Today genealogies are a thriving hobby for people who are interested in where they come from. In biblical times, genealogies were a vital part of Jewish society. In order to claim the privileges of Jewish citizenship, people had to be able to trace their lineage back generations. For that reason, the Jewish people kept meticulous birth records.
Each tribe of Israel was allotted a land inheritance. In order to claim a particular parcel of land, a man had to prove that he was a descendant of that tribe. Genealogies also gave people a certain measure of prestige in Israel. Those who could trace their lineage to noteworthy people in Jewish history, such as Moses or David, were looked upon favorably.
The Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke both offer unique genealogies of Jesus. In both genealogies, the ancestors listed between Abraham and David are virtually the same, but the lists of names that come after David are almost completely different. Scholars offer two primary explanations for this. The first is that one of the genealogies takes into account the law of Levi. According to this law, if a man died without children, his brother would marry the man’s widow and their firstborn son would be credited to the deceased man. The second possibility is that Matthew traces Joseph’s ancestors and Luke traces Mary’s.
Matthew’s genealogy begins with Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. God’s covenant with Abraham included the promise that because of Abraham’s descendants, all the nation of the world would be blessed (see Genesis 12:3). That promise was fulfilled through the saving work of Jesus.
Matthew’s genealogy includes four women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba (though she’s not mentioned by name). Tamar continued the bloodline of her father-in-law Judah through sordid means. (You’ll find the whole twisted story in Genesis 38.)
Rahab was a Canaanite woman from Jericho who hid spies from Israel in advance of an Israelite attack on the city. Only Rahab and her family were spared in the ensuing battle. Her further reward included a place in the Messianic line.
Ruth was a Moabite widow whose extraordinary loyalty to her Israelite mother-in-law was rewarded with, among other things, a prominent place in the Messiah’s genealogy. Ruth became the wife of Boaz, the mother of Obed and the great-grandmother of David.
Bathsheba was the woman with whom David had a scandalous affair. In Matthew’s genealogy, she is referred to as “her who had been the wife of Uriah” (Matthew 1:6). In order to cover up his adulterous relationship—and the pregnancy that resulted—David arranged for Uriah to be killed in battle so that he could marry Bathsheba. Their first child died as part of God’s punishment for their sin. Bathsheba later gave birth to the future king Solomon.
The royal lineage of Jesus continues through Kings Rehoboam, Abijah, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Joram, Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah, Manasseh, Amon, Josiah and Jeconiah. Matthew’s genealogy ends with Joseph, who is listed as “the husband of Mary” (Matthew 1:16).
Luke’s genealogy, which runs in reverse order, begins with Heli, which may have been a name used for Mary’s father. The genealogy ends at the beginning—the very beginning—with Adam, the first man. The significance of this is made clear in Romans 5:12-21. Referring to Adam, the apostle Paul writes, “through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin” (verse 12). The contrast comes three verses later: “much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many.”
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