The Genealogy of Jesus that begins Matthew’s Gospel.
Christmas Eve is becoming an increasingly popular time for families and individuals to come to Mass, which means most people hear the Vigil Mass Gospel which contains the long list of names of the ancestors of Joseph, the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus (Matthew 1:1-25).
Well, actually, I suspect most people do not hear it, since the optional “shorter version,” omitting the genealogy, is often used because many people find it just a boring list of unpronounceable names. (At least priests and deacons do; I personally find it fun.) That’s sad, especially because these days tracing our ancestry has become increasingly popular, thanks to services such as Ancestry.com.
Even though Jesus is truly the Son of God, and not biologically the son of Joseph, Matthew thought it important to establish Jesus’ human and legal family lineage through the paternal line, as part of his “credentials” as the expected Messiah. Joseph was Jesus’ legal father.
These names, representing real people in Old Testament times, are important for us to understand and appreciate the heritage of our faith. As Jesus’ ancestors, they are our ancestors as well. Let’s take a look at what we know about them. (Note: the underlined Scripture references are links to the text in Biblegateway.com, a really valuable reference source.)
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Judah are well-known figures in the Old Testament, whose stories are recounted in Genesis 12-50. Judah, one of the twelve sons of Jacob (whose name was also Israel, see Genesis 32:29), was the ancestor of the largest and most powerful of the twelve tribes of descendants (see Genesis 49:8-12). Perez and Zerah were twins born to Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law, after she deceived him into thinking she was a prostitute (see Genesis 38).
Hezron, son of Zerah, is named in the list of Judah’s descendants who migrated to Egypt with Jacob’s whole family (see Genesis 46:12). Ram (or Aram), the son of Hezron, is listed as the father of Amminadab, who is referred to as one of those wandering in the desert after Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, about 400 years after Jacob’s family had migrated there. Matthew compressed that whole period into two generations. Nahshon, Amminadab’s son, was an important leader of the tribe of Judah during the 40-year wandering in the desert (see Numbers 2:3; 7:12-17).
In the genealogy at the end of the Book of Ruth (4:18-22 as well as a much more detailed genealogy in 1 Chronicles 2), Salmon is listed as the son of Nashon and the father of Boaz, but he is not mentioned anywhere else. The indication that Rahab was the mother of Boaz is problematic, since she lived about 200 years earlier (see Joshua 2:1-24; 6:22-25). Again Matthew compresses a rather long time, the period of the Judges, into a single generation. The story of Ruth and Boaz is found in the Book of Ruth, and the concluding genealogy (4:18-22) lists the succession of Boaz, Obed and Jesse, the father of David.
Solomon did not end his life in favor with the Lord, and his son Rehoboam could not hold the kingdom together. A rebellion in the north, led by Jeroboam, Solomon’s servant, split the kingdom in two parts, Israel in the north , and Judah in the south. Rehoboam remained king in Judah (see 1 Kings 11-12.), succeeded by his son Abijah (or Abijam in some versions; see 1 Kings 15:1-8), neither of whom was regarded as a faithful monarch. Asaph undoubtly refers to Asa, Abijah’s son and successor as king; and his son and successor was Jehoshaphat (see 1 Kings 15:24). He and Asa his father were regarded as good kings (see 1 Kings 22:43) but flawed. His son Joram (or Jehoram; see 1 Kings 22:51) was not such a good king, having married the daughter of Ahab and Jezebel (2 Kings 9:16-24). He also murdered his brothers and died of a lingering illness of the bowels (see 2 Chronicles 21). Uzziah (or Azariah) was not the son of Joram, but his great-great grandson: Matthew compressed three generations and 60 years here (see 2 Kings 14:21; 15:1-5.). His reign was prosperous, but he ended up with leprosy because of his arrogance (see 2 Chronicles 26). Little is recorded of his son Jotham (see 2 Kings 15:32-38), but his son Ahaz (see 2 Kings 16) compromised with the king of Assyria, which helped bring down the downfall of Judah not long after. His policies were strongly opposed by Isaiah, and occasioned the famous messianic prophecy of Isaiah 7:14. His son Hezekiah (see 2 Kings 18-20) was regarded as a devout religious reformer who resisted the Assyrian threat, but his son Manasseh (see Genesis 41:51) was one of the worst kings of all. He reverted to idolatry and human sacrifice, as well as political compromise with the Assyrians (see 1 Kings 21). Amos (or Amon, not to be confused with the prophet, Amos) was just as bad, and was soon assassinated (see 1 Kings 21:19-26), while his young son Josiah attempted both religious and political reform (see 2 Kings 22-23). Jechoniah (or Jehoiachin; see 1 Kings 22:8-17) was actually the grandson of Josiah, and the king under whom the Babylonians finally conquered Judah and led its citizens off to captivity in 587 BC.
Shealtiel is a figure about whom nothing is known except his appearance in several genealogies (in Haggai, Ezra, Nehemiah, and 1 Chronicles) which give contradictory information, not unexpected in the social upheaval of the Babylonian captivity. Zerubbabel (meaning “born in Babylon“), on the other hand, was a major figure in the postexilic period of rebuilding (see Ezra 2:2, and a number of other references).
The names from this point on appear not to have a direct Scriptural source. After the immediate post-exilic period (about 538 BC), documented in Ezra and Nehemiah, there is no consistent historical scriptural record of the years covered by these names. Matthew’s sources may have been historical documents that were not preserved, legends, and traditions. some of the names have symbolic reference to earlier times, e.g. Zadok and his son, Ahimaaz (or Achim) were priests under both David and Solomon. Matthew may have included them to reinforce Jesus’ priestly role. Also, in Matthew’s narrative, Jacob and Joseph certainly seem to echo the patriarchs of the second part of Genesis.
It is significant how uninspiring, ordinary, and sinful most of these people were — just like us. That’s why Jesus came.
[Image: Tree of Jesse, illuminated manuscript of the first page of Matthew’s Gospel, from the Capuchin Bible, c. 1180 AD.]