It begins with Joseph

Gospel: Matthew 1: (1-17,) 18-25

An account of the genealogy[i] of Jesus the Messiah,[ii] the son of David, the son of Abraham[iii].

2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6and Jesse the father of King David.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah[iv], 7and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph,[v] 8and Asaph[vi] the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, 9and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos,[vii] and Amos[viii] the father of Josiah, 11and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born[ix], who is called the Messiah.[x]

17 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah,[xi] fourteen generations.

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah[xii] took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream[xiii] and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet[xiv]:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife[xv], 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;[xvi] and he named him Jesus.

It begins with Joseph

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We need to know who we are, and to be known. Knowing our family and origins allows us to make sense of the world. It identifies us for ourselves, and to others. It locates us in society. Perhaps Australian western society does this in a more muted fashion than the culture of Jesus' time, but even here in Australia, we carefully curate our "book of generations" with small lies about parentage, with taped together pages in our research records left waiting for a later generation, and even with carefully erased wayward children. Genealogy is only partly about history. It is also the defining of ourselves and who we would like to be. 

Matthew begins his gospel with a family history for his people. WD Davies says

The genealogy implicitly reveals the identity and status of the church. Congregations which included both Jews and Gentiles could not find their identity in a shared racial heritage. They found it instead in their common Lord and saviour... and since he was the Messiah, the Son of David and the son of Abraham, those who adhered to his words and participated in his destiny knew themselves to be heirs of the promises... In other words, the history of Jesus was his followers history, and his heritage their heritage. Despite its belonging to the rootless Hellenistic world of the first century, the church, by virtue of its union with Jesus, had a secure link with the remote past. (Matthew: A Shorter Commentary.  Davies and Alison pp 11)

In a rootless post-truth, apocalyptic world of political lies, where all that seemed solid is now under threat— and for people of all persuasions, and where all westerners find themselves complicit in the destruction of the biosphere, such a belonging  may provide an anchor— if we choose to use it. Christmas without the genealogy leaves out half the story; it leaves us afloat with theories of salvation which are not anchored into the history of our species.

Matthew's genealogy is no simple list.  It is headed by an uncompromising claim: The book of the beginnings of Jesus the Messiah who is son of David and son of Abraham. Placing David before Abraham already hints that this Jewish man will be the fulfilment of the promise to David in 2 Samuel 7:16

Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.

The names are listed in three groups of fourteen; there are clearly massive historical omissions. From Rahab to Salmon is at least two hundred years, says Davies, (pp7) who notes

Such omissions of names from a genealogy for one purpose or another — including, apparently, brevity — was common practice. (pp8)

Davies says the most commonly accepted contemporary understanding of the fourteens (which are also multiples of the always symbolic seven) is that is a gematria; that is, an alphanumeric code... assigning a numerical value to a name, word or phrase based on its letters. The gematria of  David is fourteen.

Such word plays... were practised in both Jewish and Christian circles close to Matthew's time [and, added to this,] in this genealogy of 3 x 14 generations, the one name with three consanants and a value of 14 is also placed in the fourteenth spot. When one adds that this name is mentioned immediately before the genealogy (1.1) and twice at its conclusion (1.17) and that it is honoured by the title, 'king', coincidence becomes effectively ruled out. (pp4)

The number 14 is repeated three times in verse 17; it is a wink to the knowing, a tip off to those who read beneath the surface for the deeper meanings of a story.

John's Gospel opens with "In the beginning..." which echoes Genesis 1. So too Mark: "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God..." Matthew is the same: "The book of the genesis of Jesus the Messiah." In Genesis, which was

already known by the title 'Genesis' before Matthew's time, ... biblios geneseos occurs in Genesis 2:4 [the second creation account] and 5.1 [another genealogy,] so opening a book with that phrase echoes the first book of Moses. (Davies pp2)

So who is in this genealogy; what does it teach us about our family and, therefore, about ourselves? What does Jesus do to our family? How does he shape us? Will we own him or cast him out?

