Twelve Ethical Interpretations for Matthew 1:1-2
This essay honors a traditional Jewish interpretive style used with the Torah, by imitating it with respect to the New Covenant scriptures. The twelve interpretations illustrate that God’s Word is an inexhaustible source of inspiration and instruction. My fanciful elaborations exalt the giver of the Word, much as the fanciful multiplication of the ten plagues of Egypt into 50, 200, and 250 plagues at the Sea of Reeds, as recorded in the Passover Haggadah, exalt the one who redeemed his people from bondage.
I began a commentary on the first gospel during my medical training in the 1980s. The commentary grew out of my need to approach a text which had become problematic. Such motive has also been attributed to the authors of ancient Jewish elaborations of scripture (midrashim). Through the text, one can also approach a problematic world.
The Maggid of Dubnow was asked how he found appropriate stories to illustrate every Bible verse. The Maggid replied with a story. A man came to an archery range and found that every target had been pierced through the center. When he asked the marksman responsible how the latter had developed such perfect aim, the marksman replied, “I take aim at the target. If my arrow sticks, I draw circles about the place it enters.” The Maggid explained that when he found a parable that ‘stuck’ he would look for a verse to attach it to.
Mt. 1:1 The Book of the Generation of Yeshua ha-Maschiach,the Son of David, the Son of Abraham
In Greek, “The book of the generation of Yeshua” is Biblos geneseos Iesou, which suggests the beginning of the Bible, Genesis. Christou is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Mashiach. The conclusion that Yeshua is the messiah came not from his own ministry and teaching, nor from the expectations of his contemporaries, but rather from the historical event that he was crucified by Pilate as King of the Jews. That Yeshua is the messiah cannot derive from his other titles; it is the presupposition of all New Covenant Christology.1 The order of titles in Mt 1:1 is thus shorthand for the order in which Christological speculation proceeded. If Yeshua is Mashiach, then he is the son or seed of David (2 Samuel 7:12-14). As the seed, Mashiach must also be the subject of Genesis 22:18, “and in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.”
Another Interpretation is that “Son of David” alludes to the supratemporal, eschatological Davidic covenant, while “Son of Abraham” alludes to the historical covenant symbolized by circum-cision.2 These covenants exist in tension with one another. “Son of David” is a claim of authority, “Son of Abraham” an expression of solidarity with other sons and daughters of Abraham (cf. Luke 13:16; 19:9). Homiletically, “Son of Abraham” indicates that Yeshua possessed “a generous eye, a humble spirit, and a meek soul” (Pirke Avot 5:22). The correct understanding of Yeshua will include both his claim to authority and his humility (cf. Phil. 2:6-11).
Mt. 1:2 Abraham Fathered Isaac
Rabbi Yitzchak said, “The Torah, which is the book of laws, should have begun with the verse, “This month shall be unto you the first of the months,” which is the first commandment given to Israel. What then is the reason that it begins with the creation? Should the nations of the world say to Israel, “You are robbers because you took unto yourselves the lands of the seven nations of Canaan,” they may reply to them, “The whole world belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He. He gave it to whom he pleased, and according to His will, He took it from them and gave it to us.”
This is a homiletic exposition as quoted by Rabbi Shlomo (Rashi) in his commentaries.
One may object that it was indeed very necessary to begin the Torah with the chapter of ‘In the beginning G-d created’ for this is the root of faith, and he who does not believe in this and thinks the world was eternal denies the essential principle of the religion and has no Torah at all.3
Thus writes the Ramban in his commentary to the Torah, quoting and commenting on Rashi, who quoted and commented on Rabbi Yitzchak.
I wish for the reader to bear with me in a little foolishness. One might propose to begin a gospel with an account of Yeshua’s death, “deciding to know nothing among you except Yeshua ha-Mashiach, and him crucified.” Or one might wish to include Yeshua’s teaching, and so begin with the Sermon on the Mount. Why then does the gospel begin “Abraham fathered Isaac”? Should the nations of the world say to the believers in Yeshua, “You are robbers because you took unto yourselves the covenant between God and Israel,” they may reply to them (not, “He took it from them and gave it to us,” but rather) “We affirm the faithfulness of God, for Abraham fathered Isaac only through the promise of God.” And indeed the land of Cana’an was given to Israel through God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their descendants, “and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of Torah, the worship, and the promises.” (Romans 9:4) And it is indeed necessary to begin the gospel with the promises of God to Israel, for one who does not believe that God is true to his word denies a root of faith and falls into the error of Marcion,4 and has no gospel at all.
The Rambam explained that the essential meaning of creation is that the universe did not come about by necessity, but was a free act of God. And there are those who say that “In the image of God he created him” (Genesis 1:27) refers to the endowment of the human soul with free will. From this view the act of procreation “Abraham fathered Isaac” alludes to the freedom of both God and man.
