Names and Numbers

The compiler of Genesis tells us that in the ordering of creation “God said, ‘Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years…’ “ (NIV).  Whatever else God may have intended us to understand from the opening chapter of Scripture it is clear that an appreciation for the passage of time and seasons is an important component to our place in the world.  Each New Year, many of us take time to evaluate our lives – recount what has happened, assess our standing, and consider what lies ahead.  Its a time to make course corrections.  In our churches, its a season to realign our focus.  There are many worthwhile things to consider as a church, as a Christian, but only one thing is absolutely crucial – are we still following Jesus?

Over the last couple years, its become something of a tradition for us to begin the church year (Advent to Easter) considering the life of Jesus through the eyes of one of the Gospel writers.  While we at times affirm and remind ourselves of what we already know, more often we find ourselves confronting misconceptions and challenged by the radically life changing pictures the Gospels paint for us of this Jesus of Nazareth.  This year we’re looking at Matthew’s canvas.

When we come to Matthew – an especially Jewish Gospel – we are immediately confronted with names, lots of them (supposedly 42 generations worth, but I’ve never actually counted them) – and the number ’14.’  To be honest, I usually glance over these kinds of passages without much thought or consideration as they aren’t especially insightful to me – after all, I’m no expert in ancient Jewish numerology, nor do I claim to understand what constitutes ‘acceptable manipulation’ often found in ancient genealogies (to include biblical genealogies – don’t get too alarmed, there’s nothing shady going on – they just used this kind of information differently than we do).  This year, as I read Matthew, I’m attempting to consider context more seriously – especially history and culture.  For us, the names and numbers come at the beginning of a page we can turn, we can easily look forward to see what’s coming and to what we deem as important.  For Matthew’s audience, its the opening passage of a scroll – that’s important.  You can’t turn pages in a scroll to look ahead and see if you want to continue.  The opening of the scroll serves as the introduction to the work, a crucial preview of what one can expect to encounter inside the rest of the roll.

So, we might well acknowledge that the opening genealogy was important to them back then, but why?  Moreover, short of picking up a Divinity degree how are we supposed to make sense of it now?  Fortunately for us the text we have gives us enough clues to help us understand the picture Matthew’s painting – perhaps not every detail, but enough to get a grip on what’s going on.  For all the names listed – intriguing as they may be for some – only 3 matter for our purposes: Jesus, David, and Abraham (the names listed at both the beginning and the end of the section).  Jesus, easy enough, that’s who Matthew’s trying to tell us about.  David, the greatest king of Israel, model of the future Davidic Messiah, the least ethnocentric of Israel’s kings (have you ever noticed how many Philistines and other Gentiles are part of David’s inner circle – very much in keeping with Abraham).  And of course, Abraham – progenitor of Israel, a second Adam, the one through whom God would bless the nations, and himself the keeper of a rather international entourage.  If we’re going to understand Jesus (the point of Matthew’s Gospel), we need to see him as the one who embodies the continuing promise of David and Abraham (thus the ‘son’ language).  Though not central, its interesting to note where we might expect to find one more name, we have only an event – the deportation/exile to Babylon with no mention of a return from exile – certainly worth some thought.

So, the abbreviated family tree makes some sense.  But what about the three groups of ’14’ generations?  For us there’s nothing terribly obvious.  However, Jewish literature (especially in this era) uses numbers very differently than we do – and while we would never think to do this with a number, this is their story and they DID do this kind of thing.  What kind of thing?  I’m told that’14’ is the sum of the numerals represented by the letters in David’s name.  So, the sum of David taken three times …. I haven’t a clue.  I’m sure there’s something there, but the explanations I’ve seen are beyond me.  However, ’14’ is also ‘2×7’ which gives us six ‘sevens’ with Jesus beginning the seventh.  This I can work with.  I see hints of Daniel, of completion, and a good many other things.  But most of all, I see God in Genesis 1 ordering His temple/home for six days and entering it to reign on day seven (yes, this is really what Genesis 1 is saying).

So Matthew’s given us 3 names and 6 ‘weeks’ of generations with Jesus beginning the 7th – what do we make of it? How about this …. In the fulness of time, beginning with our father Abraham, and continuing through His servant David, God has fulfilled the calling of our people – to be a blessing to all nations – in the person of Jesus, the Messiah.  Or what about this …. Who is Jesus?  He is the fulfillment of the promise given to Abraham and carried through David and through many generations of turmoil.  He is the one who, in this the generation of completion, has come to rule His people and the world, seated in the place meant not simply for Messiah, but for Yahweh Himself.  Jesus son of David, son of Abraham, Messiah, God.

How’s that for a fitting introduction to the Kingdom of Heaven?

– Pastor Jim Kushner

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