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LESSON 9: THE FOUR SENSES OF MATTHEW 1:2a: "Abraham begot Isaac"

by John F. McCarthy
(May 1999)

        51. The literal sense of Matt 1:2a. The literal meaning of Matthew 1:2a is that Abraham physically and historically begot Isaac. By repeatedly using the word "begot" (egennesen), Matthew stresses the carnal descent of the male seed of Abraham to Joseph, the adoptive father of Jesus, in contrast with the virginal conception of Jesus and in opposition to the carnal interpretation of salvation. Hermann Gunkel and other historical-critics of the "history of religions" school, in the last decade of the nineteenth century and in the first decade of the twentieth century A.D., after studying some archaeological material relating to the pagan religions of the ancient Middle East, conceived the idea that the "creation stories" and the "patriarchal legends" in Genesis are not true historical narratives but are literary reworkings by Hebrew story-tellers, dating from the fifteenth century B.C. and later, of much more ancient myths about the pagan gods derived from the surrounding cultures. Gunkel tried to present evidence that Abraham and Sarah were derived from a myth about the gods of the city of Haran. Looking at Genesis 11:29, he thought he saw a parallel between the combination of the names of Sarai ("princess"), the wife of Abram, and Milcah ("queen"), the wife of Abram's brother Nahor, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the combination of Šarratu "queen") and Malkatu ("princess") in the pagan mythology of Babylon. Gunkel suggested that the family of Abraham and Sarah were originally the mythological family of Sin, the chief god of Haran, and his wife and daughter.1   But Gunkel's reasoning is weak and far-fetched. Even if some of the ancestors of the Hebrews did have names relating to pagan gods and goddesses, this would not suggest that they had never had real historical existence, since all of the persons named in Gen 11:26-29 were born into a pagan culture and "served foreign gods" (Joshua 24:2). But the goddesses of Haran to whom Gunkel appealed were actually named Nin-gal and Ishtar, while šarratu and malkatu are generic words that could apply to any queen or princess. And Gunkel could not find any mythological antecedent for the name of Abram, who is the principal figure of this patriarchal history. Many historical-critics were taken in by Gunkel's reasoning, but, later in the twentieth century, further archaeological discoveries indicated that the name and culture of Abram, as depicted in Genesis, relate precisely to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries B.C.,2   and they demonstrated as scientifically "certain" that the Hebrew patriarchs were real historical persons,3    although there were never any historical grounds for doubting this.

        52. The allegory of the names in Matt 1:2a. Thomas Aquinas points out that the succession of fathers listed in the genealogy signify Christ by reason of their name or of some fact or event characterizing their lives.4   The root-meaning of the name Abraham is "father of a multitude." The Lord said to Abram: Go forth out of your country and from your kindred and out of your father's house, and come into the land which I will show you. And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be blessed. And I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse the one who despises you, and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed" (Gen 12:1-3). And the word of the Lord came to Abram, saying that "he who will come out of your bowels shall be your heir" (Gen 15:4). Abram begot Ishmael by Hagar, an Egyptian maid-servant, when he was eighty-six years old (Gen 15:4). But, when Abram was ninety-nine, the Lord appeared to him and said: "No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. ... And I will establish my covenant between me and you and between your seed after you in their generations for a perpetual covenant to be a God to you and to your seed after you" (Gen 17:5-7). God also said to Abraham: "Sarai your wife you shall not call her name Sarai, for Sarah shall be her name. And I will bless her and from her I will give you a son ...." (Gen 17:15-16).

        53. The root-meaning of the name Isaac is "he laughs." When Abraham heard that Sarah would bear him a son, he fell on his face and laughed, saying in his heart, "Shall a son, do you think be born to a man that is a hundred years old? And shall Sarah, a daughter of ninety years, bring forth?" (Gen 17:17). But God said to Abraham: "Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac, and I will establish my covenant with him for a perpetual covenant, and with his seed after him" (Gen 17:19). And the Lord said again that Sarah would have a son, "which, when Sarah heard, she laughed behind the door of the tent." Yes, she laughed to herself, realizing that she had grown so old (Gen 18:10-12). "And the Lord said to Abraham: Why did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I who am an old woman bear a child indeed? Is anything too difficult for God?" (Gen 18:13-14). "And Abraham called the name of the son who was born to him, whom Sarah had borne to him, Isaac" (Gen 21:3). "And Sarah said: God has made a laughter for me: all who hear (of it) will laugh with me" (Gen 21:6).

