THE BOOK OF MATTHEW
Lesson 2 - Chapter 1
The worldview from which we are going to study the Gospel of Matthew is this: Matthew (whether that was the author's actual name or not) was a Jewish Believer. This is an essential starting point because for centuries the institutional Church has tried to push the narrative that the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) were written by gentile Believers for gentile Believers. The Earliest of Church Fathers Papias, Irenaeus, and Eusibius record that Matthew wrote his Gospel at the time that Paul was preaching in Rome, so that would place it in the mid-60's A.D. no more than 30 years after Christ's ministry. It also means it was composed and in circulation among the Believing congregations prior to the Romans besieging Jerusalem and destroying the Temple. Very likely this was the first Gospel account written of the 4 Gospels we find that begin the New Testament.
Although we have some early fragments of Matthew's Gospel dating back to the late 2nd or early 3rd century, they are not the original documents nor are they complete. The earliest complete copy we have comes from the 4th century, and is included in what is called the Codex Sinaiticus. All of the earliest known copies (or even just fragments of copies) are written in Greek; however, there is actual written historical evidence from these same earliest Church Fathers forthrightly stating that Matthew first wrote his Gospel in his own native language, Hebrew (perhaps it was Aramaic, a cousin language to Hebrew), before it was soon thereafter translated into Greek. This says that Matthew's intended audience was Jews; another key to our study.
Therefore Matthew's Gospel is (in my estimation) the most Jewish of the Synoptic Gospels, containing a number of Jewish cultural expressions (called Hebraisms in the academic world), which are typically somewhat obscured or masked because of their translation into foreign languages (such as English), but also because while Greek is a very precise language, at times it doesn't have the vocabulary that can accurately translate Hebrew concepts and their nuances to the Greek language and culture. It also means that some things that Matthew put into his Gospel that were inherently understood by Jews in that era would have been foreign and confusing to gentiles, and it remains especially so to the modern Church that is so many centuries removed from both the time and the culture of the 1st century Jews. Add in a deeply embedded anti-Semitism within Church traditions, doctrines and allegorical teachings, and we have the perfect recipe for contorting Matthew to fit whatever meaning any particular Church branch would like it to mean.
Parables play a crucial role in Matthew and when we come to Yeshua's teachings using parables we're going to talk extensively about them: their nature and their place in 1st century Jewish society. Just know this much before we get started: Christ didn't invent the literary style of parables. Parables were common and a mainstay within Jewish culture for a very long time before Jesus and were a regular feature used for teaching Torah principles.
Because Matthew shaped his Gospel for reading by 1st century Jews, we're going to spend much time learning about the mindset of those Jews and their world in the Holy Land; but also the entirely different world where the bulk of them lived dispersed into the gentle nations throughout Asia, Europe, and Northern Africa. We'll study about how their religion was practiced at that time, their societal norms and nuances, and even what it was like for them living under Roman rule. These are among the several necessary ingredients that help to build the much needed context for properly understanding and interpreting Matthew's Gospel. All too often especially Christ's words, and particularly as they were spoken in His parables, have been misunderstood over the centuries because they have been filtered through Western gentile eyes instead of Eastern Jewish eyes. My goal is for us to understand the meaning of Matthew's words just as they would have been understood by the common Jewish folk in his time.
Open your Bibles to Matthew chapter 1.
READ MATTHEW CHAPTER 1 all
For those who studied the Torah with me, one of the things you learned was that those long, tedious genealogies we encountered, full of impossible to pronounce names, carried more meaning and importance than a casual reading of them would imply. Genealogies in the Bible era were used for different purposes than we use them today. For us genealogies are primarily a way to chart precise family trees. The information they supply has the purpose of telling us exactly who we are related to and perhaps where our ancestors came from. Hebrew genealogies, on the other hand, were used for different and varying purposes depending on the circumstances. For instance they were regularly used to prove inheritance rights that almost always involved land. Or they were meant as a bridge to connect a living person to a highly revered person who lived centuries earlier thus giving the contemporary person an elevated social status. Sometimes they were used to provide evidence of regal association and provide a basis to that person's claim of the right to rule. Not surprisingly Mathew's Gospel begins with such a list and it too had its own purpose and agenda. This was not an attempt at subterfuge or spin; it was the norm for that era when presenting the credentials of a very important person.
