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Story. Chapters 1-2 tell the story of Jesus's birth and childhood in four episodes:
- Matt 1:1-17: Jesus's genealogy.
- Matt 1:18-25: Mary conceives and gives birth. Mary conceives, Joseph is instructed to marry her, and then Christ is born.
- Matt 2:1-12: The wise men. The wise men visit Jesus.
- Matt 2:13-23: The flight to Egypt. Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt until Herod dies (2:13-23)
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Matt 1:1-17: Jesus's genealogy
- Matt 1:1-17: Jesus's Genealogy. It is clear that Matthew is not giving an exact genealogy. For example, he tells us that there were fourteen generations between each of the three important events in Israel’s history—from Abraham, to David, to the Babylonian captivity, to the coming of Christ: three groups of fourteen generations each, culminating in the birth of Christ. But if we compare this genealogy to the other genealogies in the Old Testament we can see that this is incorrect. Why would Matthew knowingly give us a genealogy that isn’t accurate? (Notice that Ezra does something similar: he omits six generations of priests from his genealogy. Compare Ezra 7:1-5 to 1 Chronicles 6:3-15.)
- It is curious that these five women appear in this genealogy since each has some sexual stigma about her: (1) Tamar dressed up as a prostitute to have a child by her father in law Judah; (2) Rahab was a prostitute; (3) Ruth as a widow brought Boaz into marriage in a less-than-conventional manner; (4) Bath-sheba committed adultery with King David; and (5) Mary, merely engaged, shows up pregnant. (It could be that Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bath-sheba are singled out simply because they were some of the few women noteworthy in the scripture of the time, but this then raises essentially the same question: why were these particular women, each associated with some sexual stigma, the few women noteworthy in the scripture at the time.)
- It could be that Matthew makes mention of these women to suggest that the women were innocent--that they were fulfilling the will of God which lead to the birth of Christ. This fits with a view, espoused by some scholars, that a major New Testament theme is that messianic concepts in the Old Testament were misunderstood by the Jews and that Christ's mission was focused largely on groups of people who themselves were misunderstood (see verse 6 related links below for more info). As this view goes: (1) Tamar did what she did precisely to fulfill the law of levirate, which Judah was breaking. Though the process through which she accomplished the deed was unconventional, she fulfilled the law of the Lord precisely. (2) Rahab had been a prostitute, but she delivered a city into the hands of the Israelites, and she was given a perpetual inheritance among the chosen people (see Heb 11:31 and James 2:25 for references to Rahab as an example of faith). (3) Ruth's plan, in part concocted by Naomi, was according to the will of God so that David might be born through her in an act of redemption. (4) Bathsheba will be discussed below. (5) Mary, though she was probably accused of unfaithfulness, was a virgin.
- If one accepts this line of reasoning, one must assume that Matthew, by including Bathsheba with the other four women, regards her (and possibly David with her?) as guiltless. On the other hand, if one rejects the idea that Matthew believes Bathsheba is innocent, then it remains to be explained what to make of the curiosity of these five women in Jesus's genealogy.
- Matt 1:1-17: Four women in Jesus's genealogy. Genealogies in the Bible rarely mention women, but this one mentions four: Tamar (spelled “Thamar” here, verse 3), Rahab (here "Rachab," verse 5), Ruth (verse 5), and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah (spelled “Urias” here—verse 6). One reason that Matthew may have chosen to mention these four women is that they all had unusual stories. Mary's story of a virgin birth is also unusual, and Matthew may be trying to make it fit within Jewish tradition rater than outside it. This is the gospel of Matthew, who was writing to a Jewish audience with numerous proof texts drawn from the Old testament.
- Julie M Smith has a useful overview concerning the women included in Matthew's genealogy published in Segullah Spring 2008 (available here).
- Matt 1:5: The number of David's name. In Jewish thinking at the time of Christ, the “number” of David’s name is fourteen. (Jewish numerologists added up the number values of the consonants in names and believed that those numbers were significant. The Hebrew letter that we transliterate as “d” is the fourth letter in the Hebrew alphabet and the letter that we transliterate as “v” is the sixth letter, so the number of David’s name is 4+6+4, fourteen.) Note the reference to three sets of fourteen generations in verse 16.
- Matt 1:18, 20: Of. The preposition "of" in the phrases "of the Holy Ghost" in verses 18 and 20 is a translation of the Greek preposition ek. Prepositions can be notoriously difficult to translate from one language to the other, and this is no exception. Modern translations render the preposition here as either "of," "by" or "through." Because of the various ways in which the preposition can be understood, these verses are not inconsistent with the belief that God (Heavenly Father) was the father of Jesus.
- Matt 1:18-19: Put her away privily. Jewish divorce law, unlike the laws and customs of other people at the time, required that divorce be formal: a man wishing to divorce his wife (to do so, he had to find “some uncleanness in her” or “something indecent about her”—Deuteronomy 24:1), had to give her a document contradicting their marriage contract. She was then free to remarry.
