Our advent theme this week is Bethlehem and the person is Joseph. Bethlehem and Joseph represent, among other things, Jesus’ heritage. Matthew is the book that speaks most of Joseph and does so very briefly even then. One of the things that is often overlooked in this account is that the genealogy Matthew gives in the first 17 verses is not just the genealogy of Jesus. Better yet it is not even the genealogy of Jesus, but that of Joseph.
Think about it. Joseph was Jesus’ adopted father and yet Matthew traces Jesus back through Joseph. Why would he do such a thing? The answer I think most likely is that Matthew intends to present Jesus as the Christ, the Jewish Messiah. This is important to Matthew because even if Jesus is a Messiah, if He is not the Jewish Messiah of Hebrew scripture, then God has been foresworn. So Matthew is very careful to present a case in a very Jewish context to support Jesus as the Christ of prophecy.
As such this is not so much a literal genealogy (its that too) but a story of God working through those who were faithful to Him throughout the generations of Israel. Because of that he does some things a Genealogist of his day wouldn’t do. A number of the known kings of Israel, descendants of David, are omitted. It would be usual not to include all Royal relatives in a genealogy. Notice also the inclusion of women: Tamar, Ruth, Rahab and Bathsheba, highly unusual in a patriarchal culture. Matthew is not just connecting Jesus through his adopted father, Joseph, to Abraham and David, he’s doing something more.
The women who are included here are especially interesting. Tamar married Judah’s oldest son Er and after his death tricked her father-in-law into impregnating her by pretending to be a prostitute. Rahab was a prostitute in the city of Jericho who protected Jewish spies in the city before its fall. Ruth was a foreigner, a Moabite widow. Then there is the “wife of Uriah”, Bathsheba, who’s affair with David produced Solomon and nearly tore the kingdom apart. Not your average list you might include if you were wanting a genealogy to brag about.
So what is he doing? There is a legal the term called Incorporation by Reference. When an attorney does that they are including in one document the entire contents of another document by referring to the second document with specificity. What Matthew is doing is saying that Joseph’s and Jesus’ lineage incorporates all of the Hebrew scripture, all of the stories and experiences with God, all of what it meant to be Jewish, all of what it meant to be a part of the covenant relationship between God and his people.
So how does all of this relate to a discussion of Joseph? Joseph was a man of his heritage and further is described by Matthew as a “righteous man”. He was spoken to in dreams by an Angel of the Lord. The first time to tell him Mary was about to turn up pregnant, the second when he was warned to flee with his family to Egypt, and then when it was time for them to return to Nazareth. Can you think of any of the people in the genealogy to whom God spoke in dreams? The people who first read this account certainly could.
At each opportunity for Joseph to make a decision or take action, Matthew reminds us of Joseph’s role in the fulfillment of prophecy. God told Joseph to name Mary’s baby Jesus, the Hebrew name Yeshua (Joshua), which means “Yhwh saves” because Jesus would save His people. Matthew comments that all this was done to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14.
When Joseph and his family were in Egypt, Matthew reminds us that being in Egypt was a fulfillment of the prophecy in Hosea 11:1 that says,”I called my son out of Egypt.” After Joseph is warned again in a dream not to go to Judea and goes instead to Nazareth in Galilee, we are told this fulfilled the sayings of the prophets that the Christ would be called a Nazarene.
Jesus was the fulfillment of the destiny of the Hebrew nation to bless the world as God had promised. The past, as it has been said, was prologue. Everything that had happened led to Jesus. This connectedness to all those stories of faith and struggle is what it means to be of the house and line of David. And the same applies to Joseph. His heritage, both culturally and spiritually, led him to the place where he could hear God speak to him and then had the faith to obey.
And the same might be said of us. We all have a heritage of experience with God. For some of us that heritage spans generations and we remember what we may have heard from parents and grandparents who walked with God. For some of us our heritage does not even extend to last week or last month. But whatever our personal heritage we can also call on the heritage God has given us in scripture and the fellowship of other believers. Those belong to all of God’s people.
Has our heritage put us in a position to be able to hear God when he speaks? The Pharisees shared the same heritage as Joseph, but they did not hear when God spoke to them through Jesus. And if we hear Him speak are we faithful in our action? How are we building our heritage so that we can be faithful?