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Richard Middleton | Interpreting Biblical Genealogies

Richard Middleton, shares with us some of the historical context that helps us to see the genealogies as another part of the story of God’s creation.

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bible genealogy and tree

Richard Middleton, shares with us some of the historical context that helps us to see the genealogies as another part of the story of God’s creation.

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A podcast that shows the harmony between Christian faith and current scientific discoveries by sharing the stories of interesting people who have found a better way of understanding science and Christian faith.
  • Originally aired on September 16, 2021
  • With 
    Jim Stump

At first glance, biblical genealogies appear to straightforward family trees, the kinds we see on ancestry.com that map out the precise relationships between parents and offspring, tracing back as far as we can go. But is that how the genealogies in the Bible are supposed to be read? It turns out there’s a lot more going on in the genealogies than just that straightforward accounting. Bible scholar, Richard Middleton, shares with us some of the historical context that helps us to see the genealogies as another part of the story of God’s creation.

Additional Resources


Transcript

Middleton:

Even as far back as the 19th century, Christians who studied the genealogies realized when you compare them, there are generations missing from genealogies that cover the same time period. So we can’t accept that they’re literally this one became the father of this one. It’s an ancestor of. And we’re not sure how many generations are missing. So that’s the first thing. Even BB Warfield who formulated the modern doctrine of inerrancy, was convinced that we can’t take these as precise countings of generations or the ages of people who are exact, so you can figure out how old the earth was. 

My name is Richard Middleton. I teach Biblical Studies at Northeastern Seminary in Rochester, New York.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. 

Nobody takes every passage of Scripture literally. When Jesus said “I am the vine”, I don’t think anyone believes he was claiming to be a plant. That’s a metaphor and a symbol. On the other hand, most of us Christians believe there are other parts of Scripture that are meant to be taken literally. Most significantly in that regard is the claim that Jesus rose from the grave. We don’t think that’s just a metaphor. So clearly we who take Scripture seriously acknowledge that there are some passages that mean exactly what the words in 21st century English mean, and there are other passages that should be interpreted more metaphorically or symbolically. The difficulty is that there is no asterisk in the text next to the verses telling us which ones are which. We have to do the hard work of understanding the languages and contexts in which Scripture was written, and using the other tools God has given us for interpreting. Even then we might not always be sure, and it’s obvious we don’t always agree.

Are we really supposed to understand from Genesis 1 and Exodus 20 that God brought all material reality into existence in six days? We at BioLogos don’t think so. Should we really gouge out an eye if it causes us to sin, the way Jesus said in Matthew 5? Probably not… at least I don’t see many one-eyed people in the church. And should we greet each other with a holy kiss, the way we are instructed in Romans, and 1st Corinthians, and 2nd Corinthians, and 1st Thesssalonians, and 1st Peter? All these passages — and many more we could list — have very straightforward literal meanings that we don’t think are the correct interpretations.

The genealogies might also fall into this category. In most of our English translations, the genealogies in Genesis and Matthew and Luke appear to be pretty straightforward family trees. But is that the way we should understand them? It turns out there is a lot more going on in the text than that straightforward, literal reading. Richard Middleton is a first-rate Bible scholar, who has been on the podcast before. We asked him to help us understand what is really going on with these genealogies. It’s always fun and enlightening talking to him.

Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Stump:

It’s good to have you back on the podcast, Richard. 

Middleton:

Good to be here. 

Stump:

I think the last time we recorded was at the American Academy of Religion meeting in San Diego, which seems like a different lifetime from now. How have you been? 

Middleton:

Been fine, thanks. Of course I got COVID in between, but I’ve recovered from that fully.

Stump: 

What was your experience like with that?

Middleton:

I was bedridden for a week, the sickest I’ve ever been. But I didn’t have to go to the hospital or anything. And I lost, really, taste everything tasted terrible for a while. So I lost weight as a result.

Stump:

Oh, dear. But you’re all fine now. 

Middleton:

Totally fine. As far as I can tell. 

Stump:

And ready to start another semester. Are your semesters going to be going like normal here this fall?

Middleton:

Well, this is the second time we’re saying we’re starting as normal. And we guess that within a month, we might go to virtual. We’re just open to that. And it may happen.

Stump:

Well, such as life, and we’re all learning new ways to do this. One of the things that we’ve /benefited from though during this time is doing remote interviews like this. So we’re glad to be able to talk to you again. And specifically this time, we’re going to talk about genealogies. So I asked you several months ago if you’d write an article for the biologos website from the perspective of a biblical scholar about the genealogies we see in Scripture, and you dug into that assignment with gusto and produced a series of four articles, which we’ll link to in our show notes here. We thought we’d talk about them. Start with the big picture takeaway, what’s the sort of 240 character Twitter posts that might summarize what you discovered about genealogies in Scripture?

Middleton:

Well, I just preface my Twitter post with saying that, you know, I was one of those people who would skip over the genealogies and just read the narratives because they’re much more interesting and didn’t really know what to do with the genealogies. So when someone from the outside, BioLogos in this case, says, do some research first and find out I thought that was interesting opportunity to learn. And so what I learned was genealogies focus on the ordered progression of generations that God’s creation is working, and people are multiplying and filling the earth as God intended. But they’re interspersed with narratives. And the narratives usually have to do with tension and conflict and sin and fracture. So you get a theology from the integration of genealogies and narratives in the Bible that says, God’s creation is working well, and people are multiplying and filling the earth and producing culture, but they’re doing it in a pretty bad way. And they’re causing sin and evil and fracture in God’s creation.