- Joseph could have had Mary tried and executed for being pregnant outside their engagement. And how far-fetched does her story sound? That she had not had sexual relations outside their marriage, but that she was pregnant of a 'divine' manner and would raise the Son of God. This is way beyond 'the dog ate my homework'. Joseph could have wanted vengeance and held angst against Mary. This seems to show meekness and compassion on his part.
Matt 1:18-25: Mary conceives and gives birth
- Matt 1:18-25: Joseph marries Mary. Here is some major themes and points to this story:
- Are there situations where we have been "crossed" where we could lash out at someone but we deal with it in a meek way? What about if you hear someone is spreading gossip about you or someone you know? We are better off if we 'turn the other cheek'.
- This is the perfect example of not jumping to conclusions. Our culture is set up and our instinct is such that we automatically typically have an impulse that someone "pay" for what they have done. We assume the worst and act out immediately, rather than giving someone the benefit of the doubt and cutting them slack. I am sure when Mary explained to Joseph that she had not had sexual relations outside their engagement but that she was 'divinely' pregnant, it sounded like the most laughable of stories. But rather than laugh Mary all the way to trial and execution, Joseph 'let it ride' and cut her some slack. Shows massive character and integrity on Joseph's part.
- Case study #1 : We jump to conclusions with our spouses, automatically assuming they have ill intentions. Your husband is late for work when you have something important to get to or your wife is ornery and snaps at you when you get home from a busy day at work. Rather than the wife hearing her husband out and finding out that his best employee quit which is the reason he is late, she jumps all over him for having mindlessly ruined her evening with his selfishness. Or the husband doesn't think that his wife has had a horrible day with the kids tearing the house apart and problems, instead he jumps all over her for not supporting him in a rough and busy day, rather than trying to have empathy for what her day might have been like.
- Case study #2 : An example of email gone awry. Assume the worst and lash out only to realize later that we misinterpreted. This happens at work, we assume someone meant the worst when they are just making a comment in jest, and we lash out, only to end up feeling sheepish.
- Case study #3 : Stephen Covey has an example of riding the subway in New York with a dad who is not paying attention while his three sons tear the subway apart. Covey is angry and finally goes and tells the man off. The man is almost in another world and apologizes saying that his wife, his sons' mother, had just died and they were trying to cope. It totally changed Covey's perspective, and he now had compassion and concern rather than thinking selfishly of himself and what bothers him.
- Can we not all have a little more patience? Can we not all give others the benefit of the doubt? Can we not be a little more long suffering and enduring. What if we are wrong and the people did have bad intentions, does that make it any better? What if Mary had actually cheated on Joseph, would it of been of value to have her tried and executed? Do we end up feeling better by "getting our way" in a shouting match, or do we feel worse?
- Matt 1:21: Yeshua. The name Jesus is the Latinized version of Yeshua. It was a fairly common name at the time. It means "Jehovah saves." But Jesus was the child who would in fact save us.
- Verse 21 explicitly connects Jesus with the God of the Old Testament. Since the name Jesus means "Jehovah saves," this verse says, in essence: "You shall name him 'Jehovah saves,' for he will save the people from their sins."
Matt 2:1-12: The wise men
- Matt 2:1-26: Story of the wise men. At the time, new kings were often given gifts by emissaries of foreign regimes (see related links). The gifts of the wise men can therefore be seen as the trappings of an official recognition of Christ's kingship. No wonder Herod was so threatened.
- Matt 2:1-2: Magi. In verse 1, the Greek word translated as "wise men" is magi, the plural of magus, a Persian word that originally referred to a member of the Zoroastrian priesthood caste of the Medes and Persians. It came to refer more broadly to those in the Persian culture who were astrologers, physicians, dream intepreters and the like.
- The magi thus were most likely pagan worshippers. As has been pointed out many times by commentators, readers of Matthew's gospel in the first century would certainly have understood pagans to be signified by the term. Some scholars have tried to read into the term a reference to Jews residing still in Babylon, but this seems, in the end, unlikely. In fact, if one regards the wise men as pagans, then the story of Jesus' life begins and ends with pagans, though in opposing ways: at the beginning, the pagans come to Jesus to worship Him, in the end (Matt 28:19), Jesus sends the apostles to the pagans to convert them. The poetic appeal of this reading perhaps strengthens it. This assertion needs to cite to authority so that it is rebuttable.
- One has the picture here of the wise men wandering about Jerusalem (or other towns) asking about the King of the Jews. Their mention of the star and their intent to worship the newborn Messiah would have raised quite a stir in the volatile political atmosphere of the time. It is no surprise that Herod is troubled in the next verse. Perhaps an interesting aspect of the way the question is phrased in the verse here is that the wise men apparently assume that the Jews would be well apprised of the situation: it does not occur to them that the Jews would have missed the occurrence of such an event.
