Matthew’s Genealogy, Billy Joel’s Song, and a Quiet Divorce [Matt. 1-2]

by Andrew Forrest

I’m going to be blogging regularly this fall as I read through the New Testament. (I’m going to commit to blogging each day as we read through the Gospel of Matthew, and see what that’s like. Each day’s Bible post will go live at 4:30 AM.) Below are some quick thoughts on our first day’s reading, Matthew 1-2.

Two important things to keep in mind as you read The New Testament:

  1. The story of Jesus only makes sense in the context of the Old Testament. Lots of what Jesus does is a conscious fulfillment of the Lord’s covenant with Abraham’s family (which started way back in Genesis 12). This means when something Jesus does doesn’t make immediate sense to you, it’s probably because you’re missing the Old Testament connection.
  2. Even more than the other Gospel writers, Matthew is particularly concerned with connecting Jesus to Israel’s story.

This is why Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus–the family tree he provides shows that Jesus is related to the family of Abraham. More than that, each name is shorthand for all the times and places in which that person lived. The genealogy seems boring to us because the names might not mean anything us–like reading random entries in a phone book–but to the 1st century Jews who were Matthew’s original readers, each name was a touchstone to family stories that were cherished by the descendants of Abraham.

“Jesus and Genealogies”

On The Bible Project site I’d recommend you read “Jesus & Geneologies,” an article I found really helpful. For example, did you know?

Just think about the separated sections of the genealogy of Matthew. It is broken up into three parts that cover 14 generations each, but why 14?

Within the written language of Hebrew, the letters are also used as their numbers, and so each number is assigned a numerical value. The name of David in Hebrew is ???,? and from here you just do the math. The numerical value of the first and third letter ?? (called dalet) is 4. The middle letter ?? (called waw) has a numerical value of 6. Put it into your mental calculator: 4+6+4=14, the numerical value of the name of David.

Matthew has designed the genealogy, so it links Jesus to David explicitly, and also in the very literary design of the list. In fact, Matthew wants to highlight this 14=David? idea so much that he‘s intentionally left out multiple generations of the line of David (three, to be exact) to make the numbers work.

Wait, Matthew has taken people out of the genealogy?

Yes, and this is not a scandal. Leaving out generations to create symbolic numbers in genealogies is a common Hebrew literary practice, going all the way back to the genealogies in Genesis (the 10 generations of Genesis 5, or the 70 descendants of?Genesis 11). Ancient genealogies were ways of making theological claims, and?Matthew‘s readers would have understood exactly what he was doing and why.

Read the whole thing.

“We Didn’t Start the Fire”

This opening genealogy has got me thinking about Billy Joel. Each name meant something to Matthew’s audience, in the way that the names in Billy Joel’s song mean something to a certain type of Baby Boomer:

(By the way, I love this related scene from “The Office:”

That’s from when The Office was still funny….)


The Quiet Divorce

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, but before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly”

I’ve always found that to be a quietly moving line: “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” That decision of Joseph’s was a small, selfless act of kindness on which the fate of the world turned.

Don’t underestimate the importance of a small, unnoticed act of selfless kindness today. Who knows what hangs in the balance?




P.S. Changes to this Blog

This is the last post that my subscribers will receive as a standalone email. Starting Friday, August 24 through Monday, December 24, at Munger we are going to be reading through the New Testament. I’m planning on posting more frequently in this space, including regular (daily?) commentaries on what we’re reading. Right now, subscribers get an email every time I post, but I don‘t want to fill up your Inbox, so tomorrow I’m going to be switching to a weekly newsletter that will contain links to the previous week‘s posts, as well as some other original content from me not available anywhere else.

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