The first chapter of Matthew is, to the 21st Century Western mind, a chapter that is generally avoided or overlooked. One may often wonder what purpose the genealogy serves. The following comments will hopefully provide a few ideas for consideration.
Matthew begins with the words ‘biblos genesews Ihsou Cristou….‘ These words are a pun that has a variety of possible meanings. ‘The book of the genealogy of Jesus Messiah’ or ‘The book of [the] Genesis of Jesus Messiah’ or ‘The book of the origin of Jesus Messiah’. The opening pun then connects with the last words of Matthew’s gospel ’till the end of the age’ [Matt 28:16], thus marking off the beginning and the end. Moreover, the last passage of the work, an edict by the risen Lord Jesus [Matt 28:18-20], closes the gospel with a similar type of message to that which closes the Hebrew scriptures, the edict of Cyrus in 2 Chron 36:23. Thus the gospel begins with ‘the book of genesis/origins’ and ends with a final edict of one empowered by God just like the sacred scriptures of Matthew’s day. Further, by beginning with a genealogy and closing with an edict, Matthew’s work likewise follows the pattern of the last book of the Hebrew bible, Chronicles. For Chronicles [called in Hebrew ‘The Book Of Days’ = genealogy] begins with a genealogy and ends with an edict from one with power over ‘all the kingdoms of the earth’ [2 Chron 36:22-23; used by Ezra 1:1-2] namely, God’s chosen, Cyrus [Isa 45:1; see Isa 44:28].
By whichever allusion, it appears that Matthew offers a new ‘scripture’ which goes all the way from ‘the beginning’ to the ‘end’. In between these brackets Jesus’ five major speeches [each ending with the phrase ‘When Jesus finished….’ [Matt 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1] would have us think the new ‘scripture’ is a new ‘Torah’ from the new prophet, the new Moses, Jesus, son of David, son of Abraham.
Such punning allusions were highly valued in the oral culture of the first century Mediterranean world. The importance of such genealogies is easy for the modern reader to underestimate and overlook. In antiquity it was more than a source of mere information, a person’s lineage was a source of pride, but also a device for self aggrandizement, a claim to authority, to political or civil rights or even the right to speak. By tracing Jesus’ genealogy back to Abraham, Matthew asserts his social position as a true Israelite. By invoking the name of David the royal role of Jesus is underscored. Matthew has therefore accorded Jesus a position at the very top of Israelite social honour scale, a position that perhaps ‘explains’ how his subsequent career was so out of keeping with the status of a village artisan.