The Genealogy of the Messiah
In 1982, Reader’s Digest decided to make the Bible easier to read. Translators, paraphrasers and a variety of religious entrepreneurs have been providing more and more modern versions of the Bible to keep pace with our rapidly deteriorating use of the English language. Reader’s Digest went one step further, condensing the Bible—excising what they considered extraneous”—providing an abridged version called The Reader’s Digest Bible.
Among the passages deemed “unnecessary” were the many genealogies. Yet, the frequency with which genealogies appear in the Scriptures is evidence of their importance. Genealogies established one’s Jewishness, one’s tribal identity, one’s right to the priesthood and one’s right to kingship.
From all the genealogies in the Hebrew Scriptures, two observations become apparent. With very rare exceptions, only the male line is traced and only men’s names appear. The descendancy of women is not given and their names are only mentioned in passing. Since biblically it was the father who determined both national and tribal identity, it was reasoned that only his line was necessary.
In addition, only one line is traced from the beginning to the end of the biblical history, the line of King David. The Scriptures reveal every name before David (Adam to David) and every name after David (David to Zerubbabel). Since the Messiah was to be of the house of David, this can also be labeled as the messianic line. In fact, the genealogies limit more and more the human origin of the Messiah. As the Seed of the woman, Messiah had to come out of humanity. As the Seed of Abraham, Messiah had to come from the nation of Israel. As the Seed of Judah, he had to be of the tribe of Judah. As the Seed of David, he had to be of the family of David.
The Jewish Scriptures as Background to the New Covenant
The pattern of genealogy in the Hebrew Scriptures is followed by the New Testament pattern where two genealogies are found: Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38. Of the four gospel accounts, only those two deal with the birth and early life of Jesus. Both Mark and John begin their accounts with Jesus as an adult, so it is natural that only Matthew and Luke would have a genealogy. While they both provide an account of the birth and early life of Jesus, each tells the story from a different perspective.
In Matthew, Joseph plays an active role, but Miriam (Mary) plays a passive role. Matthew records angels appearing to Joseph, but there is no record of angels appearing to Miriam. Matthew records Joseph’s thoughts but nothing is recorded about Miriam’s thoughts. On the other hand, Luke’s Gospel tells the same story from Miriam’s perspective. From the context of each Gospel, it should be very evident that the genealogy of Matthew is that of Joseph, and the genealogy of Luke is that of Miriam.
The question then raised is: Why do we need two genealogies, especially since Yeshua (Jesus) was not the real son of Joseph? A popular and common answer is: Matthew’s Gospel gives the royal line, whereas Luke’s Gospel gives the real line. From this concept, another theory arises. Since seemingly Joseph was the heir apparent to David’s throne, and Jesus was the adopted son of Joseph, Jesus could claim the right to David’s throne. On the other hand, Luke’s Gospel gives the real line, showing that Yeshua himself was a descendant of David. Through Miriam, he was a member of the house of David, but he could claim the right to sit on David’s throne through Joseph, the heir apparent. Actually the exact opposite is true.
Who Gets to Be King?
To understand the need for these two genealogies, it is important to understand the two requirements for kingship in the Hebrew Scriptures. These were developed after the division of the kingdom after the death of Solomon.…
One was applicable to the southern Kingdom of Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem, while the other was applicable to the northern Kingdom of Israel, with its capital in Samaria. The requirement for the throne of Judah was Davidic descendancy. No one was allowed to sit on David’s throne unless he was a member of the house of David. So when there was a conspiracy to do away with the house of David (Isaiah 7:5-6), God warned that any such conspiracy was doomed to failure (Isaiah 8:9-15).
The requirement for the throne of Israel was prophetic sanction or divine appointment. Anyone who attempted to rule on Samaria’s throne without prophetic sanction was assassinated (1 Kings 11:26-39; 15:28-30; 16:1-4, 11-15; 21:21-29; 2 Kings 9:6-10; 10:29-31; 14 8-12).
With the background of these two biblical requirements for kingship and what is stated in the two New Testament genealogies, the question of Jesus’ right to the throne of David can be resolved.