Stump:

Hmm. So genealogies obviously and English word. OIt appears in some of the English translations like Matthew, one, one in at least the NRSV says, the genealogy of Jesus. But does that mean the same thing for us today, the way we understand a genealogy to be like a family tree. Are the accounts of the ancestors we find in the Bible’s doing the same thing there? Or do we need to even start with the terminology and define our terms here a little bit?

Middleton:

Right? That’s a very good question. I think that when we in the modern world use a genealogy, we’re thinking of an accurate accounting of all the generations tracing back from as far back as we can go to where we are today. So we understand our heritage. Before the modern period, people were not interested in the precision of genealogies the way we are. So genealogies had other functions. And you can look at the literature on genealogies in various cultures by anthropologists, and they have all sorts of ideas about what the functions were. But one of the functions in the Bible is to make a theological point that would cohere with what the narrative is about. So that the entire story is telling us something about God and humanity and God’s purposes for salvation. And the genealogies function within that narrative context. That’s very general at the moment.

Stump:

Yeah, we’ll get into some of the specific ones there and a little bit, but staying generally like that, so somebody like Bishop Ussher, in Ireland in the 17th century is probably the most famous of the—maybe infamous—of the interpreters of biblical genealogies. Describe a little bit about what he did, how he understood these and use them. And maybe we’ll use that as a bridge then to compare what a more biblical reading of them might be.

Middleton:

Right. So as far as I understand, what Usher did was he took the genealogies as if when he says so and so begat so and so that’s quite literally the father to the son, and there’s no gaps in between. And he couldn’t connected all the genealogies, connected all the dots from, I guess, for the time of Jesus back to Adam and Eve, and figured out that the world was created in a certain date. He even gave the month and year.

Stump:

October, I think. Coming up on the anniversary.

Middleton:

I don’t have that in front of me right now. I think it was, basically he assumed it was something like 4000 BC or something like that. 

Stump:

Yeah, yeah. And so you’re claiming that’s not the proper function of these. What instead, you’ve already talked about making theological points, but maybe we should even ask whether they all have the same function. I mean, there’s, we’ll be looking at some genealogies here from Genesis and into Matthew separated by at least 1000 years, maybe? Can we assume that the functions of the genealogies all throughout Scripture are the same? Or are they going to have individual functions too?

Middleton:

So just say that they have theological points they’re trying to make says there’s a similarity of function. But what the theological points are would be very different depending on where they’re located, in what book in the Bible, because the different books of the Bible are saying different things. So the genealogies in Genesis have to do more with what I was saying about the integration of God’s ordered creation and our fracture of that creation through sin. Whereas the genealogies in Matthew and then also in Luke, which I didn’t really address in my blog posts, they have to do with what is the point that Matthew is trying to make or Luke is trying to make about who Jesus is, his identity in the context of Israel’s story. So that’s a little different theological point.

Stump:

Okay. Well, let’s start with Genesis, which seems like a good place to start, right? So this first one we get in Genesis 4 is Adam to Enosh. Give us a couple of highlights perhaps from this genealogy, what the messages we’re getting the theological points about creation and its fracturing, that we ought to see when we read this genealogy today, If we had the eyes of the ancient Near East, we’re the first audience.  

Middleton:

Right. So you know the genealogy in chapter four, Genesis, starts with Adam and Adam having his sons, Cain and Abel, and ending with Adam having a replacement for Abel, who was killed,Seth. And then Seth’s genealogy right to Enosh. But in between that you have a long narrative, the Cain and Abel story. And many people who would read Genesis four, and ignore the genealogical notes at the beginning and at the end, and just read the story in between. But the story is really an interruption in a little genealogy that says, you know, so Adam and Eve have children, one of them kills the other one. And there’s a narrative about that God even protects, tries to first challenge Cain before he kills Abel, then protects Cain from death, and from vengeance, and then it continues with the genealogy. And one of the points that would be made there is that, despite sin, which is a fundamental rupture, this is the first case of a death, a literal death in the Genesis creation account. You know, the day you eat of that tree, you shall surely die. Well, this is the first death and it’s a murder. So this is clearly the consequence of human rupture between God and humanity, but also between people. And this rupture does not prevent the continuation of the generations. Indeed, in Cain’s line, you have the invention of certain things like metallurgy, metal tools, and music, and so on. So good is still coming from the human race, despite our sin. And the part that was the, I guess the revelation to me, was, I always knew that the word Adam is a generic word for ‘human being’ in the Bible. When he says, you know, Genesis two, God hadn’t yet made plants because there was no water and there was no Adam to tend the ground, it’s usually translated, there was no one, just a generic word for being human. But it becomes a name in the genealogy of Genesis five very specifically, but the first person listed, his name is Adam, in Genesis four and the last person listed is Enosh. Enosh, would say in English. Enosh is another word that’s a synonym for Adam. And what is a human being that you’re mindful of him, says Psalm 8. That’s the word Enosh. What’s an Enosh? And so you have a human being starting the genealogy, Adam, who, through Adam sin comes into the world. And it ends with Enosh, in whose time people began to call it the name of Yahweh. So that is a human being is a source of evil. But a human being is also the possibility for return to God. There’s a positive possibility at the end of the genealogy. So that’s a snippet in brief of the human race. We generate sin, and we can generate good culture. We kill our neighbors, but we also turn to God, warts and all. That’s the human race.

