This coming Sunday is the 4th Sunday of Advent and includes the traditional gospel passage from Matthew in which we encounter the “annunciation” of Jesus’ birth to Joseph. In yesterday’s post we considered the seasonal/liturgical context for the gospel. Today, we look into scriptural context, especially Matthew’s extensive references to Old Testament passages and imagery.
Our gospel passage follows immediately upon Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (1:1-17) – which notably says in v.9, “Jotham the father of Ahaz, Ahaz the father of Hezekiah” – pointing to the first reading for this Sunday of Advent. Our gospel and Matthew’s genealogy are intentionally connected by Matthew. Our translation in Mt 1:1 is
“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”
A more literal translation would be,
“A book of the genesis of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham.”
Matthew could have used other words for “genealogy” or “birth,” but he used this word, which is also the Greek title of the first book of scriptures. Similar wording is in the LXX at Gn 2:4 “This is the book of the genesis of heaven and earth;” and in 5:1 “This is the book of the genesis of human beings. In the day God made Adam, according to the image of God he made him.” Matthew intended a connection between these two sections of chapter 1 and with the first book of scriptures. This is a new beginning, a new creation.
In this new creation there is something different. Throughout verses 1-16a, Matthew has used egennesen 39 times (aorist, active of gennao, which means: when used of the male role = “to beget,” or “to become the father of”; of the female role: “to give birth”). In the last part of v.16 the grammar changes. He does not write, “Joseph begat Jesus,” which we might expect after 39 times; but rather he uses egennethe (aorist, passive of gennao) “the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus who is called the Messiah.” We already have a hint that there is something different about this birth from all those that went before.
The genealogy at the beginning of the Gospel establishes Jesus’ place within the Jewish tradition. Jesus is the son of Abraham and of David as well as the continuation of David’s line after the exile of 587 BC. Israel’s history is traced from its beginning with Abraham (v.2), through its high point with King David (v.6) and its low point in the Babylonian Exile (v.11), to its fulfillment in Jesus the Messiah (v.16). Thus the genealogy of Jesus stresses the continuity of Jesus with the great figures of God’s people (“son of Abraham … son of David”), and it also prepares for the very irregular and indeed unique birth narrated in verses to follow.
Image credit: Dream of St Joseph, c. 1625–1630, by Gerard Seghers | Kunsthistorisches Museum | Public Domain