The Story of Jesus' Genealogy

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(This is an excerpt from the chapter "Son of David" from the book Good Tidings of Great Joy.)

Jesus’ family background is a natural place for an author to begin his account of Jesus’ birth, but Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:1–17) is not one of the Christmas stories that tends to attract much attention at Christmastime. Rarely is it the subject of a sacrament meeting talk in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the topic of a Christmas sermon in other denominations, or the focus of holiday scripture study in our homes. This is no doubt partly because the succession of mostly unknown figures begetting generation after generation is, in many ways, reminiscent of the long genealogies in Genesis, Numbers, 1 Chronicles, Ezra, and even the book of Ether. When reading such genealogies, we understand that they are somehow important, but because this type of narrative is not as exciting and interesting as others—particularly when compared with the other stories in the Infancy Narratives—we are tempted to skip or skim over the genealogy given in Matthew 1 when studying the Christmas story.

Old Testament genealogies, however, served an important function in establishing kinship, confirming a family’s position in the House of Israel, and validating claims to important royal or priestly positions. In that regard, the genealogy that Matthew uses as the beginning of his Infancy Narrative, and indeed as the beginning of his Gospel, provides an important bridge between the Old and the New Testament. Some questions about this genealogy still remain unanswered, such as where Matthew got his information and how accurate it was in some of its lesser-known details. For instance, did he have access to official archives, family traditions, or popularly circulating genealogies, and were these complete and always correct?

The organization of what material he had, however, reveals that Matthew had clear objectives that influenced how he selected and structured the information contained in the genealogy he records. Thus, what is most important in Matthew’s genealogy is not necessarily found in its comprehensiveness or its absolute accuracy. Rather, what is important is how that genealogy establishes who the baby Jesus was and what he would do. Furthermore, both the familiar and the less well-known characters in it teach us valuable lessons. Matthew’s arrangement of this genealogical material reveals important stories in itself, stories about the promises made to Abraham, the covenant that the Lord made with David, and God’s interaction with people throughout the history of the Old Testament. Each of these stories had significance for Matthew’s original readers and for us, his modern audience.

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