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As important as Jesus' familial background may have been, that was not quite what a reader who read the genealogy would emphasize (see 1:18-25). In this section Matthew is most interested in Jesus' spiritual ancestry in Israel's history (Johnson 1988:209-10). The names in Matthew's genealogy-like Judah, Ruth, David, Uzziah, Hezekiah, Josiah-would immediately evoke for Matthew's audience a whole range of stories they had learned about their heritage from the time of their childhood. By evoking great heroes of the past like David and Josiah, Matthew reminds his audience of the ultimate hero of Israel's history to whom all those stories pointed.
Matthew makes this point clear in the opening words of his genealogy: a record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, literally, the "book of the genesis of Jesus Christ" (1:1). Matthew gets this phrase from passages in Genesis ("the book of the generations of" in Gen 2:4; 5:1; 10:1, translated "account of" in the NIV), but his use of the phrase contrasts starkly with the use in Genesis. Genealogies like those in Genesis typically list a person's descendants after this phrase, rather than his ancestors. Matthew's point here is profound: so much is Jesus the focal point of history that his ancestors depend on him for their meaning. In other words, God sovereignly directed the history of Israel and preserved David's line because of his plan to send Jesus (Gundry 1982:10, 13; Patte 1987:18).
As the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 unify history between major figures (Adam, Noah and Abraham; see Johnson 1988:78), Matthew's genealogy unifies the defining periods of Israel's history and points them to Jesus. Jewish people also viewed genealogies as a testimony of God's providence in their ancestry. Many people regarded ancestry and the joining of couples as a sign of divine rule (for example, Epict. Disc. 1.12.28-29). Jewish people in particular believed that husbands and wives came together by an act of divine providence; some later rabbis even called it a miracle as great as the parting of the Red Sea (b. Sanhedrin 22a). History is important: it defines our identity and shapes our preparation for the future; and because we are God's people, Israel's history in the Bible has more to say to us about our eternal identity than does the heritage of any other culture we may claim as our own.
The Gentile mission. Through four interracial marriages Matthew teaches us about missions and racial reconciliation (1:3, 5-6). While Matthew's most obvious point is the connection of Jesus with Israel's history, another point would also strike his biblically sensitive readers forcefully. Genealogies need include only men (those in 1 Chron exemplify this pattern), so the unexpected appearance of four women draws attention to them. Had Matthew merely meant to evoke the history of Israel in a general way, one would have expected him to have named the matriarchs of Israel: Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel. Or to evoke supernatural births as a prelude to Mary's, he could cite Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel, whose wombs God opened. Instead he names four women whose primary common link is their apparent Gentile ancestry: Tamar of Canaan, Rahab of Jericho, Ruth the Moabite and the ex-wife of Uriah the Hittite.
In a world divided by races and cultures, an interracial marriage can appear scandalous, an act of treachery. The traditional white prejudice in some parts of the United States against black-white intermarriage is rooted in the history of slavery and racism (see Bennett 1966:242-73). Yet a genuinely divinely ordained interracial marriage can testify that Christ is a bond that runs deeper than race. One Tamil-Sinhalese couple in racially torn Sri Lanka declared, "Our marriage crosses the ethnic lines that divide our nation" (Williams 1992:10). By contrast, many North American Christians fail to actively pursue even interracial friendships.
Jewish people regarded genealogies as important to establish the purity of their lineage (as in 1 Esdras 5:39-40), yet it is the mixed nature of Jesus' lineage that Matthew purposely highlights. When Matthew cites these four women, he is reminding his readers that three ancestors of King David and the mother of King Solomon were Gentiles. Matthew thus declares that the Gentiles were never an afterthought in God's plan but had been part of his work in history from the beginning. This point fits an emphasis that runs throughout Matthew's Gospel (for example, 2:1; 3:9; 4:15; 8:11; 28:19), that God is not only for people of our own race or culture; we must cross racial and cultural boundaries to evangelize the whole world, humbly learn from other cultures, and serve with our brothers and sisters there.