“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, and Ram the father of Amminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king… ”
At first glance the beginning of Matthew’s biography of Jesus doesn’t exactly set the heart racing—but that is true of all genealogies when you don’t recognize the names. I know a little bit about my family tree, and for the most part it is deadly boring. But it’s much more interesting if you know, for example, that my great grand-uncle was Gregory Blaxland, one of the first Europeans to cross the Great Dividing Range west of Sydney.
It’s the same with this genealogy. Matthew has crafted it to draw attention to some of Jesus’ more significant ancestors. That’s why this genealogy is a little different to what we might be used to. Today we strive for completeness, wanting to know every detail: when, where, and to whom everyone was born. But that is not what we have here. For example, if we compare this genealogy to the list of names we find in the Old Testament, we’ll see that three generations between Joram and Uzziah have been skipped over. Or, if we compare it to Luke chapter 3, again we find some differences. But that’s not because Matthew didn’t know Jesus’ exact linage, rather it’s because Matthew wants to highlight Jesus’ more significant ancestors.
The two most clearly highlighted ancestors are Abraham and David, named both at the beginning and the end. The key to their importance is found in the promises that God made to Abraham and David.
After humanity had rebelled in the garden, God not only promised Abraham a new land that would be filled with his descendants, he also promised that he’d bless people from every nation through one of Abraham’s descendants (Gen 12:1‑3). This is a massive promise, because this promise to bless was given to a world that, because of humanity’s rebellion, had been cursed by God (Gen 3:14-19). So this was a promise to deal with humanity’s number one problem—the problem of sin. The promise made to David was just as big: God promised that his descendant would forever rule over this renewed and restored creation (2 Sam 7:12-13).
That’s why Jesus’ lineage is traced back to Abraham through David. God’s people had been waiting hundreds of years for these promises to be fulfilled, and now the time had come. That’s why he declares that Jesus is the Christ. It’s also why Matthew uses the words “account of the origin”, which many English Bibles translate as either a record or book of the genealogy. This phrase was first used in Genesis 2:4 to introduce the creation of the world; it’s used here to introduce the one who will remake this world. Jesus is the one the entire Bible had been waiting for to deal with the problem of sin.
But is this really Jesus’ family tree? In verse 16, instead of saying: “Joseph was the father of Jesus”, it says “Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born”. This potential problem—that Jesus isn’t Joseph’s son, and thus not necessarily a descendant of Abraham and David—is explored in the rest of chapter 1. Matthew zooms in on the exact circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth, which climaxes with Joseph choosing to name Jesus, thereby becoming his legal father.
Of course some might argue that Jesus couldn’t be the fulfilment of those promises, since he was not a direct biological descendant of Abraham and David. Matthew anticipates this objection, and counters it once again by breaking the pattern of “X was the father of Y” by occasionally adding “by Z”. When we examine each of these women, we find that they too are all people that we wouldn’t have anticipated being part of this family tree.
For example, Tamar’s family line would have died with her (Gen 38:14). She was not just a widow, but her father-in-law Judah had refused her access to her brother-in-law and potential kinsman-redeemer. But, in a dramatic twist, Tamar pretends to be a prostitute, tricks Judah into sleeping with her, and suddenly becomes part of this family tree.
Likewise Rahab the Canaanite, Ruth the Moabite, and Bathsheba the wife of Uriah the Hittite: they are all women who, because of their nationality, we wouldn’t have expected to have been part of this family tree.
We don’t need to be surprised by Jesus’ unusual connection with his family tree, or question his link to Abraham and David. It’s thoroughly consistent with the way God has worked throughout history to bring outsiders into his family.
The start of Matthew’s gospel reminds us of God’s wonderful character—he loves and accepts the widow, the prostitute, the foreigner, the outsider. So when Jesus came, he came to save his people from their sins (Matt 1:21), and sent out his disciples to all nations (Matt 28:19-20).