Copyright © 2021
from the manuscript of
The Curious Corners of Christmas
Popping the Wig
Who in their right mind thought it was a good idea to introduce readers to the glorious Christmas Incarnation story (never mind starting the entire New Testament!) with a genealogy? A genealogy! Really? It’s like putting a pre-converted, bah-humbugging Ebenezer Scrooge in charge of Christmas party activities, like putting the Grinch, still pinched with “a heart two sizes too small,” in charge of gift distribution.
Who thought it was a good idea to start with a genealogy? Well, the Apostle Matthew did, for one. And he did so under the Divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so God thought it was a good idea, too! I’d say that trumps any complaints or criticisms. Fair enough, Lord. But why did You start with a genealogy?
If there’s any wisdom gained from the perspective of maturity (which is a nice way to say “old age”), some of it comes from interpreting truth through the filter of life’s experiences. It’s a good thing that this phenomenon happened to apply to the genealogy in Matthew chapter 1, or I would still be wondering why the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the New Testament starts with such a (seemingly) stultifyingly boring kickoff.
One day the light dawned, because the Spirit seemed to apply one of those life-experience filters to the whole matter. I had it backwards (which happens more often than I’d care to admit). I finally saw what God was doing in the New Testament’s first chapter. It turns out that Matthew was an inspired, wise, and (maybe even) crafty fellow—he introduced the Christmas story and instantly grabbed his original readers’ attention by popping his wig!
Wise Counsel (for a Future Bible Teacher)
I had better explain about “popping the wig” (lest you think I have flipped my lid). Yes, I really was young enough once upon a time to be a wet-behind-the-ears rising high-school freshman. My folks had recently moved our family across the country and finally settled in a new-to-us home. The school district was new to us, too, so my father accompanied me and helped me through the enrollment process a few days before the school year began.
My class schedule, all college-prep courses, had but one elective slot, just one class for which I could choose the subject myself. Based on past experience and some musical training, I was going to sign up for choir. I thought that Dad, who had been paying for my music lessons for six years, would have been on board with this, but he had other counsel:
“If I were you, I don’t think I would go with choir this year. You’d be better off spending your freshman-year elective by taking a speech class. You can always take choir in your sophomore through senior years.”
So, I signed up for speech class, and did very well in it, even representing my high school in a district competition (and later even judging other speech contests).
Types of speeches, and even sometimes subjects for speeches, were assigned. And (other than regular cases of “stage fright,” suffered by many students) the common flaw in almost all the early speeches was the introduction: “My speech today is about…” whatever. Boring! And the instructor pointed out that boring puts people to sleep. So we studied how to kick off speeches with attention-grabbing openings.
Wig-Popped = Attention Grabbed
The day after we covered attention-grabbing openings, the good-looking senior girl in the class stood up and did the seemingly unthinkable. She stood before the class and said (in her best imitation of the “this will be a boring speech” tone of voice), “My speech today is about…”
I’m certain I wasn’t the only one sitting in the classroom thinking, “Oh, no! We were just told yesterday not to do that!” Yes, perhaps she was cute, but apparently not too bright.
At least I thought that until her very next word and action, for after a dramatic pause, she cried, “Wigs!” and she yanked off the wig she was wearing to reveal a nearly bald head. Then, as the resident fashion-plate, she began to share about how she used wigs in her modeling sessions, how wigs are made, and when she started to use them. Normally I have no interest in wigs, but she had my full attention that day. She had “set us all up” with boring (“My speech today is about…”) and then caught us completely unaware by popping her wig right there in the classroom. I don’t remember any other speech given in that class during the year (mine included), but I remember that one!
Genealogies: Boring, Right?
Assuming you are not one of the statistically few Christians who actually read through the entire Bible regularly, missing out on the Bible’s genealogies might seem like a small mercy. And if you are a regular through-the-Bible reader — genealogies and all — sometimes you might fall behind on your reading and need to double-up on your daily portions in order to “catch up.” It happens to the best of us. But woe unto you if that catching up happens in 1 Chronicles chapters 1-9, nine straight chapters filled with genealogies and lists of names! Take a deep breath, ratchet up your determination, and plow through those “begats.”
But one day decades ago, I realized that one of the guiding verses of my life applied to genealogies, too: All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching… (2 Timothy 3:16). That meant that “all” included genealogies, so I had better start taking God seriously and give a closer look at those “lists of ‘begats’” that punctuate the Scriptures at key points, if I wanted to be “adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17).
I wish I could share with you the many things the Lord has opened from “boring” genealogies over years of study.2 However our focus here is Matthew’s Christmas story, the Incarnation, his genealogy, and his “mixed-up math.”