Some of the list's meaning is lost to us because the names which appear in verse 13 and onwards, appear nowhere else. (Davies pp9) But clearly Abraham and David are of key importance. Abraham was

not a messianic title, but used either of one of Jewish blood... or of one worthy of Father Abraham... descent from him was the basis for membership of the people of God.  (Davies pp2)

And son of David was

a standard messianic title...  and, by the time of Jesus, the dominant, although not exclusive, Jewish expectation was that the messianic king would be a son of David. (Ibid)

The other names are fascinating. There is no attempt to paint Jesus as part of a blameless lineage.  Hezekiah, one of the righteous kings is included, for example,  but is preceded by his father Ahaz, who

did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord his God, as his ancestor David had done, 3but he walked in the way of the kings of Israel. He even made his son pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. 4He sacrificed and made offerings on the high places, on the hills, and under every green tree. (2 Kings 16) [Pass through fire means child sacrifice.]

Oddly enough, it is to Ahaz that Isaiah pronounced the words of the prophecy which Matthew quotes in the lectionary reading for this week.

Our family line is, as we say here in Australia, "pretty ordinary— and that's being nice about it." Wright is right when he says "Any first century Jew would find this family tree both impressive and compelling," (Matthew for Everyone pp2) but the deeper message is that all of us come from a terribly fractured and sinful; that is, separated from God, lineage.

What is quite remarkable is the mention of four women, and then of Mary, which was most uncommon in the listing of a genealogy. 

Tamar was widowed, and the family of her husband would not follow through on the levirate marriage conventions of the time.  She fixed the problem— if not taken in as a wife she could starve— by posing as a prostitute and seducing her father in law, Judah. He is also named in the generations of Jesus. (Genesis 38) Rahab was the prostitute who provided shelter for the Israeli spies who came to Jericho. (Joshua 2, 6) Ruth was a Moabite widow presented in the story as seducing a relative in order to survive. (Ruth: Read the book; it's short.) And Bathsheba was a woman assaulted by the most powerful man in the land. When her husband heard what King David was doing, David had him killed. (2 Samuel 11, 12)

My study bible notes:

Four women in a male line of descent is extraordinary; three (and perhaps the fourth, Bathsheba) are certainly Gentiles; three (and perhaps the fourth (Ruth) had improper sexual relations but were later admired in Israelite legend and considered important for God's plan. (Harper Collins Study Bible)

The notes go on to say "their inclusion may answer opponents' accusations about Mary's unusual pregnancy[xvii]." What interests me is what their inclusion says about Matthew's community and what it understood Jesus to have taught it. Davies claims "Matthew was more tradent than theologian, more exegete and commentator than innovator... He was not a Paul or an Origen." (ppxxv) Matthew is reflecting something of his community by including these women, and is still a challenge to us. He is no 21C feminist; saying "David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah" and making Bathsheba almost invisible is not acceptable to us, even though it was meant to clearly highlight David's evil behaviour. 

Despite this, look at what has come out of his community:  Four women are driven to dangerous behaviour to survive. They break the customary law of their time and place. Widowed, gentile, and abused, they are part of the family— our family. They could be us. And we don't know what to do with them. The same study Bible who notes Ruth may have had "improper sexual relations" with Boaz also labels her as "a sexually aggressive widow from Moab." (Note on Matthew 1:5)

These are people who, as we shall see in relation to Mary, would be seen as disruptive, shameful, and worthy of being cast out. Matthew's community includes them in its family tree.

None of the men in these stories are particularly admirable. David and Judah are hypocrites, at best. The spies buy protection from a woman who cannot afford to refuse their custom, and so put her life at risk. Boaz is painted as honourable at the end of the story, but is a very powerful man; the story is highly sexually charged and can be read as Naomi recognising that Boaz is signalling interest in Ruth by his generous leaving of gleanings. To say Ruth is the instigator of the relationship means we have learned nothing from #MeToo  or any other feminist consciousness.

And these women lead us to Mary and Joseph, where Joseph is honourable even to his apparently unfaithful betrothed. Mark D. Davis notes one particular translation of the Greek of Matthew 1:19.

