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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Matthew 1

 

 

Verse 1

(1) Nothing can be inferred directly from St. Matthew’s phrase “till she had brought forth” as to what followed after the birth. The writer’s purpose is obviously to emphasise the absence of all that might interfere with the absolutely supernatural character of the birth itself. (2) Nothing can be inferred with certainty from the mention of our Lord’s “brethren” in Matthew 12:46 (see Note there), and elsewhere. They may have been children of Joseph by a former marriage, or by what was known as a levirate marriage with the widow of a deceased brother, under the law of Deuteronomy 25:5, Matthew 22:24, or children by adoption, or cousins included under the general name of brethren. (3) The fact that the mother of our Lord found a home with the beloved disciple (John 19:27) and not with any of the “brethren” points, as far as it goes, to their not being her own children, but it does not go far enough to warrant any positive assertion. Scripture therefore supplies no data for any decision on either side, nor does any tradition that can really be called primitive. The reverence for virginity as compared with marriage in the patristic and mediæval Church made the “ever-virgin” to be one of the received titles of the mother of the Lord. The reaction of natural feeling against that reverence led men in earlier and later times to assert the opposite. Every commentator is influenced consciously or unconsciously by his leanings in this or that direction. And so the matter must rest.


Verse 2

(2) The omission of the names of Ishmael and Esau is explained by the fact, that they were not only not in the line of succession, but were outside the covenant with Abraham—“In Isaac shall thy seed be called” (Genesis 21:12); and Esau had forfeited both the birth-right and the blessing. The brethren of Judah are named, on the other hand, because all who were descended from them had an equal interest in the Messiah.


Verse 3

(3) Thamar.—The occurrence of the names of women in genealogies was the exception rather than the rule among the Jews; but there are instances enough in the Old Testament (e.g., Keturah, Genesis 25:1; the wives of Esau, Genesis 36:10; Timna, Genesis 36:22; Mehetabel, Genesis 36:39; Azubah, the wife of Caleb, 1 Chronicles 2:18; Achsa, his daughter, 1 Chronicles 2:49; and many others) to make the insertion of such names here quite natural, even without assuming any distinct purpose. It was enough that the women were historically notable. In the case of Thamar there were precedents enough for such an honourable mention. In the days of Ruth she was as much the heroine of the tribe of Judah as Rachel and Leah were of all Israel, and her name came into the formula of nuptial benediction (Ruth 4:12). It appears also in the genealogies of 1 Chronicles 2:4. It would appear from the language of the Talmud as if the Jews looked on her strange and to us revolting history with quite other feelings. To them she was as one who, at the risk of shame, and, it might be, death, had preserved the line of Judah from destruction, and “therefore was counted worthy to be the mother of kings and prophets.” The mention of Zara, though not in the line of succession, follows the precedent of 1 Chronicles 2:47.


Verse 4

(4) Naasson, or Nahshon, the brother of Elisheba the wife of Aaron, was, at the time of the Exodus, the “prince (or captain) of the children” of Judah (Numbers 1:7; Numbers 2:3; 1 Chronicles 2:10). A Jewish legend made him the first to enter the waters of the Red Sea.


Verse 5

(5) Rachab.—The Old Testament records are silent as to the marriage of Salmon with the harlot of Jericho. When they were compiled it was probably thought of as a blot rather than a glory; but the fact may have been preserved in the traditions of the house of David. It has been conjectured that Salmon may have been one of the two unnamed spies whose lives were saved by Rahab, when he was doing the work which Caleb had done before him. The mention of Rahab in James 2:25, Hebrews 11:31, shows that her fame had risen at the time when St. Matthew wrote. The Talmud legends, curiously enough, reckon eight prophets among her descendants, including Jeremiah and Baruch, but not any of the line of David. Assuming the connection between St. Matthew and St. James, which has been shown in the Introduction to this Gospel to be probable, the mention of Rahab by both takes its place as an interesting coincidence.

Booz.—The succession is the same as in Ruth 4:21. The new fact of Salmon’s marriage explains some of the features of that history—the readiness with which the sons of Naomi marry two women of the Moabites; the absence of any repugnance to such a union on the part of Boaz; perhaps the reference to Tamar in the benediction of Ruth 4:12. Salmon would seem to have been the first of the house to have had land at Bethlehem (1 Chronicles 2:54), and to have gained this in part through his adoption into the family of Caleb.


Verse 6

(6) The wife of Urias.—Once again we have the mention of a woman who at least played a memorable part in the history of Israel. As this is the last of such names in the genealogy, it may be well to deal with the question whether any special purpose can be traced in the selection, beyond that of noting points of interest. Nothing can carry us beyond probable conjectures; but, within those limits, it is at least suggestive that all the names are those of women who, either as of heathen origin (Bathsheba, like her husband, was probably a Hittite), or by personal guilt, were as those whom the strict judgment of the Pharisee excluded from his fellowship. St. Matthew may have meant men to draw the inference that, as these women were not excluded from the honour of being in the Messiah’s line of ancestry, so others like them would not be shut out from fellowship with His kingdom.