In his genealogy, Matthew breaks with Jewish tradition and custom. He mentions the names of four women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba (who is the one to whom the pronoun “her” in verse six refers). It was contrary to Jewish practice to name women in a genealogy. The Talmud states, “A mother’s family is not to be called a family.” Even the few women Luke does mention were not the most prominent women in the genealogy of Yeshua. He could have mentioned Sarah, but did not. However, Matthew has a reason for naming these four and no others.
First, they were all Gentiles. This is obvious with Tamar, Rahab and Ruth. It was probably true of Bathsheba, since her first husband, Uriah, was a Hittite. Here Matthew hints at something he makes clear later: that while the main purpose of the coming of Jesus was to save the lost sheep of the house of Israel, the Gentiles would also benefit from his coming. Second, three of these women were guilty of sexual sins. Bathsheba was guilty of adultery, Rahab was guilty of prostitution and Tamar was guilty of incest. Again, Matthew only hints at a point he later clarifies: that the purpose of the Messiah’s coming was to save sinners. While this fits into the format of Old Testament genealogy, it is not Matthew’s main point.
Matthew’s genealogy also breaks with tradition in that he skips names. He traces the line of Joseph, the step-father of Jesus, by going back into history and working toward his own time. He starts tracing the line with Abraham (verse 2) and continues to David (verse 6). Out of David’s many sons, Solomon is chosen (verse 6), and the line is then traced to King Jeconiah (verse 11), one of the last kings before the Babylonian captivity. From Jeconiah (verse 12), the line is traced to Joseph (verse 16). Joseph was a direct descendant of David through Solomon, but also through Jeconiah. The “Jeconiah link” is significant in Matthew’s genealogy because of the special curse pronounced on Jeconiah in Jeremiah 22:24-30:
As I live,” declares the LORD,
“even though Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim
king of Judah were a signet ring on my right
hand, yet I would pull you off…
“Is this man Jeconiah 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?
“O land, land, land, Hear the word of the LORD!!
“Thus says the LORD, ‘Write this man [Jeconiah] 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.’
No descendant of Jeconiah would have the right to the throne of David. Until Jeremiah, the first requirement for messianic lineage was to be of the house of David. With Jeremiah, it was limited still further. Now one had to be not only of the house of David, but apart from Jeconiah.
According to Matthew’s genealogy, Joseph had the blood of Jeconiah in his veins. He was not qualified to sit on David’s throne. He was not the heir apparent. This would also mean that no real son of Joseph would have the right to claim the throne of David. Therefore if Jesus were the real son of Joseph, he would have been disqualified from sitting on David’s throne. Neither could he claim the right to David’s throne by virtue of his adoption by Joseph, since Joseph was not the heir apparent.
The purpose of Matthew’s genealogy, then, is to show why Yeshua could not be king if he were really Joseph’s son. The purpose was not to show the royal line. For this reason, Matthew starts his Gospel with the genealogy, presents the Jeconiah problem, and then proceeds with the account of the virgin birth which, from Matthew’s viewpoint, is the solution to the Jeconiah problem. In summary, Matthew deduces that if Jesus were really Joseph’s son, he could not claim to sit on David’s throne because of the Jeconiah curse; but Jesus was not Joseph’s son, for he was born of the virgin Miriam (Matthew 1:18-25).
Unlike Matthew, Luke follows strict Jewish procedure and custom in that he omits no names and mentions no women. However, if by Jewish custom one could not mention the name of a woman, but wished to trace her line, how would one do so? He would use the name of her husband. (Possible Old Testament precedents for this practice are Ezra 2:61 and Nehemiah 7:63.) That would raise a second question: If someone studied a genealogy, how would he know whether the genealogy were that of the husband or that of the wife, since in either case the husband’s name would be used? The answer is not difficult; the problem lies with the English language.
In English it is not good grammar to use a definite article (“the”) before a proper name (“the” Matthew, “the” Luke, “the” Miriam): however, it is quite permissible in Greek grammar. In the Greek text of Luke’s genealogy, every single name mentioned has the Greek definite article “the” with one exception: the name of Joseph (Luke 3:23). Someone reading the original would understand by the missing definite article from Joseph’s name that this was not really Joseph’s genealogy, but his wife Miriam’s.
