“The king has returned!” laughs out Rafiki in Disney’s 1994 cartoon the Lion King. Towards the end of this story of a lost prince, the prophetic baboon Rafiki announces Simba's return to assume his rightful position as the “Lion King” and to right the wrongs done in his absence. The beginning of the book of Matthew starts in a similar way, with the prophetic announcement of a long awaited king who will redeem the people of Israel.
Looking at Matthew’s genealogy we find something that might make us feel uncomfortable--or at least it does me--numerology. I like to steer clear of anything associated with the occult, but here we have it used as a literary device to tell his audience something. But what and why?
What is happening in this genealogy? First of all, this list relies on 1 Chronicles, where we see a genealogical connection made from Abraham to David. Second, it is not an exact list of people, some have been left out (Ahaziah, Joash and Amaziah). The genealogy is also broken in the middle by one historical event, the deportation to Babylon. This event ends the Davidic kingdom, and while David’s ancestral line continues, there is no Davidic king on the throne of Israel until we come to the last name on the list, Jesus (Gosse 2018, 144; Zeng 2018; Piotrowski 2015, 196).
There were more descendants and more events that could have been listed, but only these were chosen, pointing to the fact that the author was not interested in every historical detail (which is important to us in our time), but with the message portrayed through his literary symbolism (how people liked to write in their time). Speaking of the audience, Matthew appears to have been written in Aramaic, which means that it was intended for a Jewish audience, one that knew the story of Israel and its patriarchs and matriarchs well. Matthew could just list names and the hearer (most could not read) would understand the message. But what message was that?
Why use numbers to help frame the story of Israel? To start, let’s recall that there were three genealogical sets each with 14 men in them, which totals 42. While 42 was a number used for cursing a “malediction” (which could be understood here when considering some of the dubious people in Jesus’ lineage), it could be transformed into a “benediction,” which we see here as the list ends with Jesus. This type of reversal fits in with apocalyptic literature from this time and place (things look like they are going terribly wrong and end joyously well), which also uses units such as weeks or generations to mark time. In Daniel 9 and some Second Temple Temple literature (Jesus’ time period),1 the exile only ends at the end of time, the eschaton. There is then a historical redemption being portrayed here--Jesus has come to end the exile, restore Israel, and redeem God’s people (Gosse 2018, 196; Piotrowski 2015, 199).
This genealogy right at the beginning of Matthew has been designed to announce, “The king has returned!” The kingdom will be restored and wrongs set right! The apocalyptic genre is perfect for this, since it will not be an earthly kingdom that Jesus ushers in during his ministry but a spiritual kingdom. Jesus will spiritually redeem his people and save them from their sin. For Jesus’ earthly kingdom, the audience will have to wait for the apocalyptic sequel in the book of Revelation, the Second Coming. For now, let’s start the Gospel of Matthew with a joyous shout, “The King has returned! The exile is over!”
1 Piotrowski lists Dan 9 ,1 Enoch 91-93, Testament of Dan, and Jubilees. He also says Baruch 53-74 might follow this pattern.
Gosse, Bernard. “The 42 Generations of the Genealogy of Jesus in Matt 1:1-17, and the
Symbolism of Number 42, Curse or Blessing, in the Bible and in Egypt.” Studia Biblica
Slovaca 10, no. 2 (2018): 142–51.
Piotrowski, Nicholas G. “‘After the Deportation’: Observations in Matthew’s Apocalyptic
Genealogy.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 25, no. 2 (2015): 189–203
Zeng, Sha. “Deliberate Numerical Discrepancy of Generation in the Genealogy of Matthew.”
Journal of Religious & Theological Information 17, no. 3 (2018): 100–114.