The NIV interprets δίκαιος (typically translated as “just” or “righteous”) as “being faithful to the law.” I would say that in many cases being “righteous” and being “faithful to the law” are one and the same, but it appears to me that one ongoing battle Jesus has with his opponents is that one can be faithful to the law and not be righteous about it and, conversely, one can be righteous by not being faithful to the law. I can imagine someone using the law in this instance – alleging faithfulness to it – to see Mary stoned to death. That’s why I think the word “private” or “secret” is the key to this verse and interpreting Joseph’s character.... The dream calls Joseph to do something even more radical than the private dismissal of his pregnant fiancée. He is called to embrace her pregnancy as an act of the Holy Spirit – which means, among other things, to follow God by not following the law. That strikes me as a powerful statement of what it means to follow the living God that is actively at work in the world. (Mark D Davis)

So, even before Jesus is born, his church is being challenged. Will it be a family of stoning and burning like the rest of the world, or will it be a place where all are found a place?  Davies says in his introduction that

Forgiveness up to seven times is advised in Luke, but 'seventy times (and) seven' in Matthew (18.22) Despite its often violent polemics, perhaps no other ancient document shows more sensitivity to the desperate need for love and peace to displace hate and vengeance. (ppxxiv)

It begins in Chapter 1.

Indeed, I wonder if the veneration of Mary and the relative silence of the church about Joseph, is not tacit admission that we like the picture of the submissive woman and don't want the model of the non-abusive non-ruling male which Jesus will imitate.

So if we take off the blinders which have us reading a harmonised gospel where Matthew's Joseph is drowned out by Luke's Annunciation to Mary, what do we find?

We see a man who is pondering and wondering. There is no knee jerk reaction. He is unwilling to take the path of public shaming. This is a man who was different. "Historians disagree as to whether Roman authorities allowed Jewish communities to apply capital punishment to those who broke religious laws, or whether these episodes represented a form of lynching.[xviii]" What the author is implying is that stoning still occurred. Mary was at risk, whatever the Romans said, because

Deuteronomy 22:23-27 would come into play: If a young woman, a virgin, has sex with a man not her betrothed and she doesn’t cry out for help (!), then Deuteronomy calls for the stoning death of both the man and woman. If it happens in a place where no one could hear her cries for help, then only the man is punishable by death, (we assume she resisted.) (Nanette Sawyer )


Virginity was the sine qua non for an honorable marriage. A woman without it would have shamed her entire paternal family...  [and] to shame a female is to bring dishonor on her (and her family) by making a public, verifiable accusation of unworthy behavior. (Malina and Rohrbaugh Social Science Commentary Textual Notes: Matthew 1:18-25)

Everything here is driven by the need to preserve the family honour. It is all set up to serve the males, but here is a man who is different, and whose son will be different. He steps outside the conventions and empties himself of his good standing. As with the Profligate father of Luke, many of his contemporaries will regard him as a fool. He bears Mary's shame. The world of the story sees no role of the Spirit here, and small towns have no secrets.

Joseph is called son of David in the text, and when he accepts Jesus as his own son, so Jesus is able to be called Son of David. The naming of the child by the father signifies this acceptance.  A proverb describes what was also seen to happen in the naming of a child: "As his name is so is he." This is a quotation from 1 Samuel 25:25, and we see its more general acceptance in Matthew 16:17-18. Davies goes on to say

'Jesus' is the Greek for the Hebrew 'Joshua', which by popular etymology was related to the Hebrew verb 'to save' and to the Hebrew noun 'salvation'...  (pp14-15)

Jesus will save his people from their sins. (1:21)

Davies makes an interesting comment about verse 21. He speaks of

the religious and moral — as opposed to political — character of the messianic deliverance. Liberation removes the wall of sin between God and the human race; nothing is said about freedom from the oppression of governing powers.