        54. The allegory of the two testaments in Matt 1:2a. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul brings to mind that "Abraham had two sons, the one of a bondwoman and the other of a free woman" (Gal 4:22). Ishmael, the son of Hagar the bondwoman, "was born according to the flesh," while Isaac, the son of Sarah the free woman, was born according to the promise (Gal 4:23), which things, St. Paul continues, "are said by an allegory" (Gal 4:24).5   Hagar, he points out, represents the earthly Jerusalem, related geographically to Mount Sinai, while Sarah is a figure of "that Jerusalem which is above" (Gal 4:26). These are the two testaments: Hagar prefigures the Old Testament, received by Moses on Mount Sinai and creating for its children bondage to the Old Law; Sarah stands for the New Testament, whose children are free (Gal 4:25-26). The Old Law is a bondage, because it establishes burdens without bestowing holiness: "knowing that man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ" (Gal 2:16). The Law of Moses was given because of the sinfulness of the people. St. Paul concludes: "we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free (woman), by the freedom wherewith Christ has made us free" (Gal 4:31). The point that St. Paul is making in his reading of this allegory is that the citizens of the earthly Jerusalem of his day were the physical descendants of Abraham and Sarah, but were not necessarily their children according to the promise made by God to Abraham that He would establish a perpetual covenant between Himself and "your seed after you in their generations" (Gen 17:7). The promise to Abraham and to his seed was only figuratively to Isaac and to his biological descendants, but really to Jesus and to his followers. "To Abraham were the promises made and to his seed. He says not, And to his seeds, as of many, but as of one, And to your seed, which is Christ" (Gal 3:16).

        55. But the promise was also made really to Isaac and to his descendants inasmuch as they believed in Christ to come. "As it is written: Abraham believed God, and it was reputed to him unto justice. Know, therefore, that they who are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham" (Gal 3:6-7). Abraham did historically become the father of many nations, and in this he prefigured the act of God the Father in raising up from all nations many children of the Resurrection. "And if the Spirit of him who raised up Jesus Christ from the dead dwell in you, he who raised up Jesus Christ from the dead shall quicken also your mortal bodies, because of his Spirit that dwells in you. ... For whosoever are led by the Spirit of God, they are the children of God" (Rom 8:11,14). Jesus is the rightful Son of God (Luke 1:35; Ps 2:7). God the Father is, in a wider sense and by appropriation, the Father of all men both as the Creator of all things and as the Creator of each individual human soul, but He is above all the "Father of a multitude," inasmuch as the faithful of all times have been made his adopted children in the grace of his Son Jesus. "For whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brethren" (Rom 8:29). In the teaching of St. Paul, the Law of Moses did not annul the promise to Abraham; nor was it given in fulfillment of the promise, but it took its definitive form because of the sinfulness of the people. As Moses himself recalled: "For I know your obstinacy and your most stiff neck. While I am yet living and going in with you, you have always been rebellious against the Lord; how much more when I shall be dead?" But the Mosaic Law was given also in expectancy of the coming of the promised seed, who is Jesus Christ (Gal 3:19).

        56. The anagogical sense of Matt 1:2a. The hope of Abraham in the promises of God was by no means confined to the goods of this world. He, Abel, Noah, and others, "died in faith, not having received the promises, but beholding them from afar, and greeting them, and confessing that they were pilgrims and strangers on the earth. ... But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country" (Heb 11:13,16). They saw the spiritual significance of the promises and of the heavenly kingdom, where God in Three Persons dwells. Thus, the understanding of Sarah as representing "that Jerusalem which is above" pertains directly to the anagogical sense of this physical conception. But it pertains indirectly to the Church of Christ on earth as the body of believers living in accordance with the teaching of Jesus and partaking of his saving grace, with their minds turned towards the heavenly Jerusalem: "Therefore, if you be risen with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God" (Col 3:1). And the personality of God seems also to be anagogically imprinted upon these words. Abraham, in begetting Isaac, was chosen to represent God the Father, inasmuch as God the Father exults with infinite joy as He eternally begets God the Son (Ps 2:7), and eternally spirates God the Holy Spirit, and all Three Persons exult in the fact that the one utterly simple and uncomposed God eternally exists in them. Furthermore, to be able to laugh is characteristic of intelligent being, and God, in his infinite intelligence, laughs joyfully with his adoptive children both in their inability in this life to comprehend the divine mysteries and in their fuller comprehension when they are blessed with the beatific vision. It was in the best of humor that God ordered Abraham to name his son "He laughs." And thus did the historical Isaac come to prefigure by his name the eternal Son of the eternal Father, both in his eternal generation and in his worldly incarnation.

