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A word on the skipped generations in Matthew’s genealogy

So the faculty Bible study at Meredith College is underway and yesterday we began our long journey through the Gospel according to Matthew.  We spent the whole of our hour together yesterday looking at 1:1 and at the intricacies of the genealogy.  Should 1:1 be translated “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ” or should we read it both as the Gospel’s title and as alluding to the book of Genesis: “A Book on Jesus Christ’s Genesis (genesews)”?  Why are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheeba included in the genealogy and not other women, like, say, Sarah?  Do these women have anything in common with each other?  Why does Matthew structure his genealogy around Abraham, David, and the Babylonian exile?  Why does he begin with Abraham rather than going all the way back to Adam (as Luke does)?  What do we make of the fact that both Matthew and Luke ostensibly trace the lineage of Joseph, and, yet, offer rather different family trees?  If Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, why should we give two shakes about Joseph’s genealogy anyways?  And the questions go on and on.

But at one point our conversation turned to Matthew’s genealogical schema of three sets of fourteen generations: fourteen from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Exile, and fourteen from the Exile to the Christ.  The schema is striking for a number of reasons.  First, as a numerological schema it positions Jesus as being the seventh seven in the series, i.e., as the climax or the fulfillment of the genealogy which more or less incapsulates Israel’s history.  Second, David’s name is mentioned more often in the genealogy than any other, and the numerical value of the name “David” by Hebrew gematria is fourteen.  Perhaps the schema of fourteens is designed to underscore Jesus’s being the true heir of David.

But in addition to the striking features of the schema, there are some nettlesome ones as well: namely, Matthew has to skip a few kings in order to make the second block of fourteen “work” (compare, for instance, 1:8-9 with 1 Chronicles 3:11-12–what happened to Ahaziah, Joash and Amaziah?) and the final block, if you count, actually only has thirteen generations.  One question which came up in our study yesterday was basically What are we to make of this?  Are we now resting our faith on a lie?  If Jesus was not born precisely forty nine generations after Abraham, is our faith in vain?

After bumbling for a little bit (after spending years among historical critical scholars who are no longer phased by this stuff, one forgets what sorts of things people find challenging), I offered the following response which, I hope, will prove helpful to anyone who has found Matthew’s genealogy troubling:

The only reason Matthew bothers to write about Jesus’ pedigree, indeed the only reason he bothers to write this biography of a crucified claimant to the Davidic throne at all, is that the God of Israel raised Jesus from the dead.  If Matthew’s fourteens unproblematically reflected the layout of Jesus’ family tree and Jesus were not risen, it would be, at best, an interesting coincidence.  It would also be a characteristic marking not only Jesus’ genealogy, but also his cousin John the Baptist’s, as well as that of every other descendant of David in Jesus’ generation.  In short, it would be utterly unremarkable and would certainly have gone unrecorded.

But Matthew doesn’t write down Jesus’s genealogy because it has some curious features.  The only reason he writes a gospel at all is because God raised Jesus from the dead, endorsing His claim to be Israel’s long-awaited Messiah and the bringer of God’s Kingdom.  But, then, if Matthew is to tell Jesus’s story in such a way as to do Him justice, to draw our eye to Jesus’s cosmic, transcendent, eschatological significance, he will need to marshal all of his artistic resources.  He draws creatively from Israel’s Scriptures, constructs his narratives so as to subtly allude to Biblical texts and figures, arranges his stories so as to make   the full force of their drama felt, and he deploys the most powerful symbols in his culture, not least the symbols associated with numbers.  Numerology was a powerfully evocative symbolical system in Matthew’s day and we shouldn’t be surprised that he uses it to drive home the point that Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords for whom Israel, indeed, the world has been waiting.

And so the numerical framework of Matthew’s genealogy has more to do with symbolically underscoring Jesus’s true significance than with reflecting some curious historical facts about Jesus’s family tree.  Our faith does not rest on the historical precision of Matthew’s genealogy.  Rather, both our faith and the symbolic truthfulness of Matthew’s artistic rendition of Jesus’ genealogy rest on the empty tomb.

I hope that helps.

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NCSU Graduate Christian Fellowship

Hi! I'm David, the campus minister for InterVarsity's graduate and faculty ministries at NC State and Meredith College. I hope you'll join me as I learn to "practice resurrection" in the City of Oaks, in her universities, and in the wider world. You can contact me at dmwilliams83@gmail.com

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