I think he is correct here. Jesus steers well away from violent overthrow of the empire, as did the church. It's not that politics are unimportant. Matthew especially emphasises the everyday living or politics that facilitate relationships between human beings who are enmeshed in the systems of empire: If we reject the poor, we reject the Messiah and the consequences will be terrible.  (See Matthew 25:31-46) But if we are not right with God, if that relationship is not in order, then nothing else will finally succeed. The child to be born will bridge that gap.

If we want to know ourselves, if we want to know where we fit in the great story of humanity, if we want "a secure link with the remote past" which will guide us into the future, we not only need Emmanuel – God with us, we need to relate to Emmanuel; we need to listen to him and copy him. Who will we choose as our models and mentors within our family in order to do this?

It seems to me that much of my church experience has, to misquote Paul, regarded being right with God as something to be exploited. That is; my discipleship has been too much focussed on being right with God so that I can live the sort of life I want, rather than being truly converted. At our worst, Christ pays for our sins, we more or less follow some arbitrary list of do's and don'ts, and then live rather much like the rest of the world, figuring that because we have done "the right thing" God will reward us.  We see that this is simply a form of prosperity theology[xix], but Matthew will call it goat theology. 


though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)

The line of David, all the way from Abraham, comes down to us.  Matthew suggests that if we truly wish to be children of Abraham and David, we need to take a sharp turn— he calls it repentance— and follow after Joseph, and then Jesus.

Andrew Prior (2019)

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Also on One Man's Web
Matthew 1:1-17, 1:18-25 - The Birth of Good News, or Judgement? (2017)
Matthew 1:18-25 - A Severe Nativity (2014)
Matthew 1-2 - It will be done! (2014)
Matthew 1:18-25 - Manifesto (Part One) (2011)


[i] Or birth

[ii] Or Jesus Christ

[iii] Davies pp2: "Paul represent[s] Abraham as the true father of all who have faith, Jew and Gentile alike (Rom 4.1-25; Gal 3.6-29)"

[iv] Uriah was a Hittite; a gentile. Bathsheba is a Hebrew name, but she is married to a Gentile.

[v] Other ancient authorities read Asa

[vi] Other ancient authorities read Asa

[vii] Other ancient authorities read Amon

[viii] Other ancient authorities read Amon

[ix] Not Joseph the father of Jesus... Matthew already is telling us there is something different here.

[x] Or the Christ

[xi] Or the Christ

[xii] Or the Christ

[xiii] Joseph has dreams, like a certain other Joseph who is a 'father' of Moses. Jesus is the new Moses in Matthew's gospel.

[xiv] The words are taken from Isaiah 7, and were spoken to King Ahaz who is listed in the genealogy above.

[xv] See BAP 9 where Amram the father of Moses and Miram prefigures Joseph and takes a wife in difficult circumstances.  The book is contemporaneous with Matthew, so the story is likely known. (Davies pp13)

[xvi] Other ancient authorities read her firstborn son

[xvii] "the occasion for calumny by outsiders was present [for each woman] Yet any slanderer would in truth have been deprecating what God had chosen to bless. One can easily see how Matthew might have intended this to prefigure the situation of Mary.

[xviii] W. R. F. Browning, ed. (2010). "Stoning". A Dictionary of the Bible (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. Quoted in Wikipedia [Date of access: 2019-12-16]

[xix] See here for Prosperity Theology:   Prosperity theology is not merely a preaching and expectation of increased material riches.  That is only its crassest form, and many folk see the fallacy of those expectations. Prosperity theology, understood more deeply, is the expectation that adherence to a particular theology, the acceptance of the right set of doctrines, will ensure an easy rescue and relief from our sins; that is I will "live long and prosper." It is the old Deuteronomic theology of reward and punishment which had little understanding of oppression and privilege and plain luck. This understanding is as toxic as a viper because rather than being a means of prosperity, "Baptism and repentance are means of death... Repentance is the terrible discovery that I live under a death sentence, and even worse, that I must say yes to this condemnation to death." This was Helmut Gollwitzer preaching, in Germany, immediately after the Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 in which he saw the corporate responsibility and complicity of all German people.




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