Know Your Audience (and Which Wig to Pop)
Matthew’s Gospel was originally written with an intended Jewish readership in mind. Jewish lineages (and therefore genealogies) were important to his audience, especially in post-Exilic Palestine, a people longing for the coming of their liberating Messiah. Seen from that perspective, Matthew pops his wig in his first four opening words (in Greek;3 there are eight in English) — [This is] the Book of the Genealogy of Messiah Jesus.
For a regular, contemporary Bible reader, this is “old hat.” But imagine the effect of those opening words on a First-Century Jewish reader. “Wait — what?! Messiah has come? You know His name and His genealogy? When did this happen? How do you know?”
My fishermen friends tell me (and I take their word for it) that you don’t bait the fishhook with what you’d like to eat; you bait the hook with what the fish finds appealing. That makes sense. So Matthew (who has been well taught to “fish for men” by his Master) baits his hook with a juicy genealogy. It serves as a family-tree outline of Jewish history from Abraham to Matthew’s point in time. And for good measure, this crafty angler laces the bait with a unique flavor, while setting up a “mixed-up math” conundrum that his careful readers will be certain to find — and find his calculations objectionable. Once they “bite” on that, the barb will be set and Matthew can “reel them in.”
The “Unique Flavor”: Women
In the process of laying out Messiah’s family tree while summarizing Israel’s history in a mere 272 words,4 Matthew manages to spice up the genealogy with a surprisingly high ratio (comparatively speaking) of women.
Now, women do get mentioned in Old Testament genealogies, but only very occasionally, and generally only if they were quite extraordinary in some way, or if they were an integral part of the narrative. But Matthew brings up no fewer than five in his brief 15-verse overview:
- Tamar (Matthew 1:3), the Canaanite daughter-in-law/wife of Judah.5
- Rahab (v. 5), another Canaanite woman, the “scarlet woman” of Jericho, whose fear and respect for Jehovah was so great that she was spared and is found (along with Sarah, Abraham’s wife!) in the list of faith champions in Hebrews 11:30-31.6
- Ruth (also v. 5) “the Moabitess”,7 who chose to seek refuge under the “wings” of “the Lord, the God of Israel” (Ruth 2:11).
Those are three of the five females Matthew includes. Think of these three from a Jewish perspective for a moment — all three were Gentiles, that is, non-Israelites. Matthew, as we have said, is writing for Jewish readers. Every Jew who knew King David’s lineage knew of these three Gentile women,8 so they probably had ceased to think of them as particularly non-Jewish. Nevertheless, by the time Matthew wrote this list,9 one of the most controversial aspects of the Gospel (to the Jews, at least) was that it proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was open to Gentiles by faith in Jesus. A thoughtful Jewish reader might come back to this Messianic genealogy and realize afresh that Gentile blood flowed through great King David’s veins (and therefore the veins of Messiah). God had this seed of Gentile inclusion lying there dormant all along!
Now what about the other two women?
- When Matthew lists Woman #4, is he blushing over David’s one great shame10 when he fails to mention her name? Matthew puts the matter delicately: “and Jesse begot David the king. David the king begot Solomon by her who had been the wife of Uriah”11 (Matthew 1:6 nkjv12). We have noted Matthew’s subtle reminders that Messiah is descended, in part, from Gentiles. In the story of David and Bathsheba we are also reminded that His lineage is from sinners. Even though King David was the epitome (in most respects) of “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22), he was stained with adultery and murder.
- The fifth and final woman is Mary, a name which would have meant nothing to Matthew’s contemporary Jewish readers.13
The Mixed-Up Math
Have you ever double-checked Matthew’s math? If you had, you might have been surprised. After 15 verses of genealogy (Matthew 1:2-16), Matthew gives us an interesting summation of his lists:
- So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.
- Matthew 1:17
This is one of those places where the apostle’s personality peeks out of the text. Matthew (or Levi, as he is known in two other Gospels14) was a “numbers guy.” Before being called by Jesus he had been in… how shall we put this delicately?… “accounting.” (Specifically, he had been a tax-collector, especially despised in his time among his people because he collected taxes for the Roman overlords.) His mind effortlessly dealt with calculations, sums, and balances.
This mathematician is also a crafty “fisherman,” so he sets up a way to get his audience to re-read the list they’ve just read: “Hey, did you notice that there are three groups of 14 in that genealogy?”
“Really? Let’s look at that again.” And so his genealogy-loving Jewish readers go back looking for the names of 42 men in three groups of 14. That’s when they find Matthew’s “mixed-up math,” his seeming accounting error. And when they find it, the barb on the hook is set, and Matthew reels in another fish.
Reader, I wonder: Have you ever bothered to go back and count through the three groups of 14? The math should be fairly simple, as long as we understand Matthew’s basic rules:
- You can’t count a name twice. That is to say, if a name is included in one group of 14, it can’t be included in the 14-count of the following group.
