A King from the line of David
Jesus’ identity as a descendant of David is a major focus of Matthew’s gospel. To understand Matthew’s theology and his portrait of Jesus, we will want to examine how Matthew is bringing David into the story.
“Son of David,” is a term that the author of Matthew is very fond of. Verse one is the first of ten appearances of the phrase in the book, and it draws our attention to the royal line of King David. Abraham’s name pointed to a belonging amongst the people of Israel. David’s name tells us that Jesus was royalty.
That this was the author’s goal can be seen by the fact that Jesus' ancestry is traced through David’s son King Solomon. In Luke’s gospel, the family line is traced through David’s son Nathan. Matthew’s author is not primarily concerned with genetic lineage, however. He is also attempting to establish Jesus as a royal successor and rightful heir to the throne of David’s kingdom. The author traces the family line from Solomon to Jeconiah, who was the surviving king of David’s line and alive at the time of the exile.
Just think about the separated sections of the genealogy of Matthew. It is broken up into three parts that cover 14 generations each, but why 14?
Within the written language of Hebrew, the letters are also used as their numbers, and so each letter is assigned a numerical value. The name of David in Hebrew is “דוד,” and from here you just do the math. The numerical value of the first and third letter “ד” (called dalet) is 4. The middle letter “ו” (called waw) has a numerical value of 6. Put it into your mental calculator: 4+6+4=14, the numerical value of the name of “David.”
Matthew has designed the genealogy, so it links Jesus to David explicitly, and also in the very literary design of the list. In fact, Matthew wants to highlight this “14=David” idea so much that he’s intentionally left out multiple generations of the line of David (three, to be exact) to make the numbers work.
Wait, Matthew has taken people out of the genealogy?
Yes, and this is not a scandal. Leaving out generations to create symbolic numbers in genealogies is a common Hebrew literary practice, going all the way back to the genealogies in Genesis (the 10 generations of Genesis 5, or the 70 descendants of Genesis 11). Ancient genealogies were ways of making theological claims, and Matthew’s readers would have understood exactly what he was doing and why.
And he didn’t make numerical adjustments only. He also adjusted a few letters in some names for the same purpose. For example, he changed the names of Asa and Amon to Asaph (the poet featured in the book of Psalms) and Amos (the famous prophet). Matthew is winking at us here, knowing that his readers would spot these out of place names. The point, of course, is that Jesus doesn’t just fulfill Israel’s royal hopes, but also the hope of the Psalms (Asaph) and the Prophets (Amos). Jesus is from a line of kingly succession that also culminates the rich tradition of worship and prophecy of Israel. This way, readers are thinking about all of Israel and her history as they meet Jesus for the first time. The irony is that some modern translations haven’t gotten the pun, and so have changed the names back to their “original” referents. Ah, well.