Stump:

So this at least suggests that there’s something more going on here than just a family tree. Right?

Middleton: 

I think definitely.

Stump: 

Talk a little bit more about some of these other names in this, even in this particular genealogy and some of the symbolic significance of them.

Middleton:

Alright, among the other names in the genealogies not specifically in Genesis 4, but in Genesis 5 and so forth, would be you have Noah. And Noah is explained as meaning that he would bring comfort or relief to those who are tending the ground that God had cursed. A symbolic name related to the word for comfort. One of Noah’s sons is Shem. Shem is the word for name. We have Eve in the story of the Garden of Eden and Eve is called the mother of all living. And Hava is how you pronounce Eve in modern Hebrew. Hava is a Jewish name today for a girl. Hawa is how you would have pronounced it in ancient times. And that’s very similar to the Hebrew word for life which is Chai. And Cain, his name is said that it relates to the fact that he got or acquired a man with the help of God and the Word Cain sounds like the verb for ‘to acquire.’ And Abel is the most significant name of all in my opinion, Abel is Hevel in Hebrew. And that’s simply the word that’s a theme and Ecclesiastes, hevel, hevel all is hevel. Everything is either literally a vapor or a breath, or metaphorically futility or meaningless. And Abel’s life was snuffed out, his life was a vapor or breath.

Stump:

Okay, so what are we supposed to do with this? And I asked this from the perspective of wondering what this says regarding the historicity or lack thereof of these people. Because if I look up in a dictionary of names, my own name has a meaning too, turns out to be supplanter. And so does yours. Richard means brave ruler. That doesn’t mean we’re not real people, right? Why are these names in Genesis—is there something different about these names in Genesis that you’re pointing to then just the mere fact that names have meanings?

Middleton:

Well, that’s a great question. All names have meanings. It’s not clear that we all know what the meanings are, or are aware of them when we read the names. For example, my name is only called brave ruler because of Richard the Lionheart. And that got put back into the name, but the name originally didn’t mean that. So names can acquire meanings as we go along. And many times a name is explained in the text, in the Bible, it’s this person’s name is this because of this. I think that this is a difficult question, and there’s no simple quick answer. It involves reading the text open hearted, open minded, and listening for what sort of literature it is. And it seems to me that Genesis 1 to 11, what we call the primeval history, or the universal history for Abraham, is clearly, has a quality of the legendary about it. So it just feels different. Which makes sense why so many of these names are symbolic. And the name Shem, for example, I think is really interesting, in that it’s never explained that the word Shem means name. But the word Shem is the name that begins the genealogy following the Tower of Babel and ends the genealogy before the Tower of Babel. And the Tower of Babel is about people trying to make a name for themselves, a shem. And yet no one in that story is named. It is the only narrative in Genesis 1 through 11 where no one is named. So I think that’s clearly symbolic to end one genealogy with a name shem and start the next with shem, and that frames a story in which people try to find a name or reputation, and they, the only one they get is confusion.

Stump:

So let’s talk a little bit more about this Tower of Babel story because I think normally, at least in Sunday School in the flannel graph, when I was growing up, we’d see that the story, that the takeaway from the story of the Tower of Babel was that God was giving a kind of punishment or curse on people for trying to make a tower that they could get to heaven with. How does our understanding of this story hinge on where it’s placed in the text with relation to genealogies? I think this is a really interesting point you make in these articles.

Middleton:

So the two things that people tend to misinterpret about the Tower of Babel, and this is both popular readings and scholarly readings is that they take the scattering of the people of Babel, and the linguistic confusion as a punishment. So I’ll get to that in a sec. But the other one is that they think that this is the origin of multiple languages in the world. And then the commentaries will say, well, yes, we understand there is a problem. It comes after the genealogy of Genesis 10, which describes the proliferation of people over the face of the earth, they’re spreading out or scattering. One point uses the same verb for scatter. And there are linguistic diversification. So it’s clearly out of order. It should have come before chapter 10. However, the place where the people who end up being called Babel—and Babel is just the Hebrew word for Babylon in the Bible—the place they settle is the land of Shinar. Well the land of Shinar is mentioned in the genealogy of chapter 10 as a particular location where someone named Nimrod—another person we know, perhaps a symbolic name also—settles and builds cities. And the cities he builds include Babel, among other ones include Syria and other places we know which are in Mesopotamia. So Shinar seems to be Mesopotamia. And it’s better to interpret the Babel story as an expansion of the little note in Genesis 10, where the city called Babel is settled. It’s one of the many cities in a complex world of many languages and cultures and peoples, but it’s one city in which they said, “let’s resist diversification. Let’s bring homogenization of a powerful empire which is going to be called Babylon. We’re going to impose our language on the world.’ We know the Assyrians imposed their language on conquered peoples, whether the Babylonians did, we don’t have that evidence yet. But it’s the same culture. And so to read it as an expansion of here is one example of people resisting the cultural mandate to spread out and fill the earth. Because right after the Tower of Babel we have—this is a people from Noah’s generation, who did spread out and fill the earth.