The second word of the opening verse of Matthew is in almost all English Bible versions "genealogy ". Webster's Dictionary says that genealogy is "a line of descent traced continuously from an ancestor". Therefore when we read the word "genealogy" to us it means that this list of names is but a simple table of distant family from the past that traces without interruption from a beginning ancestor to Yeshua of Nazareth. However in Greek the word is "genesis"; yes, the same word used as the title for the first book of the Bible (or more appropriately in the case of Matthew and his era, the name of the first book of the Torah). Some scholars will argue that we are to take this word "genesis" in the sense of a "birth record". However that is certainly not how it was meant when pointing especially to the 1st book of the Torah and the Creation account. Rather (as we put on our 1st century Jewish mindset) a theme that flows throughout the Gospel accounts and all of the New Testament is that the advent of Christ is to be viewed first and foremost as the beginning of a re-creation: a second genesis. Paul advances this theme is several of his books:
CJB 2 Corinthians 5:17 Therefore, if anyone is united with the Messiah, he is a new creation- the old has passed; look, what has come is fresh and new!
John's Gospel follows along even though his doesn't begin with a genealogy; rather he opens his story of Messiah by making a direct connection of His advent with the 1st and original genesis. That is, for John, while Yeshua is the inaugurator of a 2nd genesis, a re-creation (that we find in the New Testament), He was also there to inaugurate the 1st genesis, the original creation (that we find in the Torah).
CJB John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 All things came to be through him, and without him nothing made had being.
Paul in Romans chapter 5 expands that connection as he makes Christ to be the epitome of a 2nd Adam. W.D. Davies in his enormous, 3 volume 2000 page commentary on Matthew says that the best possible interpretation and translation of the opening few words of Matthew should be: "Book of the New Genesis wrought by Jesus Christ, son of David, Son of Abraham." This concept of Christ inaugurating an actual (not a metaphorical) 2nd genesis, a full-on re-creation, is brought home to us all the more in final book of the New Testament: the Book of Revelation.
CJB Revelation 21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had passed away, and the sea was no longer there. 2 Also I saw the holy city, New Yerushalayim, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 I heard a loud voice from the throne say, "See! God's Sh'khinah is with mankind, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and he himself, God-with-them, will be their God.
4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will no longer be any death; and there will no longer be any mourning, crying or pain; because the old order has passed away." 5 Then the One sitting on the throne said, "Look! I am making everything new!" Also he said, "Write, 'These words are true and trustworthy!'"
Because Matthew was a Jewish Believer, then His opening point is also to demonstrate that Yeshua meets all the requirements of the Torah and the Tanakh (the Old Testament) to be the Messiah of God the Hebrew people have longed for, since according to the Scriptures the true Messiah must be a descendant of Abraham, Jacob, Judah, Jessie, and David. Notice also how the opening verse is like a preamble that introduces the genealogy. That is, Yeshua's identity is summed up as simply the son of David, son of Abraham. Only thereafter (starting in verse 2) does the actual generation by generation accounting of Christ's ancestors begin. By saying that Yeshua is the son of David, the intent is prove that He is royalty of the tribe of Judah through David, which makes Him of the proper family line to rule. By saying also that He is the son of Abraham, it makes a firm connection that He is a full-fledged Hebrew and therefore eligible to bring about the promise God made to Abraham in Genesis 12 that through Abraham all the families of the earth will be blessed. So we find Matthew beginning his table of ancestors with Abraham, the founder of the special set apart people for God, and so the list of Christ's ancestors is a descending list (oldest first) that begins with Father Abraham and ends with Messiah Yeshua.
