We are studying Matthew 1:1-17 for Sunday, December 6. We’re also studying Hebrews 1:1-5, but these two texts are so different, it seemed better to put the notes in separate posts. [A few notes on Hebrews are here.] Some questions on the texts are here. So here are a few notes on Matthew:
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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are once again in Matthew’s gospel. This is the gospel that carefully and artfully presents Jesus as “the teacher of Israel,” the promised Messiah and the fulfillment of prophecy.

I’ve just finished reading what I think is a really excellent, and also really accessible, treatment of the four gospels, their specific differences, and how each gospel presents a thematically and theologically whole picture of some particular angle on Jesus’s identity: Richard A. Burridge, Four Gospels, One Jesus? Eerdmans, 1994. That “teacher of Israel” language is Burridge’s.

Here are several additional points Burridge makes, specifically about the genealogy that is our text for Sunday:

  • A brief treatment of family background and origins would have been a typical element of an ancient biography.
  • Identifying Jesus as the “Son of David” and as the “Son of Abraham” is intentional, and significant; David is “the great king” and the prototype of the anticipated Messiah; Abraham is not only the original patriarch, the covenant ancestor, but is also the individual through whom “all nations” will be blessed. That is, Abraham is an ancestor of Israel, but he is also a more universal figure.
  • The inclusion of women, and of these specific women – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and “the wife of Uriah” [whom we know as Bathsheba] – brings in Gentiles, and sexual “irregularities,” as episodes in the unfolding of a complex divine plan.

The point about David assumes we know something about the connection between messianic expectation and the figure of David [see, e.g., 2 Samuel 7:12-16, Isaiah 11, and Jeremiah 23, and Psalm 2]. The point about Abraham assumes we know something about Abraham’s call [see Genesis 12]. The point about the women assumes we know the story of Judah and Tamar [see Genesis 38], and the story of Rahab and the spies [Joshua 2 and 6:17], and the story of Ruth [see the book of Ruth!], and the story of Bathsheba [see 2 Samuel 11-12, but also 1 Kings 1 and 2:19-25; #MeToo, AND #LeanIn].

The Encyclopedia of Jewish Women has lots more, from the rabbis, on Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.

Wim J.C. Weren has a longer analysis of the common features of the five women in Matthew’s genealogy, including Mary. He concludes that all of these women took creative steps, within the framework of existing law and custom, to shape the history of Israel. [WEREN, WIM J. C. “The Five Women in Matthew’s Genealogy.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 2, 1997, pp. 288–305. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43722942. Accessed 2 Dec. 2020.]

This text is one of those things you won’t know about the Bible if all you know is the lectionary. Maybe for obvious reasons, as it would be tedious to read or listen to a genealogy like this in church. Plus, it has a lot of names, which scares off the lay readers.
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CLOSER READING: We may not profit from too much close reading of this text. But … it might be worth noting a couple of discrepancies.

First, there’s the issue of Rahab’s husband. In verse 5, Matthew has him down as Salmon, which suggests Matthew is relying on 1 Chronicles 2, and presumably some tradition from around his own time. [Richard Bauckham has explained how this might have worked, based on midrashic principles, in Bauckham, Richard. “Tamar’s Ancestry and Rahab’s Marriage: Two Problems in the Matthean Genealogy.” Novum Testamentum, vol. 37, no. 4, 1995, pp. 313–329. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1561365. Accessed 2 Dec. 2020.] The rabbis, on the other hand, say Rahab’s husband was Joshua. Which is a much better story, in my book, but not the one Matthew tells.

Second, there’s the issue of the number of generations from Abraham to Jesus. Burridge notes that fourteen is the sum of the value of the letters in the name David; three sets of fourteen makes Jesus David’s son three times over, by Hebrew numerology [gematria, assuming Matthew knew Kabbalah, which might be astonishing].

But go ahead and try the exercise our Scripture II teacher gave us, and count each of those sets of generations, using a single counting rule, and not double counting anyone. [I double dog dare ya.] And then admit that we citizens of the post-Enlightenment likely think about things like “legitimate counting rules” and “double counting” and “objective facts” differently from Matthew.

And then maybe we could ask ourselves whether convincing ourselves that 2 + 2 could equal 5 and the like is really as imperative for taking the Bible seriously as some people who get into passionate apologetic arguments on the internet seem to think it is.
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mosaic angel representing St. Matthew the Evangelist