We hear the Nativity story every Christmas, but it's so easy to let it go right through our ears and miss touching our hearts and minds. One of the benefits of beginning my current study of Matthew in the middle of the year is that I am immediately thrust into "the Christmas story" months away from its traditional telling. Somehow, that has helped me hear it in new ways.
What has stood out most to me in Matthew 1 is how shocking this story is. Matthew doesn't waste any time with his intended Jewish Christian audience. Instead, he immediately sets the groundwork that he is going to write to them about an important beginning ... indeed, a shocking new beginning.
There is little doubt Matthew wrote primarily to a Jewish Christian audience. The book addresses Old Testament law, scribal tradition, and Jesus' controversies with Jewish leaders in a way no other gospel does. Written decades after Christ's ascension, the Gospel came into a context where there was much conflict between traditional Jewish practices, "Judaizers" who sought to bring the law into the grace-life of the church, and Christians (both Jew and Gentile) who were confused. The church was emerging from being assumed to be a "sect" of Judaism to being recognized as a distinct religion. To help the church understand both its similarities to, and differences from, the Judaism of the day Matthew penned his Gospel - the Gospel of Jesus and His message of the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew's initial words lay the groundwork that what he is talking about is truly something new. The word we translate "genealogy" is, in Greek, "Genesis" ... the title of the first book of the Bible in the Greek version of the Old Testament which was the most widely used version of the time. Interestingly the word we translate as "birth" in verse 18 (see both words underlined above) is also Genesis. This simply can't be coincidental ... writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Matthew says, essentially ... "Let me tell you a story about a man named Jesus ... here's how it all began. Let's go back, way back, to some names you know really well - David and Abraham."
If that isn't enough to get you excited about reading genealogy and a familiar birth story, then add this shocking news: Jesus was born of a virgin but descended from a line that included a woman who pretended to be a prostitute (Tamar); an actual prostitute (Rahab); a convert to the God of Israel from the enemy Moab (Ruth); and a woman with whom David committed adultery (Bathsheba, the "wife of Urriah"). Oh, and at least two of these were definitely Gentiles (Rahab and Ruth) while the other two were likely Gentiles (Tamar was probably Canaanite based on her city of origin; while Bathsheba was married to a Hittite and likely a Hittite herself).
Understanding a little about the nature of genealogies in Jewish culture only adds to the shock of these verses to traditional expectations of the Messiah; the Archaeological Study Bible notes that "In societies organized around kinship, genealogies...serve as public records that document history, establish identity, and/or legitimize office. the key to legitimacy and identity is a direct, irrefutable familial tie with the past." Matthew's purpose -- tying Jesus clearly to David and Abraham -- is thoroughly accomplished, yet weaves together the shocking news that the Messiah's lineage was not "pure" ... but He was. Born of a virgin, He came to redeem all mankind (Jew and Gentile alike) -- including those who could relate a lot more to Tamar and Rahab than to Mary.
The shock is completed when the angel explains the name Joseph is to call Jesus: (21) "She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins."
"From their sins." The Messiah would be, first and foremost, a spiritual Savior. This didn't fit the Jewish mind seeking a political redeemer from Rome. But for a young Jewish Christian church who was finding its identity in the middle of the first-century Roman Empire, Matthew's "new beginning" must have been filled with hope. Yes, Rome was persecuting Christians. Yes, many in the Jewish community weren't accepting this message, this Gospel. Yes, the church was filled with redeemed sinners -- as Paul wrote to Corinth, "such were some of you", after a long list of sins. And yet here is Matthew reminding them that Jesus brought a new beginning. A new way of viewing the Messiah. A new way of relating to God. A new understanding of the kingdom of heaven. A new presence of God.