The other genealogy of Jesus that we find in the New Testament is present in the Gospel of Luke. It must not be overlooked that Luke's genealogy begins with Yeshua and works in ascending order (newest first), which ends with Adam and then God. The usual Hebrew (and thus biblical) way of presenting a genealogy is one that is organized in descending order. Genesis 4:17 begins the Bible's first genealogy; it is given in descending order and the Hebrew tradition of presenting a genealogy beginning with the oldest first seems to have been taken from that. Luke, the writer of the Gospel named for him, is regularly said to be Dr. Luke, the gentile companion of Paul (that is very likely so). Therefore I find it informative that when he supplies a genealogy of Christ, he does it in a very un-Hebrew way; he writes it in ascending order (that is, backwards from the Jewish norm). Further, while Luke endeavors to connect Christ to the ancestor of every human..... Hebrew and gentile...... which is Adam, Matthew seeks to connect Christ to His Hebrew origins, so he begins with the undisputed Father of the Hebrews, Abraham. This is more evidence that while Luke was probably a gentile, Matthew was indeed a Jew.
From an overall standpoint, we should notice that the ancestor list in Matthew's Gospel is divided into 3 equal parts of 14 generations each. So Matthew has created a carefully ordered structure in his genealogy that is not found in Luke's. Between Abraham and David he lists 14 generations. Then from David to the Babylonian Exile are 14 more generations. And finally from the Babylonian Exile to Yeshua are the remaining 14 generations giving us a total of 42. Without doubt the structure Matthew used is meant to convey some kind of meaning, because the list of ancestors is incomplete and skips generations. Before we explore that, I'd like to emphasize something I told you a few minutes ago: the Hebrews did NOT construct genealogies with the same purpose as it is for modern Westerners. Ancient Hebrew genealogies were most often intended to communicate a meaning with an agenda. They were not meant to convey a precise all-inclusive record of a family tree (although there were times, such as in certain chapters of Chronicles, when they were indeed meant primarily as a more complete family history).
There are a number of scholarly theories behind the reason for Matthew's structure of Christ's genealogy, and how we cannot help but notice its rather neat mathematical basis. Some think he simply borrowed it, as is, from a pre-existing record. Others think Matthew intended to connect it to Daniel's 7 weeks of years (490 years). If one assigns a value of 35 years as a biblical generation (which I think is a reach) and multiplies it by 14 it adds up to 490. Another theory says that since a moon cycle is 28 days (which isn't really true, it's 29 1/2) with 14 days waxing and 14 days waning, then the structure of the genealogy characterizes the ebb and flow of Hebrew history that we find among the persons that form the 3 groups of 14 generations. I could go on with a few other theories but prefer not to because the one theory that I think acknowledges the mathematical basis of Matthew's structure in a way familiar to 1st century Jews is that the foundation of it is Hebrew gematria; that is, the biblical meaning of numbers.
It is hard to ignore that David's Hebrew name consists of 3 consonants and has a gematria value of 14. Even more, David's name is 14th on Matthew's list. So what exactly is Matthew trying to communicate to us? While I'm not 100% certain of it, it seems to me that David is the key to it all because all throughout the NT Yeshua is said to be the son of David. And in the Old Testament (the only Bible known to Matthew) as well as in many Rabbinical writings, the Messiah must be the son of David. So I do think that the mathematical structure of David's name expressed in Hebrew gematria may well be the best explanation for the pattern for Yeshua's genealogy used by Matthew.
We should also not overlook the use of the number 42 in the Bible. Matthew exposits 42 generations (3 X 14 = 42) from Abraham to Yeshua. The prophet Daniel (upon whom so much of Revelation is based) speaks of the End Times and the rule of the Anti-Christ using the key numbers 1260 days, 3 1/2 years, and 42 months. 1260 days and 3 1/2 years are the same as 42 months. Did Matthew intend to communicate a connection between Yeshua's genealogy, David's name, Daniel's End Times prophecy, and so the purpose for His coming? As of now (at least for me) it is the most likely of all theories put forward as it corresponds well to actual biblical information, and the Jewish culture and mindset of the 1st century. A Jew of that day (especially the more learned ones) would probably notice the structure at the beginning of the Gospel in those terms using the numbers 3, 14, and 42 because due to the oppression of Rome, Daniel's prophecies were hugely popular as well as were Messianic expectations running high. During that era it was believed that the End Times of Daniel and the coming of the Messiah occurred in tandem. So it all could have worked together quite seamlessly in the minds of Jews at that time; especially Jewish followers of Christ. For gentiles? Not so much.