- Matthew’s break points are clearly defined in v. 17:
- King David ends the count of Group 1;
- King Jeconiah (who was carried away into Babylonian captivity) ends the count of Group 2; and
- Jesus “who is called the Messiah” ends the last group of 14.
This should be a fairly straightforward enumeration. Let’s count up the men of Matthew’s Group 1 (verses 2-6a):
- Judah (mentioned with Tamar)
- Salmon (mentioned with his wife Rahab)
- Boaz (mentioned with his wife Ruth)
- “David the king”
That’s 14. Matthew’s math checks. Moving on to the second half of verse 615 and Group 2, we find King David mentioned (but not counted again) as the father of…
- Solomon (by “her who had been the wife of Uriah” — Bathsheba)
Well, so far, the tax-collector-turned-Apostle gets an “A” in first-grade math as we finish up verses 6b-11. King Jeconiah gets carried off to captivity in Babylon. Matthew’s books are in order, so to speak. But why drag readers through this recount? Watch for it as we count through the last list of men in Group 3. Starting with verse 12, we find that deposed King Jeconiah (not counted again) “begets”…
- Joseph (“the husband of Mary”)
- Jesus “who is called the Messiah.”
That ends verse 16 and Group 3. Only 13 men.
Check My Math (and Matthew’s)
Don’t believe me? Open up your own Bible (any translation) to Matthew chapter 1 and do the count yourself. I’ll wait here patiently. Oh, and just a reminder about the rules: nobody gets counted more than once and no one can “straddle” two groups. When you come back from your own enumeration, we’ll proceed together….
There are only 13 men in that last group, right? I told you so! And so the Apostle’s genealogy-loving readers would have quickly concluded: “Matthew, you’ve made a mistake. Your math is mixed up, defective. There are only 13 names in the last group.”
“No,” says Matthew, smiling, “the count is accurate and certified, on my honor as a former accountant. Count through that last group again. You’ll get 14.”
So his careful, but frustrated, readers re-count and double-check. “There are only 13 men in that last group!”
“Only 13 men? Agreed. But there are 14 names. Read that last group again, especially the fine print.”
“The only way you can achieve 14 names in the final group is by including this Mary woman in the count!”
Understanding the “Fine Print”
Ah, exactly! That’s why there is “fine print,” so to speak, in Matthew’s Greek phrase immediately following Mary’s name. As we review verse 16, this is what we discover:
…Jacob was the father of
Joseph the husband of
Mary, by whom was born
[ἐξ ἧς ἐγεννήθη / ex hēs egennḗthē]
Jesus, who is called the Messiah.
Let’s briefly parse and dissect Matthew’s “fine print”:
- There is something that slips by in English, but nearly jumps out in Greek. That simple pronoun whom in English doesn’t clearly convey the gender of the word as it does in the Greek. That prepositional phrase ex hēs — from whom or out of whom — is clearly feminine, only matching the female name Mary.
- Throughout this genealogy, Matthew has been using the common Greek verb gennáō (γεννάω) — to procreate, bring into being, become the father of,16 or cause to be born (or beget, if you’re a King James fan). And throughout the genealogy, Matthew employs the aorist active indicative conjugation of the verb (ἐγέννησεν / egénnēsen), perhaps most simply translated as fathered. That is to say, “Abraham fathered Isaac, Isaac fathered Jacob,” etc.
- Here in verse 16, however, while Matthew employs the same verb — gennáō (γεννάω) — he uses it in the aorist passive indicative (ἐγεννήθη / egennḗthē): was born.
Up to this point in the genealogy, all of the other “beget-ings” are the typical father-son relationships: “A” fathered “B.” But in his “fine print,” in Matthew’s use of the feminine pronoun and corresponding passive verb — “Mary, out of whom was born Jesus” — the Apostolic author signals a profound change. The fishing-hook’s barb is ready.
So how would his genealogy-loving readers respond?
“Matthew, You Can’t Do That!”
Now the complaint would have to switch from “There are only 13 names in the third group” to “Matthew, you can’t do that! Yes, it’s a bit odd that you’ve referenced so many women, famous and infamous, in this short genealogy you’ve shared; but there are precedents in the Scriptures, so we’ll allow that. But you can’t count a woman in a genealogy separate from her husband just to reach your arbitrary quota of 14, much less in the line of Messianic lineage that you present.”
How might Matthew have responded to such a protest? Given the verses which follow the genealogy, it seems like he must have had a lot of practice! “Fellows, normally I’d agree with you one-hundred percent. But this case of Messiah is so unusual that the only way to lay out the genealogy is to count Mary. You see, Messiah had no earthly father. Let me explain.” And so Matthew does exactly that, through the words of Matthew 1:18-25:
18Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.
