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Matthew in Slow Motion 2


Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers (Matthew 1:2)

Ἀβραὰμ ἐγέννησεν τὸν Ἰσαάκ, Ἰσαὰκ δὲ ἐγέννησεν τὸν Ἰακώβ, Ἰακὼβ δὲ ἐγέννησεν τὸν Ἰούδαν καὶ τοὺς ἀδελφοὺς αὐτοῦ

As this year the Sunday Gospel readings’ focus is on St Matthew’s Gospel, I thought I’d start some of my personal study and Lectio Divina with that Gospel. [NB. I am using ‘Matthew’ as a convenient term for the author of the first Gospel in the order of the Christian canon]. The previous post in this series is here.

The first verse (Matt 1:1) functions as a heading, echoing historic language (eg. Gen 5:1).

Jesus’ birth record, for this most “Jewish” of the four Gospels, traces back (through David) to Abraham who has been mentioned in verse 1 and begins verse 2: “Abraham was the father of Isaac“. The immediate question that springs to mind is: Why is Matthew starting with Abraham? One guess: the covenant made with Abraham established the Hebrew people as God’s chosen people, but the promise included that this would be a blessing to all nations (Gen 12:1-3; 2:18). So here, in the first few words of Matthew’s Gospel, we may already have a clue to the direction of this work – the expansion to all people of the promise to Abraham will now be realised in Jesus.

OK; so here comes Matthew’s dysfunctional family background list of Jesus. No, it’s not really a genealogy of Jesus – as far as a biological genealogy goes, this one ends up at Joseph (Matt 1:16) who, in Matthew, is explicitly not the biological father of Jesus (Matt 1:18-25).

And, let’s remind ourselves what’s behind those four Greek words (Ἀβραὰμ ἐγέννησεν τὸν Ἰσαάκ – Abraham was the father of Isaac). God promised Abram and Sarai that they would become a great nation. [Read Genesis Chapters 12 – 25 – within that story, Abram becomes Abraham and Sarai becomes Sarah].

NB: This story is not really children’s Sunday School material. It’s R18.

When Sarai does not conceive, she comes up with an idea (at least that’s how the presumably-male author of Genesis would have it!) that Abram “go in to” her slave girl, Hagar (וַיָּבֹ֥א אֶל־הָגָ֖ר). And Hagar conceives. OK, since we are doing this in slow motion, let’s just highlight the lack of any consideration of what Hagar thought of all this (spoiler: it doesn’t end well for her); we’ve got the total acceptance of slavery; at the very least we’ve got a huge power difference between the man and the woman in this story. Are there still people reading here who are arguing for “Biblical Marriage”…?!

Well, the child from that union, Ishmael, is not in this genealogy. That’s Isaac, Abraham’s child that he has (later) with Sarah.

Let’s skip over Abram lying and Sarai having sex with Pharaoh (Genesis 12). And you don’t often hear about Abaham’s other wife, Keturah (Genesis 25). So Abraham, first in our list in Matthew 1:2, is a story of deception, polygamy, concubinage, power-abuse, and slavery.

Great. Let’s move on to more dysfunctionality! Isaac wasn’t the firstborn, nor is the next on the list: Jacob. If you think your family is dysfunctional, compare that to the story of loved-by-mummy-disliked-by-daddy, Jacob, tricking his not-so-bright-but-loved-by-daddy, firstborn-son Esau out of his firstborn birthright. And then (encouraged by Mum!) Jacob tricks his blind, dying father on his deathbed into giving him the blessing meant for Esau.

Wow, what a family!

But wait! There’s more!

Jacob intends to marry Rachel, but, on the wedding night ends up having sex with her older sister, Leah. The male author of Genesis expects us to believe he couldn’t tell! Yeah, Right! Jacob ends up (without any criticism in the Bible) also marrying Rachel, and having sex with their two slave girls (no marriage with them for this sex – where are those “Biblical Marriage” people again?!) Judah is the fourth child of Jacob (with wife number 1, Leah).

That the text has “Judah and his brothers” connects Jesus to the twelve tribes, the whole of Israel.

We have started a linear genealogy (a direct line) in a forward direction (“was the father of”) common in the Old Testament (the backwards direction was common in Grego-Roman genealogies).

The Hebrew of Genesis 49:8-12 includes:

The sceptre shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
and the obedience of the peoples is his.

The Greek version (used by early Christians) is stronger in its Messianic interpretation of the place of Judah:

οὐκ ἐκλείψει ἄρχων ἐξ Ιουδα καὶ ἡγούμενος ἐκ τῶν μηρῶν αὐτοῦ ἕως ἂν ἔλθῃ τὰ ἀποκείμενα αὐτῷ καὶ αὐτὸς προσδοκία ἐθνῶν
A ruler shall not be wanting from Ioudas
and a leader from his thighs
until the things stored up for him come,
and he is the expectation of nations.

[It is interesting (concerning?) that NIV abandons its translation of the Hebrew (which it alleges it is translating) and conforms to the Greek without any indication that it is switching versions]

To be continued…

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6 thoughts on “Matthew in Slow Motion 2”

  1. Robert W. M. Greaves

    Umm, my copy of the NIV says:

    The scepter will not depart from Judah,
    nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
    until he comes to whom it belongs
    and the obedience of the nations is his.

    It also has a footnote for the third line of the stanza, saying:

    Or until Shiloh comes; or until he comes to whom tribute belongs.

    I can’t see that it’s closer to the Greek than to the translation you cite.

    1. Thanks, Robert.

      Firstly, your

      until he comes to whom it belongs
      and the obedience of the nations is his.

      is, far more clearly, being presented as an [individual] messianic prophecy than

      until tribute comes to him [ie Judah];
      and the obedience of the peoples is his.

      Secondly, NIV is not a version, but a collection of different Bible translations. One person’s NIV can be quite different to another person’s NIV. This is an eccentricity of NIV. Other lines of translations will change the name of the translation (eg. KJV, RV, RSV, NRSV). The NIV’s first translation was in the 1970s. The latest NIV translation was, I think, 2011. So here is another NIV rendition of the text:

      The scepter will not depart from Judah,
      nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
      until he to whom it belongs shall come
      and the obedience of the nations shall be his.

      The NIV tendency to alter the Bible to conform to a particular theology is criticised by no less than N. T. Wright:

      In 2009, N. T. Wright wrote that the 1980 NIV obscured what Paul the Apostle was saying, making sure that Paul’s words conformed to Protestant and Evangelical tradition. Wright believes that due to paraphrasing and interpretation, Protestants and Evangelicals will never understand what Paul was talking about if they rely on the NIV.

      Note, in that quote, the need to refer to the particular date of that NIV (in this case 1980) in order to be able to have the conversation.


  2. Again, I’m finding your commentary very engaging. Noting your critiques of the NIV, which english version do you prefer (or should everyone just learn the Greek/Hebrew)?

    1. Thanks, John. I guess the first thing is my emphasis that NIV is not a translation, it is a family of translations. Great if people learn Greek and Hebrew – but that’s not realistic. Certainly, if people are going to make assertions based on the Bible, I think a basic understanding of how Greek and Hebrew functions is important. For reading in English, I tend to use NRSV – yes, it has limitations and issues, but I think it is the fairest version following an as-much-as-possible word-for-word translation approach. For an interesting paraphrase (and in strong contrast to NRSV) I like the Message. Blessings.

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