Count Down to Christmas — part 1

Matthew 1:1-17

DSC_0086With Christmas so near, it is appropriate to re-tell the story again. In Matthew’s Gospel it begins with the genealogy of Jesus. The story fascinates me for three reasons: (1) the numbers don’t make sense to our Western minds, (2) five women are included in the genealogy – something that was very strange in a first century Jewish record, and (3) Matthew and Luke give two very different accounts of the lineage of Jesus. Over the next three articles, we’ll explore these three observations.

First, Matthew plays with the numbers to break the names down into three groups of 14 although the actual numbers he gives are 13, 14, and 13 – and Matthew actually leaves out several people to follow his scheme of 14-14-14. Our western, scientific minds balk at this. The Certified Public Accountant in our American hearts misses the point completely.

A common rabbinic method of interpreting the Bible[1], like numerology, uses the value of the letters of the alphabet to explain the meaning of the text. Each Hebrew letter also has a numeric value. It’s like counting in “Roman Numerals” in English. Don’t you remember doing this in elementary school? The letter “i” equals one. The letter “v” equals five. The letter “x” equals ten and so forth. The great gift of the Arabs were Arabic numerals: 1, 2, 3, 4 …. Before that people used their alphabets to count with. Conversely everyone’s name, when the value of the letters are added up, has a numeric value. In Hebrew (which has no vowels), King David’s name: DVD equals 4 + 6 + 4 which equals the number 14! Matthew goes out of his way to say Jesus is the “son of DaViD (14),” “son of DaViD (14),” “son of DaViD (14).”

In other words, God’s promise to King David is fulfilled in Jesus:

2 Samuel 7:11 the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, 15 but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.’ ” 17 In accordance with all these words, and in accordance with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David.

 

 

[1] This method is called “Gematria.” “One of the rabbinic hermeneutic rules for interpreting the OT. It consisted of explaining a word or group of words according to the numerical value of the letters or by substituting and rearranging certain letters according to a set system. By that rule of interpretation, for example, some rabbis have argued that Eliezer (Gn 15:2) was worth all the servants of Abraham put together, for Abraham had 318 servants and Eliezer’s name equaled 318 (Gn 14:14).”

Elwell, W. A., & Comfort, P. W. (2001). In Tyndale Bible dictionary (p. 517). Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

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