        57. The tropological (moral) sense of Matt 1:2a. Tropologically, Abraham symbolizes Christian faith, while Isaac symbolizes Christian hope. Abraham is in faith "the father of us all" (Rom 4:16). He received the sign of circumcision "that he might be the father of all those who believe, being uncircumcised, that to them also it may be reputed unto justice" (Rom 4:11). As St. Ambrose explains: "For Abraham was the first who deserved the witness of faith, because he believed God, and it was reputed to him unto justice. It behooved, therefore, that he should be set forth as the initiator of the line of descent who was the first to deserve the promise of the restoration of the Church: In you shall all the nations of the earth be blessed."6   However, "it is not written only for him that it was reputed to him unto justice, but also to us, to whom it shall be reputed, if we believe in him who raised up Jesus Christ Our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up for our sins and rose again for our justification" (Rom 4:23-25). "Isaac is interpreted laughter; the laughter of the saints is not the foolish contortion of the lips, but the rational joy of the heart, which was the mystery of Christ. For, as he was granted to his parents in their extreme age to their great joy, that it might be known that he was not the child of nature but of grace, thus Christ also in this last time came of a Jewish mother to be the joy of the whole earth; the one of a virgin, the other of a woman past the age, both contrary to the expectation of nature."7   Christian hope is the joyful confidence arising from firm belief in the object of faith. "Rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; constant in prayer" (Rom 12:12). There is no hope where the realities of the object of faith are not affirmed, and these realities include of necessity the existence of God in three divine Persons, the state of Original Sin, the Incarnation of God in Jesus, the existence of Heaven, and the need of the grace of Jesus in order to arrive there. Therefore, any approach to Sacred Scripture which prescinds from these realities can never comprehend the message contained in these writings. And any interpreter who presupposes that the extraordinary events recorded in the Scriptures are mere figments of the religious imagination or who is unaware that his own educated world-view tends to be twisted by the effects of Original Sin in his soul has too unrealistic a frame of mind to be able to comprehend what is written therein. There is no neutral approach to the Bible: either the reader is open to belief or he is unreasonably opposed to belief.

        58. The adversaries of Jesus believed that being physical descendants of Abraham automatically made them children of the promise, but Jesus taught that, in order to escape bondage to sin, they had also to accept the truth revealed by God. They said to Jesus: "We are the seed of Abraham, and we have never been slaves to any man; how do you say: you shall be free?" Jesus answered them: "If you be the children of Abraham, do the works of Abraham" (Jn 8:39). "If God were your Father, you would indeed love me, for from God I proceeded and came, for I came, not of myself, but he sent me" (Jn 8:42). "You are of your father the Devil, and your will is to do your father's desires" (Jn 8:44). Thus anyone who adheres to the truth of God, in imitation of the faith of Abraham, whether he be a descendant of Isaac, a descendant of Ishmael, or a descendant of neither, becomes a child of Abraham and an inheritor of the promise. "And the Gentiles shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. Lift up your eyes round about and see: all these are gathered together, they have come to you; your sons shall come from afar, and your daughters shall be carried in your arms" (Isa 60:3-4). Tropologically, the children of Ishmael are all of those who reject the things that are above and seek fulfillment in the goods of this world, whether they be in the Church or outside of the Church; they are the enemies of the Cross of Christ. And the blessed children of Abraham are all of those who have the law of God written in their hearts (Jer 31:33) and are partakers of the sanctifying grace of Jesus.

