Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy of Jesus. It is clear that Matthew wants to show that Jesus is indeed a descendant of David, as foretold by the prophets. But that is not everything. Because why does the list start with Abraham and not with David? Why does he divide the list into three times 14 genera? And why are women mentioned? Everything indicates that the message goes further than a confirmation of the descent of Jesus. As we will see, it is a message for the Jews in particular, to whom this Gospel is especially addressed.
By omitting several genera, Matthew divides the list into exactly three times 14 genera. By comparison with other data from the Old Testament, we know that Matthew skipped several generations. Something that was not unusual, by the way; we also see this in other genealogies in the Old Testament. The division into three times 14 genera undoubtedly reflects the Jewish preference for systematization. Three periods of 14 genders, or 6 periods of 7 genders. So that Jesus is at the beginning of the seventh period. An ascending line from Abraham to David in 14 generations, a downward line in 14 generations from David to the exile in 14 generations and then an upward line again until the birth of Jesus. In other words, just as David's reign was a high point for Israel, so a new high point has now arrived with the coming of Jesus.
This article discusses the first 14 generations, from Abraham to David. And then the focus falls on two women mentioned: Tamar and Ruth.
2. Hebrew highlighter
The first part of the genealogy looks like this:
Mat. 1:1-6 The genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham. Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, Jacob begot Judah and his brothers; Judah begot Perez and Zerah by Tamar; Perez begot Hezron, Hezron begot Aram; Aram begot Aminadab, Aminadab begot Nahshon, Nahshon begot Salmon; Salmon begot Boaz by Rahab, Boaz begot Obed by Ruth, Obed begot Jesse; Jesse begot David the king (…)
The first thing you notice is the regularity: A begot B, B begot C, etc. But then it is noticeable that there are deviations in that regularity:
· Jacob begot Judah and his brothers
· Judah begot Perez and Zerah by Tamar
· Salmon begot Boaz by Rahab
· Boaz begot Obed by Ruth
These irregularities have the same function as the highlighter we use in texts: they want to draw attention to certain words. In this case it becomes even clearer if we put the names together and pay attention to the names that are highlighted. In the overview below, the list is also split into two times seven names.
Judah and his brothers
Boaz by Rahab
Perez and Zerah by Tamar
Obed by Ruth
The first thing you notice is the beautiful symmetry. Since Matthew left out several genera to arrive at 14 genera, it appears that he deliberately did so in such a way that this symmetrical list is created.
The second point is that Matthew apparently wants to draw the reader's attention to two histories: the history of Judah and Tamar and the history of Boaz and Ruth.
By the way, whether Rahab is indeed the harlot from Jericho or whether some other person is meant is immaterial! See also the article "Was Boaz's mother a whore?" on this website.
We read the history of Judah and Tamar in Gen. 30:1-30. In short, this history looks like this:
· Judah leaves his family and goes to live with the Canaanites. There he marries Sua's daughter.
· His eldest son Er dies and his wife, Tamar, becomes a widow.
· This daughter-in-law is childless. She marries again, according to the rules of levirate marriage, to Er's brother, Onan, but he also dies without Tamar having a child.
· Tamar makes sure she is not recognized
· She seduces her father-in-law who thinks she is a whore
· And she becomes pregnant with twins. Her son Perez becomes the ancestor of the Messiah
It has always been clear to the Jews that the Messiah would be born of Perez. They deduced this from the fact that in various genealogies the descendants of Perez are mentioned and not those of Shelah, the brother of Er and Onan, nor the descendants of Zerah, the twin brother of Perez. See for example the following text:
Gen. 46:8, 12 These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt, Jacob and his sons. (…) The sons of Judah: Er, Onan, Shelah, Perez, and Zerah. However, Er and Onan had died in the land of Canaan. The sons of Perez were Hezron and Hamul.
We also see this in Micah's prophecy:
Micha 2:12-13 I will surely gather you, O Jacob, wholly. I will surely gather the remnant of Israel. I will gather them together like the sheep of Bozrah, like a flock in the midst of his pasture. It will be buzzing with people. The Breaker [Heb.: Perez] comes before them. They will break through, pass through the gate and go out through it. Their King goes before them, and the LORD is at the head.
This prophecy was read as an announcement of the coming of the Messiah as a descendant of Perez.
