Reflecting on the Fourth Sunday of Advent: Three Days after Sunday (Year A)
Psalter: 1 Samuel 2:1-10
Old Testament: Genesis 37:2-11
Gospel: Matthew 1:1-17
God of promise, you have given us a sign of your love through the gift of Jesus Christ, our Savior, who was promised from ages past. We believe as Joseph did the message of your presence whispered by an angel, and offer our prayers for your world, confident of your care and mercy for all creation. Amen.
This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah[b] the son of David, the son of Abraham (Matthew 1:1).
So far the genealogies we have examined in the primeval history (Genesis 1-11) are all descending genealogies, starting with an important ancient ancestor and ending with a later descendant, to show continuity of the lineage. But there are also ascending genealogies in the Bible, which go in the opposite direction. These genealogies begin with a person who will be important (either positively or negatively) in the narrative to come, but take us back in time to some important ancestor, thus establishing the person’s heritage. In the Old Testament, these tend to be short, succinct genealogies, such as the notices about the family lineages of Bezalel (Exod 31:2), Korah (Num 16:1), Zelophehad (Num 27:1), Achan (Josh 7:1), Hannah’s husband, Elkanah (1 Sam 1:1-2), and Saul’s father, Kish (1 Sam 9:1-2).
An important exception to the length of ascending genealogies is Luke’s genealogy of Jesus (Luke 3:23-38), where he traces Jesus’s lineage back seventy-six generations to Adam, “the son of God.” This establishes Jesus’s identity, which is the basis for the declaration from God at his baptism, which comes just before the genealogy, “You are my Son, my beloved” (Luke 3:21) and relates to the words of the devil in the temptation narrative, which immediately follows the genealogy, “If you are the Son of God . . .” (Luke 4:3, 9).15 But here I need to leave aside Luke’s genealogy, since there is so much in Matthew’s alone that it will take up all my space in this article and the next.16
Matthew opens his Gospel with a descending genealogy of a very special type, which has been called a teleological genealogy, since it culminates in a final figure in the lineage, one who is the end point or telos of the genealogy.17 There are two teleological genealogies in the Bible: Ruth 4:18-22 (ending with David) and Matthew 1:1-17 (ending with Jesus). Matthew clearly draws on the genealogy in Ruth, although he also draws on the genealogy that begins 1 Chronicles 1:1-9 and to some extent on the Genesis genealogies. He specifically models his Gospel on 1 Chronicles by beginning with a genealogy.
How Matthew Frames His Genealogy—Opening and Closing Comments
Matthew opens his genealogy (and his Gospel) with these words: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt 1:1).18 From this declaration it is clear that Matthew wants to root Jesus firmly in the story of Israel, with a focus on Abraham, the father of the nation, through whom God promised to bless the gentiles, and on David, Israel’s second king, whose dynasty ruled Judah until the Babylonian exile. The exile is explicitly mentioned in Matthew’s concluding comment at the end of the genealogy: “Thus 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” (Matt 1:17).
Matthew’s summary here divides the history of Israel into three main periods, which matches the actual genealogy of verses 2-16. These periods are the premonarchial era up to David (verses 2-6a), the Davidic monarchy after David (verses 6b-11), and the time from the exile (when there were no Davidic kings) to the Messiah (verses 11-16). The names listed in the first two periods (and some in the third period) recall aspects of Israel’s history (most of the names after the exile are not found in any Old Testament genealogy). Matthew’s genealogy could thus be viewed as a compact recapitulation of Israel’s history, the compressed backstory of Jesus the Messiah.
Why Fourteen Generations?
The question arises as to why Matthew divides the history of Israel into three sets of fourteen generations. None of the Old Testament genealogies are organized in terms of fourteen generations. Genesis 5 and Ruth 4:18-22 each have ten generations, while the genealogy in 1 Chronicles 1-9 has sixty-four. So why fourteen?