        59. The special tropology of Matt 1:2a. The episode of the conception of Isaac, as described in the Book of Genesis, prefigures the Virginal Conception of Our Lord Jesus Christ. That a woman eighty-nine years old should conceive from a man ninety-nine years old prefigures the conception of Jesus in the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. Regarding Sarah the Lord said: "Is anything too difficult for God?" So also Gabriel said to Mary that her cousin Elizabeth had conceived a son in her old age, "because no word shall be impossible with God" (Luke 1:37). Abraham laughed at the seeming incongruity of Sarah's conception of Isaac, not in a spirit of incredulity, but in a spirit of joy and gratitude. "Who against hope believed in hope, that he might be made the father of many nations, according to that which was said to him: So shall your seed be. And he was not weak in faith; neither did he consider his own body now dead, whereas he was almost a hundred years old, nor the barren womb of Sarah. In the promise also of God he wavered not in distrust, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God" (Rom 4:18-20). As Abraham went out from his country and from his father's house in answer to the call of God, so did the Divine Word go out from the house of his Almighty Father in assuming a human nature and becoming man (Jer 12:7; John 1:14). And the laughter of Abraham symbolizes the joy of the Father in contemplating the seeming incongruity of the God-man, Jesus Christ. "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matt 3:17). Just as Sarah laughed with joy at her extraordinary conception, so the Blessed Virgin Mary laughed with joy at her miraculous delivery, and the angels laughed joyfully with her. "Behold, I bring you good news of great joy that shall be to all the people" (Luke 2:10).

        60. One should not overlook the importance of the mothers in the figurative sense of the begetting of Isaac, since he inherited the promise of God, not simply because he was the son of Abraham, but especially because he was the son of Sarah. Abraham was obedient to faith, and "By faith also Sarah herself, being barren, received strength to conceive seed, even past the time of age, because she believed that he was faithful who had promised" (Heb 11:11). In her conception of Isaac, Sarah prefigures Mary, Mother of Jesus and Mother of the Church. At Mary's coming, the infant in Elizabeth's womb "leaped for joy," and Elizabeth exclaimed to Mary: "Blessed are you who have believed that those things shall be accomplished which were spoken to you by the Lord" (Luke 1:45), and Mary proclaimed her joy in God her Savior (Luke 1:47). Mary is the supreme example of the imitation of Christ in inclining one's ear to the call of God to follow a vocation to Heaven (Ps 44:11). The literal sense of Matthew's chapter one stresses the virginal conception in Mary over all of the begettings listed in the preceding genealogy, while the spiritual senses, which I have attempted to describe, centered as they are on the incarnation of the Divine Word in Jesus, imply also the importance of the virtues of faith and hope in the children of God, above all in Mary, the Mother of God and of the Church. And what the spiritual sense of Matthew 1 excludes above all is the carnal interpretation of salvation, according to which being a physical descendant of Abraham and Sarah is thought to give in itself a right to the blessings promised to Abraham by the one true God, apart from any adherence to the Mystical Body of Christ and apart from any spiritual fulfillment of the commandments of love for God and neighbor.


1. Cf. H. Gunkel, Genesis, Eng. trans. of the 1910 revised German ed.- Mercer: Macon, Georgia, 1997), p. 162.

2. "The mention of Melchizedek, the reference in 14:14 to Abraham's 318 retainers (with an Egyptian word used in the 20th century [B.C.] and later for the retainers of Asiatic chieftains, and the Hittite address to Abraham as 'prince of God' (Gen 23:6) all illustrate the high rank of Abraham in the world of that day as reflected by Hebrew tradition. These and the other data which we have presented are meaningless unless we take them at their face value and recognize in the hoary figure of 'Abram the Hebrew' a caravaneer of high repute in his time, the chief traditional representative of the original donkey caravaneers of the 19th century B.C., when this profession reached the climax of its history" (W.F. Albright, "Abram the Hebrew: A New Archaeological Interpretation," in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 163 [Oct., 1961], p. 52).

3. "Who were the Hebrew Patriarchs? ... Some formerly held that the Patriarchs were really depotentized gods who were transformed by legend into human beings and lost their divine characteristics. Others have thought that, in the course of many centuries of story-telling, the Hebrew Patriarchs came to reflect early ethnic movements. Thanks to our present evidence [1967], it is certain today that the Patriarchs were indeed human beings who were the heroes of stories handed down from the Patriarchal Age" (W.F. Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan [Athlone: London, 1968], p. 56).

4. The basic ideas and references in this article, apart from a more developed use of the framework of the Four Senses, are taken from the Catena aurea and the Commentary on the Gospel according to St. Matthew of Thomas Aquinas at Matt 1:2.

5. Abraham had other sons by Keturah (Gen 25:2), but this does not alter the allegory.

6. Ambrose, Commentary at Luke 3, quoted in the Catena aurea, at Matt 1:2.

7. Quotation attributed to Chrysostom in the Catena aurea, but now attributed to Pseudo-Chrysostom.

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