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Knots in Christ's Family Tree: Untangling the Lord's Lineage

One of our family’s Christmas traditions has always been the reading of the Christmas story from the gospels. We’ve done it every year as long as I can remember. When I was a child, my father read the account from either Matthew or Luke while we sat at his feet. Now I do the reading.

A few years ago while studying through Matthew, I pondered the question of why our family readings of Matthew 1 always start in the middle of the chapter. Matthew begins his account of Christ’s birth with a broad genealogy, but we had never made it a part of our Christmas reading.

Skipping the genealogy in a family reading is understandable, especially when you’ve got small children who are easily bored. I’m the first to admit that the genealogies in Scripture don’t make the most stimulating public readings. But realizing that we were skipping this passage in our Christmas celebration piqued my curiosity, and I began to study Matthew 1:1-17 in earnest. It was spellbinding. Virtually every name in the list reveals some lesson about God’s grace. Together they clearly show how important God’s grace was from generation to generation, as He nurtured and protected the lineage He had chosen to give birth to the Messiah.

A Chronicle of God’s Grace

The genealogies are included in Scripture for that very reason. Not only do they trace the royal line of Israel, but they also outline God’s dealings with His people. They reveal how God’s sovereign hand has ordered human events to fulfill His own purposes despite tremendous obstacles. Mankind’s worst sin, rebellion, and treachery have utterly failed to thwart the grace of God.

The lineage of Judah’s kings went back to David. God’s promise was that David’s offspring would bring forth the One who would deliver Israel and reign as King. In 2 Samuel 7:16, speaking through the prophet Nathan, God promised David, “Your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever.”

What this meant was that any claimant to the throne of Israel had to demonstrate genealogically that he descended from David and was in the line of royalty. Scripture records the infallible and authoritative record of that lineage.

The genealogies had other practical uses in Old Testament Israel. They were often essential for the conducting of important business. Laws governing the buying and selling of property, for instance, were designed to keep internal boundaries intact. Land could not be bought and sold across tribal lines. Therefore a person’s genealogy was required simply to validate the sale of property.

The entire priesthood also depended on genealogies. All Israel’s priests had to be descendants of Levi. After the Babylonian captivity, Ezra used the genealogies to determine which priests had a legitimate claim to office. Those who couldn’t prove their heritage could not serve as priests.

For all those reasons, the genealogies were carefully recorded and guarded. The most important ones were preserved in Scripture. This practice went on for centuries, through the time of Jesus’ birth.

In fact, when the New Testament begins, we find Joseph and Mary going up to be registered according to their own ancestry in Bethlehem, their ancestral home (Luke 2:3-4). The nation still identified people genealogically.

A Look at the Apparent “Contradictions”

Two Genealogies

The two final genealogies in Scripture both trace the lineage of Jesus (Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38). Some see these two genealogies as contradictory. A close look shows they are not. Matthew starts with Abraham and follows the line through David to Jesus via Joseph’s family. Luke starts with Jesus and outlines the genealogy of Mary’s family back through David and all the way back to Adam.

Note that Matthew doesn’t refer to Joseph as Joseph the father of Jesus, but as “the husband of Mary, by whom Jesus was born” (Matthew 1:16). Scripture is clear that Joseph was not the father of Jesus—God was.

Because Jesus had no human father, He couldn’t be a descendant of David except through His mother. Still, the legal right to rule always came through the father’s side, and this was true even in Jesus’ case, because He was legally Joseph’s eldest son. Thus we have two necessary genealogies. Luke shows that through Mary, Jesus was literally a blood descendant of David. Matthew proves that through His adopted father Joseph, Jesus was legally in the royal line. In every way possible, He had the right to rule.

Two Prophecies

In fact, Jesus’ ancestry was an elegant solution to one of the most troubling dilemmas of Old Testament Messianic prophecy. God had cursed the royal line. Jeremiah 22:30 records God’s judgment on Jeconiah, also known as Coniah, or Jehoiachin: “Thus says the Lord, ‘Write this man 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.’”

This does not mean Jeconiah would actually be childless, but rather that the effects of the curse would nullify the birthright. The lineage of kings would end; his children would not be his heirs. His right to rule, as well as all the other privileges of the royal birthright, were permanently taken from him and his descendants. The royal line was in essence terminated, as if Jeconiah had been childless.

God meant business. Jeconiah was indeed the last king in the Davidic line. He was succeeded on the throne of David not by his son, but by his uncle, Zedekiah (2 Kings 24:17). Zedekiah’s reign marked the end of Judah as a kingdom. And so Jeremiah’s prophecy was literally fulfilled. Not one of Jeconiah’s sons or any of their descendants ever again returned to the throne. It was a sad end to the Davidic dynasty.

Jeremiah’s prophecy seems at first to be a glaring contradiction to the Messianic promise. Messiah was to be in the royal line of David, yet that line was effectively ended with Jeconiah. How could these two equally inspired, infallible prophecies both be fulfilled? Messiah had to come from the royal lineage of David and thus be a descendant of Jeconiah. But how could He ever rule as a king without violating the prophecy that no descendant of Jeconiah would ever reign?

The fact is, if Jesus had been the literal son of Joseph, born of his seed, He never could lay claim to the throne of David. He would be under the curse. And yet because He was still the legal son of Joseph, He inherited the right to rule, for He was not under the curse that had been passed down to everyone born in the royal line since the days of Jeconiah.

God’s sovereign orchestration of events to bring His Son into the world is truly marvelous.  

By Tetteh Christian