Stump:

And is there some connection there, even so that with Abraham and becoming a blessing to all nations, where it’s not like all nations was somehow a problem, right? This was part of the good intention from the beginning. 

Middleton:

That’s right, yes. So you have to read between the lines, in a sense. You have to read Genesis 11, the Bible story, understanding the rest of the Bible about the Empire called Babylon. And this story is making a judgment about empires,  Babel being symbolic of all empires, as it becomes in the book of Revelation, right? Babylon becomes a symbolic name, for example. At this point, what the Bible seems to be saying is God wants complexity and diversity in the world, and God wants blessing for all peoples of the world. An empire like Babylon tries to control its known world and impose its point of view on all people. And in fact, the building of the tower, we know from history, would have been done by slave labor. Even though the text has ‘let us,’ It really means ‘let them,’ which is just the way that you know people in power where ‘we built this tower,‘ ‘we built this city.’ Well really you didn’t build it, you got other people to build it for you. And so they, what started as a punishment is really—of course it does have an aspect of punishment—but it’s really God restarting diversification, again, breaking up an empire, that there might be healing among the nations. And so Abraham’s call is to bring blessing to all the families of the earth, to all the nations. Which is the opposite of what Babylon was doing. And whereas the people in Babylon wanted to make a name for themselves, have a reputation that they were the most powerful. God says to Abraham, I will make your name great, or I will greatly magnify your name. And we know the name Abraham. It’s a reputation that he has, but not because he accomplished great things, but because of what God accomplished for him.

Stump:

So I also, quite often growing up, heard a lot of sermons that would relate Pentecost, back to the Tower of Babel, where it was undoing the damage, when people came together again, and started speaking in ways that everyone could understand at Pentecost, that this was undoing the damage that Babel, that the Tower of Babel had done. So that sounds like it would be a fairly illegitimate reading of—  

Middleton:

No, it’s actually a legitimate reading, if you pay attention to Acts chapter two and the Pentecost story, because people understand what others are saying in their own language.

Stump:

So okay, so it’s not, it’s not eliminating all of these languages. 

Middleton:

It keeps the diversification of languages while allowing people to hear each other, or listen to each other and understand each other once again. 

Stump:

Interesting. Okay. We’ll come back to the New Testament in just a second. A couple more questions from these old testament genealogies. Some of them have a bunch of numbers associated with them that sure sounds like it’s doing precise, careful, family-tree work. I take it you don’t necessarily think that those numbers mean what we mean by them today when it says this person lived to be this age, and this age had this son and so on.

Middleton:

Yeah, so first of all, in the Bible, generally, if someone is said to be a father of someone, or a son of someone, or a brother of someone, anyone who has studied Hebrew knows that those terms do not mean literally, only a father, son and brother. It can mean an ancestor, a descendant and relative. So we can’t be very specific that each one is the literal father of the next son. Even as far back as the 19th century, Christians who studied the genealogies realized when you compare them, there are generations missing from genealogies that cover the same time period. So we can’t accept that they’re literally this one became the father of this one. It’s an ancestor of. And we’re not sure how many generations are missing. So that’s the first thing. Even B.B. Warfield, who formulated the modern doctrine of inerrancy, was convinced that we can’t take these as precise countings of generations or the ages of people who are exact, so you can figure out how old the earth was. And though not my area of expertise and I didn’t do it in the blog posts. Many people, including you, my brother, have done a blog post on the significance of the large ages of the ancestors, including, you know, Methuselah and Noah and all these people. And when you calculate these ages in the Mesopotamian system, which is not a decimal system based on root 10, but one base on root 60, you realize that what the biblical writers were doing, at least very plausible to me, is that they were coming up with what we would consider to be rounded figures that are very unlikely to be literally true. But you have to translate them into the base 60 numbering system to figure that out, and it’s not my area of expertise.

Stump:

And it seems like whatever they meant by some of these numbers symbolically, is shrouded in mystery now that when I was doing some of that research, trying to understand it, there’s lots of speculation, but it’s pretty tough to say, “this is what it meant,” when you said that somebody lived to be 900 or 830 years old, or something like that.

Middleton:

But I do think you can say that the way that the genealogies are laid out in Genesis is that people had enough vitality, to live to a very old age. And over time, things changed.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hey Language of God listeners. If you enjoy the conversations you hear on the podcast, we just wanted to let you know about our website, biologos.org, which has articles, videos, personal stories, and curated resources for pastors, students, and educators. And we’ve recently launched a new animated video series called insights. These short videos tell stories and explore many of the questions at the heart of the faith and science conversation. You can find them at BioLogos dot org slash insights or there’s a link in the shownotes. All right, back to the show!