- Matt 2:2: Star in the east. The Greek words translated as "his star in the east" could also be translated "his star as it rose" or "his star in its rising."
- Matt 2:3. This verse is worded in such a way that it might be an allusion to Isa 7:2: the king and the people are suddenly quite afraid, but because they misunderstand the doings of God.
- Matt 2:4. Herod consults with the (apparently subordinate) priests and scribes in order to sort things out before confronting himself the wise men on the subject. The point is interesting because it presents Herod as in absolute control, and it presents the priests and scribes as more knowledgeable than one might otherwise guess from the gospel narratives.
- Matt 2:6. Matthew quotes Micah 5:1-3. Since his quotation doesn’t correspond to either the Greek version of the Old Testament that was commonly used in Jesus’s day (the Septuagint) or the established Hebrew version, he is either quoting somewhat loosely, or he may be quoting a version of Micah that we no longer have.
- Matt 2:11: Frankincense and myrrh. Frankincense (libanos in Greek) and myrrh (smurna) were both costly aromatic resins (dried sap). Frankincense was often used as an incense, and myrrh was often used in embalming.
Matt 2:13-23: The flight to Egypt
- Matt 2:13-23: Moses and Jesus. The parallels between the story of Moses and that of Jesus are striking, as are the parallels between the Pharaoh and Herod: the Pharaoh tried to kill all male children (Exodus 1:22); Moses had to flee because his life was in danger (Exodus 2:15); when the Pharaoh died, Moses returned (Exodus 4:19-20). In addition, as Word Biblical Commentary points out (33a:34), the language of Matthew 2:19 is almost identical to that of Exodus 2:23 (of the Septuagint, of course). What are we to make of such parallels? What is Matthew doing by drawing our attention to them?
- Matt 2:17: Jeremiah. ”Jeremy the prophet” means “Jeremiah the prophet.” Matthew is quoting Jeremiah 31:15. As with Micah 5 (verse 6), he is not quoting exactly.
- Matt 2:23: Branch. The fact that the Hebrew for "branch" is nsr, may explain Matthew's remark that Jesus' life in Nazareth was foretold by the prophets; perhaps Matthew understood Isaiah 11: to be punning on the word "Nazareth."
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Prompts for life application
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Prompts for further study
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- Matt 1:1. By using the phrase "book of the genealogy," Matthew deliberately imitates passages such as Genesis 2:4 and 5:1. Why? What is he trying to tell us about what follows?
- Matt 1:18. What does "espoused" mean?
- Matt 1:19. What does "privily" mean?
- Matt 1:18-19. What does the story of verses 18-19 tell us about Joseph's character?
- Matt 1:20-23. Is it significant that Joseph is a dreamer, like Joseph of old? Is the meaning of Joseph’s name significant, “to take away my reproach”?
- Matt 1:23. If the child is to be named “Jesus,” then why does verse 23 say his name will be “Emmanuel”?
- Matt 1:23. Why does Matthew end this part of his story with a quotation from Isaiah?
- Matt 2:1. Why might Matthew have thought it was important to tell the Jewish community about the visit of the Gentile wise men?
- Matt 2:1. We see that the Gentile visitors have come to adore the Messiah. What is the reaction of the Jews to the news of his birth? What might that foreshadow? Given that foreshadowing, how might this chapter be an excellent introduction to Matthew as a whole?
- Matt 2:1. Early Christians celebrated Epiphany, the holiday commemorating the coming of the wise men, before it began to celebrate Christmas. Why do you think that might have been?
- Matt 2:2. What do the wise men mean when they say that they have seen his star?
- Matt 2:3-4. Why is Herod troubled? What would Herod’s wise men know that the magi wouldn’t know? In other words, why did the wise men consult with Herod and his court?
- Matt 2:11. Why does Matthew mention the gifts the wise men gave?
- Matt 2:11. How might Jesus’ family have been able to use these gifts?
- Matt 2:21-23. JST Matthew 3:25 - How is it that the Savior "could not be taught" or "needed not that any man should teach Him?"
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- Matt 2:1-12: The wise men in cultural context. The Oxford Annotated Bible (ISBN 0-19-528485-2) points out in reference to this story that "Foreign regimes often sent emmissaries to greet and give gifts to new kings or rulers" (p. NT10).
Footnotes are not required but are encouraged for factual assertions that average readers cannot easily evaluate for themselves (such as the date of King Solomon’s death or the nuanced definition of a Greek word). In contrast, insights rarely benefit from footnoting, and the focus of this page should always remain on the scriptures themselves rather than what someone has said about them. Links are actively encouraged on all sections of this page, and links to authoritative sources (such as Strong's Bible Concordance or the Joseph Smith Papers) are preferable to footnotes.