The two primary accounts of the Christmas story belong to Luke and Matthew. Each brings a distinct perspective to his retelling, and each brings a unique and compelling purpose because of that.
Luke is the only New Testament author that is not a Jew. As a doctor (read: detailed mind) and as a Gentile (read: cultural outsider), he tells the story in a way that helps those of us raised outside of the Jewish tradition understand the deeper meanings of God’s entrance into humanity.
Matthew, on the other hand is a Jew, and is specifically inclined to tell the story in a way that connects to the larger story of his community. While he undoubtedly intended for the message to be understood and embraced by all, he had a clear emphasis on helping his fellow Hebrews connect some big dots. They had lived with the expectancy of a promised Messiah that stretched back to a thousand years of prophecies. So when Jesus finally comes, Matthew intends to help locate the divine entrance within the larger frame.
That is one of the major reasons that Matthew begins the Christmas story with a genealogy. While modern readers may be tempted to jump right over it, Matthew knew that his readers would meticulously comb through it. There were dozens of detailed prophecies spread through the Hebrew Scriptures predicting the coming of the King, and Matthew’s genealogy points to the ultimate fulfillment of those promises (as an aside, if you want to check out a cool graphic that takes you through the entire family tree check this out).
There is more to Matthew’s decision to start here than just a historical confirmation of Jesus’ genealogy though. Yesterday I made the analogy of comparing the Christmas story to a classical piece of music. When a classical piece of music is written, the opening overture is typically not finished until the end. It is the first piece of music that you hear, but it is usually the last piece to be written by the composer, because its purpose is to include the themes that will appear later in the opera.
God is using Matthew for this same purpose. He is writing the opening overture, and introducing us to Emmanuel (“God with us”). Matthew’s record of the family tree sounds some bold declarations about Jesus, declarations that will continue to ring true through the remainder of the story.
The most immediate and shocking element that would have jumped out from his account was the inclusion of women. Women were never included in genealogies. Not in religious ones, and not in secular ones. Yet when Jesus introduces himself, what does he do? He doesn’t just list one woman – he lists five: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and of course Mary.
Once the readers got past that, another surprise would have come right on its heels: there are multiple racial groups listed in the family tree of Jesus.
Jesus was a Jew, and his lineage reflects that. Yet within the family tree we discover the presence of not only Jewish grandmothers and grandfathers – we also discover a number of cultural foreigners.
What other racial groups are in Jesus’ blood line? For one, we see the presence of a Hittite. Mentioned more than 50 times in the Bible, they were descended from Heth, the son of Canaan and great-grandson of Noah (Gen. 10:15).
Within the family tree of Jewish Jesus we also see a Moabite (Ruth), a tribe that comes from a crazy section of the Bible. If you are not familiar with the Jerry Springer-like origins of the Moabites, go back and read Genesis chapters 18 and 19. Lot and his daughters are hiding out in a cave, and his daughters get him drunk for a series of successive evenings. Eventually he has sex with them and gets them pregnant. The first baby born from this is a boy named Moab, and guess which nation he becomes the father of? Yep, that would be the Moabites.
So now we see the family tree of the Jewish Jesus and we discover more than just Jews in his bloodline. A Hittitie. A Moabite – a race looked upon with disdain because of their incestual origins. We find Canaanites in the genealogy as well. Clearly a point is being made.
What is it that Matthew wants us to know about God based on the inclusion of these different racial groups?
I love how Ray Bakke says it: Jesus chose his own earthly bloodline very carefully and choreographed into his own body the bloodlines of the people that the Jews rejected in their own family tree.
Jesus not only shed his blood for the world; he inherited that blood from the world.
The blood of the Canaanite, the Moabite, the Hittite, and the Jew was shed on the cross for the sins of the world.
Our Savior was a mestizo. He was the mixed-race Savior of the world.