There's a few interesting and pertinent things to notice within this genealogy. One of the most obvious is the mention of the Babylonian exile. By highlighting this catastrophic event Matthew uses Christ's genealogy as a kind of salvation history lesson. The Babylonian Exile was a game changer for Jews. I say "for Jews" because 130 years or so prior to Babylon capturing Judah, Assyria had conquered the northern region of the divided Kingdom of Israel that was occupied by 10 of the 12 Israelite tribes. Those 10 tribes were deported and scattered around Asia and Northern Africa and in time that event gained the mythical title of the 10 lost tribes of Israel. The only Israelite tribes that remained free and in their own land were those in the southern half of the Kingdom: Judah and most of Benjamin. These are the people who came to be called Jews. So it was the Jews (and not all of Israel) who were captives of Babylon.
This event was seen by the Jews as a terrible judgment upon them by God, because even His own Temple was destroyed, which meant that they had no means to atone for their sins or to commune with God. It was an event that would forever change the community of Jews because when King Cyrus of Persia effectively rescued the Jews from Babylon and allowed them to freely return to their homeland, even to rebuild their precious Temple, only about 5% of those exiled made the trip home. The remainder willingly chose to live scattered about the countless gentile communities in the Persian Empire. Therefore whereas to the Jewish people the term "salvation" had always meant deliverance from the oppression of a gentile conqueror, upon the advent of Christ the word took on new significance as meaning deliverance from sin and eternal death.
Another important factor is the naming of 4 women in Matthew's genealogy of Yeshua; the inclusion of women in a Hebrew genealogy is rare. The 4 were Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (called "the wife of Uriah" in the text). Tamar was the daughter in law of Judah (the founder of the tribe of Judah) who disguised herself as a prostitute and produced twin sons with him. Rahab is the inn keeper/prostitute of Jericho, who betrayed her own people to help Israel and Joshua conquer Jericho as they began their invasion of Canaan. Ruth is the Moabite widow who gave up her allegiance to her own people and gods, and joined herself to Israel and their God. And finally Bathsheba, whom David had a sordid affair with and also arranged to have her husband Uriah killed, so that David could have her as his own (Solomon was Bathsheba's most famous offspring). While we can't be 100% certain regarding Bathsheba..... Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth were all gentiles. Or, perhaps another way of looking at it is that these women BEGAN life as gentiles before joining Israel and converting. It is likely that Bathsheba was also a foreigner since her husband, Uriah, was a Hittite. So the mention of 4 female gentile ancestors of Christ is meant to catch our attention.... and especially to catch the attention of 1st century Jews. But in what way and to what end?
Assuming that Matthew's genealogy structure is indeed based on Hebrew gematria, and because numbers play such an important role in communicating a message in the Jewish community, we should assume that since it was exactly 4 gentile women included (and not some other number) that the meaning of the number 4 in the Jewish mind has to be considered. And sure enough, the number 4 in Hebrew gematria indicates universality; it means the whole world since there are 4 directions on a compass and since in that era the Hebrew view of the structure of our planet was that the earth was flat and square and literally had 4 corners (hence the phrase "to the 4 corners of the earth"). So the message seems to be that although Yeshua is thoroughly Hebrew, Jewish, of the royal lineage of David, and born of a Jewish woman in the Holy Land, deep down in His being and essence there are traces of gentile connections that cannot be ignored. And even more interesting is that except for Ruth, the background of the other 3 women mentioned is less than moral and upstanding.
After a long list of Yeshua's ancestors, verse 16 says:
Matthew 1:16 CJB 16 Ya'akov was the father of Yosef the husband of Miryam, from whom was born the Yeshua who was called the Messiah.
So Matthew is careful to make Joseph Mary's husband, but NOT the biological father of her child. At the same time, he makes Mary Jesus' biological mother. It is also informative that Matthew refers to Yeshua as "the Yeshua who was called the Messiah". Why "the Yeshua"? Because Yeshua was one of the most popular male names in the Holy Land in that era and it was necessary for Matthew to be clear about which one of many hundreds if not thousands of Yeshuas he was referring to.
Matthew, after explaining his genealogical structure of 3 sets of 14 generations each, in verse 18 jumps right into the birth story of Yeshua. And immediately Matthew takes on perhaps the most controversial aspect of Yeshua's birth circumstances if not of His entire life. Matthew explains that although Yosef and Miryam were engaged, they were not yet married. Yet, Miryam had become pregnant. This was a terrible scandal within the Jewish community.
