In Part 1 of Matthew’s Genealogy of Jesus we briefly outlined several theological points yielded by this record of Jesus’ ancestry. Part 1 ended with the observation that Matthew’ structure of three groups of 14 generations is all very neat and symmetrical but it does not quite tally with the Old Testament record.
Let’s explore the numbers of generations and if they have any significance in Matthew’s genealogy.
Note how the evangelist organises his material into three groups of 14 generations. That is, 14 generations from Abraham to David, a further 14 generations from David to the exile, and finally 14 generations from the exile to Jesus. It is all very neat but what is striking is that if one examines the Old Testament records carefully it becomes clear that the genealogical material there is not quite so symmetrical and Matthew has missed out several names.
There may be theological reasons for this. One view is that the names left out were because they were related to wicked king Ahab. Early Church theologians certainly saw it this way and I am sure there is much more to discuss theologically.
Yet it is also manifestly certain that Matthew’s 3 x 14 generations structure serves an important theological aim right at the beginning of his gospel. Scholars agree that Matthew’s intended his gospel for a Jewish readership and the three groupings of 14 would have resonated particularly strikingly with that audience (discussed below). Thus, it is clear that Matthew’s genealogy is a stylised piece of work, that is to say a deliberate literary construct or device employed by the author for a particular theological purpose. In short, Matthew is utilising history to engage in theology.
On an aside, to some conservative Christians the idea of the Bible’s authors having this kind of cavalier input into the penning of Holy Scripture is difficult to accept, perhaps even heretical. Yet Matthew’s stylised yet careful structuring of the material is far from cavalier and in fact yields a highly significant theological message to his Jewish readership (discussed a little further on). Moreover, the role humans play in the composition of Scripture is attested to in the Bible and discussed briefly in this post. The fundamental issue is that human involvement in the writing of Scripture was subject to the supervision of the Holy Spirit. So Matthew is not being untruthful, inventive or cavalier, rather he is taking the historical data to explain a particular theological point to his readers.
So what is the significance of Matthew’s three-fold structure of 14 generations? As well as the being the basic building blocks of words and language, the letters in the Hebrew alphabet also have a numerical value. The first letter in the alphabet is Alef, and so its numerical value is 1. The second letter is Bet so its value is 2, and so on.
Now here is the key point Matthew is making. In the Hebrew Bible the name “David” consists of three letters (there are no consonants): Dalet, Vav and Dalet (DVD). Dalet is the fourth letter in the alphabet so has a numerical value of 4. Vav is the sixth letter in the alphabet and thus its value is 6. Finally, the second Dalet is also valued at 4. In short, the name David totals 14 in the Hebrew alphabet: Dalet (4) + Vav (6) + Dalet (4) = 14.
This is major stuff Matthew is transmitting to his Jewish audience. By structuring his genealogy in this way he is making the boldest claims possible about Jesus. Central to all this is the kingship of David, so central to Jewish historical and religious thought. Note there are 14 generations from Abraham (the father of the Jewish people) to King David. The Davidic kingship motif is especially important in the Old Testament. Then we have an additional 14 generations from King David to the exile, which was the nation’s catastrophe and one which to this day evokes mourning and yields important ramifications. Finally, Matthew details a final 14 generations from Israel’s catastrophic exile until the birth of Jesus.
So in his genealogy Matthew is not only linking Jesus to the three key people and/or events of his readers’ national history—the father of the nation, the motif of the Davidic king of Israel and the nation’s catastrophe—but the way Jesus is presented by the evangelist pts the Messiah not only in continuity with but also supersedes those people and stages (cf Hebrews 1:1-2). Jesus’ link to His ancestor King David is evident, and by spelling out David across three lots of generations identifying key moments in Israel’s history Matthew is stating boldly that Jesus is truly the promised Son of David in continuity with King David but now the full divine expression of that Davidic motif.
Now, it is important to note at this point that the use of numbers can be overplayed and misused and if you have enough computing power you can extract numerical “deeper readings” and make the Bible say all manner of things. A case in point was the Bible code debacle some years ago. But Matthew’s use of numbers above is nothing like that. It draws upon the Jewish practice of gematria and the symbolic use of numbers in Scripture (most Christians, too, are aware of the significance of the number seven in the Bible, and there are others). Gematria plays an important role in a Hebrew understanding of Scripture and Matthew’s construction of Jesus’ genealogy wold have been immediately understood by his readership. The controversy is not Matthew’s use of numbers to make his claims, but rather the incredibly bold and mind-blowing claims themselves that Jesus was divine Son of David.
I am quite sure that a careful examination of Matthew’s genealogy yields much more than this. However, this exercise has demonstrated just how much one can glean from a passage which, initially and at a glance, seems to be quite boring, repetitive and unfruitful. It is important not to look for things that aren’t there, but equally it is important not to dismiss summarily a text that at first glance appears dull. As Paul states, ‘All Scripture… is profitable’.
So next time you come across genealogies or dull records such as censuses in the Bible make a mental note to explore at some stage why they were included in Scripture. Anything included in the canonical narrative (the overall Bible story) was included because it adds to our understanding of that narrative.