The Curse of Jeconiah and the Genealogy of Christ
by Jared L. Olar
In May 2004, a Jewish man who was very proud of his religious heritage visited a Christian internet discussion forum and asked one of the most important questions one can ask: ``I honestly would like to see a case made for Jesus being the Messiah,'' he wrote.
In the ensuing discussion, he presented various objections to Jesus' Messiahship that centered on questions regarding His
paternity and His genealogy. The prophets repeatedly foretold that the Messiah
would be descended from David and would inherit David's throne. Therefore, if
Jesus lacks a valid legal and genealogical claim to the throne of David, He
could not be the Messiah-that is, the rightful King of
However, the Jewish man believed there was a fatal, insurmountable objection to Jesus' Messiahship found in His genealogy. ``Joseph is part of a cursed lineage. You see, that is why Christians had to make up the virgin birth story, to spare Jesus from the curse,'' he asserted.
The Jewish man was correct that one of Joseph's ancestors had been cursed by God. In Matt. 1:12, a certain ``Jechonias'' appears in Jesus' genealogy. This was Jehoiachin, also called Jeconiah or Coniah, one of the last Kings of Judah. Because of his sins, God pronounced a dire curse on Jeconiah, as we read in Jer. 22:24, 30:
``As I live, saith
the LORD, though Coniah the son of Jehoiakim king of Judah were the signet on My right hand,
yet would I pluck thee thence . . . . Thus saith the
LORD, Write ye this man childless, a man that shall not prosper in his days:
for no man of his seed shall prosper, sitting upon the throne of David, and
ruling any more in
What could be clearer than that? Through a divine curse, Jeconiah
and his male descendants were barred from ever inheriting the throne. That's
why God told Jeremiah, ``Write ye this man childless,'' or, ``Record this man
as childless.'' It's not that Jeconiah had no
children-I Chron. 3:17-18, supported by
archaeological discoveries in
``The son of David, the son of Abraham''
St. Matthew's Gospel displays a thorough knowledge of Holy Scripture, so Matthew certainly knew about the curse of Jeconiah-and yet he still demonstrated that Jesus was ``Son of David'' by tracing a genealogy from Jeconiah down to St. Joseph. Some claim, as the Jewish man did, that Christians invented the story of the Virgin Birth in order to get around Jeconiah's curse. By the same token, some Christians say that Matthew showed Joseph's descent from Jeconiah in order to prove that Jesus, shown by ample signs and miracles to be the Messiah, wasn't the biological son of Joseph.
In fact, neither of those approaches to this problem is satisfactory. The
manifest purpose of the genealogy in Matt. 1 is to show that Jesus is ``the son
of David, the son of Abraham.'' The genealogy traces a male-line descent from
Abraham through David down to
A Cancelled Curse:
The answer is that, according to the Scriptures and steadfast Jewish tradition, none of Jeconiah's descendants were affected by this curse, because God cancelled the curse on account of Jeconiah's repentance. As a matter of fact, we shall see that this Jewish man who thought Jeconiah's curse could be used to disprove Jesus' Messiahship did not know rabbinic tradition at all-for Orthodox Jewish tradition states that the Messiah would come from the line of Jeconiah, just as St. Matthew shows.
First, let's look to the Scriptures. According to Jer. 22:30, Jeconiah would not prosper in his days. And yet in II Kings 25:27-28, it says, ``And it came to pass in the seven and thirtieth year of the captivity of Jehoiachin king of Judah, . . . Evil-Merodach in the year that he began to reign did lift up the head of Jehoiachin king of Judah out of prison; and he spake kindly to him, and set his throne above the thrones of the kings that were with him in Babylon. . . .'' If Jeconiah would not prosper during his lifetime, how could this have happened?
also says that none of Jeconiah's descendants would
prosper. And yet Jeconiah's grandson Zerubbabel prospered, becoming the Governor of Judah under
the Persian Emperor, and supervising the rebuilding of the
``As I live, saith the LORD, though Coniah the son of Jehoiakim king of Judah were the signet on My right hand, yet would I pluck thee thence.'' (Jer. 22:24)
``In that day,' saith the LORD of hosts, will I take thee, O Zerubbabel, my servant, the son of Shealtiel, saith the LORD, and will make thee as a signet, for I have chosen thee, saith the LORD of hosts.'' (Haggai 2:23)
Although Zerubbabel never reigned as king, the close similarity between Haggai 2:23 and Jer. 22:24 suggests that Haggai was indicating that God had cancelled the curse He had pronounced on Jeconiah and his descendants. It's possible that the clause, ``in his days,'' in Jer. was a limitation on the duration of the curse-that it would apply to Jeconiah and his family only during the lifetime of Jeconiah. However, as we shall see, longstanding and continuous Jewish rabbinic tradition states that the curse was cancelled due to Jeconiah's repentance.
