In Matthew 5:18 Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away, not one jot or tittle will pass away from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
Interestingly enough, the Rabbis of classical rabbinic literature speak of the importance of “every jot and tittle” of the Text. (FYI, a “jot” and “tittle” are two detailed parts of letter formations in the written Hebrew language). The Chazzal (sages of classic rabbinic literature) finds immense, divine authority and intent in every stroke of the Word of God. They delighted in what we westerners consider “problems” of the Text; they considered the lack of detail to be a divine invitation to interact with God and his Word. They found the utmost joy in midrash (the “seeking out” of answers raised by questions within the Text). Every meaning of every word explored – and each had 70 facets of interpretation. And they are all perfectly correct and divinely inspired. “Deal with it” says my Rabbi. 😀
In my previous post, The Women of Matthew 1, I spoke of the theological importance of Matthew’s genealogical inclusion of Gentile, oppressed, marginalized women. I briefly explained that Matthew showed from the first paragraph of his introduction to Jesus that the Messiah would be not only the redeemer of all peoples and nations, but also one who focuses on seeking out and saving the lost, oppressed, and marginalized of society.
Though I had just read and examined Matthew’s list in the first chapter, I wanted to read it again and try to approach it with a more “midrashic mindset” to look for the seventy facets of every word… maybe not every word, but you get the point! I am sure there are numerous treasures hiding within the names listed, but it was Matthew’s description of his list which caught my attention:
So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.
Why did Matthew divide the genealogy into three sets of fourteen? To be sure, this list was true but not exhaustive – it did not include every person in Jesus’ ancestral line to Abraham, as evidenced by the similar-but-different list in Luke. Matthew picked the names he wanted to include – and the structure very carefully to reflect three sets of fourteen. It begs the question, “Why?”
In the Bible, three is a massively important number. I listed out how it was used in the biblical narrative and it covered three pages! (You can find the still-not-exhaustive document here if you are interested!) To summarize, the number three was used in numerous commands by God, it was used in spiritual preparation, it was an oft-used waiting period, it signaled strength (a three-fold cord is not quickly broken), it was a rhetorical paradigm loved by Hosea, repetitions of three peppers the Bible. What “threes” can you think of?
The symbolism within the use of biblical use of threes points toward the idea of completeness:
- Abraham walked three days to Mt. Moriah before the binding of Isaac
- Paul spent three years in the desert in spiritual preparation before meeting Peter
- Esther requested that she and her fellow Jewish kinsman would fast three days before seeking the king’s favor
The text uses threes to point to healing and restoration:
- Hezekiah’s sign of healing came on the third day in 2 Kings 20:8
- Hosea 6:1-2 describes the healing of God’s people to come on the third day
- Most obviously and significantly, Jesus conquered death and restored his people to life on the third day
Much significance can be found in yet another paradigmatic use of threes in the biblical narrative: three things point to a fourth as a sign that something significant and special is about to happen.
Within that set of threes was the number “fourteen.” Again, Matthew could have structured his genealogy of Jesus to represent two sets of twenty-one or one set of forty-two. Why three sets of fourteen?
Fourteen is more elusive in the Bible than the number three. Rarely is it explicitly stated. The Hebrew number “fourteen” is written as “four” and “ten,” or with the letters “yod – dalet.” “Yod-dalet” is also how the spelling for “yad” or “hand, power” in English. Therefore, the number fourteen has a strong connection in the Hebrew Bible to the “strong hand.” For example, Isaiah 66:2 says,
“For My hand (yod-dalet) made all these things, Thus all these things came into being,” declares the LORD “But to this one I will look, To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.”
The Chazzal say the number fourteen also represents the strong hand of Moses who received the Torah from God.
When researching the number fourteen in the Bible, one must look at the connection of Jacob working fourteen years for his beloved Rachel in Genesis 29:18-30. Thus, there is a biblical connection of the number fourteen with securing and providing for wives.
After looking at the meaning behind the numbers of Matthew’s genealogical summary, we can glimpse some wonderful theological insight.
Matthew’s use of the threefold paradigm in Jesus’ genealogy let’s us know that God is about to do something amazing. The Jews had experienced much spiritual preparation in their “three” phases: Abraham to David, David to exile, and exile to first-century. Their three phases now point to a fourth: Messianic salvation and rule.
Not only had they completed their spiritual preparation, but God was about to complete his covenantal promise made to Abraham, David, and the pre- and post-exilic prophets. Through the completion of his covenant, healing and purity would come to his people – and more, to the whole world symbolized again through the inclusion of the marginalized Gentile women of Jesus’ ancestry. Through the completion of the covenant, restoration and redemption became available to anyone who would bend the knee to the King.
Lastly, Matthew’s list of threes is an important symbol that something magnificent was about to unfold: the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Messiah. It was a flashing sign indicating that the reader must sit up and pay attention, because the following events were (and are still) revolutionary.
And the threefold structure of fourteen tells us that the extraordinary event was that the strong hand of God was about to acquire and provide for his beloved bride (symbolic for the people of his covenant – those of the olive tree rooted in Abraham).
Thus, the Chazzal was right. There are seventy facets to every jot and tittle, and like Jesus said, they carry eternal purpose and authority. When we plumb the depths of God’s Words, treasures abound. Matthew 1:1-17 is not just a list of names, but a theological masterpiece which reveals God’s incredible intent: world-wide healing and redemption for both the Jews and the Gentile, salvation for the marginalized and oppressed, fulfillment of his covenant to Abraham, David, and the prophets, and the magnificent, powerful hand of God taking his Beloved into his hands and providing for her every need.
Can you imagine what treasures we will find when we accept the divine invitation to interact with God’s Holy Word?
Shema and shalom. Amen.