Matthew’s Genealogy of Jesus: Part II
In the final part of his four-part series, J. Richard Middleton continues his discussion on Matthew's genealogy of Jesus, from David to the Exile, culminating in Jesus the Messiah.
In the final part of his four-part series, J. Richard Middleton continues his discussion on Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, from David to the Exile, culminating in Jesus the Messiah.
Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (Matt 1:1-17) is structured as three sets of fourteen generations—from Abraham to David, from David to the Babylonian exile, and from the exile to Jesus the Messiah. We have already seen, in the previous blog post, that fourteen is a symbolic number, calculated according to what is known as gematria, by adding up the numerical values of the Hebrew consonants in the name David. We looked briefly at phase 1 of the genealogy (from Abraham to David), where Matthew inserted the names of three significant mothers of Israel. He also changed the spelling of some of the names from his Old Testament sources (Ruth and Chronicles), so that another level of gematria could come into play.25
It is now time to examine the rest of Matthew’s genealogy, the next two sets of fourteen generations—from David to the exile, then from the exile to Jesus.
Although Matthew states that it is fourteen generations from David to the exile (Matt 1:17), the fourteen generations technically begin with David’s son, Solomon (1:6b) and end with Jeconiah (Matt 1:11)—otherwise we would get fifteen generations. It is possible that Matthew says it is fourteen generations from David (not Solomon) to the exile as a way of continually keeping the name David before the reader.
All the fourteen names in this list are kings in the Davidic dynasty and Matthew bases his list on the genealogy in 1 Chronicles 3:1-17. Whereas David and Solomon ruled the united kingdom of Israel and Judah, the kingdom was divided in the days of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam; so all the kings on Matthew’s list from Rehoboam to Jeconiah are kings of Judah.
It is a bit unusual that Matthew should list Jeconiah (also known as Jehoiachin) as the last king before the exile, since Zedekiah reigned in Jerusalem after Jeconiah was taken into exile (2 Kings 24:8-20). Jeconiah’s deportation to Babylon is probably why the Chronicles genealogy refers to him as “the captive” (1 Chron 3:17); it looks like Matthew was influenced by this note in 1 Chronicles.
Although most of Matthew’s genealogy is simply a listing of which king descends from which, he ends the fourteen generations of the monarchy with an expansion: “Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the deportation to Babylon” (Matt 1:11). Just as the earlier phrase “Judah and his brothers” (in Matt 1:2) alluded to the entirety of Israel (the twelve tribes come from the twelve brothers), so the repetition of the identical words “and his brothers” after Jeconiah’s name in connection with the exile may signify the total ending of the Davidic monarchy.
Some readers of Matthew’s genealogy have suggested there is a significant difference between this negative valuation of phase 2 (David to the exile) and what seems like a positive valuation of phase 1 (Abraham to David). Whereas phase 2 ends in a low point (the Babylonian exile), phase 1 ends on a high (David, who founded a royal dynasty). This interpretation often appeals to the book of Judges, which covers part of the period represented by Matthew’s first fourteen names. Judges ends with two juxtaposed statements in one verse: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Jdg 21:25). Although there is no grammatical link in Hebrew between the two statements, it might be thought that the first (no king) is an explanation for the second (moral chaos), so that the monarchy could be regarded as a solution to the moral problem of the period.
This idea seems to be reinforced by the book of Ruth, which is placed in our English Bibles immediately following Judges. Since Ruth ends with the genealogy of David (Ruth 4:18-22), this might suggest that the Davidic monarchy brings resolution to the chaos of the time. Matthew not only draws on Ruth’s genealogy for the names from Perez to David (in phase 2), but when he gets to David he specifically adds, “the king.” Could Matthew himself be suggesting that the Davidic monarchy is God’s culminating solution to the moral chaos that characterized the era of the judges? Is that why Matthew emphasizes David?
Certainly, the second batch of names in Matthew’s genealogy (Solomon to Jeconiah) represents a downward spiral, concluding with the definitive ending of the Davidic monarchy in the deportation to Babylon. So we might think that Matthew is contrasting the upward turn in phase 1 of his genealogy (Abraham to David) with the downward spiral in phase 2 (Solomon to Jeconiah).
But that contrast is only on the surface. A deeper look suggests that the Davidic line not only ended in crisis, but began in crisis, with a steep initial dip downwards. Matthew gives notice of this negative beginning by including an important fourth mother of Israel, after the three he previously mentioned in the genealogy from Abraham to David.
