Three times fourteen generations

This is a very puzzling verse, very early in the New Testament:

So 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 Christ fourteen generations.

All Bible students soon learn that this verse is not to be interpreted in the most obvious sense that a Western reader would choose. In Matthew’s list, some names have been omitted. The 14-14-14 pattern is only achieved through means of those omissions. If we add in the missing individuals, the symmetry (and divisibility by seven) disappears.

Immediately the unthinking scoffer jumps to adding this to his list of supposed errors or evidences of dishonesty in the Bible. But this is a childish response. Firstly, the fact that Matthew has omitted names is not hidden, manifestly not a trick he’s pulling and hoping you won’t notice – rather, it’s evident to absolutely everyone, ancient and modern. To seek to evangelise Jews (Matthew’s gospel is rightly recognised for its emphasis, beginning from verse 1, that Jesus fulfils the Old Covenant) with by beginning with an attempted deceit that was completely transparent would be made. The list of kings from David downwards omits some of the most well known and successful ones. Moreover, the very careful wording of verse 16, clarifying that Joseph was Jesus’ adoptive father, and not his biological one, shows Matthew’s concern for historical accuracy. Unless you are inveterately prejudiced, you must credit an author such as Matthew with not being hopelessly incompetent and deceitful as soon as you come across a difficulty. You must actually seek out the possible solutions.

The fact that Hebrews did not see it necessary to include every link within a chain of ancestry is well known. Genealogies were not, for the Jews, simply historical records (they had to be that first, of course – so, you can’t insert imaginary people, but Matthew does not do that). They were political statements; agendas. They traced the link from someone whose importance all accepted, down to his official descendent, establishing his right and the good sense of giving him whatever honour was being sought for him. They identified the heir to a promise or a dynasty (think of Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings). As part of that, there was no problem with omissions. The verb used for “begot” does not entail direct siring, but only descent. So far, so straightforward. It’s also explicit as to why Matthew makes omissions: to achieve the 14, 14, 14 pattern from Abraham to David to exile to Christ. This draws attention to Christ as the fulfilment of Israel’s history. Moreover, given the clear Biblical symbolism associated with certain numbers, it appears that Matthew is intentionally doing at least one or more (maybe all) of the following:

  • Associating Jesus with the number 14, which is the numerical value of the name David in Hebrew, under the commonly accepted system for assigning numbers to letters.
  • Placing Jesus as coming after six times seven ancestors who came before him: a completeness (seven, the Biblical number of completeness) of men (six being the Biblical number of humanity), indicating that the time had fully come for humanity’s Messiah.
  • Placing Jesus as beginning the start of the seventh seven – the beginning of the Sabbath rest for mankind, paralleling the original creation week of six days creation and one day’s divine rest. The new creation begins with Jesus.

The difficult questions, though, are a) on what principle does Matthew omit the particular individuals that he does (or, conversely, include the others) – is it arbitrary, or is there some scheme in it, and b) what does he intend to imply by doing so – what are we meant to find convincing about it?

I pass over a), because I have nothing new to say, and have not carefully researched it. I don’t rule out that there may be exciting discoveries to be made through a careful study. I wish to concentrate upon b).

The skeptic’s charge is “Matthew cooks the figures, and then produces the cooked figures as proof that Jesus is the Messiah.” i.e. He demonstrates a mathematical pattern, but the procedure he used to get there was rigged arbitrarily for no other purpose than to get there. He says “The pattern of descent shows that Jesus is the climax of God’s plans, as long as you first artificially rig the pattern to make it appear so.” Arguing in a circle.

This would indeed be a particularly unconvincing argument. But again, if we credit Matthew with the evident level of intelligence and sophistication that he has, knowledge of the early church, Jewish evangelism, etcetera, then it behoves us to examine alternative possibilities.

It is noticeable that this verse 17 (ending the section) together with verse 1 (beginning it) are the only two places in which Matthew adds direct commentary to his gospel account. Verse 1 makes the great claim which is the subject of the whole book: that Jesus is the promised son of David, the promised seed of Abraham, the promised Messiah, fulfilling all of the Old Testament histories (note alongside the personal references the highly evocative wording, “the book of the genealogy of…”, immediately invoking the pattern used to begin and continue the foundational book of Genesis). Nowhere else does Matthew appear within the reader’s focus; he allows the narrative, and especially the words and actions of Jesus, to do all the subsequent work. So, it is entirely clear that verses 1 and 17 form a significant inclusio. Matthew has clarified his subject for the rest of the book.

That being so, a solution to the question of the intention of verse 17 is clearer. Verse 17 is not offered as a dramatic proof of something, with verses 2-16 being the evidence. The summary is not “Jesus is the Christ… now look at this genealogy… so, you see, it’s been shown that he takes the proper place for the Christ (now that I’ve rigged the genealogy to achieve that).” The purpose of these verses is not evangelistic or apologetic. It is introductory. Matthew is still introducing the claim. It is the rest of the book – what follows – that will demonstrate the claim. The demonstration comes afterwards, not here. So, verses 2-16 are not “this genealogy helps establish it”, but “this is how we Christians read and interpret history, and if you read on past my introduction, I’ll show you why”.

It is worth remembering that whilst we think of the gospels as being evangelistic, and they are in the proper sense, we are not to restrict the idea of “evangelism” down to “reaching the unreached, telling them about Jesus for the first time.” Evangelism (proclamation of the good news) is something done to Christians too, and must be done constantly. Consider the opening four verses of Luke’s gospel. Luke wrote to an existing Christian. He researched and presented the story of Jesus from the authentic eyewitnesses, not to convert Theophilus for the first time, but to confirm him in the fullness and certainty of what he had already been taught and believed. Arguably then, this is the intention of Matthew and Mark too, in following such a similar pattern in their presentations. We could say that even if Matthew hadn’t opened with such a clear title to his work in verse 1.

So, then, what is Matthew saying in verse 17? Ultimately, much the same as in verse 1: that we are to read history, and read the Scriptures and the story of God’s promises and dealings with Israel under the Old Covenant, with the understanding that the climax is Jesus. The renewed humanity begins with him, and carries on (see the ending of the gospel) with his followers who are joined to him, as they are gathered from the nations. Even, in a sense, the pattern plays back; God’s promises to Abraham lead to the nation and kingdom of David, followed by its dissolution through its inner weakness/sin into the Babylonian exile among the nations; Jesus comes to end our alienation from God by redeeming us from sin, gathers his people from the scattered nations in their Babylonian exile, reveals himself as the king in all his glory and orders his kingdom, and finally gathers us together with faithful Abraham and all our fathers who went before us. Matthew points to all this, as the great subject of his book. He says “the centre and climax of history is Jesus; this is how we should read it… now please, read on, so that you can see just how that works.”

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