Genealogies in Ancient Israel (Matthew 1)

Matthew 1

In societies organized around kindship, genealogies (lists of names tracing the ancestry of a given individual or group) serve as public records that document history, establish identity and/or legitimate office. The key to legitimacy and identity is a direct, irrefutable familial tie with the past. Such lists may ascend from the individual, using the formula “x the son of y, the son of z…” (1 Chronicles 6:33-43, Ezra 7:1-5, Luke 3:23-38) or descend from a common ancestor, using the pattern “x was the father of y, y the father of z… (Genesis 5:1-32, Ruth 4:18-23, Matthew 1:1-17). These two basic types of genealogies can be combined (verse 1 vs verses 2-17). In addition, genealogical rolls may either contain a simple succession of names or may be supplemented with expansive content pertaining to the deeds of certain prominant individuals n the list.

Genealogies feature prominently in both the early and later history of Israel. There are ten principal genealogical lists in Genesis alone (a.g. “the written account of Adam’s line” in Genesis 5). Theses records served to establish and protect identity in that they regulated a variety of social interactions, including marriage and land inheritance (Deutoronomy 25:5-10, Ezra 10:18-43). Thus the registration of families who had returned from exile was å profound concern during the postexilitic period (1 Chronicles 1-9, Ezra 8:2-14, Nehemiah 7:7-63). Genealogies were especially important in ancient Israel because the right to hold important offices was a hereditary privelege. For example, the priesthood was assured to the sons of Levi (Exodus 6:16-266, Numbers 3:10, 1 Chronicles 6:1-53), while kingship was reserved for the descendants of Judah (Genesis 49:10) and more specifically for the son of David (2 Samuel 7:12-16, Psalm 89:29, Isaiah 9:7, 11:1-3).

In the New Testament era certain genealogical records were stored in a public archive in the temple mount, while others were maintained by private families. Early Christian preaching radically redefined genealogical descent by considering all who identified with Jesus as true, legal descendants of Abraham,”heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29, cf Matthew 3:9, John 8:33, 39, Romans 4:16).

The New Testament preserves two pertinent genealogical lists, both of which present the human ancestry of Jesus as the son of David (Matthew 1:1-17, Luke 3:23-38). The two listings are different, and the reasons for this variation have been extensively debated. It may be that the register in Luke preserves the biological family tree of Joseph, while that in Matthew records the legal line of descent that authenticated Joseph’s (and Jesus’) claim to David’s throne. Others suggest that the genealogy in Matthew is Joseph’s while the one in Luke is Mary’s.


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