Having cited Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth explicitly by name, Matthew avoids giving the name of the fourth woman (Bathsheba). Instead, he says that David became the father of Solomon by “the wife of Uriah” (2:6b)—a clear reference to the episode of David’s adultery, followed by his murder of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah. This pointed way of referring to Bathsheba indicates that the downward spiral of the monarchy, which ended in Babylonian exile, began with none other than David himself.
Although Matthew derives the list of Davidic kings from the Chronicles genealogy, he does not follow the sanguine narrative in Chronicles of David’s reign; that narrative omits entirely the episode with Bathsheba and Uriah. Instead, Matthew draws on the narrative of 2 Samuel 11-12, which not only recounts David’s egregious sins, but pronounces judgment on David’s “house” (his family and his dynasty), a judgment that comes to fruition in the deportation to Babylon.
So Matthew is not holding up David as an ideal figure. Rather, his genealogy signals a critique of David—something that becomes clear from a careful reading of his Gospel.26 From start to finish, the monarchy (even the much touted Davidic monarchy) was essentially a failed experiment.
So Matthew is not holding up David as an ideal figure. Rather, his genealogy signals a critique of David—something that becomes clear from a careful reading of his Gospel. From start to finish, the monarchy (even the much touted Davidic monarchy) was essentially a failed experiment.
Although Matthew derives his list of kings from 1 Chronicles 3:10-19, he omits some of the kings listed in the Chronicles genealogy in order to get the number of generations down to fourteen. Besides the omission of Zedekiah at the end (after Jeconiah), three kings are missing between Jehoram and Uzziah (Matt 1:8) and four are missing between Josiah and Jeconiah (Matt 1:11). And just as he did in the genealogy from Abraham to David, Matthew changes the spelling of some of the names in his list of kings. Some of his spellings diverge from the Hebrew of 1 Chronicles since he is following the Greek Septuagint. But two are unique to him—Asaph for Asa (Matt 1:7-8) and Amos for Amon (Matt 1:10). Scholars have puzzled about these two changes, wondering if Matthew is alluding to the temple musician mentioned in some psalms headings (Psalms 50, 73-83) and to the famous eighth-century prophet (though neither was a king). However, the explanation for his changes is once again (you guessed it) gematria.
The sum of all the numerical values of the fourteen names—as Matthew spells them—in the list from David to the exile is 560. This is exactly the number we get when we multiply the numerical value of David (14) with Jeconiah (40), the last king listed; this accounts for Matthew’s variant spellings of the names, including Asaph and Amos. While this playing with numbers might seem to contemporary readers as an unnecessary quirk (he could make his points without it), it is another way in which Matthew reinforces his desire to keep the name David before us. If the genealogy of Abraham to David suggests great possibilities for Israel, the genealogy of “from David to the deportation to Babylon” (Matt 1:17) affirms that these possibilities were squandered by the monarchy, beginning with David himself.
The final phase of Matthew’s genealogy starts with two names from 1 Chronicles 3:17, 19, but the next nine names are not derived from any known genealogy. These names cover the postexilic period, suggesting that there is continuity of generations, even though we might not have any narratives brought to mind by the names. After the nine unknown names, the genealogy ends with, “Joseph the husband of Mary, from whom was born Jesus, who is called Messiah” (1:16).
Mary is the fifth woman mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy—after Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and “the wife of Uriah.” Like these four, there is a certain oddity about Mary; she does not quite fit the norm. At first glance, she does not seem fully upright, given that she gets pregnant prior to her marriage. But also, like the four before her, she is not to be judged negatively, since she is the definitive vehicle God chose to bring Jesus into the world (the summary in 1:16 is expanded into the narrative of Jesus’s birth in 1:18-25). Indeed, Mary is the mother of Israel’s longed-for Messiah, the one who will “save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). Without Mary, there would be no salvation for Israel.
Matthew says there were “fourteen generations from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah” (Matt 1:17), but gives only thirteen names, starting with Shealtiel (the first on his list after the exile) and ending with Jesus. This shortfall is another puzzle for commentators trying to understand Matthew’s genealogy. But it turns out there is an explanation. So, let me explain.
No, there is no time; let me sum up.
If we add up all the generations in the three phases of Israel’s history that Matthew lists—from Abraham to Jesus—there are only 41 generations (14+14+13), not 42 (14+14+14), as Matthew implies. Yet the number 41 is significant since 41 is the numerical value of the name Abraham. So having Jesus in forty-first place in the genealogy beginning with Abraham may be Matthew’s way of locating him as the definitive descendant of Abraham. Indeed, Matthew begins his Gospel by calling Jesus “the son of Abraham” (Matt 1:1).