The CJB uses the word "engaged" to describe the relationship between Yosef and Miryam; however a better word is betrothed. The word engaged in the modern Western world doesn't carry the same sense as the word betrothed in ancient times. Engaged is an arrangement whereby a man and a woman agree to at some point become married. Engagements are broken all the time and other than the typical emotional toll it causes, little other harm is done. Betrothal is another matter altogether.
Betrothal in Hebrew culture was a solemn promise sealed with a commitment in which the male and female bound themselves together through a marriage contract that was signed, sealed and delivered at the moment of betrothal. So the way we think of marriage in modern times in the West occurred at the time of betrothal among the Hebrews in ancient times. The only thing left to be done that in Hebrew culture was called "marriage" was when the bride moved into the home of the groom and they consummated their union. It was the norm that after the father of the bride agreed to the formal marriage contract, the woman was now called "wife". Even so, she typically continued to live under her father's roof for about another year. The union was considered to be so completed that if the betrothed husband were to die, the woman was considered a widow. So essentially the physical consummation was little more than a private ritual. Since the woman was already legally a "wife", then cheating during betrothal was adultery and not merely an indiscretion as it is treated today in the West. So the fact that she was pregnant during the betrothal period (with Joseph certainly knowing it wasn't his child) put Mary in danger of being executed. Typically if there was sufficient cause, a betrothed husband would have given his wife a divorce document (a get) to end a betrothal.
It cannot be overstated how serious it would be for a betrothed girl like Mary to become pregnant. The Mishnah in the Tractate Sanhedrin, calls for 4 kinds of death penalty to be administered in descending order of seriousness of the offense: stoning, burning, beheading, and strangling. A man who has sex with a betrothed woman is subject to stoning. After the girl moves in with her husband, sex between that girl and another man brings death by strangling. I think it is interesting to note that within a couple of centuries after Yeshua's day, the incidences of adultery during the betrothal period became so many that the betrothal and marriage ceremonies were combined so as to eliminate the typical 1 year period in between the two to lessen the risk of a betrothed husband or wife committing this grave sin that would demand their deaths.
Matthew says, with no further explanation, that Mary's pregnancy was a work of the Holy Spirit. That it, it was miraculous pregnancy and she had done nothing wrong. And the proof Matthew offers is that although betrothed, Mary and Joseph were not yet living together. So strong were Hebrew traditions in the 1st century (and before) about how the marriage process and timing worked, that there are few recorded instances of a betrothed woman having a fling with a man that is not her betrothed husband, and just as few flings with her betrothed husband prior to them moving in together. It would have brought enormous shame upon the woman's father's household as well as upon the betrothed couple. Thus while it was no doubt quite a different story within the many pagan gentile communities of the world such that they wouldn't really understand the gravity of the situation or the seriousness of the Hebrew marriage contract, the Jews reading Matthew's story would have immediately understood. It would only be an issue of whether they would believe Miryam was pregnant by the Holy Spirit or not.
One other matter is also claimed and thereby settled. By Jewish tradition, even though the unborn child is not Joseph's, he is the legal father. So there is no conflict should Yeshua be called a son of Joseph; actual biological relationship is not required when the father of the family accepts a child as his own.
The next verse says that when it was clear that his betrothed was pregnant, Joseph made a decision not to pursue a public action but to quietly put her away. The reason he did this is because (depending on the Bible version) he was either a just or a righteous man. Very often just or righteous is, when preached about, defined as being kind or merciful. Rather, for Jews just and righteous held the meaning of law abiding. And law abiding meant being observant of the only Law that mattered to Jews: the Law of Moses. Here is the biblical law that addresses this situation.
Deuteronomy 22:23-24 CJB 23 "If a girl who is a virgin is engaged to a man, and another man comes upon her in the town and has sexual relations with her; 24 you are to bring them both out to the gate of the city and stone them to death- the girl because she didn't cry out for help, there in the city, and the man because he has humiliated his neighbor's wife. In this way you will put an end to such wickedness among you.
