The Genealogy of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:1-17)
For most readers of the New Testament, this is not where it starts. Rather, this is a passage to be skipped–lots of odd names that don’t mean anything, no story, boooooring! So they move directly to verse 18, and Matthew’s version of the Nativity.
I think that’s a mistake, because the genealogy of Jesus does two things that are of the utmost importance.
First, it makes an indisputable connection to the Old Testament, and therefore to the God of the Old Testament. Once the lineage of Jesus is established, it is impossible to create some kind of opposition between the Testaments. One cannot say, as did Marcion in putting together his Gnostic version of the Christian Scriptures, that the God of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus is of their blood, and their people, and therefore their God.
While God is not specifically mentioned in these verses, He stands in back of the story. Without Him, Abraham, Ruth, David, and the others in the genealogy have no significance. That’s part of the reason why Marcion excised the Gospel of Matthew from his bible. He had no use for the God of the Old Testament, whom he viewed as evil, a Demiurge of law and righteousness who had created the world and enslaved free spirits in a material hell. The Christ, then, could only be a creature of the God of love and spirit, who was in constant struggle with the Demiurge for supremacy. That being the case, all connection between Jesus and His past had to be severed.
So we ignore the genealogy at our peril. The Marcionite urge to sever that connection between Old and New, between righteousness and love, between justice and mercy, is ever-present, and can certainly be seen in much of the theological and ethical writing being done today, as well as in much of the preaching of churches desperate for new converts. The problem is, if we convert people to Marcionism, they haven’t been brought into the Kingdom of God, but into a forgery, and a poor one at that.
The second reason why the genealogy of Jesus is important is that it makes utterly clear that He was born of the house of Israel. The modern impulse is to make Jesus an abstraction, a kind of universal human being who could be from anywhere and spring from any people. A few years ago, a new translation of Scripture came out called the Common English Bible, put together by committee backed by the large mainline denominations, and it referred to Jesus not as the Son of Man, but as “The Human One.” That’s not only a chalk-on-a-blackboard sounding phrase, but it is contrary to the whole history of God’s dealings with humanity, which were done through the human agency of the people of Israel.
What is sometimes called the “scandal of particularity” is not just a theological quirk, nor is it a matter of ethnocentric Jewish pride. Israel knew that that there was no greatness in it that would have caused God to choose to use it rather than the powerful nations of the world to accomplish His purposes. In fact, Israel was chosen specifically because it had no greatness of its own, and thus was totally dependent upon God for everything. That the Savior of the world sprang from Israel was no credit to the chosen people. Rather, it was to the credit of God who would use the lowly of the world to save His people of all nations. Jesus as Jew is no historical accident. It is of the very essence of God’s work in the world.
It is also no accident that the New Testament opens, not with the proclamation of the Kingdom of God (Mark) or the divinity of the Second Person of the Trinity (John). It opens with a bit of history, with a continuation of the narrative of God’s work in the world, and in a people called Israel.
A personal note: I must admit that I have a particular fondness for this passage that stems from my own conversion process. My girlfriend, later wife, challenged me back in college to read the Bible for myself, rather than just sniping at others who took it seriously. After reading the Old Testament, I started on the New, expecting to find therein the source of Christian anti-Semitism. Imagine my surprise when, upon reading these first seventeen verses, I discovered that Jesus was Jewish! The Christian Savior, a member of the lox-and-bagel set? Incredible! With this enormous surprise behind me, I couldn’t help but continue my reading, only to discover that most of the early disciples were also Jewish. It was when I came to Paul’s proclamation in Romans 11 that, even as a follower of Jesus, he was still a member of the household of Israel, that I realized that faith in Christ was something open even to me. The rest, as they say, is history, but it began with the genealogy of Israel’s Messiah.