Interview Part Two

Stump:

Okay, as we move to the New Testament, and the genealogies there in Matthew, that you wrote about specifically, another question I had is about the relation of these and what people writing at the time of the New Testament would have understood by the genealogies in the Old Testament. Do we know anything about how—did they understand these to be more literal family trees? Or were they working in the same sort of worldview, where they understood that there’s lots of symbolism here going on, and that the more important message was the theological message rather than trying to do research on ancestry.com to find out why you know what my actual family tree looked like? 

Middleton: 

You mean ancestry dot scroll. 

Stump:

[laughs] Right, at the time.

Middleton:

So I don’t think we have knowledge of the New Testament time exactly about what people would have been thinking about that, but we do have some books from Second Temple Judaism, like the book of Jubilees, which retells the story of Genesis, but it’s plays fast and loose with things like chronology. And it’s clearly a symbolic book. And many people who have studied that have pointed that out. And it has the ages of the world leading up from creation to the eschaton. And it doesn’t quite match the genealogies in Genesis by any means. So certainly in the time, maybe a little bit before the New Testament, at least we have some evidence that some Jews were not reading this thing literally the way we think of literal reading.

Stump:

Okay, give us a little introduction here then to the genealogies in the New Testament, primarily focusing on Matthew, but probably referring a little bit to Luke’s as well, since both of these are pretty prominent in those Gospels.

Middleton:

You know, one of the interesting things is that Matthew starts his genealogy, his book with the genealogy of Jesus. Luke has his in chapter three. Luke’s is called an ascending genealogy. He starts from Jesus and goes back up to Adam and then Adam being the Son of God. He goes right back to God. Matthew’s goes back to Abraham and comes down to Jesus and it’s a descending genealogy. It’s also been called by what’s called a teleological genealogy because it ends with a telos, an end goal. It’s primarily trying to say that this story of Israel leads directly to Jesus. He’s a combination of it all. One of the details that I didn’t really get into is Luke and Matthew cite a different grandfather for Jesus. One says Jacob. One says Heli. There’s different ways to address what the tension is about and Raisa saw that. But I didn’t really get into that here. So I’m focusing primarily on Matthew’s version of the genealogy, which starts with Abraham and ends with Jesus.

Stump:

Okay. So Matthew starts with Abraham, doesn’t get into the prehistory of Abraham, do we read anything into that? And I keep coming back to these questions, because I think a lot of our listeners are still going to be focused on the historicity of this. Is there anything we can draw from this? I’m going to ask a few more of these kinds of historical questions as we go. But is there anything to the fact that we’re starting with Abraham in Matthew’s genealogy, and then perhaps, that related to Luke that does go all the way back to Adam?

Middleton:

Well, in Luke’s case where the genealogy is placed, it’s placed in the context of people questioning whose son Jesus is. And so Luke’s genealogy takes him right back to God, he’s ultimately God’s Son. And that’s part of Luke’s point. So a little different point from what Matthew is doing. Matthew wants to show that Jesus is the culmination of Israel. And of course, Abraham is the ancestor of Israel. He’s the beginning of Israel. So that’s why Matthew’s genealogy starts with Abraham, as far as I can tell.

Stump:

Okay, so you call this, this genealogy, and Matthew, a compact recapitulation of Israel’s history, the sort of compressed backstory of Jesus in the Messiah. So it seems a little too convenient that each of these episodes has exactly 14 generations. Let’s talk about that and unpack that a little bit.

Middleton:

So to say that it’s a compact history of Israel, you know, from Abraham down to Jesus is not saying that we are using the word history in the modern sense. You could say, a story, a narrative, an account, that really runs through Jesus in his backstory. It’s well known by all the commentators I’ve ever consulted that the 14 generations, the three sets of 14 generations Matthew has, is rooted in the term, David—Dawid in Hebrew—because people used in ancient times, the letters of the Hebrew alphabet—alef, bet, gimel, dalet as ABCD—as 1234, the same way we number point A, point B, point C. We mean 123. And that’s known as gematria. And it wasn’t very common in the Bible to use this, but the letters from David’s name add up to 14. And so the prominence of David in this genealogy and the prominence of David in Matthew’s Gospel is highlighted by saying that they’re going to be 14 generations from Abraham down to David and 14 from David to the exile and 14 from the exile to Jesus the Messiah. He’s highlighting the significance of David and Jesus’s Davidic connections, just by using the number 14.

Stump:

Okay, so to be clear, the word David—so Matthew is written in Greek, right? So but these are correlates, these are the Hebrew letter correlates to the Greek word there. 

Middleton:

Yea, so if you look at the Greek letters, you can figure out what the equivalent Hebrew letters would be. Historically, this may be related to the fact that Greek is actually derived from Hebrew. The alphabet, the Greek alphabet comes from the Hebrew alphabet at some point. In fact, we use the word alpha-bet. Alpha is the first letter in Greek. Bet is a second letter in Hebrew. Yeah. So you can see that quite clearly that’s not a problem to discern. And so the three letters in David, in Hebrew would be the dalet, the vav and the dalet. And that adds up to 14.

Stump:

Okay, so is the claim that somebody reading this would have noticed it or is this just a bit of cleverness by the author, by Matthew we say, of putting that in like a little easter egg that we see in movies or videos today for only the clever people to discover?

