The Literary Art of Numbers | Matthew 1
Genealogies might look boring. But every profession trades in particularities. Biology has cells, programmers have bits of code, and designers have colors and shapes. The particularities here are people, people particularities, the best kind.
And particularities make up the language like letters. Of course you won’t appreciate the fullness of Goethe if you don’t know german.
So you have to become a practitioner, understanding what you’re looking at when you’re looking at genealogies. All of a genre of music sounds the same only when you haven’t listened to much of it. All code looks the same until you know how to program.
We’re all very familiar with stories so stories are immediately interesting, but if we were as familiar with genealogies, we would find them just as fascinating. e=mc2 doesn’t mean much to a child, but those 5 characters, 5 particularities were among the greatest intellectual feats of human history, just five characters.
So what are the particularities of this art?
Well if you want to understand genealogies there are two steps. First, you have to identify the pattern. Second, you need to identify when the pattern is broken.
First, the pattern. Genealogies are a selective retelling of a family, a family tree reduced down to a few people. It’s just picking people out of the family and organizing them in a certain way. But the different ways that you can select people and organize them will tell you different things, they will tell you the idea, the thesis of the author.
For instance, if you read a genealogy of your family and only the third child in every family was included you would puzzle over that, you would try to figure out why. What is it about the third child that’s important? Or what is it about the first and the second children that are not important?
Matthew designs his genealogy into three sections, three sections of history. And it follows this family from Abraham to Jesus in three parts. From Abraham to David, from David to the exile, and from the exile to Jesus.
Notice, even when we are looking at the most general or broad pattern, this breaking the family into three parts, you see a break in the pattern. There are three people and one event. Abraham, David, the exile in Babylon, and Jesus. Which of these things is not like the other. Now Matthew could have easily substituted Babylon for Zedekiah, the king at the time of the exile but he doesn’t why?
Matthew chose to do it this way so that it would be absolutely clear to us how Jesus relates to the exile. That is, Jesus ends the exile.
But Matthew does more with his ordering of material. He not only orders it chronologically but also numerically. Notice at the end of the genealogy everything is counted. And it’s counted in three sets of 14 generations.
Matthew 1:17 - “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.”
Matthew does this to communicate two additional things about who Jesus is. First, this communicates that Jesus is the son of David. Now, Matthew’s already said this in the first verse but he wants to emphasize it because this is one of the central identities, if not the central identity of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. That he is the king in the kingly line. More than that he’s the Messiah, the Christ, the last and climactic King of Israel.
This is going to come in sharp contrast in the next chapter when we will be told that there is already a king in Israel, Herod
But you may be wondering what does 14s have to do with David. Well, in Hebrew and Greek words would also have numbers. So each letter in the alphabet would correspond to a number. For instance, A would be one, B would be too, and so on and so forth. David’s name in Hebrew has three letters, dalet, vav, dalet and if you add those up it’s 14. The numerical value of David’s name is 14.
Now if you’re unfamiliar with this you may be either getting nervous or wondering if this is some sort of esoteric strange thing. But there’s something important to understand about numbers in the Bible. There’s a lot of numerology in the Bible. The problem is that it has been corrupted by people who misuse and mis-identify it.
Most of the time in the Bible the numerological things that are going on emphasize the things that are already going on, on the surface of the text. They’re not telling the future or telling us what’s going on in the Middle East. Just like here we have something we’ve already been told about David in the first for us and that’s emphasized numerically.
Furthermore in God’s other book, creation, we also see that it is structured numerically, mathematically. Mathematics is not just an abstract game but actually applies in the real world. So it’s not surprising that there are numerical features in the book of scripture. Well, that’s the first thing that Matthew was communicating with these numbers.
But to understand the other thing we’ve got to add these numbers up. 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 from David to Exile, and 14 from Exile to Jesus. 14+14+14 = 42. So Matthew is measuring time between Abraham and Jesus and he says that it’s 42. Now, there’s different ways to measure time. We are most familiar with measuring time by years so if we were to ask how far world war one is from World War II we could say that it’s 31 years apart. If, however, we wanted to measure the distance between two events in terms of its intellectual or moral distance or progression we could do that too.
So what’s the distance, the measurement between 1AD and 1000AD? You could describe it as 1000 years, measuring it in terms of time. But, if you wanted to describe not its chronology, but it’s character, you might describe it as a decline, the dark ages. That’s just another way of measuring time. But that measurement is not in terms of years or days but in terms of intellectual or moral measuring. Those who interpret the middle ages that way think that it was characterized by intellectuation regress.
Matthew is not concerned about measuring the time or chronology between Abraham and Jesus in terms of years, quantitatively, but in terms of quality or character. That is, what is that time like, what was its character. And he communicates that through this symbolic use of numbers.
You see, God structured the Israelite calendar symbolically. And it was structured, alternating between segments of work and rest. And the rest always happened on the sevens.
So in a week there are six days of work and on the seventh day there is rest. There is also six months and in the seventh month there are four festivals of rest. And every seventh year there is rest for an entire year. And when you have seven cycles of seven years, in the 49th year there is rest.
So you have these escalating patterns of seven that finish in that largest one in the 49th year. But that is actually not the biggest one. All of those cycles of 7 are picture of the grand sequence. All of history is work and when God returns he will bring the seventh period of rest. The prophets of the Old Testament tell us that the final seventh rest, the last one that will finish human history. So all of human history is work and at some point God will come back and bring us in to that last seventh rest. And all of those smaller sequences of work and then rest are to train the human soul into this grand pattern.
So Matthew has counted 6 7s up to Jesus, 42, so Jesus is starting the last seven. Jesus’ life and work will be the last seven that will culminate in rest. By measuring the time from Abraham to Jesus in this way Matthew is saying that we are right at the end. And Jesus’s main message will be “the kingdom is near”, that is, that climactic rest is almost here and actually is here in Jesus’ life. Jesus will finish God’s work and bring in the rest.
So far from being a boring list, this genealogy shows us that we are at the end, the resolution of history, in the most elegant way. Jesus ends the exile, bringing the final Sabbath rest.