Imagine the sputtering response: “‘With child by the Holy Spirit’? What does that mean, Matthew? We know that the Scriptures speak of God’s Spirit from the opening of the book of Genesis.17 We sing of Him in the Psalms,18 and the Prophets19 mention Him frequently. But surely, as you’ve already presented us with the likes of Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba, this Mary must have been just another loose woman, lying about her sin or — worse! — blaspheming by attributing her out-of-wedlock pregnancy to God!”
“Indeed,” Matthew responds, “Joseph was more than a little puzzled about Mary’s claims and what to do about his relationship with her.”
19And Joseph her husband,20 being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly.
“Well, then, Matthew, Joseph had some common sense, but not enough of it! Breaking this engagement was the least of his responsibilities! We think the most scriptural response is that she should have been stoned to death.21 At the very least, she should have been humiliated publicly!”
“Perhaps,” says Matthew, “Joseph was of a different spirit. Perhaps he thought about the peculiar circumstances of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, and how God used them despite their backgrounds. Nevertheless, breaking the engagement with a formal divorce and sending her away secretly was definitely his focus as the ‘baby bump’ became harder to hide. But then an angel appeared to him.”
20But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”
Matthew still has the full attention of his listeners and readers. “It’s rather fitting, don’t you think, that this ‘Joseph, son of David,’ this descendant of Jewish royalty, named after Israel’s famous ‘dreamer of dreams,’22 should receive a special dream from God about such a momentous situation? (It’s not the only dream from God that our Joseph had; two more followed many months later, as I’ll share by and by.23) Think about what the angel, the messenger from God, communicated to Joseph:
- “‘Don’t break the engagement vow, despite how things appear.
- “‘What Mary has told you is true! The Child, the Son, in her womb was conceived by God’s Holy Spirit.
- “‘This is all part of God’s plan to save His people from their sins.
- “‘You, Joseph, will have the privilege of bestowing on the Child the God-ordained name of Jesus, Yeshua — Savior!’”
The Apostle’s listeners respond with hesitancy: “Matthew, it’s tempting to consider all of this, however ‘over the top’ it may seem. God does speak in dreams. He has spoken through angels. That’s all recorded in Scripture. But there’s no Bible-based confirmation that such a conception could happen.”
There’s a twinkle in Matthew’s eye. “You’re sure of that, are you? Good, faithful sons of the covenant that you are, I know you’re familiar with the many Messianic prophecies in the book of the great Prophet Isaiah. Have you considered the prophetic nature of this passage as well?” And then he points them to what we now designate as Isaiah 7:13-14:
22Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.”
Matthew allows himself a wry smile. “‘The virgin shall be with child and bear a son.’ A pregnant virgin? Isn’t that impossible by definition? The only way that this particular prophecy could be fulfilled is by an act of God. God did the impossible by means of His Holy Spirit. That’s the reason for the ‘mixed-up math’ and the ‘fine print’ in my genealogy that you read and re-read. How else could such a lineage be written?
“And consider the import of the name Immanuel and what it means: God With Us! How could the Child born be God With Us unless he had been conceived by God’s Holy Spirit!?
“Besides, have you considered how this fulfills one of the first prophecies the Lord ever made? When He curses the Serpent in the Garden, He declares to him:
“‘And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her seed;
He shall bruise you on the head,
And you shall bruise him on the heel.’
“It was the Woman’s seed — not the seed of a man — who would overthrow the adversary and his machinations. That’s been ordained since the time of the Fall.24 It seems that the Lord had to do that without the help — or seed — of any man.”25
“Matthew, we’ve never thought about these things, or seen Isaiah’s Immanuel prophecy in this light. But don’t keep us in suspense. What did Joseph do?”
24And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord26 commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, 25but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.
Matthew has “popped his wig” and set the barb of his fishing hook with his “mixed-up math.” From this point he begins the patient process of reeling in his potential catch. “Now that I’ve explained my admittedly unique genealogy of Messiah, complete with its ‘mixed-up math’ (as you call it) and the ‘fine print,’ and now that we’ve touched on the circumstances leading up to His birth, let me share His ministry and teaching with you. In fact, let’s continue the story months after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king….” And so Matthew continues the narrative of the Messiah in his Gospel.
Wise Matthew. All-wise God! “All scripture” — genealogies included! — “is given by inspiration of God.” Why start Matthew’s Gospel — and the New Testament — with a unique genealogy? Something very special was needed to meet the challenge of arresting the attention of Jewish readers, in order to share Messiah’s Holy-Spirit conception, leading to the birth of the Son of God — Immanuel, God With Us — all without the agency of man. It’s anything but boring; in fact, it’s of eternal consequence.
