Tuesday, December 20, 2016

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What's In a Number (A Christmas Posting)

When one compares the genealogies of Matthew 1:1-17 with those of 1 Chronicles 1:34; 2:1-15; 3:1, 5, 10-24, it becomes apparent that they are not identical. Matthew divides his genealogy into three symmetrical groups of fourteen generations each, something not expressly found in the Old Testament. The first set of fourteen generations are identical between Matthew and the Old Testament. The second set, on the other hand, apparently has been abridged by Matthew in order to achieve the number fourteen. In the final group, it is not entirely clear how Matthew arrives at the number fourteen, though he obviously intends this to be the case (cf. 1:17). It may be that David is counted twice or that Jeconiah (the Old Testament King Jehoiachin) is counted twice. Alternatively, if one is to avoid repeating a name, it may be that Mary is counted in the third group. Nonetheless, Matthew clearly thinks the number fourteen is important, since he summarizes the genealogy by saying:

Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ. (Mt. 1:17, NIV)

So what is the point behind the number fourteen which Matthew so carefully employs to structure the pedigree of Jesus? The reasoning is not immediately apparent to the modern reader, and indeed, mostly it is simply ignored. One possible solution, and I think the best one, is that the number fourteen was derived by gematria, a Hebrew symbolic way of expressing an idea through the numerical value of alphabetical letters. This derives from the fact that in this early period, what we know as Arabic numbers were not yet in use, and letters of the alphabet were used to represent numbers. (We still are accustomed to seeing this in Latin figures, where I = 1, V = 5, X = 10, L = 50, and so forth.) In Hebrew, the letters of the alphabet also represented numbers: aleph= 1; beth = 2; gimel = 3; daleth = 4; hey = 5; waw = 6, and so forth. What this means is that Hebrew words (and Hebrew names) could have numerical values, depending upon the combination of letters in the word. What probably is most important for Matthew is that the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew name “David” (daleth/waw/daleth = 4 + 6 + 4) is fourteen, and if this hypothesis is correct, then the Matthew’s genealogy gives a triple emphasis that Jesus was from the family of David.

The historical demarcations of the three sets is also suggestive. To Abraham was given the covenant that provided his descendants with a special place in the purposes of God (Ge. 12:1-3). Fourteen generations later, to David, also, was given a profound covenant that his throne would be established forever (2 Sa. 7:16). In the days of Babylonian Exile, yet another fourteen generations had passed, but now both the promises to Abraham and David were jeopardized because the nation had lost its land and its Davidic king with the surrender of Jehoiachin to Nebuchadnezzar II. Jehoiachin’s short reign and exile was a critical juncture, since from a theological viewpoint, he was the last legitimate king of David’s line in Judah before the exile. Through Jeremiah, Yahweh had announced that the ruling dynasty of David in Jerusalem, symbolized in Jehoiachin as God’s signet ring, would surely come to an abrupt end (Jer. 22:24-27). However, Jehoiachin’s grandson, Zerubbabel, revives this royal line, and Haggai predicted that Zerubbabel would now become the replacement of the signet ring lost in the exile of Jehoiachin (Hag. 2:23).

 Zerubabbel, then, would carry forward the royal line of David’s family, the Branch of Jesse (cf. Isa. 11:1ff.; Jer. 23:5-6; 33:15-16; Zec. 3:8). He would be the primary leader from David’s family, surviving the exile and leading the work in rebuilding of the 2nd temple (Zec. 4:8-9) to which the Messiah would come (Hag. 2:6-9; Mal. 3:1). The way in which Matthew structured his genealogy suggests that this latter period of jeopardy for David’s royal line was now over in the birth of Jesus, the climax of three symmetrical series of fourteen generations each. God had acted to fulfill his promises to Abraham and David!

Above all, of course, are the highly suggestive titles “son of Abraham” and “son of David” (Matt. 1:1). The significance of the first is obvious, for it places Jesus squarely within the nation to whom the promises were originally made. The significance of the second is in the title “son of David”, which had become a virtual synonym for the Messiah by the time of Jesus, based on Yahweh’s promise to David that his throne would be established forever (2 Sa. 7:16). Indeed, probably the briefest summary of the gospel in the whole New Testament comes from St. Paul, when he says, “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel…” (2 Ti. 2:8, NIV). Modern Christians probably don’t pay much attention to the genealogy in Matthew, since it is a long list of names, many unfamiliar. For the Jewish community to whom Matthew’s Gospel was almost certainly composed, however, this genealogy was critical! It established the first fundamental requirement for the Messiah, and it says that Jesus fulfilled it!

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post, Dan.

    I am always struck by how ancient and modern standards of genealogy differ so greatly.

    Ancient genealogy had a function – it meant legitimacy, the legal establishment of “blood ties” of the contemporary generation to the tribal or founding past. Complete accuracy and attention to the details simply did not concern the ancients. Matthew’s 14-generation demarcation in his genealogical list is clearly an imposition of the author rather than a happy coincidence of historical fact.

    Of course, this does not mean that ancient genealogy is flawed or inaccurate. It only means that it is not modern historical study and that it is not intended to be held to modern historical standards.


    I am also struck by Matthew’s reference to four women in this genealogical list (not including Mary, the mother of Jesus) – especially considering these women were all non-Jews and of somewhat questionable moral reputation. (As our friend, Dr. Wentworth would describe it, “My kind of crowd.”)

    Tamar was a Canaanite widow, wronged by her father-in-law (Judah) when he failed to provide her with a child via levirate marriage or with a writ of divorce which would have allowed her to marry again. When she exhausted all recourse, she took matters into her own hands by deceiving her father-in-law, sleeping with him, and bearing his child. Rahab was a Canaanite prostitute. Ruth was a Moabitess who “seduced” the righteous Boaz into Levirate marriage. And Bathsheba was a Hittite adulteress who may have been complicit in the “murder” of her husband.

    What was the theological reason for including these women in the genealogy of Jesus? One theory is that Matthew’s community was Jewish and struggled with the inclusion of the Gentiles into a single Christian community. Listing Gentile women in the lineage of Jesus would be a step to address this concern. Others theorize that the inclusion of these women who were “profligate” in one way or another might point toward Mary who as we all know experienced a rather questionable pregnancy.