Like last Sunday, the Old Testament text for this Sunday is also from a rarely used book, the book of Ruth. The text is also from the start of this book [1:1-19a], but I would like to look at the end of the work. (Attention: Spoiler Alert!)
Here are the last few words of the book: ‘Now these are the generations of Perez: Perez fathered Hezron, Hezron fathered Ram, Ram fathered Amminadab, Amminadab fathered Nahshon, Nahshon fathered Salmon, Salmon fathered Boaz, Boaz fathered Obed, Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David (ESV; 4:18-22).’
Those words are called a genealogy. They occur in several other places in scripture (see, for example, Genesis 5, 10, and 1 Chronicles 1-9). And they are usually quickly dismissed as unimportant. But they were important to people—especially those at the end of the line! What I thought was interesting was the footnote in The Lutheran Study Bible regarding the above passage: ‘Boaz is the seventh ancestor named. Ancient genealogies reserved the seventh spot as a place of special honor and importance (Concordia Publishing House, 2009; page 430).’
Our modern culture does not make a connection between words and numbers like the people did in the Old Testament. For the Jews, their numbers WERE letters, and so it was hard to get away from connecting letters to numbers. I have mentioned in the past that the name ‘Solomon’ also means the number three hundred and seventy-five (and that is the number of proverbs in the section of Proverbs 10:1-22:16). And perhaps you already knew that the name ‘David’ means fourteen.
I mention that because the genealogy that occurs at the beginning of the Gospel according to Matthew makes a big deal of the number fourteen. And since you have probably overlooked this section of scripture for most of your life, I am giving it here in its entirety.
Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, and Ram the father of Amminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel, and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.
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 (verses 2-17).
Congratulations to anyone who actually read that! Seriously though, it IS an important part of biblical history. Jesus did not just descend from heaven; a stork certainly did not bring him. ALL of these people are important to God. Did you notice that even Ruth, a Moabite, is mentioned? And the writer includes a very interesting piece of information with a concluding emphasis on the number fourteen.
So where was the writer going with that number? Since we cannot interview the writer, all our conclusions must be tentative.
The reader of the above quote may have noticed that, in the first two paragraphs, I italicized some of the words. These words are extra words that did not have to be included. Where the writer is going with these words we also cannot know for sure, but you probably guessed that there have been some guesses.
Rather than list all those guesses, I would like to make the point that they could basically ALL be true. Writing is an extremely multifaceted enterprise. But I have not yet found someone point out that, despite the different additions to the first and second paragraphs, in the original language of the text, the number of words of both paragraphs are exactly the same—eighty-two.
Now that certainly could be a coincidence. But what is even more interesting is that there are thirteen and not fourteen generations listed in the last paragraph. You can count them if you like. And also, if you like, you could read more about this; see Jeffrey Gibbs’ commentary, Matthew 1:1-11:1, the section starting on page 83, entitled ‘Could Matthew Count?’ (By the way, Gibbs mentions in a footnote someone who basically does not think so; can you believe that?)
Although Dr. Gibbs gives some very good alternatives to the thirteen generations in the last section, I would like to add one more. In essence, the writer of this gospel account does NOT want us to focus on the words, but on the Word (see John 1:1).
To have fourteen, fourteen, and then thirteen generations is to have a grand total of forty-one, and that number doubled is eighty-two. Matthew certainly would know how to count—he was a tax collector! But the writer has crafted the genealogy in such a way that he does not want us to focus on the past of certain peoples and their traditions, especially on their long-lasting connections between words and numbers. More importantly is THE ONE to whom Matthew is pointing. He pointed just like John the Baptist did, just like those of the Old Testament, just like those mentioned in the rest of the New Testament, and, hopefully, just like your pastor.