For modern readers, the Gospel According to Matthew opens in the most boring Christmas story imaginable, a genealogy. That’s right, a long list of names you cannot pronounce with many translations having that word beget in between them. In it, the author highlights people and events of significance. There is Abraham and David as well as the Babylonian Exile. But most of the names included are unfamiliar to casual and scholarly readers alike. It’s about as exciting as getting a new pair of jeans for Christmas.
But given how ancient writers combined Michelangelo’s artistry with da Vinci’s brilliance, there must be a reason for what seems like a horrible way to begin a transformative story. There are a few, and they all can shape our thoughts on Christmas if we take the time to understand them.
What’s Before Matthew?
If you are a Christian today and you read your Bible from front to back, then the thing that comes right before Matthew is the prophet, Malachi. His book closes:
Look, I am sending you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord arrives. His preaching will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers. Otherwise I will come and strike the land with a curse.Malachi 4:5-6
So when you flip the page to Matthew, who are you expecting? Someone like the prophet Elijah warning us about the end times. There is an expectation of pending doom and destruction and someone who says, “You better get in line or everything is going to fall apart.” It sets the stage for a vision of Jesus just like the one many of us grew up with.
But is that what Matthew had in mind?
What Should Be Before Matthew?
Historically, Malachi is not the last book of the Hebrew Bible. Rather a group of translators moved Malachi there along with the other prophets. Jewish history reveals a different ordering. Rather than placing the later prophets at the end of their Bible, they keep them together with the earlier prophets starting with Joshua. So their Bibles open with the Torah (Genesis to Deuteronomy), continues with the Prophets (Joshua to Malachi), and concludes with the Writings. The last of the writings is Chronicles.
So if you could read both texts front to back in the order most familiar to those in the First Century, this is what you would read right before turning the page to Matthew:
This is what King Cyrus of Persia says: “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth. He has appointed me to build him a Temple at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Any of you who are his people may go there for this task. And may the Lord your God be with you!”2 Chronicles 36:23
This creates an entirely different expectation for who comes next.
To add to the intrigue, while the “you” in “any of you” is plural, the “your” and “you” in the final sentence, are singular. It is almost as if Cyrus is saying, “One from among you needs to go build Yahweh’s Temple at Jerusalem.” For hundreds of years the people waited in expectation. Then, Matthew opens, “This is a record of the ancestors of Jesus the Messiah, a descendant of David and Abraham.”
Reinforcing the intentionality of this connection is that Chronicles opens with a genealogy very similar to sections of Matthew’s. It is almost like Matthew took Chronicles and pulled out what he needed to make his point. Essentially, Matthew is saying that Jesus is the culmination of God’s revelation through Israel.
Through his genealogy, Matthew says Jesus is the new temple where you discover what God is like. Matthew’s Christmas invites us to a new understanding of the divine.
An Unexpected Genealogy
So who is this God that Jesus reveals?
Our first hint comes in the cast of characters who make appearances in the genealogy itself. This is not the list you’d expect if there was an intent to impress. Many of the characters only make appearances in other genealogies. They are everyday people who are insignificant in the broader narrative.
Still, others are known, but not for the right reasons. Rehab the Canaanite and Ruth the Moabite reveal an impure Jewish lineage. Tamar is in the line because she dressed like a prostitute and seduced her deceased husband’s father, while Rehab was a prostitute in Jericho. David is mentioned twice and his child in the lineage is the consequence of rape.
If that was not enough, Ahaz did not trust the prophet Isaiah and sought the Assyrians’ protection from the Syrians. Flaunting Israel’s riches and ability to pay tribute ultimately brought about the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem. That is topped by Manasseh who is known as the most wicked of Israel’s wicked kings.
And yet this entire cast of characters, good, bad, irrelevant, and ugly, is presented as part of what God is inviting the whole creation towards. They all belong and are tied into a promise for all of humanity through Abraham, that manifests through an everlasting kingship given to David, and now comes to fruition as exile truly ends through Jesus.
If they all belong, so do each of us!
A True End of Exile?
That last line is a bit strange. After all, if you know the history of Israel, then you know the people returned from the Babylonian Exile hundreds of years before Jesus. So how can Jesus mark the true end of exile? We find our answer when we remember that, with Jesus, things are often not what they seem.
The genealogy introduces us to this reality. Matthew crafted the text to make a point. It is not a strict lineage. This should not surprise us as the Bible is neither science nor history, but interpretation and invitation. Matthew chose this cast of characters to make rhetorical points. One of them, is that Jesus is not who you would expect.
As opposed to a family full of disconnected elites, Jesus’ family includes poets and farmers, warriors and lovers, failures and successes. In other words, all of the human experience is represented in the lineage of Jesus. The last thing we have come to expect from our leaders is that they are truly one of us.
We also see this in how Matthew describes Jesus’ conception. An engaged woman becoming pregnant in that day typically indicated adultery, not faithfulness. Things only get stranger as Joseph, a shamed man, decides to stay faithful to the women who, based on appearances, shamed him.
If that was not enough, Matthew ties the virgin birth to a quote from Isaiah where the virgin has a son whose name means, “God with us.” While this sounds like a good thing, in Isaiah, God with us means an end to everything as we know it. Yes God comes to destroy enemies, but God also comes to send the people into the Babylonian Exile.
Matthew’s Christmas Genes (and Genealogy)
That brings us back to where we started.
The Babylonian Exile of Isaiah’s day now ends with the one Cyrus unknowingly commissioned to build the Temple. But it is not the end of exile in a foreign land. Nor is it freedom from Roman occupiers. Rather, this is a grand invitation to a different way of life and a different way of understanding the God Jesus will call Father. It is about worshipping at a temple where rather than fearing our destruction we bask in divine love. But it also means living in contradiction to the world we know because instead of living by power we live by love.
Article: How Did We Get the Bible’s Book Order? And Can We Change It? by Institute for Bible Reading
I came across this while doing a bit of research on how we got our modern Bibles. The broader project of the site, changing up the order we read the books of the Bible, both to break up monotony and to tie timelines together looks rather interesting.
Article: Matthew’s 14 Generations by The Bible as Art
I ran across this site while researching for this week. While there are a number of posts worth reading, some of which shaped my thoughts in this post, there wasn’t space to explore this one. At the link you’ll find both a video and an article. Personally, I find the guy a bit annoying on video, but he has some great insight.
Movie: The Nativity Story
As I wrote about Joseph staying with Mary this movie came to mind. Specifically how it portrays the humanity of Joseph and the strength of Mary. But also how it understands Jesus as a threat to the way of Caesar and an invitation to a different way of being in the world.
Journal on this question: What exile does the coming of Jesus inviting you out of?
Next week we will take a look at Christmas in Luke.