. Manasseh (1:10) was so abusive that he filled Jerusalem with blood (2 Kings 21:16). Eventually God turned away and let Babylon destroy them (1:11).
There were no kings after that. The kingdom intended to show the nations the wonder of God’s rule became the backwater of a monstrous empire. And they understood why: because of their sins. “It is because this people abandoned YHWH’s covenant …” (Deuteronomy 29:25).
Torah also promised restoration: “When you and your children return to the Lord … then YHWH your God will restore your fortunes …” (Deuteronomy 30:3-4). It hadn’t happened. They remained oppressed by foreign powers. Generation after generation! For 600 years! When would they be forgiven and restored? When would their king be born?
They hoped. Finally they heard: “You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (1:21). Restoration was on its way. But don’t limit this to the benefits for you as an individual. The kingdom is corporate. God isn’t merely forgiving the sins of an individual, but of a people—a people who’ve resisted his government. The application for us involves living corporately as the community that honours his reign.
What others are saying
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: SPCK, 2004), 3:
Even to tell that story, to list those names, was therefore making a political statement. You wouldn’t want Herod’s spies to overhear you boasting that you were part of the true royal family.
But that’s what Matthew does, on Jesus’ behalf. And, as though to emphasize that Jesus isn’t just one member in an ongoing family, but actually the goal of the whole list, he arranges the genealogy into three groups of 14 names—or, perhaps we should say, into six groups of seven names. The number seven was and is one of the most powerful symbolic numbers, and to be born at the beginning of the seventh seven in the sequence is clearly to be the climax of the whole list. This birth, Matthew is saying, is what Israel has been waiting for for two thousand years.
N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, (London: SPCK, 1992), 385:
The very sentence which is found to be thematic for the main plot—the prediction that Jesus ‘will save his people from their sins’—presupposes a previous story as well. It assumes that the plot of the gospel comes towards the end of a larger and longer plot, in which ‘his people’ fall victim to ‘their sins’. And it does not take much imagination, much reading in Matthew, or much knowledge of the Jewish background, to see what story that is. It is the story of Israel, more specifically the story of exile.
Christopher Wright, How to Preach and Teach the Old Testament for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016):
Sin is not just something personal, and neither is salvation. The Bible tells the story of God’s great project of restoring the whole of creation through Christ, healing the division of the nations, and bringing salvation at every level of human and creational need and loss. That is the Bible’s “big story” of salvation.
Footnote: Matthew’s 3 x 14
Matthew’s 3 lists of 14 names don’t total 42. The schema works only if someone is repeated. In ancient Jewish texts, the end of one list could also be counted the beginning of a new one. Matthew seems to see David both as both the culmination of the first list (the rise of the kingdom) and also as the beginning of the decline (the second list).
If that’s right, perhaps he also intends us to see Jesus as both the end of the wait for the kingdom (the third list) and also as the start of the restored kingdom (the new thing established on Christ, perhaps as a seventh seven).