I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.

St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Advent in Matthew III

In the last post we concluded that one reason for Matthew’s careful tripartite arrangement of fourteen generation sections is an apologetic and rhetorical feature to 1) rectify Jesus’ regal right to the throne and covenant promises of David, and 2) that with Yahweh’s covenants Abraham and David, the Babylonian Exile was a judicial-redemptive-historical event that made clear that there was no longer hope for the promised Davidic King to arise by means of ordinary providence; Yahweh alone could save Israel, which is precisely who and what Jesus Christ was doing in history.

A second and closely related point is the apparently intended presence of gematria in connection with “fourteen” and the name David. Gematria was a widespread literary phenomenon of Matthew’s culture. It is a tool for symbolism, using an alphanumeric value system. Simply put, each letter of a given alphabet also carries its relative numeric value, e.g., A = 1, B = 2, C = 3, and so on. This works with both the Greek and Hebrew languages. Many argue that this instrument was used when John wrote the elusive “666” in Revelation, which is the only other likely occasion of gematria in the NT.

Accordingly, the consonants of David’s name in Hebrew are D = 4, W = 6 and D = 4. Thus, the alphanumeric value of David is 14. In addition to this, David’s name is the fourteenth in the list. For us modern readers, this appears peculiar at best, having little significance. But our question should first be, “What would this have meant to the original audience?”

The gematria would have 1) been another means of stressing that Jesus is the coming Davidic Son, the Messiah, and 2) provided a mnemonic tool to aid the memorization of the genealogy.

The mnemonic aspect, I think, should be teased out a bit.

Matthew often uses triadic arrangements to ease and encourage memorization. There are the three fourteens here in the genealogy, Satan’s three temptations with Jesus’ three corresponding scriptural rebuts (4:1—11), the three cities of woe (11:20—24), three symbolic, living parables (21:1—22), three polemical parables (21:28—22:14), threefold prayer and return (26:36—46), Peter’s three-time denial (26:69—75) to name a few.

But why would Matthew see the genealogy as a crucial part of his gospel to put to memory? Well, I think one reason could be apologetic (I know, what else would I think?).

Today, Christians are encouraged to memorize various arguments for God’s existence, certain facts about OT prophecy and how Jesus fulfills them, the historical facts surrounding the resurrection of Jesus, the textual evidences for the Bible we possess today, and in addition to these, all the major objections that are raised against the rote evidences. Today, these are relevant points of contention that believers find themselves challenged with by unbelievers. For Matthew’s audience, however, the questions were not preeminently, Was Jesus divine? Are the scriptures reliable? Was Jesus raised from the dead? Instead, Matthew’s readers would first and foremost have to answer this: “Was Jesus the Davidic Messiah?” Additionally, the meticulous record keeping of ancestral descent among Jews made Matthew’s account all the more important. When antagonistic Judaic opponents attacked the Hebrew Christians of the Matthean community, Jesus’ pedigree would have supplied the believers with a first line of defense.

While the average Christian won’t find him/herself toe to toe with a Jewish rabbi, I think there is an application we can draw that is universal in its utility.

I’m not insisting that we memorize the genealogy, though that would certainly be a profitable exercise. More needful, I believe, is understanding it better. For the first century Jewish Christian, this battery of names had immediate content. These names had significance in the Hebrew community’s self-consciousness. Today in the West, however, especially with the popular emphasis on the discontinuity between the two Testaments, most of these names don’t inform our understanding of Jesus but simply challenge our pronunciatory prowess.

If anything is to be taken from the last few posts it should be that we cannot rightly understand Jesus, the Messiah, without being acquainted with the organic development of the Father’s plan to reveal him “in the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4). These names, for various reasons, are mileposts in the progressively unfolding story of redemption and are therefore persons we should become familiar and conversant with.

What better time than the Advent season to do this? So, here's my challenge: If we would begin tomorrow, with a good Bible dictionary, and choose just two names from the genealogy a day, reading the entries and go to the scriptures with the important references found in the article, how greatly broadened would our horizon become? The significance of these names, though, must be kept in contact with its culminating terminus, Jesus Christ; viewing the micronarratives in terms of the epinarrative, and vise versa.

The application, then, is twofold. We have gained a better understanding of God’s providential and redemptive acts in the lives of OT saints (and sinners), each foreshadowing his final salvific work in Christ, in order to bring ultimate redemption to us through his Son. Secondly, I am absolutely convinced that the weakest link in the Christian witness and apologetic today is our general ignorance of the Bible’s “story line.” In other words, the better one does biblical theology, the better one can explain and defend the message they extend to the lost. Especially within our postmodern context, internal coherence and personal credulity are touchstone criteria for plausibility. Our audience is biblically illiterate. If we cannot communicate the continuity of the Bible’s plot, thus challenging the unbelievers’ “big story” and sharing ours, then the Gospel is simply incoherent.

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