According to another interpretation, the gospel begins with obedience to the first commandment, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28) lest you should think that Yeshua came to abolish the Torah and the prophets (cf. Mt 5:17).
Thus far I have mentioned the freedom of God and the freedom of man, the faithfulness of God, and the responsibility of man.
Ben Ol said5: “We know this from ‘Abraham fathered Isaac.’ Whence do we know it from the word ‘Abraham’ alone? Come and hear: the freedom of God, as it says (Joshua 24:2-3) ‘Your fathers lived of old beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham… .’ ” The faithfulness of God, as it says (Gen. 17:5) “No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham.” And this name Abraham alludes to what is also said, “and I will bless you and make your name great” (Gen. 12:2), “and I will make of you a great nation… and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.” The freedom and responsibility of man, as it says, “Walk before me and be blameless” (Gen. 17:1). A father takes a young child by the hand, but he allows a more mature child to walk before him (Bereshit Rabbah 30:10).
Bar Yochanan said: “Whence do we know this merely from the letter alef which begins ‘Abraham’? The Torah begins Bereshit bara elohim et ha-shamayim ve-et ha-arets. Every word contains an alef except shamayim and it says of Torah ‘It is not in heaven’ (Deuteronomy 30:12). Therefore the alef alludes to Torah.6 Torah alludes to God’s freedom: ‘The Lord was pleased for his righteousness’ sake to magnify the Torah and make it glorious’ (Isaiah 42:21). The faithfulness of God, as it says, ‘A Torah of steadfast love’ (Proverbs 31:26). The freedom and responsibility of man, as it says, ‘I will keep your Torah for ever and ever. And I walk at liberty'” (Psalms 119:44-45).
Ibn Adam would have derived it from one half stroke of the alef, but his colleagues restrained him.
Others point out that Abraham is the foe of idolatry par excellence (Bereshit Rabbah 38:13). Avraham ha-Ivri-they on one side and he on the other. His son Isaac is named for laughter. Reverse the order and explain it thus: the one who can laugh is the one who can separate from idols.7
Mattityahu 1:1-2 alludes to the incident in which God answered Abraham’s prayer for the barren women in the household of Avimelech. God also made it possible for Sarah to conceive. The sages say that the wags of Abraham’s time had a witticism: Sarah conceived on account of Avimelech, that is, on account of Abraham’s prayer’s for his family. In the double entendre, aspersion was cast upon Isaac’s parentage. Genesis 25:19 has the redundancy “Isaac, Abraham’s son. Abraham fathered Isaac” to refute the canard (thus Rashi). As used in Mt 1:1-2 “…the son of Abraham. Abraham fathered Isaac” is an ironic caution against excessive cleverness. Yet it complements the previous interpretation.8
Some commentators advocate the following interpretation: “You have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” (Ex. 33:17)
These series of proper names bear witness to the fact that, in the Biblical perspective, man is neither a thing nor an abstraction, neither a species nor an idea, that he is not a fraction of the mass, as the Marxists see him, but that he is a person… .
If I forget my patients’ name, if I say to myself, ‘Ah, there’s that gallbladder type… the patient is aware of this. He realizes, of course, that the human memory has its limits; and if I have forgotten his name it is better simply to ask him what it is… .
What matters is my real attitude towards him; if I am really interested in him as a person, his name will become important, just as the proper names in the Bible are important… . By treating him as a person, I help him become one.9
Mattityahu tacitly expresses the positive Biblical understanding of human sexuality in words of modesty. He immediately puts himself outside the Hellenistic world of institutionalized pederasty and cult prostitution, and rejects the ascetic notion of sex as inimical to godliness. Given the close relation of sexuality to one’s total personality, it is not too much to begin a book of revelation with a healthy sexual ethic.
The generation of the twelve sh’likhim had expected to see the Son of Man coming in glory, and the promises fulfilled. Now, Abraham was one of those who died without having received what was promised. Mattityahu begins with a genealogy so as to prepare his readers for the role of parents to the next generation.10
“Abraham fathered Isaac” alludes to the place at which Isaac says “My father” and Abraham replies “Here am I, my son.” In this story of the Akedah, God reaffirms an unconditional blessing to Abraham. “And by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” (Gen 22:18) It is proper to begin study with words of encouragement,11 and so Mattityahu alludes to the blessing of all nations, as an encouragement to the reader.