Middleton:

That’s a great question. I don’t know for sure, because I can’t get my mind back into an Israelite of the first century. My guess is that they would have picked that up pretty easily, the 14-14-14, and they were David. There’s a lot more gematria we’re going to talk about in a moment, but how much an average reader would have picked up is unclear. This is similar to the point that people often make with Paul’s letters. He will often quote the Old Testament, but sometimes he just alludes to it with a phrase. And if you don’t know the Old Testament very well, you won’t have picked up that he alluded to it. So the audience of the Pauline epistles would have been very varied. Some people just got the surface meaning. Others said, “look, he’s alluding to this passage in Deuteronomy.” Others would have said, “yeah, but did you also notice he also splices in a little Leviticus there?” Depending on your background knowledge would have gotten more and that’s kind of the standard way commentaries think about Paul’s allusions to the Old Testament. I think something like that might be true here. Some readers would get a bit others would get a lot more.

Stump:

So when the clues are that subtle, is there ever the problem that we might be finding things that weren’t really intended to be there? Or is this pretty clear to you that this gematria is going on throughout Matthew’s genealogy here?

Middleton:

There’s always the possibility that you’re reading something in. And there have been all kinds of explanations for certain problems in Matthew’s genealogy. The problems that has stood out to scholars have been that Matthew seems to change the spelling of some of the names in the genealogy. And why he changes them, there are all sorts of speculations. Until recently, one scholar said, it’s about gematria. He’s trying to match the numbers to make a certain outcome. And suddenly that explains all the strange spellings of the names that Matthew has. 

Stump:

Can you give us a couple of examples of that and how the gematria makes sense of it?

Middleton:

Okay, let’s take an example. In the first set of triads of 14 from Abraham down to David. We don’t often notice in our English translations that the names are spelled differently. Matthew gets most of his names from the book of Chronicles, the genealogy there, which overlaps to some extent in the middle section with David—or the first section with the Davidic genealogy in Ruth. What’s interesting is that he spells some of the names differently. And the scholars have speculated why. He changes the word, the name Ram to Aram; he changes Solomoh to Solomon; Boaz was to Boas, with an S; Obed to Jobed, which are all plausible variant spellings. But once you do a gematria you look at the spellings that he uses and think about what the Hebrew consonants—because we ignore the vowels in Hebrew, there aren’t literally letters yet—and we look at the Hebrew consonants behind each of the Greek consonants, and you add it up, you get it in from Abraham to David, you add up all the names, and it comes up to be 574. Okay, what’s the significance of that? Well, the name Abraham or in Hebrew, Avraham, the gematria of that name is 41. That’s the first name on the list. And the last name of the list is David, Dawid, which is 14. Well, when you multiply 41 by 14, what do you get? 574. So Matthew is being very intentional about this. That’s why he changed the spelling of some names. It wouldn’t have come out that way if he hadn’t changed the spelling, whether or not all readers would have got that? I don’t know. But some would have.

Stump:

Okay, so this is starting to sound a little like conspiracy theories, maybe. But the claim here would be that Matthew—so at least traditionally, we understand Matthew to have written this right?—is going through names from Chronicles, or wherever, of here are the people on the family tree of David and Abraham. And he’s sitting there with a calculator, and abacus, adding up all of these numbers and leaving some names out and adding other ones in and then changing the spelling of some of those just so that he gets that exact number, that it adds up correctly.

Middleton:

Well, let’s put it this way. Okay. It does add up correction, which suggests that’s what he was doing. Now, he doesn’t actually leave out the names from Chronicles in the first 14. It’s in the second 14 he leaves on a lot of names to get it to be 14. But yeah…

Stump:

And does the same thing happen in these other triads? So the next 14 you start with David, and and where, with Jeconiah?

Middleton:

Right. So let me just say this one thing. I think that Matthew basic theological points in the genealogy could be made without the gematria. It’s simply icing on the cake. So it’s not a kind of conspiracy theory where it tells you something brand new, that, oh my god, you wouldn’t have known this if you hadn’t been able to figure this out. It’s already there. It’s just one extra way he emphasizes it.

Stump:

And I’ve read other things about the book of Matthew, that there’s a lot of those structural things kind of built in, you know, as a, that it may have been a liturgical document, replacing Psalm 119, with various sections that line up there. And even using the beatitudes, to structure the rest of the book. There are lots of those kinds of speculations and trying to understand it. So again, it’s not that we somehow get some secret knowledge by this, but rather, that we see a really sort of intense intentionality, in how these names were being put together, to convey something. And we see it as a reflection of the culture and the times that this is what people did? Do we have other kinds of geometric from the first century where we’d say, oh, yes, this is clearly within this genre of writing that people were trying to show how clever they were by making all the numbers add up correctly?

Middleton:

That goes beyond my competence and research. But I’m guessing it was there. I mean, we have this one other example in Revelation that the name of the beast is the name of a man, and his name is 666. And that’s gematria for Nero Caesar. So we do have that. How common it was, I don’t know,.

Stump:

You made reference in your article to Chaim Potok’s book, The Chosen, which is one of my favorite novels of all time, and that by then we see gematria being used quite a bit. So did this practice have a renaissance of some sort in later Judaism?