Verse 9

(9) Ozias.—Ozias is, of course, the Uzziah of the Old Testament. Three names are omitted between Joram and this king—viz., Ahaziah, Joash, Amaziah. Apparently the motive for the omission was simply the desire of bringing the names in each period into which the genealogy is divided to the arbitrary standard of fourteen. Possibly, however, as it was thus necessary to omit three names, the choice of these may have been determined by the fact that they belonged to the time of Athaliah’s disastrous influence in the history of the monarchy of Judah. We learn from this fact that the words “A begat B” are not to be taken literally, but are simply an expression of the fact of succession with or without intermediate links.


Verse 11

(11) Jechonias and his brethren.—Here again there is a missing link in the name of Eliakim, or Jehoiakim, the son of Josiah (2 Kings 23:34). Jeconiah was therefore the grandson of Josiah. The alternative reading mentioned in the margin rests on very slight authority, and was obviously the insertion of some later scribe, to meet the difficulty. The word “brethren” was probably meant to include Mattaniah or Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, who was the son of Josiah, and therefore uncle to Jechoniah.


Verse 12

(12) Jechonias begat Salathiel.—We come here into a cluster of genealogical difficulties. (1) The natural impression left by Jeremiah 22:30 is that Coniah (or Jechonias) died childless, or, at least, left no descendants who came to rule as Zerubbabel did; (2) In the genealogy given by St. Luke (Luke 3:27), Salathiel is named as the son of Neri; (3) In 1 Chronicles 3:17-19, Salathiel is the son of Assir, the son of Jeconiah, and Zerubbabel the son of Pedaiah, the brother of Salathiel. It is not easy to see our way through these difficulties; but the most probable solution is that Assir was the only son of Jeconiah, and died without issue before his father; that the line of Solomon thus came to an end, and that the descendants of Nathan, another son of David, took their place in the succession, and were reckoned, as by adoption, as the sons of the last survivor of the other line. The practice is, it may be noted, analogous to that which prevails among Indian princes, and in other Eastern nations. (Comp. Note on Luke 3:23-38.)


Verse 17

(17) The arrangement into three triads of fourteen generations each was obviously in the nature of a memoria technica. The periods embraced by the three groups were, it may be noted, of very unequal length; and the actual omission of names in one of them, makes it possible that the others may have been treated in the same way.

(1) From the birth of Abraham to the birth of David, taking the dates supplied by the received chronology of the Old Testament. B.C. 1996-1085.

(2) From the birth of David to the Captivity. B.C. 1085-588.

(3) From the Captivity to the birth of Jesus. B.C. 588-4.

There remains the further question, how we are to reconcile the genealogy given by St. Matthew with that given by St. Luke (Luke 3:23-38). This will, it is believed, be best dealt with in a short Excursus in the Notes on that Gospel. Here it may be sufficient to note that the difference between the two is, at least, strong presumptive evidence that neither of the two Evangelists had seen the record of the other. It is otherwise hardly conceivable that the element of difficulty which these differences involve should have been introduced by one or the other without a word of explanation. Each, it may be presumed, copied a document which he found, and the two documents were drawn up on a different plan as to the ideas of succession recognised in each of them.


Verse 18

(18) St. Matthew, for some reason or other, omits all mention of what St. Luke relates very fully, as to the events that preceded the birth of Jesus and brought about the birth at Bethlehem. Either he had not access to any document full and trustworthy, like that which St. Luke made use of, or, as every writer of history must fix a beginning more or less arbitrary, he found his starting-point in those facts which took a foremost place in what bore upon the fulfilment of Messianic prophecy. It has been said that the impression left by his narrative is so far misleading, that it suggests the idea that there was no earlier connection with Nazareth than that which we find in . It must, however, be remembered that even St. Luke’s narrative tells us nothing as to the original home of Joseph, and that one who himself belonged to Bethlehem, as being of the house and lineage of David, might, without any improbability, be betrothed to a maiden of Nazareth, probably of the same lineage. Of the earlier life of Mary the Canonical Gospels tell us nothing, and the Apocryphal Gospels (though they have furnished the groundwork of the treatment of the subject by Christian art—see Notes on Luke 1:27) are too legendary to be relied on. The omission of any mention of her parents suggests the idea of orphanhood, possibly under the guardianship of Joseph. The non-appearance of Joseph in the records of our Lord’s ministry, makes it probable that he died in the interval between the visit to the Temple of Luke 2:42 and the preaching of the Baptist, and that he was older than Mary. Both were poor; Joseph worked as a carpenter (Matthew 13:55), Mary offered the cheaper sacrifice of “two young pigeons” (Luke 2:24). They had no house at Bethlehem (Luke 2:7). Mary was related to Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah the priest (Luke 1:36). Both were within the circle of those who cherished Messianic expectations, and to whom, therefore, the announcement that these expectations were to be fulfilled would come as the answer to their hopes and prayers.