Now that you understand what a vital part Matthew’s “wig” and “math” are to the Christmas story, remember the purpose of his masterful genealogy in your Yuletide recounting of and meditation on the Incarnation!
- Title graphic created using freely licensed images from Gerd Altmann (background) and from Elena Chukovskaya (wreath) from Pixabay. ↩
- Actually, I fulfilled my own wish. For those of you who like deeper-dive Bible studies, you’ll find examples of several genealogical gems in several extensive endnotes following this article. ↩
- The first four words of Matthew 1:1 are: Βίβλος γενέσεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ / Bíblos genéseōs Iēsoû Christoû. ↩
- The count of the words in the Greek text (Nestle-Aland 26th edition) of Matthew 1:2-16 is 272 words. Depending on your English translation, it might be even more succinct (e.g., kjv, with its streamlined begats, weighs in with a mere 210 words) or slightly longer (e.g., nasb, which swaps out the archaic begat for the clearer, but longer, was the father of — 277 words). ↩
- Yes, that’s a “weird relationship,” not to mention incestuous. You can read the story in Genesis 38. ↩
- Note that in the Hebrews 11 list, Rahab gets mentioned even before Gideon, Samson, David, and Samuel! ↩
- “Ruth the Moabitess” — this phrase appears consistently throughout the book bearing her name: Ruth 1:22; 2:2,6,21; 4:3,11. ↩
- For those who are keeping score, Ruth was David’s great-grandmother, and Rahab was David’s great-great-grandmother. You can work out for yourself how many greats would have to be prepended to grandmother to account for Tamar.
As an aside, David’s Moabite roots would probably explain why, to protect his parents from the retributive vengeance of mad King Saul, he left them with the king of Moab (1 Samuel 22:3-4).
Matthew wasn’t led by the Spirit to include other spiritually less savory women married to David’s descendants, including the idolatrous “Naamah the Ammonitess” (wife of Solomon, mother of King Rehoboam). Even more infamous was “Queen” Athaliah, the murderous (2 Kings 11:1-2), usurping (2 Chronicles 22:12), Ba’al-possessed, Ashtoreth-worshipping daughter of Israel’s proverbially wicked royalty, namely, Ahab and Jezebel. Athaliah was the wife of Judah’s King Jehoram (in a marriage probably arranged by his father, King Jehoshaphat). Given her demon-focused heritage, it was probably she who influenced her newly-crowned husband to murder his royal siblings (2 Chronicles 21:4). Certainly she had no compunctions about murdering all (so she thought) of her grandchildren, once her son, King Ahaziah, had died. ↩
- That is, at the time he wrote his Gospel, around 60 a.d. ↩
- I have been astounded over my lifetime about the number of people who want to blame Bathsheba (for that was the woman’s name, or, alternatively, Bathshua in 1 Chronicles 3:5) for David’s sin, as though she conducted herself as a temptress. Nothing could be further from the truth! Not once in any Old Testament verse concerning Bathsheba does God’s word cast any shade on her character. When the matter is referred to historically, the record says:
…David did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and had not turned aside from anything that He commanded him all the days of his life, except in the case of Uriah the Hittite (i.e., Bathsheba’s husband; 1 Kings 15:5 nasb).
In case any of my readers are unfamiliar with this tale of adultery and intrigue, it can be found in 2 Samuel 11:1—12:25. “The thing that David had done was evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Samuel 11:27), so God exposed his sin through the prophet Nathan (12:1-13a). This is the one stain on David’s character and reign. Was David forgiven? Yes (2 Samuel 12:13). But the consequences reverberated throughout the rest of David’s life.
As long as we’re on the subject of genealogies generally and Bathsheba / Bathshua specifically, here’s an insight gained from studying the genealogies. We know from 2 Samuel 11:3 that Bathsheba was the daughter of Eliam, as well as the wife of Uriah the Hittite. Both Eliam and Uriah were national heroes; I suppose if we tried to update their status to a modern-day American equivalent, they were both “medal of honor” winners for their derring-do on the battlefield. That’s why both are listed in the honor roll of David’s “mighty men” found in 2 Samuel 23:8-39, in verses 34 and 39, respectively. David’s adultery was an insult to two of his military champions, both the father and the husband of Bathsheba.
Ah, but someone else was offended, too, a man of great importance in David’s court. And when that someone had the opportunity to get his long-sought revenge on David, by means of Absalom’s rebellion, he took it. Had his counsel been followed, David probably would have been captured and executed. Who was this man? Did you notice the man who is listed as Eliam’s father (and therefore Bathsheba’s grandfather) in 2 Samuel 23:34?
