31 Why don’t Matthew’s generations add up?

As I explained last time, when my local association reviewed my ordination paper, I discovered that I couldn’t say in it that humans had been made “last but highest, to rule over creation,” because as one minister pointed out, man is created after the animals in the opening Genesis account, but before them in the next account.

I had to give the Genesis author credit for knowing that if both accounts were taken as history, they would be contradictory. They were too close together for this detail to have been overlooked. The only conclusion I could reach was that this author did not understand himself to be writing history, contrary to our characteristic expectations of his work. The implications were profound. It was not necessary to struggle to match up the Genesis narratives with the events of natural and human history! Something else was going on in the pages of this inspired ancient book. I didn’t have the opportunity to pursue this question in depth at this time, but I would return to it in due course.

The third challenge to my thinking came in the course of my service in those years to the church in Newton Centre. I led an eighteen-month inductive Bible study through the entire gospel of Matthew, working from the Greek text and organizing my studies according to the book’s inherent literary divisions. (I would later write up the results of my linguistic and literary background research for publication in New Testament Studies.)

The first section I had to tackle was the book’s opening genealogy. It contains two famous puzzles. The first has already been discussed in an earlier post: Why does Matthew omit three names, jumping from Joram to Uzziah? (This was evidence for Dr. Kline’s “gap theory” of the biblical genealogies.) The second puzzle is why Matthew’s lists still do not add up to the 14-14-14 pattern he specifies.

There are fourteen generations “from Abraham to David” if the first and last figures are both counted, but fourteen generations “from David to the exile” (i.e. to Jeconiah) only if the first figure is not counted. The final series works only if the first and last figures are once again counted, or, alternatively, if Mary is counted along with Joseph, even though they belong to the same “generation.”

The solution to these puzzles, as I suggest in that earlier post, is that Matthew is presenting a portrait of the Messiah as coming at the beginning of the seventh seven of generations in Israelite history. The first, third, and fifth “days” in this “week” of seven-generation days begin at significant redemptive-historical moments: the call of the patriarch Abraham; the foundation of the royal house of David; the destruction of the first temple. The actual historical generations involved are compressed or stretched as necessary in order to accommodate this scheme. The final effect is the portrayal of Jesus as arriving at (indeed, as constituting) the beginning of a time of spiritual rest and renewal in the life of the nation, corresponding to the concepts of “sabbath” and “jubilee” in the Old Testament. Genealogy provides the canvas on which this portrait is painted, but what we have before us is clearly closer to art than history.

As I prepared a Bible study outline for this passage, I referred my students by way of analogy to the similar but much more elaborate redemptive-historical patterning found in the Book of Jubilees, a non-biblical Jewish work from the second century before Christ. According to this book, Moses was given the law on Mount Sinai 2,401 years, or (7×7)x(7×7) years, after the creation.

I also called attention as well to other genealogies in the Bible that are similarly shaped by artistic and theological designs. The principle of artistic arrangement can be seen in parallel genealogies in Genesis that portray two lines of descent from Adam. The line of Cain, who is cursed, is traced to seven generations; the last figure, whose story is expanded, is described as the father of three sons. The line of Seth, given by God in place of righteous Abel, is traced to ten generations; the last figure, whose story is expanded, is similarly described as the father of three sons.

A more elaborate example is found at the beginning of 1 Chronicles. The sons of Jacob, when first enumerated in this long genealogy , are grouped according to their mothers: first Leah’s sons, then Rachel’s, then Bilhah’s (Rachel’s handmaiden), then Zilpah’s (Leah’s handmaiden). There is one prominent exception: Bilhah’s son Dan is listed right after Leah’s six sons. But the records of the descendants of each of Jacob’s sons are not then elaborated in this order.

Rather, the genealogy develops politically and geographically. Judah is listed first, because the royal house of David is Judean. Simeon, who territory was integrated into the southern Judean kingdom when Israel was divided, is listed next. The territory of Benjamin also formed part of the southern kingdom, but Benjamin’s descendants are described last of all, to de-emphasize the tribe that produced the abortive royal house of Saul. After Simeon come instead the two and a half tribes who settled across the Jordan and were taken into exile earlier than the rest (for idolatry, we are told): Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh. The Levites, whose cities were scattered throughout Israel, are listed next. Then come the tribes that made up the northern kingdom, with one significant exception: Dan is never mentioned at all. Given his prominence at the opening, we recognize that this is deliberate. When we recall that the Danites were notorious as the first idolaters in Israel, we see that this “genealogy” is being shaped as an emblem of Israelite history and geography, and particularly as a warning against idolatry.

Such examples helped me explain, in the Bible study I was leading, how the genealogy in Matthew develops and how it “works.” But they were helpful to me personally for another reason. The background research I did for this lesson fixed firmly in my mind the principle that the genre of genealogy in the Bible uses “history” only as a jumping-off point for theological statements that are made through artistic portrayals. Biblical genealogies are historical only secondarily, in other words. This being the case, it is not appropriate to use them, especially not cumulatively, in seeking to answer historical questions such as the duration of human civilization or the age of the earth.

So my years in graduate school, my pursuit of the ordination process, and my service in a local church gave me the opportunity to reflect in depth on my theological convictions and on their biblical foundations, and specifically on these questions relating to the issue of human origins.

Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus was presented in medieval manuscripts as a “Jesse tree,” as in this example from the Bibliothèque nationale de France. (Courtesy Wikipedia, public domain.)

2 thoughts on “31 Why don’t Matthew’s generations add up?”

  1. Because this is such a sensitive area, when I was planning to teach on it in a church setting, I planned to point out the gaps in the genealogies and then try to “cut the Gordian knot” on the age of the Earth at that early point in the discussion by saying something like, “Scripture says that the Earth is AT LEAST 6000 years old.” That way, people with different views in the debate would be able to agree on that, at least that was my hope. Thoughts?

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    1. I’ve found it helpful to explain that the interpretation of the days of creation, the genealogies, and the age of the earth is a matter on which Christians of good will, with equal commitments to the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures, can legitimately differ. They have, in fact, always differed. Augustine, for example, writing in The City of God in the early 400s, comments, “What kind of days these were it is extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible for us to conceive, and how much more to say!” He actually concluded from Genesis that God had created the world in a single day, though he acknowledged others who took the six days literally. So it was not the theory of evolution in the mid-1800s that first created a diversity of interpretations; holding something other than a literal view is not caving in to evolution. In today’s post (#32) I describe the difficulty I had helping one of my own Sunday School classes recognize this freedom to hold different views; in tomorrow’s post I’ll recount how one family left my church because of it! But I think that if you set down, as a ground rule for participation in your class, that interpretation of Genesis is not to be a test of fellowship or a gauge of genuine faith, and that people may hold and express various views without being judged or excluded, you ought to be able to have a discussion that explores the issues fully and freely.

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