In the opening verse, Matthew strikes a note which seems to resound throughout his gospel. He is concerned, almost with a singular focus, upon portraying Jesus as the Jewish messiah descended directly from the royal house of King David, and of the seed of the patriarch Abraham, unto whom the divine promises were first given [Gen 12]. The primary aim of ‘the book of the genesis‘ [see part 1 below], is to fully demonstrate that Jesus was no arbitrary man of wisdom, no accident of the time but someone who may only be fully understood and appreciated in terms of who and what had preceded him.
‘Meticulous Matthew’ then, fully immersed in rabbinical patterns of thought, portrays a wonderful symmetry of numbers. He divides his genealogy of Jesus into three groups – from Abraham to David; from David to the Babylonian Captivity [ie. the end of the monarchy] and from the period of the Babylonian Captivity to Jesus. Matthew informs his readers that each of these three groups contains 14 generations. [It is interesting to note that the second group omits 3 generations – see 1 Chron 1-2 for details].
What then is the significance of these numbers, the three groups of fourteen? One suggestion is that the name ‘David’ comprises three Hebrew consonants –דוד [dalet, vav, dalet]. The letters of the Hebrew language also function not dissimilarly to Roman Numerals, in that each letter also holds a numerical value. Dalet is the fourth letter of the Hebrew alphabet whilst Vav is the sixth. Simple arithmetic will quickly conclude that dalet, vav, dalet may be presented numerically as four, six, four which when added together equals fourteen. Matthew therefore is likely to be using a further allusion here to the ‘Davidic’ nature of Jesus.
There is a further mathematical implication which may be apparent in Matthew’s opening chapter. Jewish sacred arithmetic often calculated the future by reference to Jeremiah’s prophecy of God’s salvation after seventy weeks. In Daniel we find this interpreted as seventy weeks of years [490 years]. Here in Matthew then, these methods are perhaps also utilised. The period from the promise to Abraham to the birth of the Messiah is figured as three times seventy weeks of years, or three times fourteen generations which is the same thing. Thus at the exact fit time of prophecy and moreover of the lineage of David – Jesus who is called Messiah is born.
Such mathematical/rhetorical devices were highly valued in first century Mediterranean societies.