The Interpretation of the Rabbis:
The Encyclopedia Judaica's article ``Jehoiachin'' (9:1319) refers to a Jewish tradition that, ``Even the decree that none of [Jehoiachin's] descendants would ascend the throne (Jer. ) was repealed when Zerubbabel was appointed leader of the returned exiles (cf. Sanh. 37b-38a).''
This is what Sanhedrin 37b-38a says (Soncino Talmud edition):
said: Exile atones for everything, for it is written, Thus
saith the Lord, write ye this man childless, a man
that shall not prosper in his days, for no man of his seed shall prosper
sitting upon the throne of David and ruling any more in
The Soncino edition's footnotes for this section that are relevant to our discussion are as follows:
[A] ``I Ch. III, 17. Notwithstanding the curse that he should be childless and not prosper, after being exiled he was forgiven.
[B] ``Which He had made, to punish Jechoniah with childlessness.''
The tradition that God forgave Jeconiah and rescinded the curse also appears in Pesikta de-Rab Kahana from the 400s A.D. The following lengthy excerpt comes from pp. 376-377 of the 1975 Yale Judaica edition, translated by William G. Braude and Israel J. Kapstein, with explanatory comments inserted by the translators:
``I accepted the repentance of Jeconiah: shall I not accept your repentance? A cruel
decree had been imposed upon Jeconiah: Scripture
says, This man Coniah is a despised, shattered image
('sb) (Jer. 22:28),
for Jeconiah, according to R. Abba bar Kahana, was like a man's skull ('sm)
which once shattered is utterly useless, or according to R. Helbo,
like a wrapper of reed matting that dates are packed in, which, once emptied,
is utterly useless. And Scripture goes on to say of Jeconiah:
He is a vessel that none reaches for with delight (ibid.), a vessel, said R. Hama bar R. Hanina, such as a
urinal; or a vessel, said R. Samuel bar Nahman, such
as is used for drawing off blood. [These comments on Jeconiah
derive from] R. Meir's statement: The Holy One swore
that He would raise up no king out of Jeconiah king of
``R. Ze'era said: I heard the voice of R. Samuel bar Isaac expounding from the teacher's chair a specific point concerning Jeconiah, but I just cannot remember what it was. R. Aha Arika asked: Did it perhaps have some connection with this particular verse-Thus saith the Lord: Write ye this man childless, a man [who] will not prosper in his days (Jer. 22:30)? `Yes, that's it!' said R. Ze'era. Thereupon R. Aha Arika went on to give R. Samuel bar Isaac's interpretation of the verse: In his days Jeconiah, so long as he is childless, will not prosper, but when he has a son, then he will prosper by his son's prosperity.
``R Aha bar Abun bar Benjamin, citing R. Abba bar R. Papi, said: Great is the power of repentance, which led God to set aside an oath even as it led Him to set aside a decree. Whence the proof that a man's repentance led Him to set aside the oath He made in the verse As I live, saith the Lord, though Coniah the son of Jehoiakim were the signet on a hand, yet by My right, I would pluck thee hence (Jer. 22:24)? The proof is in the verse where Scripture says [of one of Jeconiah's descendants] In that day, saith the Lord of hosts, will I take thee, O Zerubbabel . . . the son of Shealtiel . . . and will make thee as a signet (Haggai 2:23). And the proof that a man's repentance led God to set aside a decree He issued in the verse Thus saith the Lord: Write ye this man childless, etc. (Jer. 22:30)? The proof is in the verse where Scripture says, The sons of Jeconiah-the same is Asir-Shealtiel his son, etc. (1 Chron. 3:17). R. Tanhum bar Jeremiah said: Jeconiah was called Asir, `one imprisoned,' because he had been in prison ('asurim); and his son called `Shealtiel' because he was like a sapling, newly set out (hustelah), through whom David's line would be continued.
``R. Tanhuma said: Jeconiah was called Asir, `imprisoned,' because God imprisoned Himself by His oath in regard to him; and Jeconiah's son was called Shealtiel, `God consulted,' because God consulted the heavenly court, and they released Him from His oath.''