Was espoused to Joseph.—Betrothal, among the Jews, was a formal ceremony, the usual symbolic act being, from patriarchal times, the gift of a ring and other jewels (Genesis 24:53). The interval between betrothal and marriage was of uncertain length, but among the Jews of our Lord’s time was commonly for a whole year in the case of maidens. During that time the bride-elect remained in her own home, and did not see the bridegroom till he came to fetch her to his own house. All communications in the meantime were conducted through “the friend of the bridegroom” (John 3:29).

Of the Holy Ghost.—To Joseph and those who heard the new report from him, prior to the more precise truths revealed by our Lord’s teaching, the words would at least suggest a divine creative energy, quickening supernaturally the germ of life, as in Genesis 1:2, Psalms 104:30.


Verse 19

(19) Joseph her husband.—The word was applied with strict accuracy from the moment of betrothal onwards.

Being a just man. . . .—The glimpse given us into the character of Joseph is one of singular tenderness and beauty. To him, conscious of being of the house of David, and cherishing Messianic hopes, what he heard would seem to come as blighting those hopes. He dared not, as a “righteous” man, take to himself one who seemed thus to have sinned. But love and pity alike hindered him from pressing the law, which made death by stoning the punishment of such a sin (Deuteronomy 22:21), or even from publicly breaking off the marriage on the ground of the apparent guilt. There remained the alternative, which the growing frequency of divorce made easy, of availing himself of a “writ of divorcement,” which did not necessarily specify the ground of repudiation, except in vague language implying disagreement (Matthew 19:3). Thus the matter would be settled quietly without exposure. The “bill of divorcement” was as necessary for the betrothed as for those who were fully man and wife.


Verse 20

(20) While he thought on these things.—The words imply a conflict, a perplexity; and the words of the angel came as the solution of his doubts.

In a dream.—From the Jewish point of view, dreams were the received channels of divine communications to the aged, open visions in the state of ecstasy to the young (Joel 2:28). This, at least, falls in with what has been inferred as to Joseph’s age.

Joseph, thou son of David.—The latter words were, in the highest degree, significant. His character as the heir of Messianic hopes, which was indeed at the root of his fears, was fully recognised. That which he was bidden to do would not be inconsistent with that character, and would bring about the fulfilment of those hopes.

Thy wife.—Here again stress is laid on the fact that Mary was already entitled to that name, and had done nothing to forfeit it.

Conceived.—Better, perhaps, begotten.


Verse 21

(21) Thou shalt call his name Jesus.—There is nothing strange in this being to Joseph the first knowledge of the name, which St. Luke tells us (Luke 1:31) had been previously imparted to Mary. The customs of the Jews were, as we have seen, against any communications between the bride and bridegroom during the period of betrothal, and the facts of the case (including Mary’s visit to Elizabeth) would make it more improbable than ever.

The name Jesus was one full of meaning, but it was not as yet a specially sacred name. In its Old Testament form of Jehoshua (Numbers 13:16), Joshua, or Jeshua (Numbers 14:6; Nehemiah 8:17), it meant “Jehovah is salvation;” and the change of the name of the captain of Israel from Hoshea, which did not include the divine name, to the form which gave this full significance (Numbers 13:16) had made it the expression of the deepest faith of the people. After the return from Babylon it received a new prominence in connection with the high priest Joshua, the son of Josedech (Haggai 1:1; Zechariah 3:1), and appears in its Greek form in Jesus the father, and again in the son, of Sirach. In the New Testament itself we find it borne by others (see Note on Matthew 1:1). It had not been directly associated, however, with Messianic hopes, and the intimation that it was to be the name of the Christ gave a new character to men’s thoughts of the kingdom. Not conquest, but “salvation”—deliverance, not from human enemies only or chiefly, nor from the penalties of sin, but from the sins themselves. As spoken by the angel to the dreamer it was the answer to prayers and hopes, going beyond the hope, and purifying it from earthly thoughts. As recorded by the Evangelist it was a witness that he had been taught the true nature of the kingdom of the Christ.


Verse 22

(22) All this was done.—The Evangelist pauses in his narrative to introduce his own comment. He saw in what he relates that which answered to the apparent meaning of prophetic words. He could not possibly regard the agreement as a chance coincidence; and, as chance was excluded, there was no alternative but purpose. The prophecy and the event entered both of them into a divine plan.