Furthermore, although many translations of Luke 3:23 read: “…being supposedly the son of Joseph, the son of Eli…,” because of the missing Greek definite article before the name of Joseph, that same verse could be translated as follows: “Being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph the son of Heli…”.1 In other words, the final parenthesis could be expanded so that the verse reads that although Yeshua was “supposed” or assumed to be the descendant of Joseph, he was really the descendant of Heli. Heli was the father of Miriam. The absence of Miriam’s name is quite in keeping with the Jewish practices on genealogies. The Jerusalem Talmud recognized this genealogy to be that of Miriam and not Joseph and refers to Miriam as the daughter of Heli (Hagigah 2:2).
Also in contrast to Matthew, Luke begins his genealogy with his own time and goes back into history all the way to Adam. It comes to the family of David in versees 31-32. However, the son of David involved in this genealogy is not Solomon but Nathan. So, like Joseph, Miriam was a member of the house of David. But unlike Joseph, she came from David’s son, Nathan, not Solomon. Miriam was a member of the house of David apart from Jeconiah. Since Jesus was Miriam’s son, he too was a member of the house of David, apart from Jeconiah.
In this way Jesus fulfilled the biblical requirement for kingship. Since Luke’s genealogy did not include Jeconiah’s line, he began his Gospel with the virgin birth, and only later, in describing Yeshua’s public ministry, recorded his genealogy.
However, Jesus was not the only member of the house of David apart from Jeconiah. There were a number of other descendants who could claim equality with Yeshua to the throne of David, for they too did not have Jeconiah’s blood in their veins. Why Jesus and not one of the others? At this point the second biblical requirement for kingship, that of divine appointment, comes into the picture. Of all the members of the house of David apart from Jeconiah, only one received divine appointment. Luke 1:30-33 states:
And the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Miriam; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb, and bear a son, and you shall name Him Yeshua. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High: and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and His kingdom will have no end.’
On what grounds then could Jesus claim the throne of David? He was a member of the house of David apart from Jeconiah. He alone received divine appointment to that throne: “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David.”
While Matthew’s genealogy showed why Yeshua could not be king if he really were Joseph’s son, Luke’s genealogy shows why Yeshua could be king. When he returns, he will be king.
Two things may be noted by way of conclusion. First, many rabbinic objections to the messiahship of Jesus are based on his genealogy. The argument goes, “Since Jesus was not a descendant of David through his father, he cannot be Messiah and King.” But the Messiah was supposed to be different. As early as Genesis 3:15, it was proposed that the Messiah would be reckoned after the “seed of the woman,” although this went contrary to the biblical norm. The necessity for this exception to the rule became apparent when Isaiah 7:14 prophesied that the Messiah would be born of a virgin: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call his name Immanuel.” Whereas all others receive their humanity from both father and mother, the Messiah would receive his humanity entirely from his mother. Whereas Jewish nationality and tribal identity were normally determined by the father, with the Messiah it would be different. Since he was to have no human father, his nationality and his tribal identity would come entirely from his mother. True, this is contrary to the norm, but so is a virgin birth. With the Messiah, things would be different.
In addition, these genealogies present a fourfold portrait of the messianic person through four titles. In Matthew 1:1 he is called the Son of David and the Son of Abraham. In Luke 3:38 he is called the Son of Adam and the Son of God. As the Son of David, it means that Jesus is king. As the Son of Abraham, it means that Jesus is a Jew. As the Son of Adam, it means that Jesus is a man. As the Son of God, it means that Jesus is God. This fourfold portrait of the messianic person as presented by the genealogies is that of the Jewish God-Man King. Could the Messiah be anyone less?
Endnote 1A.T. Robertson, A Harmony of the Gospels.
The above article is one solution to the problem of the curse on Jeconiah. For an alternate solution, see “The Problem of the Curse on Jeconiah in Relation to the Genealogy of Jesus”