Again, in Leviticus Rabbah xix:6, a document of the 400s and 500s A.D., it says of Jeconiah that ``the Holy One, blessed be He, pardoned him all his sins'' (Soncino Midrash Rabbah vol. 4, p. 249). Then in the 500s and 600s A.D., the tradition that Jeconiah's repentance effected a reversal of his curse is found in Pesikta Rabbati, Piska 47 (1968 Yale Judaica edition, transl. by William G. Braude, vol. 2, p.797):
``R. Joshua ben Levi, however, argued as follows: Repentance sets aside the entire decree, and prayer half the decree. You find that it was so with Jeconiah, king of Judah. For the Holy One, blessed be He, swore in His anger, As I live, saith the Lord, though Coniah the son of Jehoiakim king of Judah were the signet on a hand, yet by My right-note, as R. Meir said, that it was by His right hand that God swore-I would pluck thee hence (Jer. 22:24). And what was decreed against Jeconiah? That he die childless. As is said Write ye this man childless (Jer. 22:30). But as soon as he avowed penitence, the Holy One, blessed be He, set aside the decree, as is shown by Scripture's reference to The sons of Jeconiah-the same is Assir-Shealtiel his son, etc. (1 Chron. 3:17). And Scripture says further: In that day . . . will I take thee, O Zerubbabel . . . the son of Shealtiel . . . and will make thee as a signet (Haggai 2:23). Behold, then how penitence can set aside the entire decree!''
Note that this Jewish rabbinic source cites Haggai 2:23 as proof that God had forgiven Jeconiah and cancelled the curse He had decreed in Jer. 22:30. We see the very same thing in Numbers Rabbah, which dates perhaps to the 800s A.D. Numbers Rabbah XX:20, on pp. 812-813 of the Soncino Midrash Rabbah, vol. 6, mentions the curse of Jeconiah as an example of repentance causing the Lord God to ``repent of the evil.'' Significantly, in that text Haggai 2:23 is again quoted as proof that God had rescinded His curse.
Jewish tradition continues to maintain this interpretation of Jeconiah's curse, as we see in Rabbi A. J. Rosenberg's Jeremiah: A New English Translation (New York: Judaica Press, 1985), vol. 1, p.185. In commenting on Jer. 22:30, Rosenberg repeats the longstanding tradition that God had forgiven Jeconiah and cancelled the curse, interpreting Haggai 2:23 just as we have seen above. As his authority, Rosenberg cites the opinion of ``Radak,'' that is, Rabbi David Kimchi, who lived in the 1200s A.D.
Jeconiah to Sire the Messiah:
As we have seen, Jewish tradition has consistently maintained throughout the centuries that Jeconiah's curse was lifted. If both the Scriptures and Jewish tradition testify to that interpretation, the curse of Jeconiah has no bearing on Jesus' claim to be the Messiah. Indeed, as I mentioned above, Jewish tradition also maintains that the Messiah will be descended from Jeconiah-and such a tradition would be incompatible with a belief that Jeconiah's lineage is under a perpetual curse. Note what it says in the Jewish Encyclopedia's article ``Jehoiachin,'' vol. 7, p.84:
``Jehoiachin's sad experiences changed his nature entirely, and as he repented of the sins which he had committed as king he was pardoned by God, who revoked the decree to the effect that none of his descendants should ever become king (Jer. xxii.30; Pesik., ed. Buber, xxv. 163a, b): he even became the ancestor of the Messiah (Tan., Toledot, 20 [ed. Buber, i. 140]).''
The document cited by the Jewish Encyclopedia is Tanhuma Genesis, Toledot, which dates from the 700s or 800s A.D., and which reads as follows:
``Scripture alludes here to the verse Who art thou, O great mountain before Zerubbabel? Thou shalt become a plain (Zech. 4:7). This verse refers to the Messiah, the descendant of David. . . . From whom will the Messiah descend? From Zerubbabel.'' (Midrash Tanhuma-Yelammedenu, transl. by Samuel A. Berman, 1996, p.182)
In the same era that the Tanhuma was written, we know that the Jews looked to the Babylonian Exilarch (rosh-golah, resh-galuta, ``chief of the exiles'') as the rightful king of the line of David, claiming that the Davidic Exilarchate in Babylon and Baghdad was a fulfillment of Gen. 49:10. The medieval Exilarchs, who claimed for themselves the title and rank of ``king,'' and were recognised as such by the Jews, traced their genealogy back to Zerubbabel. This shows not only that the Jews were unaware of Jeconiah's curse barring his descendants from the throne, but also implies that the Jews expected the Messiah to arise from the line of the Babylonian Exilarchs, who were descendants of Jeconiah (See chapters 2-5 of Arthur J. Zuckerman's 1972 study, A Jewish Princedom in Feudal France 768-900).