The name Abraham, which means “father of a multitude” (Gen 17:5) alludes to the multitude of good deeds proceeding from Abraham’s love for God. One should have such great love for God that righteousness “overflows.” 12 (cf. Mt 5:20)
Abraham fathered Isaac-but did he not also father Ishmael? In fact, he fathered Ishmael first. Therefore, even preceding the word, is silence. This silence is contained within, and made known through the word. And God did not fully reveal himself to Abraham, as it says, “I appeared to Abraham… as El Shaddai (God Almighty), but by my name Ha-Shem I did not make myself known.” (Ex. 6:313); Abraham himself is like an orchestra’s conductor raising his baton for silence which precedes a performance.14
In view of the tragic aspect of Christianity’s history, there is a question whether it should have come about at all. Let me explain with a midrash on creation. Loving-kindness said to God, “Create man, for he will perform acts of loving-kindness.” Truth said, “Don’t create man, because he is made up of falsehood.” Righteousness said, “Create man, for he will do righteous deeds.” Peace said, “Don’t create man, because he is full of strife.” 15
It appears to me that the gospel begins with Abraham (who represents hesed, loving-kindness) and the procreation of Isaac (representing the creation of man) to indicate that God foresaw the good and bad in the movement formed around Yeshua, and out of hesed chose to establish it. The one who makes new things spring forth is the same one, blessed be He, who with hesed created the heavens and the earth and who gives breath and spirit to the people who walk in it.16 Thus the New Covenant, like Tanakh, begins with lov-ing-kindness and ends with loving-kindness.17
Jon C. Olson lives in West Hartford, Connecticut.
- Donald Juel, Messianic Exegesis (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988).
- J. Coert Rylaarsdam, “Jewish-Christian Relationship: The Two Covenants and the Dilemmas of Christology” (Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Spring 1972), 249.
- Commentary to Genesis 1:1. Translation by Charles Chavel (New York: Shiloh Publishing, 1971).
- Marcion (second century) taught that the creator of the world, the god of the Jews revealed in their scripture, was ignorant of a different and higher god revealed in the New Covenant.
- Cf. Pirke Avot 3:7; 2 Cor. 12:5.
- Reb Mendel of Rymanov said that when God spoke at Sinai, the people heard only the letter alef.
- “Of late I have become even more convinced of the theological necessity of irony-and of its nobler cousin humor-as a safeguard against idolatry.” Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), p. viii.
- “It may depend on our mood whether we hear the stern and threatening voice of the prophet with his sharp irony, or the mild traditional humour of the rabbi . . . belonging to a nation that often found it wise to express their earnestness humourously and their humour earnestly.” Jakob Jonsson, Humour and Irony in the New Testament (Reykjavik: Bokantgafa Menningarsjols, 1965), p. 198.
- Paul Tournier, A Doctor’s Casebook in the Light of the Bible (Eng. trans. New York: Harper, 1960), pp. 123-4.
- “What is offered to him is something good not for him but for his descendants, and Abraham is more than satisfied because the welfare of his children means more to him than his welfare. This is the kind of fellowship of the generations that is made possible in Abraham.” Michael Wyschogrod, The Body of Faith (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983), p. 113.
- “All Israel have a share in the world to come, as it says, ‘Your people shall all be righteous and shall inherit the land for ever, the shoot of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may be glorified’: (preface to Pirke Avot, quoting Isaiah 60:21). “Land is an allegory here, meaning the land of the living, which is the world to come, and the pious of all nations have a share in that world.” (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 2:5 from the Mishneh Torah). Cf. Romans 11:26-7.
- Birger Gerhardsson, The Ethos of the Bible (Eng. trans. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), p. 38 translates Mt: 5:20 “overflows.” Compare Franz Delitzsch’s Hebrew translation at Mt 5:20 and the Masoretic text at Gen. 17:2.
- See Rashi on Ha-Shem as the attribute of Faithfulness, i.e. to the promise of the land of Canaan.
- Andre Neher, The Exile of the Word (Eng. trans. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1981).
- Genesis Rabbah 8:5 uses Ps. 85:10 as point of departure for its fanciful story of a debate preceding Creation. For this purpose nashaku (kissed) was read as if from neshek (weapons). Geza Vermes says that “pure exegesis” midrash arose because the scriptural text I) contained uncertain words; II) lacked sufficient detail; III) appeared to contradict another text; IV) appeared to have an unacceptable meaning. “Applied exegesis” midrash arose from the need to justify contemporary practice for apologetics, and in order to find fulfillment of prophecy. (Vermes in P.R. Ackroyd, ed. Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 1 [Cambridge: University Press, 1970], 228-9). The high regard for midrash at Qumran is seen in 1QS 8:13ff. “Prepare in the wilderness the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a path for our God. (Is. 40:3) This path is the midrash of the Torah…”
- Is. 42:4ff., which is read on the same Sabbath as Gen. 1:1ff in the synagogue. See also Heb 6:17-18; Rev. 1:3.
- The traditional expression is that Torah begins with hesed and ends with hesed. Genesis begins with God clothing Adam and Eve, while Deuteronomy ends with God burying Moses. I consider the invitation of Cyrus, “whoever is among you of all his people-the Lord his God be with him, and let him go up!” at the end of 2 Chronicles (the last book in the Hebrew Bible), to be an expression of God’s loving kindness. Revelation 22:21 reads “The grace of the Lord Yeshua be with all the saints. Amen.”