…Eliam the son of Ahithophel the Gilonite…
Have you wondered why Ahithophel, David’s chief counselor, would become a traitor and throw in his lot with David’s usurping son, Absalom? (See 2 Samuel 15:12,31-34.) David, with his adultery and cover up, had brought shame on Ahithophel and his family by:
- cuckolding (and essentially murdering) Uriah, Ahithophel’s grandson-in-law;
- bringing shame on his granddaughter, Bathsheba; thus,
- bringing shame on Ahithophel’s son, namely Bathsheba’s father, Eliam (also known as Ammiel in 1 Chronicles 3:5); and,
- by extension, shaming Ahithophel himself, even though he stood as David’s much-valued counselor in King David’s court (1 Chronicles 27:33).
How easily these affronts could have festered in the heart of Ahithophel over the years.
No wonder, then, that Ahithophel found common cause with Absalom, who (with some ample justification, if we’re even-handed in our assessment) had a longstanding resentment against his father. David had not bothered to adjudicate the rape of Tamar, Absalom’s sister (David’s own daughter!), by punishing the then heir-apparent, Amnon. This crime and tragedy, along with David’s failure, are detailed in 2 Samuel 13. It was David’s injustice in this matter which motivated Absalom’s fratricide (13:23-37), his self-banishing escape to exile (13:24—14:13), his estrangement from his father and the royal court (14:14-33, even though he was then the heir apparent), his carefully orchestrated propaganda campaign (15:1-6), and ultimately his rebellion.
One last thought on this genealogical excursion into Ahithophel’s betrayal of David: How could Ahithophel give such precise strategic and tactical counsel regarding how to humiliate, defeat, and capture David (2 Samuel 16:20—17:4)? Well, obviously he was a very wise man:
- The advice of Ahithophel, which he gave in those days, was as if one inquired of the word of God; so was all the advice of Ahithophel regarded by both David and Absalom.
- 2 Samuel 16:23
Now perhaps that alone would account for Ahithophel’s brilliant military plan. But consider this: Ahithophel had probably heard and processed many “war stories” from his heroic son, Eliam, and his equally heroic grandson-in-law, Uriah the Hittite. From those two and their military friends, this wise man would have accumulated and noted many stories about David’s strategies and tactics, his strengths and weakness — raw material for his analytical mind. Here’s another factor: Having been David’s intimate counselor for many years, Ahithophel would have known the king’s psychological make-up. He guessed, quite correctly, David’s state of mind and the disposition of his troops and entourage. (Compare his counsel in 2 Samuel 17:1-2 to the actual state and strategically indefensible location of David’s company as described in 2 Samuel 16,21-22,24.)
There is little doubt that Ahithophel’s plan would have succeeded, had it not been thwarted by Hushai’s clever appeal to David’s guerrilla-war reputation, and Absalom’s lack of military experience, his fear of defeat, and his vanity (17:7-13). With ample reason, then, did wise, far-seeing Ahithophel return home to Giloh, set his affairs in order, and commit suicide (2 Samuel 17:23).
Hmm. Bathsheba was the daughter of “Eliam, who was the son of Ahithophel.” Look what we uncovered with just a little bit of detective work together. Still think genealogies are “boring”? “All scripture is given by inspiration of God” — including the “begats”! There are many such gems and insights just waiting to be mined! ↩
- Note that this phrase — who had been the wife — is in italics in almost all English translations because the Greek is otherwise untranslatably succinct: literally, “out of her of Uriah” (ἐκ τῆς τοῦ Οὐρίου / ek tẽs Ouríou). For this reason, the extra words providing the obvious meaning are supplied by the translators. ↩
- You will notice that in this instance I have switched to quoting from the nkjv, rather than from the nasb as normal. That is because, among English translations, the nasb alone inserts Bathsheba’s name into the text, despite its complete absence in the Greek. (The nasb marginal note makes their insertion clearer, however; it says, “Lit., her of Uriah”.) Among Spanish translations, the nbla makes the same name insertion — cuya madre Betsabé había sido mujer de Urías — whose mother Bathsheba had been the wife of Uriah.) Should we be unhappy with the translators for inserting Bathsheba’s name into their translation? Most translations have already supplied extra words in this verse. (See previous note.) And I can understand their liberty in supplying Bathsheba’s name; they are only extending the established precedent by one word for extra clarity. And given the exponential growth of Biblical illiteracy among Christians, real and so-called, over the last fifty years, I can understand the feeling the translators might have had in wrestling with this verse: “If we don’t include her name, how many people will actually know the story of David’s sin with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband Uriah?” However reluctant we might be to accept their seeming “fiddling with the text,” I sympathize with their motivation. Their insertion of Bathsheba’s name makes for a sad commentary on our time: Matthew could omit Bathsheba’s name, certain that all his readers would know it; modern translators are beginning to include it, so it seems, because they fear they must accommodate their modern readers’ biblical illiteracy. ↩