Middleton:

It’s more that it was very minimally used in the Bible. As far as I can tell. In the centuries after the Bible, let’s say the next 1000 years, it’s mentioned in the Talmud and MIshnah that you can do this kind of calculation. And that’s not saying that the author of the Bible is doing that. But you can do this and get certain spiritual truths from it. But it really is not a Renaissance, it comes into full flower at the end of the Middle Ages, beginning of the modern period with Jewish mysticism. And the Jewish mystics do this a lot. And so by the time you get to the time of the Chaim Potok’s, The Chosen, you have among the, what they call the black hats, you know, with the curly hair at the side, these people have a certain affinity with Jewish mysticism, and they use their own spin on gematria to figure out all kinds of connections between things in the Bible that you couldn’t figure out otherwise. That’s a little more like a conspiracy theory, in my opinion, because it’s not something you could find otherwise. whereas with Matthew, you can see everything he’s saying by gematria, without gematria.

Stump:

So I always think it’s interesting though, when you find these kind of connections within the text, and points to, I don’t know, maybe a very sort of human element within scripture. Does that take away at all from the authority or inspiration we attribute to Scripture when we find such details and find them so connected to specific places and times that have been lost to us primarily.

Middleton:

One of the principles that I use when I teach biblical interpretation to my students is that the Bible is God’s authoritative word to us. But it’s also God’s Word in human language. And if we don’t understand the human contexts, and the people who wrote these things, we won’t understand the conceptions in the texts. Because they don’t just drop from heaven, they come through the consciousness of each person. And an example I tend to use is of the three major prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, whose prophetic language is often very different from each other. Where Ezekiel is very priestly, using a lot of language about abominations and contaminations, and the temple is very important to him. Jeremiah seems to join the book of Deuteronomy a lot with his covenant. And so covenant is an important term for him, how people have broken the covenant, how there’s going to be a new covenant written with the Torah on our hearts. And Isaiah is the only prophet we know who had access to the king without being persecuted. He seems to have been a royal blood perhaps. And so he talks a lot about, you know, the root from the shoot of Jesse that’s going to come, a new king will arise and bring justice. So the language and conceptuality of the prophets comes through the training of the prophets. And the same thing with Paul. If Paul had not been trained as a Pharisees, he could not have written the letters that he did write. So Matthew seemed to have had some knowledge of gematria and decided to maybe have a little fun with it and convey some spiritual truth at the same time.

Stump:

Well, I think it is pretty fun and refer our listeners to your essays where more of the examples of the gematria come through. But after this section in your writing, you say it’s clear that Matthew is not focused on what we would call historical accuracy. Rather, he’s intent on making particular theological points. Okay. But then you go on to say that the genealogy there is best understood as a recapitulation of Israel’s history, as we already said, summing up that history in terms of three historical periods, rooting Jesus firmly in that history. It sounds to me like there still is a lot of history going on here.

Middleton:

Sure. So history means different things. History can mean what happened in the past, and that’s noncontroversial to me. History can also mean historiography, an account of what happened in the past. And then you have to ask, is he doing modern historiography? No, he’s not. There are these historical periods. There is Abraham to the beginning of the united monarchy, under David. And there was David to the ending of the monarchy, at the exile. And then there is the exile to Jesus. Those are historical periods. What Matthew does with what’s happened in those periods is, to some extent symbolic, not denying that something happened, there was a genuine history there, but he’s not trying to tell us that history. He is actually alluding to the genealogies and the narratives of the Old Testament that are already there. And they’re not historical in the modern sense, either. They are very literary pieces recounting those historical events. And Matthew alludes to them, assumes that his genealogy will point back to those stories. And you can go back and read them and say, okay, why did he put Ruth in there? Oh, yeah. This is what happened with Ruth. Why did he say that David married the wife of Uriah and not Bathsheba? Oh, he’s alluding back to that episode when David, his adultery of Bathsheba, his murder of Uriah, which is actually left out of Chronicles. So though Matthew uses the Chronicles genealogy as a baseline, he does not do the story quite as in a sanguine way as Chronicles does, which leaves out that episode. He goes to Samuel and he alludes to the fact that it’s not that David is the high point. And then it declines after David. David is the beginning of the decline. The united monarchy begins with adultery and murder. And the judgment that was brought upon his house in Second Samuel 12, speaks about the house of David always having conflict and violence and bloodshed, until it ends in the exile. So it’s that, he’s making, again, a theological slash ethical point, about a genuine historical period. But he’s making that point specifically, because he’s going to end with Jesus, who is the son of David, but a very different kind of David.

Stump:

Well, good. I think a lot of people might hear this discussion and say, okay, it’s interesting to see how these genealogies function. And that maybe even the original audience wasn’t interested in this question about family trees. But I am. So can I ask the question, were these people named in the biblical genealogies real people? And were they actually related in the way we take genealogies to assert? Can I get an answer to that question from scripture? Or do I have to look elsewhere If I’m trying to ask a question like that?

Middleton:

I don’t think scripture will answer it very clearly. And I don’t think there’s anywhere else to go to clarify that. You know, it’s not the reconstructed history behind the text that is authoritative for the church. It’s a text. And I think that’s really important.

Stump:

Explain that difference a little.

