Theology in 3D

Could Matthew Count?

Greg Stiekes | December 13, 2023

That’s what Raymond Brown asks in his significant commentary on the infancy narratives of the NT. “Could Matthew count?” It’s a question that pertains to the arithmetic Matthew employs in his genealogy in the opening chapter of his gospel. Matthew summarizes his genealogy by saying, “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” (Matt 1:17). That sounds simple enough. Three lists of names that we will call A, B, and C, with fourteen names in each list.

But anyone who takes the time to count the names in Matthew’s genealogy realizes that list C actually comes up one name short. Take a few minutes to check this out for yourself. You will see that list B ends with the names, “Josiah [B-13] the father of Jechoniah [B-14] and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon” (1:11). List C picks up with, “And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel [C-1], and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel [C-2]” (1:12), and so forth until we reach “Joseph the husband of Mary [C-12], of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ [C-13]” (1:16).

But there are more curiosities than that in Matthew’s genealogy. In order for list B to even come out to fourteen names, Matthew must completely ignore the generations of three kings in the house of David. Matthew says Joram (B-6) was the father of Uzziah (B-7) (1:8). But actually, Joram was the great-great-grandfather of Uzziah. In between Joram and Uzziah are Joram’s son Ahaziah, his son Jehoash (Joash), and his son Amaziah, the father of Uzziah. The narratives in Kings and Chronicles as well as the genealogy in 1 Chronicles 3 affirm this (see in particular 1 Chron 3:10–13).

Again, the question may be raised, “Could Matthew count?”

Doing the Math

The question challenging Matthew’s arithmetic ability is of course a facetious one. As a God-fearing Jew, Matthew would obviously have been well-versed in the narratives of the Scriptures. And one doesn’t have to be a mathematician or, say, a tax collector to be able to accurately identify the number of items in a list as brief as fourteen. The real questions are, how is Matthew reckoning the number of names in the three lists so that he can claim that they each represent fourteen generations? And why did Matthew contrive his genealogy in order to create a 3 × 14 schema in the first place?

To answer the first question, if Matthew had to drop three names from list B in order to make his schema work, he may have thought that dropping the three generations after Joram was an obvious choice. During the days of Joram both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah were steeped in Baal worship. The infamous pair, Ahab and Jezebel, had set the standard for wickedness in the north (1 Kgs 21:25), while Joram and Athalia, Ahab and Jezebel’s daughter (!) were following suit in the south. But God stemmed the tide of the Baal cult through the prophet Elijah, who not only vindicated the name of Jehovah on Mt. Carmel (1 Kgs 18:20–40), but who also pronounced God’s curse upon Ahab and his lineage (1 Kgs 21:20–29). God declared that Ahab’s royal line would be completely wiped out. At the same time, God promises that in response to unrepentant idolatry he will “visit the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation” (Exod 20:5; Num 14:18; Deut 5:9). Seizing upon this divine promise of judgment, Matthew may have dropped the three generations after Joram because Joram was Ahab’s son-in-law and, strictly speaking, the blood of Ahab now flowed in the line of Davidic kings through Athalia. Perhaps it was Matthew’s way of symbolically purifying the Davidic line from God’s curse upon the generations because of unrepentant idolatry, just as Ahab’s line was actually purged.

But what about the issue of only thirteen names in list C? The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that Matthew does not mark the ending of list B and the beginning of list C as, respectively, “from David to Jechoniah” and “from Jechoniah to Christ.” Rather, he marks the ending of B and the beginning of C with “the deportation to Babylon” (Matt 1:17; cf. 1:11, 12). At the same time, he does not refer to Jechoniah alone, but to Jechoniah “and his brothers” (1:11). So, we need to look at what went down with Jechoniah and his brothers during the Babylonian deportation led by Nebuchadnezzar.

Matthew names Josiah [B-13] as “the father of Jechoniah and his brothers” (1:11). It becomes apparent when we review the history of the kings of Judah at this juncture, however, that Matthew is using the word “brothers” in the more general sense of “family.” Josiah was actually the father of Jehoiakim, and Jehoiakim himself was the father of Jechoniah (1 Chron 3:15, 16). (It was common in genealogies to skip generations, by the way, and “father” could refer to a person’s immediate father, grandfather, or any previous male ancestor in succession.) Furthermore, Josiah had other sons besides Jehoiakim, including Jehoahaz and Zedekiah.

When Nebuchadnezzar first took control of Jerusalem (607 BC), Josiah’s son Jehoahaz was king. But Nebuchadnezzar removed Jehoahaz and replaced him with Jehoiakim (Jechoniah’s father), and made him pay tribute to Babylon. When Jehoiakim rebelled, Nebuchadnezzar returned (597) to settle matters. By the time the siege had ended, however, Jehoiakim was dead and Jechoniah was ruling in his father’s place. So, Nebuchadnezzar deported Jechoniah to Babylon at that time and replaced him with Jechoniah’s uncle, Zedekiah. Zedekiah reigned until he also rebelled against Babylon, and for the last time Nebuchadnezzar returned (586) and finally destroyed the city and ended the reign of Judah’s kings.

Therefore, the deportation to Babylon took place in three stages during which two generations of kings reigned on David’s throne. There is no discrepancy between the number of names in the list if we include Jechoniah’s “brothers” (literally, uncles) as part of Matthew’s reckoning. If this approach is correct, Jechoniah’s “brothers,” with the term to referring to family in general (father and uncles), represented by Jehoiakim, are B-14. That makes Jechoniah C-1 in the third list, Shealtiel C-2, Zerubbabel C-3, and so on until Jesus himself as C-14.

Adding It All Up

The question remains, however, as to why Matthew artificially negotiates the numbers of generations to come out to 3 × 14? One common solution is to see Matthew pointing to the name David. If we add the numerical value of the three Hebrew letters that spell David (daleth-vav-daleth), that is 4 + 6 + 4, adding up to 14. This suggestion supports the purpose of Matthew’s gospel, which seems to be the presentation of Christ as the heir to the Davidic throne.

Another answer to the question that I find even more satisfying, however, is that, in presenting three sets of fourteen, Matthew is actually presenting six sets of seven. The Jewish mind, therefore, would anticipate a seventh set of seven or a “sabbath seven” to fulfill the genealogy of Christ. What descendants, then, comprise the seventh set of generations that come after Christ? Obviously, all of those who place their faith in him as Savior. Those who embrace him join the new generation of Jesus as his family (Matt 12:46–50).

Thus, Matthew’s genealogy highlights the importance of Jesus’ birth in a unique way. Genealogies are normally compiled so that people can trace their lineage back to a great ancestor who gives the family its value or standing or recognition. But in the genealogy of Christ, the purpose is completely reversed. Jesus does not stand at the beginning of the genealogy, but at its climax. He is not the beginning of the story, but the crescendo of the story. The Person of Jesus is not magnified because he descended from Abraham or David. Rather, all of the men and women in this genealogy—including Abraham and David—find their value in the fact that they are related to him.

And so it is with us. The only identity that should really matter to any of us, the only importance we derive from any ancestry, and the only eternal hope we have comes from the fact that we are rightly related to this Person with whose genealogy Matthew begins his gospel, to Jesus, the Christ, our Emmanuel.

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