We have already seen that Rabbi A. J. Rosenberg reiterated the ancient tradition that God rescinded Jeconiah's curse. In his commentary on Jer. 22:24 (Jeremiah: A New English Translation, vol. 1, p.183), Rosenberg says, ``Malbim calls to our attention that in the prophecy of Haggai (2:23), God says, `On that day I will take you, Zerubbabel, and I will make you like a signet,' for the King Messiah will be like a signet ring on God's right hand, so to speak. Just as the name of the owner of the ring is engraved on his signet ring, through which he makes himself known, so will God's name be known in the world through the King Messiah, through whom His miracles will be known. He says here that, though, in the future, Coniah will be the signet on My right hand, for the Messiah will spring from his seed, now I will remove him from there.''
``Malbim'' stands for Meir Loeb ben Jehiel Michale, a Jewish rabbi and commentator of the 1800s. Again we see that this ancient tradition has existed continuously in Orthodox Judaism down to our own day. The rabbis and sages were simply unaware of Jeconiah's curse being an impediment to the Messiah being Jeconiah's descendant. Consequently, Jeconiah's curse cannot be wielded as an axe against the trunk of Jesus' family tree in Matt. 1.
What about the Virgin Birth?
But if St. Joseph's descent from Jeconiah wouldn't bar Jesus from inheriting the throne of David, what about the Virgin Birth? Because of that miracle, Jesus wasn't really the son of Joseph. How then could Jesus be the Son of David? As a matter of fact, a common Jewish objection is that the throne of Israel can only be inherited through the male line. ``If Christians are going to insist that Jesus had no biological father,'' so they argue, ``they should know that in Jewish law and custom, He could never inherit the throne.'' Even more, Jews often assert that in Jewish law, standing within an Israelite tribe can only be conferred through male-line genealogical descent. As the argument goes, if Jesus lacked a biological father, He couldn't have belonged to the Tribe of Judah, which would mean He couldn't fulfill Gen. 49:10.
There are two ways to respond to this argument. First, one must remember
that a commonly accepted principle in both Jewish and Christian law is that
children who are born to a lawfully-married woman are by default considered the
lawful offspring of her husband unless he publicly and strenuously denies his
paternity. St. Joseph was about to divorce St. Mary when the angel intervened
and told him to go ahead and take Mary into his home. He never denounced his
wife for bearing a child by someone other than her husband, nor did he
conspicuously act as if Jesus wasn't his child. To all observers, the Holy
Family looked like a perfectly unmiraculous
family-they would have no reason to believe that Jesus was conceived through
the supernatural agency of the Holy Spirit. Even if
It's also important to remember that the argument-that Jesus couldn't
inherit because he wasn't really
But what about the claims that both the throne of
For example, in Num. 27, we have the case of the five daughters of Zelophehad. Even though Zelophehad never had any sons, his five daughters became the ancestresses of clans within the tribe of Manasseh that were named after them-Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah-not after their husbands, whose names are in fact never once mentioned in the Bible.
We see this principle at work again in I Chron.
2:34-41, where we find a genealogy traced back to Jarha,
the Egyptian slave and son-in-law of Sheshan the Jerahmeelite, a descendant of
A third instance of tribal inheritance or clan membership passing through the female line is found in Neh. 7:63, which mentions a clan named ``the children of Barzillai, which took one of the daughters of Barzillai the Gileadite to wife, and was called after their name.'' Notice, the clan was named after the female-line ancestor, Barzillai the Gileadite, not the male-line ancestor, whose name is not mentioned at all.
Ancient Christian tradition affirms that both
As for the claim that Israel's throne could only pass through the male line, all we need to do is remember that the Dynasty of David ascended to power in succession to the Dynasty of Saul, even though David's only connection to the preceding dynasty was marital-David had married King Saul's daughter Michal (a childless marriage too).
Taken together, all of these considerations show that there are no valid legal or genealogical objections to Jesus' Messiahship. And yet it is also important to remember that one should expect at least a little discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants. Thus, unlike previous Davidic kings, the Messiah, the Son of David, lacks a male-line biological descent from David, but still inherits the kingdom. Christians believe that Jesus is not just the Son of David but also the Son of Man, the Second Adam, with His Mother as a Second Eve. In other words, the miracle of the Incarnation was the beginning of a new creation. When God takes decisive action to redeem the lost, of course there would be momentous, unprecedented and heretofore unheard of things-barren women and virgins conceiving, the dead raised, the sick healed, the blind getting back their sight, sinners brought to repentance, and human nature restored and glorified. As God says in Isa. 43:18-19:
``Remember ye not the former things, neither consider the things of old. Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it?''
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