- Mary (Greek: Μαρία / María) — the anglicized form of the Hebrew/Aramaic Miriam — would have been a very common, even patriotic, name in New Testament times, harking back to Moses’ famous sister. But Matthew’s first-time readers would have had no inkling as to why Mary/Miriam was important enough to include in the list. Matthew will explain it to them in short order. ↩
- Compare Matthew’s own account of his calling in Matthew 9:9-13 with the parallel accounts found in Mark 2:14-17 and Luke 5:27-32, where he is called Levi. ↩
- Remember that Matthew didn’t write in verses or chapters. Those artificial, man-made divisions were laid on the text over a thousand years after the New Testament was completed. ↩
- Dictionary of Biblical Languages: Greek, s.v. ↩
- Genesis 1:2; 6:3 ↩
- E.g., Psalms 51:11; 139:7 ↩
- E.g., Psalms 51:11; 139:7 ↩
- “Joseph, her husband” — Matthew’s Jewish readers knew what some of my readers may not. A Jewish engagement in New Testament times was even more binding than it is today. The formal, public engagement made the man and woman legally husband and wife. But until the formal marriage ceremony (usually within a year after the engagement), there were neither co-habitation nor conjugal relations. A formal, legal divorce was required to break an engagement. ↩
- The law is found in Deuteronomy 22:22. This is what the scribes and Pharisees were proposing to Jesus in the case found in John 8:1-11, especially verse 5. ↩
- That is, Joseph ben-Jacob. If you aren’t familiar with his story, it takes up nearly 35% of the book of Genesis (chapters 37,39-50). Pay special attention to the significance of dreams in Genesis 37:1-11,19-20; and chapters 40-41. We uncover many spiritual insights from the life of the “Egyptian” Joseph in the Bible study “And Joseph Was Brought Down…”. ↩
- See Matthew 2:13-15, 19-21. We won’t consider these dreams in this article, but we’ll touch on them in another Christmas article, Messiah’s Missing Months. There we’ll explore the comment from above: “two more (dreams) followed many months later.” ↩
- This is neither the time or place to develop this thought, but we give ample attention to it in our seminar entitled “Woman in the Kingdom of God.” ↩
- “Without the help — or seed — of any man” — Thoughtful readers will cogitate through to a problem that seems like it might not have a solution. Since Matthew is tracing the Davidic royal line down through Joseph, Mary’s husband, then doesn’t the genetic line stop with him? After all, he wasn’t Jesus’ biological father, was he? So how can Jesus be “the son of David” if he didn’t actually receive David’s genes through Joseph? The problem lies with King Jeconiah. The solution lies with Mary!
So what’s the problem with Jeconiah? He is the genetic “roadblock” because of God’s curse on him. We’ll look at that curse and its implications presently, but it’s important to note first that his name comes to us in more than one form (as is typical of many Bible characters, including our own Matthew/Levi):
- Jeconiah (the name we find at the end of Group 2 in Matthew’s genealogy, and which also appears in 1 Chronicles 3:16 and Jeremiah 24:1);
- Jehoiachin (found in 2 Kings 24:6,8,12,15,27,29; 2 Chronicles 36:8-9; and Jeremiah 52:31,33; and Ezekiel 1:2).
- Coniah, the shortened form of Jeconiah, above (used in Jeremiah 37:1 and Jeremiah 22:24,28).
Jeconiah’s brief history is this: He was the grandson of good King Josiah, but also the son of the wicked King Jehoiakim. When Jehoiakim died, Jeconiah ascended the throne at age 18 (2 Kings 24:8), but he reigned only three months before Nebuchadnezzar carried him away to Babylon. He was the equal of his father in wickedness (2 Kings 24:9; 2 Chronicles 36:9). In fact, he must have been exceptionally focused on wickedness and ungodliness before and during his brief reign, because through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord issues a remarkable rejection and curse on the young king (Jeremiah 22:24-30):
24“As I live,” declares the Lord, “even though Coniah the son of Jehoiakim king of Judah were a signet ring on My right hand, yet I would pull you off; 25and I will give you over into the hand of those who are seeking your life, yes, into the hand of those whom you dread, even into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon and into the hand of the Chaldeans. 26I will hurl you and your mother who bore you into another country where you were not born, and there you will die. 27But as for the land to which they desire to return, they will not return to it.
28“Is this man Coniah a despised, shattered jar?
Or is he an undesirable vessel?
Why have he and his descendants been hurled out
And cast into a land that they had not known?
29“O land, land, land,
Hear the word of the Lord!
