Matthew 1:17

So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.

The story goes that when Abraham Lincoln first met Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the 19th century best-seller Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he greeted her by saying, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” What he meant, of course, is that it was Stowe’s book that brought the horrors of slavery sufficiently to life to kindle and strengthen the resolve of Northerners to enter into and prevail in the Civil War.

Stowe’s book is fictional in that she made up the characters and incidents that drive the story forward. Yet at the same time the story she told was true in that it depicted accurately and poignantly the abomination of slavery.

I start with this reference – whether it actually happened or not (and while it is a mainstay of Stowe biographies there is some significant doubt that it is accurate) – to remind us that the line between “fiction” and “non-fiction” is rarely quite as sharp or clear as we imagine. In the ancient world, when the author we name Matthew was writing (remembering that we don’t actually know the author’s name), that distinction was even more blurred. History – stories about actual people and events – was always written with an aim to teach. The emphasis was on telling the truth about important persons and events, not on achieving the kind of factual accuracy we who live in a post-Enlightenment world value. In this sense, Matthew seeks to tell us the truth about Jesus but, quite frankly, he has little concern about the accuracy of many of the details of that story.

This distinction – between truth and factual accuracy – is helpful to keep in mind at many points while reading the Bible, and never more so than when reading the genealogies. Matthew’s division of Jesus’ ancestry into three groups of fourteen generations is likely an organizing feature with more symbolic value than historical intent. Some have theorized that because seven is the perfect number, fourteen was perfection doubled, and that was repeated for each of his three divisions – Abraham to David, David to Exile, Exile to Jesus. Maybe. Or maybe he just liked the orderliness of it all. Frankly, we don’t know. We do know that Matthew’s account differs significantly from Luke’s and differs markedly as well from the historians of Israel.

We also know one more thing. He didn’t care. Matthew wasn’t trying to work out the lists of Jesus’ ancestors to preserve in a family album or post on, but instead he wanted to make a point: that this child, born of Mary and Joseph, was descended from David and before David from Abraham, and that for this reason he is the child of both promise and of prophecy, the one in whom God comes to be with us.

That much, we confess, is true.

Prayer: Dear God, thank you for St. Matthew and the other Evangelists, as through their faith and artistry you tell us the truth about the good news of your love for us and all the world. In Jesus’ name, Amen.


Post Image: “St. Matthew the Evangelist,” Andrei Rublev, c. 1400