Angels and Ancestors
I’m fascinated by genealogy. But that wasn’t always the case. I was presented with a family tree—a list of names and dates—when I was in my teens. That list sat in the bottom drawer of my desk for a decade before I picked it up again. Then one day on a whim I decided to take it to the local library and poke around. Beyond the names and the dates, I made interesting discoveries. A male ancestor, long considered a hero in family tradition for losing his arm in the Civil War, had actually blown his arm off accidentally while firing his town’s cannon to celebrate the war’s end. Oops! Witnesses reported that he had been drinking that afternoon. Do you think? I discovered that one of my female ancestors was arrested in the mid 1600s at Plymouth Colony. Her crime? Wearing silk in public. Scandalous! History drew me in. It was my history. In that genealogy was a bit of who I am and where I’d come from. Now, I find genealogies fascinating.
For others, a genealogical list holds all the interest of reading a phone book. Names and numbers. Whatever. That is how most of us approach the genealogies in the Bible. Admit it. You’ve turned right past those lists. Shealtiel, the father of Zerubbabel? Who cares? What does that have to do with me?
The Book of Matthew—the first book of the New Testament—begins with a genealogy. Matthew was writing to a group of people for whom ancestry mattered. Because he was writing to a Jewish audience, his introduction of Jesus needed to begin by demonstrating that he was a Jew, and both a descendant of Abraham and a son of King David. The Jewish people had, for centuries, passed down a story that a Deliverer was coming, and that this Deliverer would be one of Abraham’s descendants and a rightful heir to David’s throne. Matthew used the better part of seventeen verses to trace Jesus’ family tree—from Abraham to David, and then from David to the household into which he was born.
Take a look sometime at the genealogy that begins Matthew. Try to read the list out loud. You could easily conclude that the only reason some of these names appear is because God has a sense of humor and laughs at our attempts to pronounce them. Jehoshaphat? Do you think they called him Hose when he was a kid? Phats? Phatty?
But the inclusion of this history is critical. For the Jewish audience, Matthew is attempting to pick up God’s story where it had been left off. The Jewish people were looking for a Deliverer with great expectation and Matthew is about to tell them, here he is.