Middleton:

So many Christians are upset with what we think of as liberal biblical scholarship, because they will say, for example, “oh the Exodus didn’t really happen. This is really what happened.” And they reconstruct the history to go behind the text. The trouble is that many conservative biblical scholars do the exact same thing. They just have different assumptions about what happened. A classic example, which I remember from my, this will date me, my days in Bible College in Jamaica, Harold Lindsell’s book, The battle for the Bible, came out. And he was, you know, questioning places like Fuller Seminary, which would not sign a statement of inerrancy. They believed in biblical authority, not inerrancy. So he dissed them of being of the devil basically. And he wanted to show that the Bible was a historically accurate document. So he looked at the accounts in the Gospels of Peter’s denial of Christ. Now If you had to harmonize them, they don’t harmonize very well. So what he ended up saying was that the history behind the text was that Peter denied Christ six times. And the different Gospels alluded to three of those times, but you put them all together, you get the six. Notice that what I did back then in my very conservative seminary, my professor, wonderful guy, said, “look, what Lindsell just did is the same thing the liberal scholars did. He claims to know better than the biblical text, what really happened.” And there’s a problem trying to figure out what goes on behind the text if it’s a reconstruction of the history. Now, behind the text simply means let’s understand the historical context. What was the times Matthew was living in? Who was he speaking to? That’s useful. But to say, “I know what the genealogy really was. And Matthew got it wrong.” You know, that’s problematic, whether you’re conservative or liberal.

Stump:

So this reminds me of an essay that C.S. Lewis wrote on the Psalms, when he was talking about how biblical literature ought to function. I don’t know if you’ve ever come across this. 

Middleton:

I read that many years ago, yes.

Stump:

Where he makes a distinction between people who think that scripture came from the heavens and came down to us and as though it was dropped out of heaven on clay tablets in front of us, as opposed to Scripture being literature that arose in communities, but has been taken up to the heavens in service to the Church. Does that distinction capture anything of importance to you in this conversation we’re having about how scripture functions for us?

Middleton:

I think that’s very helpful in this way. And I don’t think that hardly any, if any, writers of Scripture thought they were writing scripture. They were writing for some other purpose. But God took it up and use it as scripture for the church,

Stump:

Yeah, that’s a really good point. As opposed to God just whispering in their ears what they were supposed to write.

Middleton:

Exactly. I mean, there’s a text in First Corinthians 14, which Paul is making a comment about order and worship service, which I think is relevant to this generally. He says, “the spirit of the Prophet is subject to the Prophet.” Which means that even if you are a prophet receiving a word from God, you control what you say. It comes through your consciousness, it comes through your language. You know, I used to be involved in charismatic groups back in the 1970s. And when someone prophesied in one of those groups, they always spoke in King James English. Today they speak in NIV say. Sp it’s culturally conditioned, it’s culturally conditioned. 

Stump: 

And Paul has another line, right, where he says, “this is not the Lord, this is me speaking.” Right, in Corinthians somewhere, I think.

Middleton:

Now, in that context, he may be saying this is not something that Jesus said in his historical ministry, but I’m adding to it. It’s possible. I’m not sure I’d have to go back and look at that.

Stump:

Well, very interesting. So I think this is a really helpful distinction to make between the text that we have versus the reality that we may attempt to reconstruct, and that we, as people have the book, have the book, right? And that’s what’s authoritative for us as opposed to any of the reconstructions we might attempt to make of what stands behind the book. 

Middleton:

You want me to do a summary of the gematria and Matthew or not

Stump:

Sure.

Middleton:

So, when you read the blog post, you understand all the details of the gematria but to sum up the first 14 names that he has, add up the 574. We talked about that. The next 14 out of the 560 and the next 14 out of the 588. That’s 1722. It turns out that when you multiply Abraham, which is 41, with a messiah, mushiya, which is 42, you get 1722. That’s the beginning and the end. So at multiple levels, Matthew’s having fun and making a point. Israel’s history culminates in Jesus the Messiah. 

Stump:

Hmm. Well, very good. We’ll leave the genealogies at that. Thanks for talking to us again. 

Middleton:

Okay, bye bye.

Credits

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Featured guest

J. Richard Middleton

J. Richard Middleton

Richard Middleton (PhD Free University of Amsterdam) is Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis at Northeastern Seminary (Rochester, NY) and adjunct professor of Old Testament at the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology (Kingston, Jamaica). He is past president of the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies (2019–2021) and past president of the Canadian-American Theological Association (2011–2014). He holds a BTh from Jamaica Theological Seminary and an MA in Philosophy from the University of Guelph (Canada). Middleton is the author of Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God (Baker Academic, 2021); A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker Academic, 2014); and The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Brazos, 2005). He coauthored (with Brian Walsh) The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (IVP, 1984) and Truth is Stranger than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (IVP, 1995), and has co-edited (with Garnett Roper) A Kairos Moment for Caribbean Theology: Ecumenical Voices in Dialogue (Pickwick, 2013). He has published articles on creation theology in the Old Testament, the problem of suffering, and the dynamics of human and divine power in biblical narratives. His books have been published in Korean, French, Indonesian, Spanish, and Portuguese.

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