The very public nature of an execution held at the city gate was to bring maximum shame upon the criminals and their families. It is difficult to explain the extreme level of trouble this brings to a family. We must not think that shame is the same as "ashamed" or "embarrassed" as we think of it today. Shame was (and remains in the Middle East) a detested social status, not an emotion. Having gained such an undesirable status, ridding oneself or one's family of it was very difficult and it dominated that family's daily life. Being shunned by most of the community was but the beginning. Often the only way to atone for family shame and regain family honor was to take revenge on the one or ones who were deemed to have caused it. This could go on not just for years but for generations.
So Joseph decided not to accuse his betrothed of marital infidelity, the remedy being to out her publicly and to shame her publicly in order to avoid himself being shamed. Rather he would quietly give a letter of divorce to Miryam's father (she was still living at home) and end the betrothal, handling the matter discreetly and privately. I want to comment here that while one of the several purposes of Yeshua's speeches was to teach the Jewish people that while Torah observance was the right and holy thing to do, doing it mechanically or woodenly, without love and without understanding the spirit of the Torah laws, perverted it. This is why when He was famously asked what the most important of the Torah Laws were, Jesus quoted the Shema found in Deuteronomy chapter 6. Taken from verse 5 Christ said:
Deuteronomy 6:5 CJB 5 and you are to love ADONAI your God with all your heart, all your being and all your resources.
But He also included and quoted Leviticus 19:18:
Leviticus 19:18 CJB 18 Don't take vengeance on or bear a grudge against any of your people; rather, love your neighbor as yourself; I am ADONAI.
Joseph understood the spirit of the Law of Moses, and knew that even in this gut wrenching circumstance he was to act in love and not vengeance; even so he was to obey the Torah. So he risked his own reputation and having shame being brought upon himself on account of his betrothed wife being pregnant without any believable explanation. He acted exactly how the Lord wants us to act as we go about trying to be observant of His laws and commands in our time. Not by abrogating or ignoring them; and not by applying our own sense of mercy or justice to any given situation. But rather by doing the commandments based upon the foundational principle for all the commandments just as Yeshua said to do.
Joseph, on older man, was not one to decide and act impulsively or strictly on emotion. So verse 20 says that he was thinking about all this when he had a visitation from an angel. I can only imagine all the thoughts flying through his mind. Would this fine upstanding young country girl really commit adultery; and right under her father's nose? Would she really come up with some lame lie that while admitting being pregnant at the same time insisting she was still a faithful virgin? What was the cost going to be to him personally if he more or less let her off the hook? There was no hiding this; there is so much shame involved that someone is going to have to bear it. And if he won't avail himself of the justice system that would condemn her but at the same time leave him free from having shame heaped upon himself, is that prudent.... or even fair?
In a dream the angel brought Yosef a message that had to be troubling in itself. I suppose I have to ask myself the question: if I had a dream in which it seemed that an angel spoke to me about a very troubling matter; and what he said seemed too fantastic to believe..... would I believe it? Perhaps it's not a fair question for our time. In Yeshua's day and in earlier times, divine revelations given in dreams were well accepted and not particularly unusual. We read of them in Genesis and in Daniel. We hear about them in relation to Job. The Apocryphal books that were written after the close of the Old Testament and prior to the writings of the New spoke about divine dreams and messages from God. Perhaps it is our own modern skepticism that shuts the door to them in our time. Or is it that the time for this experience is not right now? In fact there is biblical evidence that we are currently in an era of dream, vision, and prophesying dormancy, because in the Book of Acts chapter 2, we read that Peter tells the crowd at that special Shavuot (Pentecost) when the Holy Spirit came in a most spectacular fashion:
Acts 2:17 CJB 17 'ADONAI says: "In the Last Days, I will pour out from my Spirit upon everyone. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.
Peter is actually quoting from the Prophet Joel because Peter must have believed that what was happening indicated entry into those prophesied Last Days. He was wrong in that he was not living in the time of this prophetic fulfillment of Joel. But what I would like you to take away from this is that clearly Joel's and Peter's statements seem to say that that which had not been happening for a long time, will suddenly start happening when we enter the Last Days. In other words, this is a divine sign we can be looking for.
Next week we'll begin by examining what the divine dream message was and how Joseph dealt with it.