The Story in Jesus’ Genealogy

So all the generations from Abraham unto David are fourteen generations; and from David unto the carrying away to Babylon fourteen generations; and from the carrying away to Babylon unto the Christ fourteen generations (Matthew 1:17).

Matthew began his Gospel with the “book of the generation of Jesus Christ” (Matthew 1:1). For the modern reader this proves to be a burdensome decision; before they learn much of anything about Jesus they are confronted with a host of foreign names. Who are all of these people, and why does Matthew tell us about them before he tells us about Jesus?

One other book in the Bible begins with a genealogy: 1 Chronicles. The Chronicler begins his narrative proper with the death of Saul and the elevation of David as king; nevertheless, by beginning with an extensive genealogy, he associates and connects his narrative with the greater story of God’s people from Adam through Abraham and the twelve sons of Israel (1 Chronicles 1:1-9:44).

The choice of tracing the genealogy also tells us much about Matthew’s purposes. Matthew does not go all the way back to God and Adam, as Luke does; he begins with Abraham, recipient of the promise (Matthew 1:2, Luke 3:38; cf. Genesis 12:1-22:18). Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage through the kings of Judah to David, unlike Luke (Matthew 1:6-11, Luke 3:27-31). For that matter, while Luke begins with Jesus and goes back through time to Adam and God, Matthew ends with Jesus (Matthew 1:2-16, Luke 3:23-38). Thus Matthew emphasizes that Jesus is an Israelite; he highlights Abraham and David and the kings to show how Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of all which was promised to Abraham about the people and David about the kingship; he manifests confidence in Jesus as the Son of God, the Son of David, the culmination of the story of Israel. All of this can be seen in Jesus’ genealogy!

Matthew concludes his “book of the generation of Jesus Christ” by tying it together nicely: fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to the Exile, and fourteen generations from the Exile to the Christ (Matthew 1:17). It all seems to fit a nice pattern; we might find that impressive and then move on to the rest of the story.

Yet Matthew’s conclusion proves highly suspect to the attuned Western reader. The best evidence would suggest Abraham lived ca. 2000 BCE; David is dated around 1000 BCE; the exile took place in 586 BCE; Jesus was born around 5 BCE. The first set of fourteen generations spread across 1000 years, the second for a bit over 400 years, and the third 500 years? That seems a bit too convenient.

The major challenge, however, is in the midst of the genealogy of the kings. Matthew lists Joram as the father of Uzziah in Matthew 1:8, and yet J(eh)oram is the father of Ahaziah, the father of J(eh)oash, the father of Amaziah, who is the father of Uzziah (also spelled Azariah) in 1 Chronicles 3:11-12! Thus, in reality, it would seem that there are at least seventeen generations between David and the Exile.

How could this be? Are our copies of Matthew inaccurate? Some later manuscripts record the three “missing” kings; in light of Matthew 1:18 it is best to recognize that some later copyist is trying to solve the dilemma we have discovered as opposed to believing that Matthew’s original was distorted. We have every reason to believe that Matthew 1:8, 18 are as Matthew wrote them. Was Matthew’s source inaccurate? It is not inconceivable for Matthew’s copy of 1 Chronicles or whatever other resource he might have used for the king list to have omitted some names, but neither he nor we are dependent on genealogical lists to know about these kings of Judah: their story is told in 2 Kings 8:25-14:22 and 2 Chronicles 22:1-25:28. By all accounts Matthew proved to be a faithful Jew; he would have known about these kings. People might begin to think that Matthew is attempting to suppress some history or just made a mistake. Neither claim would honor the good confidence we have in Matthew’s inspiration.

How could it be that Matthew speaks of fourteen generations when he even knows that there are actually seventeen generations? In all of this we have assumed that Matthew intends for us to take his final numbers literally. Perhaps the time has come to reconsider that assumption.

Throughout Scripture numbers often mean things. They are often given or alluded to in order to convey some sort of spiritual truth. Three is a number which often evokes completeness; the Godhead has three Persons, and thus it makes sense for the history of Israel to be portrayed in a triune format. Each element of the triad points to Jesus in its own way: from Abraham to David features the development of Israel, looking forward to Jesus as the descendant of Abraham; from David to the Exile manifests the failure of Israel to uphold the covenant, looking forward to Jesus as the obedient Son of David; from the Exile to Jesus represents an attempt at faithfulness and survival in the midst of oppressive kingdoms, looking forward to Jesus as the eternal King and Christ. Abraham, David, and the Exile are prominent themes in the rest of Matthew’s Gospel; Jesus embodies and fulfills all such things.

“Fourteen” on its own does not mean much, and yet we have three sets of fourteen; we can re-imagine three sets of fourteen as six times seven. Seven is the number of perfection; God’s full work of creation was seven days (Genesis 1:1-2:3). Israelites worked for six days and rested on the seventh; in the same way they were to cultivate their fields for six years and let it enjoy a Sabbath rest in the seventh (Leviticus 25:1-7). If Jesus’ heritage features six sets of seven, such means that Jesus is the beginning of the seventh seven.

Both seven and the seventh seven are, each in their own way, manifestations of fullness, allowing something new to begin. As the seventh seven, Jesus is bringing the story of Israel to its fullness; everything which has taken place beforehand finds its embodiment and satisfaction in Him (Matthew 5:17-18). As Matthew himself will establish, Jesus will go through His own Egyptian sojourn, temptation in the wilderness, life in the land of Israel, exile in death, and return in resurrection (Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23, 4:1-17, 27:32-50, 28:1-20).

In the end, in fulfilling His role as the seventh seven, Jesus facilitates what can take place afterward. After the seventh seven the Jubilee is proclaimed in Israel (Leviticus 25:8-46): all the people of God are redeemed and freed from their debt. In this way Jesus died and was raised in power to redeem and free all those who come to God from their debt of sin (1 Peter 2:18-25). After the seventh day is the eighth day, the first day of the week, providing an opportunity for new creation. In this way Jesus arose from the dead on the first day of the week in the resurrection body, and through whom we can now become a new creation in God, and yearn for the resurrection of life (Matthew 28:1, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21).

Matthew is no fool; Matthew knows his Israelite history; Matthew did not make a mistake in Matthew 1:18. Matthew is telling a story in his genealogy of Jesus, forecasting all we will see in his Gospel. We will see Jesus bear the shame and yet fulfill God’s purposes. We will see Jesus fulfilling the promises given to Abraham. We will see Jesus as the Son of God, the Son of David, obtaining all authority in heaven and on earth. We will see the proclamation of freedom from sin and death through Jesus’ death. We will be able to become the new creation in Christ through His resurrection. Jesus is the embodiment of Israel, the climax of the history of the people of God. May we serve Jesus the Son of David, the Son of God, receive remission of sin in Him, and through Him obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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