Verse 23

(23) Behold, a virgin shall be with child.—It is not so easy for us, as it seemed to St. Matthew, to trace in Isaiah’s words the meaning which he assigns to them. As we find them in a literal translation from the Hebrew, the words of Isaiah 7:14 run thus:—“Behold, the maiden conceives and bears a son, and calls his name Immanuel.” If we read these words in connection with the facts recorded in that chapter—the alliance of the kings of Syria and Israel against Judah, Isaiah’s promise of deliverance, and his offer of a sign in attestation of his promise, the hypocritical refusal of that offer by Ahaz, who preferred resting on his plan of an alliance with Assyria—their natural meaning seems to be this:—The prophet either points to some maiden of marriageable years, or speaks as if he saw one in his vision of the future, and says that the sign shall be that she shall conceive and bear a son (the fulfilment of this prediction constituting the sign, without assuming a supernatural conception), and that she should give to that son a name which would embody the true hope of Israel—“God is with us.” The early years of that child should be nourished, not on the ordinary food of a civilised and settled population, but on the clotted milk and wild honey, which were (as we see in the case of the Baptist) the food of the dwellers in the wilderness, and which appear in Matthew 1:21-22, as part of the picture of the desolation to which the country would be reduced by the Assyrian invasion. But in spite of that misery, even before the child should attain to the age at which he could refuse the evil and choose the good, the land of those whom Ahaz and his people were then dreading should be “forsaken of both her kings.” So understood, all is natural and coherent. It must be added, however, that this child was associated by Isaiah with no common hopes. The land of Israel was to be his land (8:8). It is hardly possible not to connect his name with “the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father “of Isaiah 9:6; with the Rod and Branch of the Stem of Jesse that was to grow up and present the picture of an ideal king (Isaiah 11:1-9). All that we speak of as the Messianic hopes of the prophet clustered round the child Immanuel. Those hopes were, as we know, not fulfilled as he had expected. They remained for a later generation to feed on with yearning desire. But, so far as we know, they did not suggest to any Jewish interpreter the thought of a birth altogether supernatural. That thought did not enter into the popular expectations of the Messiah. It was indeed foreign to the prevailing feeling of the Jews as to the holiness of marriage and all that it involved, and would have commended itself to none but a small section of the more austere Essenes. St. Matthew, however, having to record the facts of our Lord’s birth, and reading Isaiah with a mind full of the new truths which rested on the Incarnation, could not fail to be struck with the correspondence between the facts and the words which he here quotes, and which in the Greek translation were even more emphatic than in the Hebrew, and saw in them a prophecy that had at last been fulfilled. He does not say whether he looked on it as a conscious or unconscious prophecy. He was sure that the coincidence was not casual.

The view thus given deals, it is believed fairly, with both parts of the problem. If to some extent it modifies what till lately was the current view as to the meaning of Isaiah’s prediction, it meets by anticipation the objection that the narrative was a mythical outgrowth of the prophecy as popularly received. It would be truer to say that it was the facts narrated that first gave occasion to this interpretation of the prophecy. St. Luke, who narrates the facts with far greater fulness than St. Matthew, does so without any reference to the words of the prophet.

Emmanuel.—As spoken by Isaiah, the name, like that of The Lord our Righteousness, applied by Jeremiah not only to the future Christ (Jeremiah 23:6), but to Jerusalem (Jeremiah 33:16), did not necessarily mean more than that “God was with His people,” protecting, guiding, ruling them. The Church of Christ has, however, rightly followed the Evangelist in seeing in it the witness to a Presence more direct, personal, immediate than any that had been known before. It was more than a watchword and a hope—more than a “nomen et omen”—and had become a divine reality.


Verse 24

(24) Took unto him his wife.—These few words cover a great deal. They imply the formal ratification of the betrothal before witnesses; the benediction by a priest; the marriage-feast; the removal from the house that had hitherto been her home to that of Joseph. They imply also that what had seemed evidence of guilt among the neighbours of that home, brought with it to Joseph’s mind no ground for blame. To them, if they were not told the history, and it is not probable that they were, it must have been deemed an act of exceptional mercy and forbearance. The reverence implied in what the next verse records must have roused their wonder.


Verse 25

(25) Till she had brought forth her first-born son.—The word “firstborn” is not found in the best MSS. The questions which meet us here, unprofitable as they are, cannot be altogether passed over. What bearing have these words on the widespread belief of Christendom in the perpetual maidenhood of Mary? On what grounds does that belief itself rest?

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Matthew 1:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/matthew-1.html. 1905.


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Thursday, November 23rd, 2017
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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