30“Thus says the Lord, ‘Write this man down childless,
A man who will not prosper in his days;
For no man of his descendants will prosper
Sitting on the throne of David
Or ruling again in Judah.’”
The niv translation makes the final words of this passage even more pointed and specific:
“…for none of his offspring will prosper,
none will sit on the throne of David
or rule anymore in Judah.”
Those bolded words show the “problem.” Based on God’s own words, Jesus, the Messiah, God’s soon-coming King, can’t sit on David’s throne if He is a descendant of Jehoiachin / Jeconiah / Coniah, the accursed king. What’s the solution?
Mary of Nazareth is the solution! You see, another genealogy of Jesus appears in Luke 3:23-38. Unlike Matthew’s genealogy, which runs forward in time (oldest to newest), this one runs backwards in time. One of the keys here is in the first verse (v. 23) of this list. “Jesus… as was supposed, the son of Joseph, the son of Eli….” Wait — Joseph, son of Eli? I thought Matthew 1:16 said that a fellow named Jacob was Joseph’s father. What’s going on?
Simply this: Without drawing this note out too much further, let me point out a major “women’s rights court case” which was won in the time of Moses by the daughters of a son-less man named Zelophehad (Numbers 27:1-11). God’s ruling in the case allowed them, as brother-less daughters, to inherit their father’s estate and perpetuate his posterity. The case was amended later (in Numbers 36) to state these daughters might marry anyone they wished, but only men from their father’s tribe, in order to keep their property within the ancestral clan. This precedent was actually realized; they married cousins (Numbers 36:11) and were allotted inheritances in the land by Joshua and the high priest Eleazar within the tribe of Manasseh (Joshua 17:3-6).
Ancient tradition tells us that Mary’s father Eli was without a male heir. Thus the Luke 3 genealogy is that of Mary, not a conflicting lineage of Joseph. So, in a sense, Joseph was “grafted” into Eli’s line by inheritance when, having obeyed the word of the Lord through the angel (Matthew 1:24-25), he went through with the wedding. Thus the Scripture says, “as was supposed” Jesus was Joseph’s son.
But that doesn’t get around the roadblock-curse of Coniah. Yet God always has a way, doesn’t He? There is another key in this Luke 3 passage. Now that we know that Luke is recounting Mary’s genealogy, what happens when we trace it backwards? Focus in on Luke 3:31-32:
31…(Eliakim) the son of Melea, the son of Menna, the son of Mattatha, the son of Nathan, the son of David, 32the son of Jesse, the son of Obed, the son of Boaz, the son of Salmon, the son of Nahshon…
Yes, that Boaz; yes, that Obed; yes, that Jesse; yes, that David — the king! So Mary, too, is a descendant of King David, not through Solomon, but through another son named Nathan. Nathan was not only a son of David, but also one of three full brothers to King Solomon, which makes him — you guessed it! — a son of Bathsheba. See 1 Chronicles 3:5. (Remember we made a point earlier of saying that Bathsheba was also known by the name Bathshua? Here’s where that little fact becomes important! Here we also discover that Eliam, the name of Bathsheba’s father in 2 Samuel 23:34, was also known as Ammiel.)
See God’s wisdom and foreknowledge! Jesus didn’t inherit any of Joseph’s genes (and therefore David’s genes through Joseph) because then He would have inherited Coniah’s curse, and thus have been banned from the Davidic throne. That didn’t turn out to be a problem for God, did it? David’s genetic lineage came through Nathan’s line down through Mary to Jesus. So “great David’s greater son” (to quote the hymn Hail to the Lord’s Anointed!), his genetic descendant, Jesus, still fulfills God’s promise to David. Mary, as I said, is the solution.
Oh, one final word. We said that Nathan was one of the sons of Bathsheba / Bathshua. Do you remember the name of the prophet who publicly rebuked David for his adultery? It was Nathan (not to be confused with David’s son by the same name). And unlike the fate of many prophets who rebuked a king and “spoke truth to power,” Nathan wasn’t jailed or executed by David. No, David’s sorrow and contrition were deep, and his repentance was zealous and complete. (See Psalm 51.) And, apparently, David and Bathsheba appreciated the prophet’s redemptive reproof, which brought their souls back to the light of truth, back into favor with God. No, they didn’t resent Nathan or God’s rebuke through him; instead they honored the prophet and his faithfulness by naming a son after him! ↩
- “The angel of the Lord” — This is not the Angel of the Lord from the Old Testament. Back in verse 20 we read that “an angel of the Lord appeared.” Here in verse 24 Matthew is merely referring back to the angel who appeared in Joseph’s dream, telling us that Joseph heeded and obeyed his message. We cover the subject of the “Capital-A” Angel in Who Was the Angel of the Lord? ↩