Wednesday, October 7, 2009

What a Strange Way to Save the World

When Cheryl and I are traveling about, one of the things I like to do is to visit old cemeteries. No, really! They can be fascinating…and interesting. Unlike today’s rather nondescript practice of placing names and dates on tombstones, in times past epitaph (literally, “upon the tomb”) inscription was a high art. Sometimes they were funny, like W. C. Fields’ epitaph, “All in all, I’d rather be in Philadelphia,” he put on his tombstone, echoing his life-long practice of dissing Philadelphia. Or the one that said: “I told you I was sick!” Sometimes they’re poignant: “Born a man, died a grocer.” My, my, I wonder what story lies behind that!

Some years ago, Cheryl and I were vacationing on the North Carolina coast and in our travels came upon a town (a proverbial “wide spot in the road,” actually) called Stacy. We were intrigued because they spelled it just like we do, no “e.” We stopped and wandered through the little cemetery there, looking for some of our ancestors. To our amazement, not a Stacy in the bunch! An old man saw us out there and came over to investigate. “Help you folks?” he asked. I said: “Just looking. By the way, I noticed that this town is named Stacy but there are no Stacys buried here. How come?” He said: “’Cause no Stacys live here.” I said: “Oh really. Why not?” He said: “’Cause we asked ‘em all to leave.” There were, of course, other questions that came to mind, such as, “Why?” and “When?”, but I thought it prudent not to pursue the matter. We turned to leave and he said: “So, what’s you name?” I said: “Smith. My…my name is Smith.”

Wandering through the family cemetery can be an awkward experience sometimes. That’s why I find it so strange that Matthew chose to begin his gospel with a trip through Jesus’ family cemetery. We call it Matthew’s genealogy. What a strange way to begin a gospel! First of all, it’s boring, what with all those “begats.” And then, it just goes on and on and on. We’re waiting to get on with the story and Matthew keeps stopping at tombstones and reading them. And then there are the family members whom we’d just as soon not be buried in the family plot – Rahab the…what shall we call her…”business woman”?

But that’s not what intrigues me about Matthew’s genealogy. It is clear from Matthew's genealogy that it is his intention to trace Jesus' ancestry back to David. Note: he begins his genealogy by saying: "The scroll of the genesis (his word) of Jesus Christ, son of David (who was ) son of Abraham" (my translation). In the original Greek manuscripts, there are, of course, no marks of punctuation. Hence, the way many English translations render this verse ("The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham") makes it sound as though it was Matthew's intention to identify Jesus as having his origin both as a son of David and a son of Abraham. However, if you remember that the comma between "son of David" and "son of Abraham" is not there in the original, the Greek makes better sense to translate it as I did above. That means that Matthew was intending to identify Jesus as the "son of David" (the phrase "son of Abraham" grammatically modifying "son of David" not "Jesus Christ"). That is, it was David whom Matthew was saying was a "son of Abraham," not Jesus. The identification Matthew intended to make was singular (David) not plural (David and Abraham).

So understood, this make much more sense of Matthew's genealogy which clearly (and subtly) makes the point that Jesus is the "son of David." Let me explain.

Sometimes we moderns tend to read the Bible with what I call "the Sergeant Friday Syndrome" and consequently we ask questions neither the original writer nor readers ever would have asked.

For example, take the different genealogies in Matthew and Luke. As moderns concerned with "facts and figures," we want to know only one thing - which one is correct. But sometimes a genealogy is more about theology than heredity.

Matthew's genealogy is an example of this principle. He arranges Jesus' genealogy into three groups of 14 generations each, and he states so emphatically at 1:17, mentioning the number 14 three times to make sure you don't miss it. It's a clue to Matthew's meaning.

In ancient Hebrew there were no separate numbers and letters; letters had to serve "double duty" standing both for numbers and letters. This led to a game Hebrews played called "gematria" in which the numerical value of names could be used as a kind of "code" for those persons. In this respect, Matthew carefully arranges his genealogy of Jesus into 3 groups of 14 generations, all the while emphasizing that Jesus fulfilled the OT prophecy that the Messiah would be a descendant of David. In the gematria, David's numerical value would be calculated as follows: "D" (dalet) = 4; "V" (waw) = 6; "D" (dalet) = 4. (Hebrew is a consonantal language; only the consonants count.) Add them up and you get 14! The numerical value of David's name is 14, and Matthew gives Jesus' genealogy in three groups of 14 generations, thus stating emphatically, if not subtly, that Jesus is the "Son of David" (cf. see Matt. 1:1). Matthew's Jewish-Christian readers would have immediately picked up on his subtle allusion to Jesus' Davidic ancestry; however, we contemporary Gentile Christian readers (not reading Hebrew or understanding the way Jews used language for theological purposes) have to negotiate the distance in culture, language, theology, and history to be able to pick up the message Matthew is communicating by the way he arranges the tombstones in Jesus’ family cemetery.

And so, Matthew begins his gospel not with a meaningless and macabre cemetery tour; rather, he gathers us to the graves of Jesus’ family and lets the dead whisper to us: “Don’t miss it! He’s the Son of David!” Who knew?

In the words of the song by 4 Him, “What a strange way to save the world!”

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