The story of Ruth is well known. The story begins with Elimelech who goes to live in Moab with his wife Naomi and dies there. His sons Mahlon and Chilion also died before their wives Ruth and Orpah had children. Ruth returns to Bethlehem with Naomi, and there she supports herself by gleaning in Boaz's field. This Boaz turns out to be related to Elimelech.
After some time, Naomi makes a strange proposal to Ruth. She suggests that Ruth wash herself, anoint herself, put on her best clothes and then crawl into bed with Boaz without being seen. The Hebrew language is very ambiguous:
· ‘yada’ (‘know’, but is also used to indicate sexual relationship) is used twice in Ruth 3:3-4
· ‘shakhav’ (‘lie’) often has a sexual meaning and is used six times in Ruth 3:4, 7-8
· ‘bo’ (‘come at’) is used three times (Ruth 3:4,7,14) and often has a sexual meaning (see Ruth 4:13)
· ‘gala’ (‘arise’) evokes a strong association with exposing someone's private parts in Lev. 18 en 20
A more detailed description can be found in Yael Ziegler's book: “Ruth, from alienation to monarchy”.
The remarkable thing is that Boaz does not allow himself to be seduced and Ruth does not abuse the situation either. On the contrary, Ruth makes a proposal to Boaz. She asks Boaz to marry her and indicates that he can then buy the land from Elimelech.
Apparently Elimelech had some land. Now that Elimelech has died, and the two heirs have also died, a situation threatens to arise where Naomi will be forced to sell the land and this land would therefore end up outside the family. Jewish law gave the option in such circumstances to a family member to purchase the land. Unlike the levirate marriage (think of Tamar), this purchase of the land involved no obligation to marry a widow left behind. Ruth, however, does connect these two things, thereby ensuring a future for herself. A downright smart move.
5. Tamar and Ruth
What is striking is the great similarity between the two histories. This is confirmed once again in the overview below.
Judah leaves his family and goes to live with the Canaanites
Elimelech leaves his family and goes to live in Moab
eldest son's wife becomes a widow
wives of both sons become widows
daughter-in-law is childless
daughters-in-law are childless
ensures that she is not recognized
ensures that she is not recognized
seduces her father-in-law
washes and anoints himself and puts on best clothes
And then you notice the big difference. Judah and Tamar don't fare too well. Judah wants to use a whore, and Tamar uses a trick to get pregnant. The contrast with Ruth is great. She reacts very wisely to ensure that her future is assured.
6. Ruth in the genealogy
When the people of Bethlehem hear that Boaz and Ruth are getting married, they react as follows:
Ruth 4:11-12 And all the people that were in the gate and the elders said, We are witnesses. May the LORD make this woman who comes into your house like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built the house of Israel. Do mighty deeds in Ephrathah and make your name famous in Bethlehem. And may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bare to Judah, through the seed which the LORD shall give you of this young woman.
The reference to Perez is striking. This reference expresses the desire that the Messiah will be born of Ruth. We also see this in the end of Ruth, where Perez is at the beginning of the list:
Ruth 4:18-22 Now these are the descendants of Perez: Perez begot Hezron, Hezron begot Ram, Ram begot Amminadab, Amminadab begot Nahshon, Nahshon begot Salmon, Salmon begot Boaz, Boaz begot Obed, Obed begot Jesse, and Jesse begot David.
It is clear that Matthew copied this list in full.
It is also noticeable that by mentioning Perez, the history of Ruth and Boaz refers to the history of Judah and Tamar. The two stories that Matthew juxtaposes therefore refer to each other.
7. The message of Tamar and Ruth
Matthew writes his gospel specifically for Jews. He wants to convince them that Jesus is the promised Messiah. One of the points he wants to make clear is that Jesus also came for Gentiles. And he already makes that clear in the genealogy. Judah, one of Jacob's sons, does not fare too well: he marries a Canaanite woman and allows himself to be seduced by his own daughter-in-law. Ruth, the Moabite woman, joins God's people and makes the right choice in a comparable situation.
To convey this message, Matthew uses a very beautiful composition of the genealogy. An overview of 3 times 14 genera. The first set of 14 genera appears to fall into two groups of 7 genera. And irregularities in the summary draw attention to two histories, namely that of Judah and Tamar and that of Ruth and Boaz. Two stories from the Old Testament that refer to each other, and which Matthew juxtaposes to convey a message. The message that it has always been the intention that pagans would also join God's people.