The Gospel of Matthew Part 1: Genealogies, Lineages, and Numbers

Personal confession time: It has been a while since I’ve spent some time with this Gospel. I’ve always struggled to get into Matthew. It might be the language. It might be the context. If this time through uncovered something, it is that Matthew feels and seems more than a little bit feisty, particularly when it comes to the way he positions the Saduccees and the Pharisees. And so I led with a prayer. God, please reveal to me what you want me to hear.

With this in mind, there are 3 essential things that I noticed about the Gospel of Matthew when reading through it again:

1. IT IS VERY STRUCTURED: One of the first things I noticed about Matthew is the structure. Even without knowing the context, one can easily see the use of repetition and key phrases, and the book feels like it is built on patterns.

2. IT HAS A LOT OF DISCOURSE: The other thing I noticed is that Matthew gives us a lot of Jesus’ discourse relatively speaking. In fact, the whole book follows this basic pattern of a block style structure: narrative-discourse-narrative-discourse (broken up in this way: 5-7; 10; 13 18-20; 24-25).

If one breaks it down, you get 5 of these different movements all framed around a recognizable question that starts the discourse, and the shared phrase that marks the end of the discourse (“when Jesus had finished these sayings”: 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1)

3. AND YES, IT IS KIND OF ANGRY: If you set the Gospel of Matthew alongside the other Gospels, there is little question the author is particularly fired up. It becomes clear early on where this anger is directed towards- the Saduccees and the Pharisees. The Genealogy sets up the context, which Matthew molds around the Biblical figure of David, before moving quickly from Herod to the ones who will occupy the attention of his Gospel (the Saduccees and the Pharisees).

These three things stood out to me and helped me to engage with the narrative with a bit more intention. It is structured with a very real purpose, which helped me to distinguish the narrative from the discourse and the symbolism. It has a lot of discourse, which helped to give focus to how each block of discourse is framed, and the angry vibes helped me to note the direction of the anger and narrow in on Matthews very Jewish interest and very Jewish context.

And while Kingdom, Kingship, Royalty, and Forgiveness are all key themes in this Gospel, if there was one reigning theme that jumped out for me it would be this- justice for the oppressed and a Gospel for the lowly.

Starting off with a bit of a strange lineage, which includes the startling inclusion of gentile women and an interesting list of names each telling its own story of how we get from here to there, there is a single name that Matthew instantly sets us up for us as readers to recognize- David. David is at the beginning of the genealogy, the middle and the end. And in between, if one was to look at the different names that are used to develop the lineage, you see this very purposed movement that skips certain generations, emphasizes some unexpected ones, and weaves its way through the story of Israel (Adam, Abraham, and David) in a creative way in order to raise up Jesus as the Davidic King, the son of David, the fulfillment of what Matthew recognizes as the Davidic promise set within the Abrahamic covenant.

One thing to point out about the Genealogy in scholarship is that there is contention surrounding the differences between the one in Matthew and the one in Luke. There are different ways that scholarship addresses this, ranging from the idea that one is false and one is true, to the idea of Joseph having two fathers (under the legal law of a widow remarrying). Sandwiched in-between are ideas that one is Mary’s and one is Joseph’s, and maybe one of the more popular ones which is that one is legal (royal) and one is biological.

In any case, no matter where one lands on a theoretical level, what is clear is that Matthew constructs the Genealogy with a purpose. There is lots to think about even in these opening words. Borrowing his genealogy from what scholars believe is 1 Chronicles 1-3 and Ruth 4, there is one really intriguing theory that sees Matthews opening verse paired with Genesis (recasting the words of Genesis in Christ), and given Matthews interest in numbers (part of his structure) also the pattern of 5, which fits with his desire establish a new Pentateuch (moving to cast Jesus as the New Exodus in His baptism).

Some more interesting stuff: Matthew also goes to lengths to write the Genealogy, which you can see if you compare it alongside Chronicles, in a way that maintains what is this 14-14-14 structure (the Davidic number). We see this following the Genealogy when Matthew explains the 14 paradigm (Abraham to David, David… and so on). The pattern of 14 also reflects a six week structure, which speaks to a Jewish custom (found in Abraham), which would traditionally be followed by the Sabbath week (see Daniel and the inference then to a coming Messianic age in Jesus).

All of which is to say, trying to fit this genealogy into a theory that reconciles all of the movements and placements Matthew makes here in an overly literal or historical way will miss the necessary symbolism he is trying to evoke. What Matthew seems to be trying to do is establish the Davidic King (Jesus) over all of Israel, working in a really interesting mix of women with questionable pasts, particular lines and remnants that say something important about this Davidic line (especially when set alongside the Chronicles passage in contrast), problematic moments in Israelite history, and a mixing of the line of David and Aaron (which is an important point in recognizing the Jewish context of this writing).

If you are interested in seeing in more detail how each of these names fits together, this is a good resource:

His lineage is a ragged, eclectic mix brought together in some creative, some puzzling, some intriguing, some mystical, and some obviously measured ways under Christ. But it is all in service to working with the Jewish backdrop the author emerges from, especially if we move back to this idea of him establishing a new Pentateuch. Just to underscore this, arriving at the last two names you get Jacob and Joseph, which is the same genealogy in Genesis, which then leads us to Jesus and a picture of Jesus coming out of Egypt and going into exile (the wilderness for 40 Days and 40 Nights). This establishes Jesus as the New Exodus. And then, as we shall see, this new Exodus is used to establish the religious leaders as the clear antagonists (under Law and lineage), positioning the New Covenant as liberating to people like the author, whom have been oppressed by the religious leaders, those who’s hearts God is said to have hardened (like Pharoah).

Which is all to say, Matthew’s Gospel begins with a good deal of symbolism that intends to say something very important to his audience and about the tradition he is going to criticize and the liberation he has found in Jesus. Although we have tradition, as is true for most of the Gospels, in truth the Gospel remains anonymous. But that doesn’t mean we can’t fit this into the traditional authorship (Matthew) and be perfectly fine. More importantly though is knowing what the text tells us about the author and why it was written. The author was likely someone who found himself on the margins of his Jewish culture and by way of his collaboration with the Roman Kingdom (which fits with the idea of the tax collector). This makes sense of why the author is so angry at the religious leaders. He himself has been isolated, marginalized and oppressed by them, and therefore finds in Jesus a picture of this necessary justice. If his encounter with and acceptance by Jesus is to have any justification, especially given his experience with Jesus was clearly transformative in nature, it has to say something about the Jewish context that has judged him under the Law. This explains why he bypasses the Roman context and sets his sights straight on the Jewish establishment, having zero sympathy for the religious leaders and far more sympathy for those whom he sees being oppressed by them.

As we move into Part 2 of my reflections, I think one thing that will keep becoming clearer and clearer is how sharp the distinction is between the language Matthew uses to describe and speak of the religious leaders, and the language he uses to describe those who share a position with him. This sharp back and forth between harsh judgments of the establishment and this raising up of the lowly and the oppressed is both sharp and notable.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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