The Bible contains 66 books by at least 40 different authors, is written in three different languages, describing three different continents, all written over a period of at least 1,500 years. It has hundreds of characters and numerous genres. Sometimes it’s narrative; other times you have beasts flying around with a bunch of different eyes; and then there are love poems.
We don’t read many books this complex anymore. So it seems a compelling and summative introduction would be in order for the New Testament. But modern readers are confused by Matthew’s introduction.
On his first page, Matthew begins speaking about Jesus with a genealogy. We might be tempted to let our eyes skim down and get to the real action. But Matthew begins this way intentionally. In many ways, this is the most fitting and compelling introduction to the New Testament imaginable.
Here are five reasons Matthew’s genealogy is the introduction of introductions.
1. Matthew’s Genealogy Summarizes the Story of the Bible
The first 16 words in English (eight in Greek) summarize the entire story of the Bible so far. Do you want to know how a disciple of Jesus shortened the Old Testament story? Look no further than Matthew 1:1. The story of the Bible can be understood by looking to key characters who carry the story along: Adam, Abraham, David, and Jesus.
Adam is not explicitly named, but his story is contained in words “the book of the genealogy,” which could also be translated “the book of Genesis.” The explicit phrase (βίβλος γενέσεως) occurs in the Greek Old Testament in only two places, Genesis 2:4 and 5:1. Genesis 2:4 is about the origin of heaven and earth (place), while Genesis 5:1 concerns the origin of Adam and Eve (people).
Though the Old Testament can be a confusing literary piece, Matthew tells us to look at these key people and the promises given to them to help structure how we read the entire story.
From the beginning, God was in the business of establishing his people in his place by his power. It began with Adam and Eve, and it continued in the covenants given to Abraham and David. These are finally fulfilled in Jesus: the Davidic king who will establish Israel’s kingdom.
Though the Old Testament can be confusing as a literary document, Matthew tells us to look at these key people—and the promises given to them—to help frame how we read the entire story. Matthew’s first words summarize the whole storyline so far.
2. Matthew’s Genealogy Reminds Us This Is a True Story
A list of names. It’s an odd way to begin. But the list shows readers this isn’t a fairytale, but a true story. The New Testament doesn’t begin with “once upon a time,” but with a family tree. Matthew is drawing on a rich tradition of genealogical texts, for genealogies are important in the Tanak (an acronym for the Hebrew Bible’s three main divisions: Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim).
Genesis, the first book of the Tanak, is structured around ten genealogies. Chronicles, the last book of the Tanak, begins with nine. The formal similarities between Genesis and Chronicles are hard to miss. Both are virtually the only books in the Hebrew Bible filled with genealogies. Chronicles commences with Adam and moves rapidly through human history until arriving at David. Genesis also begins with Adam, but moves quickly until Abraham comes on the scene. Most of the book of Genesis follows Abraham’s descendants.
So Matthew seems to have detected the “offspring” theme not only in the specific words but also in the specific genre that bookends the Jewish canon. The Jewish hopes centered around a genealogy, because they were promised a child from the family of Israel. Matthew shows us his story is no myth––this is the narrative of the historical Jesus Christ, who has a family lineage and was born in the line of David.
3. Matthew’s Genealogy Highlights Jesus’s Inclusive Family
Matthew’s genealogy also demonstrates that ancient texts deal with modern issues. Notice, for example, the women Matthew includes. In a patriarchal society, it’s surprising to include females at all. Even so, one might expect to see the matriarchs of the faith: Eve, Sarah, Rebekah, or Leah. But instead, Matthew includes less likely females who are (1) Gentiles, (2) have rough sexual pasts, (3) but are tenacious in their loyalty to Yahweh.
Though it’s only explicit that Rahab and Ruth are non-Israelites, a good case can also be made for Tamar and Bathsheba. Bathsheba is listed as “the wife of Uriah” (1:6), probably because it makes her Gentile status explicit—Uriah was a Hittite (2 Sam. 11:3, 6). Tamar is also not explicitly identified as a Gentile in the Old Testament, but a Jewish tradition asserts she was a Syrian proselyte. Thus, all the evidence taken together—Tamar and Rahab were Canaanites, Ruth a Moabite, and Bathsheba a Hittite’s wife. Jesus’s family includes all nations.
Readers might be surprised to discover that an ancient genealogy has quite a bit to say to a #MeToo and #ChurchToo generation.
Second, Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba have sexual histories. Not only are they Gentiles, but their past is also overcast with shame and abuse. Each was taken advantage of sexually. Tamar is shunned by Judah, who imposes on her in a moment of sin. Rahab was a Canaanite prostitute, and Bathsheba was taken advantage of sexually by King David. Readers might be surprised to discover that an ancient genealogy has quite a bit to say to a #MeToo and #ChurchToo generation.
Finally, three of these women (Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth) are characterized by tenacious fidelity. Tamar is loyal to her family; Rahab is loyal to the Yahweh despite not being a part of the nation; Ruth forsakes her idols and follows Naomi’s God. Jesus welcomes those who are fiercely loyal to him.
4. Matthew’s Genealogy Shows Us God Is Faithful
Matthew’s genealogy isn’t primarily about the people in the genealogy, but about God. He carries along this family line despite their failures. He has been and will be faithful to his promises. One of God’s most significant promises was to King David (2 Sam. 7)—and even the form of the genealogy points to David’s importance.
Clearly this is a theological retelling, for Matthew omits many generations. His emphasis on 14 is purposeful and an example of gematria—when a set of letters’ numerical value makes a theological point. In Hebrew, David consists of three letters and has the numeric value of fourteen (dalet  + waw  + dalet ).
The periods are then divided to emphasize both the kings and the success or failure of the kingdom. This fits Matthew’s theological retelling of the Old Testament story in the triadic structure of three. The name David is also placed at the 14th and 15th spot in the genealogy, putting him at the pivot of the list (1:6). He is also named at the beginning and the end (1:1, 17).
If God has pledged himself to you, he isn’t letting you go, no matter what you do. Israel couldn’t out-sin the promises of God—and neither can you.
From the outset, Matthew wants readers to see Jesus through the person of David. The genealogy—and Matthew’s entire Gospel, for that matter—is about how Jesus is David’s son.
God made a binding promise to David concerning one of his sons; the genealogy shows how he’s fulfilled it. Human promises are flawed, but when God promises something, we can take it to the bank. If he has pledged himself to you, he isn’t letting you go, no matter what you do. Israel couldn’t out-sin the promises of God—and neither can you.
5. Matthew’s Genealogy Displays Jesus as Our Only Hope
Matthew speaks into the darkness. There have been 400 years of silence, and so the redemptive-historical context is ongoing exile. Indeed, the one “event” Matthew names outside of Jesus’s birth is the exile (1:11–12), which acts as a hinge for the genealogical structure and provides perspective for the Gospel as a whole. Matthew views the plot of Israel under the banner of exile and return. The king therefore comes to rescue Israel from exile; he has been sent for her lost sheep. This exile stretches farther back than the Babylonian exile, though: it begins with Adam (Gen. 3).
But though God’s people are in exile, hope bursts through the shadows. A light has dawned because a child has come. While Genesis 5 is a picture of genealogical death, the ending of Matthew’s βίβλος γενέσεως is resurrection life. A child has been born who will never perish.
Matthew’s genealogy has a past, a present, and future. In Jesus Christ we’re now brought into this family; Abraham and David become our fathers. It becomes our genealogy, our family tree. Though this world seeks historical rooting and future life in various ways, only one child establishes the new creation. Jesus is the point of this genealogy, for Jesus is the point of the Bible.