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J. Richard Middleton
 on August 11, 2021

Matthew's Genealogy of Jesus: Part I

In the third part of a four-part series, J. Richard Middleton shares an introduction to Matthew’s genealogy, with a close look at Abraham to David.


In this third part of his four-part series, J. Richard Middleton shares an introduction to Matthew’s genealogy, with a close look at Abraham to David.

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.

Gospel according to Matthew

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.

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

So by giving us fourteen generations in each period, Matthew is calling attention to David as a crucial figure in the story of Israel.

J. Richard Middleton
J. Richard Middleton

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).

Ruth and Boaz

The mention of Rahab, Tamar, and Ruth in Matthew’s gospel prepare us for Mary, without whom there would be no Messiah.

(Photo: Trnava—The neo-gothic fresco of the scene of Boaz and Ruth wedding by Leopold Bruckner from end of 19. cent. in Saint Nicholas church)

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.

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 1:2-6a) 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).

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About the author

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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