The explanation for the number fourteen is actually widely agreed upon by those who study Matthew. It is the sum of the number of the Hebrew consonants in the name David. Even in English we sometimes use letters for numbers, as when we number the points in an article or presentation A, B, C, etc. (meaning 1, 2, 3, etc.). This practice in Hebrew is called gematria and each of the twenty-two consonants of the Hebrew alphabet (the vowel points are not counted as letters of the alphabet) represents a number from 1 through 22 (although Matthew writes in Greek, it is easy to see which Hebrew consonants stand behind the Greek spelling he uses).19 The three Hebrew consonants of David’s name (represented in English by D-V-D) stand for 4, 6, and 4, which when added together equals fourteen.20 So by giving us fourteen generations in each period, Matthew is calling attention to David as a crucial figure in the story of Israel.21
Beyond the fact that Matthew is the only Gospel that begins by calling Jesus the “son of David,” (Matthew 1:1), the name David is mentioned five times in his genealogy (Matthew 1:1, 6, 17), even when (as we shall see) it is not strictly necessary and actually seems out of place (as if Matthew is trying use the name David as often as he can). Also, a careful reading of Matthew’s Gospel shows a particular emphasis on Jesus as the “son of David”; this is in contrast to the other Gospels, where this title is used of Jesus in only two passages each in Mark and Luke and not at all in John.22
Soon after the genealogy, Matthew 2:6 alludes to Jesus’s Davidic status in the quote from Micah 5:2 (5:1 in the Hebrew Masoretic Text), which mentions the Messiah coming from Bethlehem (David’s hometown). Later on, various people directly call Jesus “Son of David” or wonder if he is David’s son, especially in connection with his healings (Matthew 9:27; 12:23; 20:30-31). Matthew is also the only Gospel where the phrase “Son of David” is added to the Hosannas shouted in the acclaim Jesus receives on his entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:9, 15)—which is, of course, the “city of David” (2 Sam 5:7). So Matthew’s genealogy puts us on notice that Jesus’s relationship to David is going to be significant in his Gospel. Yet, while the genealogy, along with aspects of Matthew’s narrative, sets us up for understanding Jesus as “Davidic” in some sense, Jesus himself will challenge any simple identification, by indicating that the Messiah is David’s lord, not his equal (Matthew 22:42-45).23
Annotations in the Genealogy from Abraham to David
Within the first set of fourteen generations (from Abraham to David), Matthew inserts a number of annotations or asides. Three of these annotations refer to particular women in the history of Israel—Tamar (Matt 1:3), Rahab (Matt 1:5), and Ruth (Matt 1:5)—and Matthew mentions them as the mothers of particular figures in the genealogy. Each of these women made an important contribution to the story of Israel, whether in the period of the ancestors (Tamar), the conquest (Rahab), or the judges (Ruth). These three women are the first of five whom Matthew will mention in his genealogy. Each might be viewed negatively by some readers of the Gospel, since Tamar solicited sex with Judah, her father-in-law, Rahab was a Canaanite prostitute, and Ruth was a Moabite, a member of a group prohibited from joining Israel (Deut 23:3). Yet none of these three is judged negatively by any Old Testament text. Indeed, they are all positively valued for their respective roles in the history of Israel (Judah even calls Tamar “righteous” in Gen 38:26).
Without Rahab, Israel would never have been successful in entering the Promised Land; without Tamar and Ruth there would have been no Davidic monarchy (since the line of descent passed through their children). So the mention of these three mothers of Israel recalls in summary form aspects of Israel’s ancient story. They also prepare us for Mary, whom some readers might view negatively because of her premarital pregnancy, yet without whom there would be no Messiah (this story is recounted right after Matthew’s genealogy).
There are other annotations that Matthew inserts in the first fourteen names from Abraham to David. He mentions not just Judah, whose line leads to David, but adds “and his brothers” (Matt 1:2), thus keeping the entirety of Israel in view (Judah and his brothers are the origin of the twelve tribes). He notes that Tamar was the mother not just of Perez, David’s ancestor, but also Perez’s twin brother Zerah (Matt 1:3)—twins in the Old Testament often signify God’s blessing. And when he gets to David (the climax of the first set of fourteen names), he specifically adds “the king” (Matt 1:6), thus emphasizing this aspect of David’s identity.
Why Does Matthew Spell Some of the Names Differently?
One of the strange things in Matthew’s list of names is that while he clearly depends on earlier genealogies in the Bible (especially Ruth and 1 Chronicles), he often changes the spelling of names (sometimes changing the name entirely); we don’t always notice this in English translations, since some translations harmonize the spellings between Matthew and his Old Testament sources.
