Saturday, September 8, 2012

Israel's Expectation

As was noted in an earlier post (cf. Alpha & Omega), the opening words of Matthew's gospel begin with a familiar echo from the beginning of the Old Testament Scriptures. He begins with the biblos geneseos of Jesus, just like the account of the heavens and the earth (Gen. 2:4 LXX) and the Adamic race (Gen. 5:1 LXX) are recorded as their own biblos geneseos, their own "book of beginnings".  But after those opening verses, Matthew doesn't stop echoing the early history of Israel. He moves forward with a genealogy that begins with Abraham and ends with Jesus.

Just as Adam's descendants are listed in the biblos geneseos of Genesis 5:1, Matthew records a genealogy for Jesus' descendants. One major difference between Adam's list in Gen. 5:1 and Matthew's list is that Matthew is concerned about one issue, and one issue alone: the rightful heir to the throne according to God's promise. The imagery of Matthew's genealogy is drawn from God's promise to Abraham that "nations would rise out of" his "seed" and how that promise unfolded with the Kingdom of Israel, the throne of David, and the eventual eclipse of that reign for centuries because of Israel's spiritual harlotry. Matthew's genealogy also seems to operate on the assumption that his audience is expecting the Christ (i.e. the Messiah) to sit on the throne of Israel. This is expressed in a few ways.

First, Matthew goes out of his way immediately after the opening genealogy (1:17) to express that:
"...all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah fourteen generations." 

Many readers look at this list of fourteen generations and overlook something very important. And it doesn't take much time or effort to notice something odd about the emphasis of fourteen generations. If the reader were to look at the opening genealogy and count the names in Matthew's list one by one, it should become apparent that there are definitely not three sets of fourteen generations listed. In fact, there has to be some overlap in order for Matthew to give a strict chronology. Therefore, as various reputable scholars have contended,1 something more was likely intended by Matthew's opening emphasis about three sets of "fourteen generations". The solution to this enigma is settled quickly once the reader understands that a particular literary style of identification used throughout ancient cultures (such as 1st century Israelites) is being used in this opening genealogy.

Notice carefully Matthew's own emphasis after he provides the genealogy: there are three sets of fourteen generations. In ancient cultures, the names or titles of important historical figures were often marked with something called a Gematria. Gematria is basically the assignment of numbers to a name. This was possible because many ancient languages used their consonants as numbers (which the English language does not do). Roman numerals are a good example of this. The letter "I"  stands for the number one and the number "V" stands for five, etc... But in the Hebrew language, DWD are the three letters of King David's name, and those three equal the number fourteen.2 Matthew was apparently less interested in highlighting an exact numerical order of kings, and more interested in using the true historical and legal line of heirs to the throne of Israel to highlight that it was David's throne (not Saul's) which was promised for the Messiah. Matthew's genealogy is not a strict record of natural lineage from Abraham to Jesus. Matthew's genealogy is, as John Calvin noted, a "legal genealogy" about "the right to the throne... passed in a lawful manner".3

Secondarily, there seems to be a central emphasis upon the throne of Israel because "David the King" is the focal point of the first and second sets of "generations" (verse 6). His name is listed as the last name of the first set and the first name of the second set.

Thirdly, there seems to be an expectation for a promised King to sit on David's throne because of the way the second set ends and the third set begins. The second set ends with an event, not a person, and the third set also begins with an event, not a person. Notice carefully that the second list of fourteen descendants to the throne ends with "the deportation to Babylon" and the third list begins with "the deportation to Babylon" (much like the way the first list ends with "David the King" and the second section begins with David again). This repeated emphasis of "the deportation to Babylon" is designed to highlight the fact that from that time forward the reign of a king on the throne of David in Israel remained in a total eclipse until the promised King came. That King, according to Matthew's genealogy, is Joseph's legally adopted son Jesus

1.  To name only a few, N. T. Wright, William Hendrickson, D. A. Carson, R.T. France, Craig KeenerDale Allison, and Stanley Hauerwas all acknowledge this.   N. T. Wright and Stanley Hauerwas both introduce a fresh perspective on this subject.   Hauerwas suggests that the three divisions of 14 generations were mentioned intentionally, even though the last division only contains 13 names. And so he concludes that "the last group has only thirteen generations because the church that Jesus calls into existence constitutes the fourteenth generation." -- Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible) [Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006] p. 31.   N. T. Wright suggests that Matthew's "three periods of fourteen generations may well be intended to hint at six periods of seven generations, so that Jesus starts the seventh seven, the climactic moment of the series." -- N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992] p. 385.   I don't agree with the conjectures of both Wright and Hauerwas, particularly because there are no contextual indicators within Matthew's gospel; but nonetheless, I do consider their insights to be very interesting and helpful compared with the myriads of mainstream evangelical commentaries which gloss over this obvious literary emphasis by Matthew.
2.  The English translation of the name David consists of three letters of the original Hebrew alphabet: D (dalet), W (waw), and D (dalet). The letter "D" in Hebrew is also the number 4 in Hebrew. Likewise the letter "W" in Hebrew is also the number 6 in Hebrew. When the three letters are added (4 + 6 + 4) it equals the number fourteen.
3.  John Calvin, Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book house, 1989] p. 85; This book is available to view for free online at:

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