Why does the Bible contain lists of ancestors which are hardly enthralling? One, in 1st Chronicles, is 9 chapters long, making the book chronic-ally unappealing! Their purpose is establishing legitimacy. The king in Jerusalem, had to be a proven descendant of King David; a Temple priest had to be a descendant of Aaron, Moses’ brother.
‘Matthew’ believed Jesus was the promised Jewish Messiah, and was concerned to ‘prove’ his legitimacy. That’s why he begins his Nativity Story by tracing Jesus’ ancestry, firstly to King David, the template for the promised Messiah and, secondly to Abraham, the ‘father’ of the Jewish people. This genealogy, however, does have some noteworthy features.
One is the number 14. Matthew creates a list of 14 generations from each of Abraham to David; David to the Babylonian Exile; the Exile to Jesus. I say “creates”, because the list of kings following David leaves some out, 14’s symbolism being more important than historical actuality. As well as his history, Matthew’s arithmetic also falls short. There are only 13 names in his final list of 14 – but let’s not be too hard on a good storyteller!
What’s so special about 14? The answer may be that it’s twice 7. Traditionally, 7 is a special number. Pythagorean philosophy discovered the musical scale has 7 distinct notes. The Jewish Temple menorah had 7 candles, symbolising the days of creation. Medieval education consisted of a ‘trivium’ plus ‘quadrivium’ of subjects, making 7 in all. There were 7 visibly moving celestial luminaries. There are 7 days in the week, and 7 deadly sins. Breaking a mirror means 7 years of bad luck. This list could easily be as long as these 9 chapters in 1st Chronicles!
If 7 is a special, promising, perfect, ‘lucky’ number, then arguably 14, twice 7, is doubly perfect! Matthew’s primary interest isn’t historical, but ‘theological’. He’s suggesting Jesus’ nativity is no accidental occurrence, but the culmination of a doubly perfect plan of God, three times over! Well, maybe so, or maybe no.
Another interesting, totally unusual, feature of Matthew’s Jewish genealogy is its inclusion of the names of 4 women. This isn’t par-for-the-course in patrilineal societies. Some might suggest Matthew was a proto-feminist. Others might suggest a misogynist, since the first of these women disguised herself as a prostitute and had sex with her father-in-law; the second was a prostitute; the third ‘manoeuvred’ her way into a man’s bed; and the fourth committed adultery with King David. They were also either non-Jews or married to non-Jews. Perhaps Matthew’s interest is less moral and, once again, more ‘theological’. Jesus, for him, is not only the Messiah of the Jews, but the Saviour of the World, from all its many sins!
My previous post dealt with the ‘virgin’ birth. Another genealogical problem is this – what’s the point of proving Jesus’ father Joseph was a descendant of David and Abraham, and therefore Jesus also was, when Joseph is supposedly not Jesus’ father at all? Tricky!
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