In the Abraham to David epoch, Matthew makes five changes. First, he replaces Israel with Jacob; this is understandable, since they are the same person and the former is found in the Hebrew of 1 Chronicles 1:34, while the latter is in the Greek Septuagint of the same verse. But Matthew also changes Ram to Aram, Salmah to Salmon, Boaz to Boas, and Obed to Yobed (all are plausible variant spellings).
For a long time scholars have puzzled over this, wondering what his motivation was. The answer to Matthew’s changes (you may have guessed it) is gematria.24 When the numerical values of the Hebrew consonants behind Matthew’s Greek spelling of the fourteen names from Abraham to David (Matthew 1:2-6) are added up, their sum is 574. That turns out to be exactly the numerical value of Abraham (41), the first name in the list, multiplied by the numerical value of David (14), the last in the list. The numbers would have been different (and would not have matched) if Matthew had kept the original spelling. Matthew clearly wanted to emphasize the names Abraham and David for his readers at this point in the genealogy.
Right now this use of gematria might seem to be merely an oddity or quirk of Matthew’s genealogy. The theological point of this will become clear, however, when we come to the next two sets of fourteen names (that’s the next blog post).
Hang on to your hat!
Notes and references
15The opening of Luke’s genealogy states that Jesus “was the son (as was thought) of Joseph” (3:23), which sets us up for 4:22, where the people ask, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”
16Although it is traditional to refer to Matthew (one of the disciples of Jesus) as the author of the first Gospel, the text itself does not specify its author. My use of the name Matthew in these blog posts is, therefore, simply for convenience; I am not making a judgment about authorship.
17The terminology of teleological , along with descending and ascending , is from Joel Kennedy, The Recapitulation of Israel: Use of Israel’s History in Matthew 1:1-4:11 (Tűbingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), 26-35. Kennedy addresses the genealogy in chap. 2: “Israel’s History Recapitulated” (25-102).
18All Bible translations are my own.
19The term gematria is not widely known today by those outside the Jewish tradition, but the linking of letters with numbers is used occasionally by biblical authors and became an important phenomenon in later Jewish thinking, where figuring out the symbolic meaning of words by their numbers was thought to yield theological insights. Those who have read Chaim Potok’s beautiful novel The Chosen (New York: Ballentine, 1967) may remember that Daniel, the young son of a famous Rebbe in the Lubavitch (Orthodox Hassidic) Jewish community, has to prove himself by the exposition of deep truths he can derive from gematria. Gematria was first used for the Greek alphabet (it is mentioned in Plato as geometria), then applied to Hebrew. It is discussed in the Mishnah and Talmud as a method of biblical interpretation, but did not become popular until the late medieval and early modern Jewish mystical movement known as Kabbalah.
20Perhaps the most well known example of gematria in the Bible is the number of the beast in Revelation, which is “the number of a man, and that number is 666” (Rev 13:18). Although the meaning of this verse is debated, it likely refers to Nero. The Hebrew consonants represented by the Greek for Nero Caesar add up to 666. Some manuscripts of Revelation have 616, which matches the Latin spelling of Nero Caesar.
21Matthew uses the early form of gematria, where the letters stand for 1-22. Later forms of gematria counted the first ten letters of the Hebrew alphabet as 1-10, then viewed the next nine letters as representing 20, 30, etc. up to 100, and took the final three letters as 200, 300, and 400. Since some Hebrew letters have a distinct form when they come at the end of a word, these final forms were used to represent 500 through 900.
22The passages are Mark 10:47-48; 12:35-37 and Luke 18:38-39; 20:41-44. In my next article, I will touch on ways in which Matthew understands Jesus as fulfilling, yet transcending (and even contradicting) David. This is a topic I am working on for another project.
23In my next article, I will touch on ways in which Matthew understands Jesus as fulfilling, yet transcending (and even contradicting) David. This is a topic I am working on for another project.
24Here I am indebted to Steven M. Bryan, who proposed the significance of gematria in accounting for numerous interpretive conundrums in Matthew’s genealogy. See Bryan, “Onomastics and Numerical Composition in the Genealogy of Matthew,” Bulletin for Biblical Research, 30, no. 4 (2020): 515-39.
PRAYER: Shepherd of Israel, may Jesus, Emmanuel and son of Mary, be more than just a dream in our hearts. With the apostles, prophets, and saints, save us, restore us, and lead us in the way of grace and peace, that we may bear your promise into the world. Amen.
Check out part two of Matthew’s genealogy here.