When we add up the numerical value of the thirteen names Matthew gives from the exile to Jesus, we get a sum of 546; but this number yields nothing special. However, it is important to note that Matthew ends phase 3 of his genealogy not simply with Jesus, but with “Jesus, who is called Messiah” (1:16); and he specifically said there were “fourteen generations from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah” (Matt 1:17).
So what happens if we treat Messiah as the fourteenth name in phase 3, even though it is a title, not technically a name (and certainly does not represent an extra generation)? Well, the numerical value of the Hebrew word Messiah is 42, and Messiah is in forty-second place in Matthew’s genealogy.27 Then, if we add 42 to the sum of the previous thirteen names, we get a total of 588. Now we do have an important number. It turns out that David (14) multiplied by Messiah (42) is exactly 588. This is one more way that Matthew keeps the name David before his readers—at least, those readers who understand Jewish gematria.
But that’s not the end of it. What is the numerical total of all the names (including Messiah) listed in Matthew’s genealogy? That would be 574 (phase 1) + 560 (phase 2) + 588 (phase 3), totaling 1,722. And 1,722 is the exact number we get when we multiply the numerical value of Abraham (41), who begins the entire genealogy, with the numerical value of Messiah (42), the climax and culmination of the genealogy.
Okay, we’ve had a bit of fun (or, at least, Matthew has). But it’s time to reckon with Matthew’s serious purpose in opening his Gospel with this highly stylized genealogy.
First of all, it is clear that Matthew is not focused on what we would call historical accuracy. Rather, he is intent on making particular theological points, especially about the telos or end point of his genealogy—Jesus the Messiah.
Matthew’s genealogy, which begins with Abraham, is best understood as a recapitulation of Israel’s history, summing up that history in terms of three historical periods and rooting Jesus firmly in that history, as its culmination and goal. Although all the Gospels affirm Jesus’s Jewishness and portray him as a faithful descendant of Abraham, Matthew’s Gospel stands out in the number of times it explicitly quotes the Old Testament, typically noting that some event in Jesus’s life fulfilled Scripture in some way.
But Abraham is not just the ancestor of Israel and Jesus. Abraham is important for Matthew also because of God’s promise that the nations would be blessed through him and his descendants (Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14). It is, therefore, no coincidence that Matthew’s Gospel culminates in the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20), where Jesus sends his followers out to make disciples of all nations (precisely as a way of implementing the Abrahamic promise).
And then there is David, whose name is central to the very organization of Matthew’s genealogy. Just as the name David (the gematria of which is 14) is listed in the fourteenth generation from Abraham, so the Messiah is listed in the fourteenth generation after the exile—hinting that this will be a new “David.” Jesus thus represents a Davidic restart after the demise of the monarchy in the Babylonian exile. Yet Jesus will be a very different sort of ruler from anyone in the Davidic line before him—including David. Whereas David used his royal power for adultery and murder, and most of the Davidic kings were less than upright, Jesus will be distinguished by his ministry to the outcasts of Israel, ultimately giving his life for the salvation of his people.
Indeed, the Messiah’s way of exercising power was so radically different from expected that it presented a forthright challenge to the ruling authorities in Jerusalem, leading ultimately to his arrest and crucifixion by a Jewish-Roman coalition of the powers that be. But this challenge did not start with Jesus’s last days in Jerusalem or even with his public ministry. It began soon after his birth, when the magi inquired about a new “king of the Jews” who had just been born (Matt 2:2). Herod, the reigning king of the Jews, was so afraid of this newborn king (Matt 2:3) that he ordered the massacre of all boys under two in Bethlehem in an attempt to rid the land of this impending threat to his power (Matt 2:16).
So, Matthew’s genealogy not only looks back, rooting the Messiah in Israel’s history. It looks forward, providing hints of what is to come, with the infancy narrative of chapters 1-2 as the bridge between the genealogy and the public ministry of Jesus. I wish I had the space here to take us through each of the Old Testament quotations embedded in Matthew’s infancy narrative, showing how Matthew’s use of each Old Testament text intentionally highlights a reversal of the typical “Davidic” use of power. But that is perhaps an article for another time.
Join the conversation on the BioLogos forum
At BioLogos, “gracious dialogue” means demonstrating the grace of Christ as we dialogue together about the tough issues of science and faith.
About the author
J. Richard Middleton
If you enjoyed this article, we recommend you check out the following resources: