Saturday, October 25, 2014

Buried Treasure in Matthew's Genealogy of Jesus

My parents teach citizenship classes twice a week at our church and a Sunday school class for non-native English speakers. Recently, a student from a Middle Eastern country asked them a question about the genealogy in Matthew 1:1-17. This inquirer into the Christian faith wanted to know, if the Bible is true, why the genealogy is deficient by one name. If each name provided is only counted once, one of the divisions appears to have only 13 instead of 14 names. They indulged me by sending the research project my way, and below is my response (so keep in mind that it's written for someone without a churchgoer's familiarity with the structure and people of the New Testament). It's not the sort of piece usually offered here, but the richness of the study surprised me. I pray something in it blesses and encourages you, too. [This post originally published Monday, 10/27, but I unpublished and rescheduled it in light of a family bereavement Monday evening.]

            Looking at the role of the genealogy in Matthew 1:1-17 in the book as a whole, the best resolution to what at first seems to be a counting error in the three groups of fourteen is that Matthew means the reader to count David twice:  as the last name in the first group of fourteen and as the first name in the second group of fourteen. “Context is king” in interpreting the Bible. To explain why we would count David twice, then, we need to consider the specific context of the Gospel of Matthew, the purpose of Matthew’s Gospel, the reason a genealogy to start the book matters in the first place, and why the structure of this genealogy matters for the book as a whole.

Context of Matthew

            The Gospel According to Matthew (or just “Matthew”) was written by a close follower of Jesus whose name was Matthew. He was also called Levi, and before Jesus called him, he worked as a tax collector for the Roman government. That story appears in Matthew 9:9. When Jesus chose twelve men to be with him as he traveled, taught, and worked miracles, Matthew was one of them. (See Matthew 10:1-4.)  He followed Jesus until His death on the cross. Later, with the other ten remaining disciples (which means “close followers”), he saw Jesus after He rose from the dead. Jesus told those eleven to go and “make disciples of all nations.” He told them to baptize and to teach everything Jesus had commanded during the years they had spent together (Matthew 28:16-20).
            From this background information we know that Matthew was good with numbers, so the mystery of the “missing name” is probably not a counting mistake. We also know that Matthew spent a lot of time with Jesus during His ministry, so Matthew is dependable as an eyewitness to the things he writes about.

Matthew’s Purpose      

            The Bible is different from other holy books, because it is 100% the Word of God but at the same time truly the words of the human authors, too, without in any way lessening the inerrancy or authority of the Book. God used the human authors’ experiences and personalities to shape the messages they wrote. (See 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and 2 Peter 1:19-21.)
            For this reason, we have four Gospels telling about Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and going up to heaven. The original Greek text of each is without error and trustworthy, while at the same time reflecting the unique personality and purpose of each writer.
            The emphasis in Matthew’s telling of the life of Jesus Christ is the kingdom. He wrote to a mostly Jewish audience who were looking for the King of Israel God had promised in many places in the Old Testament. Matthew presents Jesus as that promised King, who had to come from the family line of King David of old. We see this emphasis in Matthew’s word choices: he uses the royal title “Son of David ten times, more than any other Gospel, and he uses the words “king” and “kingdom” 72 times, more than any other New Testament book. Another important kingly title is “Christ” or “Messiah.” This literally means “Anointed One” and refers to the ancient Israelite practice of anointing their leaders with oil as a sign that they were set apart for holy service. Matthew uses that title 17 times, more than any Gospel except John’s.
            In other words, Matthew seeks to convince his readers that Jesus Christ of Nazareth is the King Israel had awaited for a thousand years.

Why the Genealogy?

            If Matthew is trying to prove that Jesus is the King of Israel, why would he start his argument with a list of names?
            He starts with the genealogy because all the Old Testament promises about the coming King specify that he had to be descended from Abraham, through Isaac and Jacob, and also from King David, who was from the family of Jacob’s son Judah.
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were the fathers of the whole nation of Israel, so any king of Israel would have to come from them. God had promised each of them that He would bless all the nations of the earth through their offspring (see Genesis 22:18 for one example, with others throughout Genesis 12-50). This explains why Matthew starts with Abraham instead of starting earlier with Adam the way Luke does.
God narrows down the possibilities by making a covenant (binding agreement) with David, the second king of Israel. 1 Chronicles 14 tells this story completely, with the specific promise we need to know here in 1 Chronicles 17:11-14, where God is speaking:
‘When your days are fulfilled to walk with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. 12 He shall build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. 13 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from him who was before you, 14 but I will confirm him in my house and in my kingdom forever, and his throne shall be established forever.’

            David’s heir Solomon did rule the kingdom of Israel, but only for 40 years. 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles explain that story in full. The basics facts are that Solomon did not obey several specific commands of God. His heart was led astray by his foreign wives, so God told him that the kingdom would be divided in his son Rehoboam’s lifetime. That did happen, and the kingdom was never again united until after the people of Israel had returned from exile in Babylon, Assyria, and later Persia. From that time until the time of Jesus, Israel lived in their land under foreign governments and were not allowed to have a king like the one promised to David.
            When Jesus was born, the people of Israel were under Roman rule, and many were unhappy and looking in hope for the king God had promised, the king who would come from Abraham’s and David’s families. In order for Matthew to prove that Jesus was that king, he first had to prove that Jesus was from the right families to be qualified.

Why This Genealogy?

                Matthew had to prove that Jesus was from Abraham and from David. He also had to prove that He was descended from the last king before the exile, who was Jechoniah. This shapes Matthew’s section breaks: first, Abraham to David and the promise of the forever kingdom; then David to the exile and the temporary end to that kingdom; then from the exile to the time of Christ, in an unbroken family line. Section breaks in a genealogy were common as helps to memorizing them, since most people didn’t have access to the written Gospels at first.
            Why does the number fourteen matter? The people of Israel, before they had Arabic numerals for counting, used their alphabet as numbers. This practice is called gematria. In English, we would say, A=1, B=2, and so on until Z=26. In that way, even a name could be represented as a number. The name Abe would equal 1+2+5, or 8, except that Hebrew didn’t have vowels, which would mean that Abe equals 2. In the same way, using the Hebrew alphabet, the numerical value for the name David is, you guessed it, 14. Matthew groups the names in his genealogy in a way that cries out, “David! David! David!” Then he also places David as the fourteenth name on the list. From this genealogy, there should be no doubt at all that Jesus is from the perfect family line to be a possible king of Israel.
            What about the “missing generation”? If we count the names without any duplication, it looks like the last generation only has thirteen. In light of the background discussed so far, though, we know that David’s name is not just any name. (We also know that, as a tax collector, it’s unlikely that Matthew just counted wrong.) On this list and in this Gospel, David’s name is the most important except for Jesus. Also, we should note that in Matthew 1:17, God through Matthew names David twice in his summary of the sections but then uses more general language instead of names after David: “from Abraham to David. . . from David to the deportation to Babylon. . . and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ. . . .” We can also note that Matthew never says in that verse that there are a total of 42 generations from Abraham to Jesus, but rather that there are fourteen in each grouping he lists. All of this evidence leads me to conclude that Matthew intends for the reader to count David twice as one more way of emphasizing his importance in the family line of Jesus. David is the last name in the first section and the first name in the middle section.
            From Abraham to Jesus, everything about Matthew’s arrangement of the generations shouts that Jesus is the Son of David and therefore the heir to the promises God made to David and has a right to the throne of Israel.

So What?

            Jesus’ origin from Abraham through David is the first requirement for Him to rule as King of Israel, but it’s also the first requirement for Him to be the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob through whom all nations of the earth would be blessed. Matthew hints at this by including some non-Israelite women in the list and develops it more throughout the Gospel until his closing statement in Matthew 28:18-20:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Through Matthew, God starts this Gospel by proving that Jesus had a claim to be King of Israel. He ends with Jesus claiming for Himself all authority in heaven and on earth and telling His disciples (including Matthew) to make disciples of all nations, not just Israel. That means Jesus claims authority over each of our nations and over each of our lives. He is King of Israel first, but ultimately King of all heaven and earth, and of you and of me. But to get to those “alls,” he has to start with a genealogy.


References:
Matthew book introductions and chapter 1 notes:
The ESV Study Bible; The Holman Christian Study Bible; The New King James Study Bible; The New Bible Commentary: Revised

Web articles:
"Is there an error in the counting of the generations in Matthew chapter 1?"
"Problems with Basic Math?"
"The Origins of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:1-25)"

Matthew commentaries:
Commentary on Matthew (Commentary on the New Testament Book #1), Robert Gundry

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