This post is part of a series. To get the entire context, be sure to read Part 1
Babylon is Over
Second, Matthew communicates God’s covenant faithfulness by including in his genealogy the details of the Babylonian exile. He not only includes the Babylonian exile, but as Hays makes clear, Matthew makes it part of Israel’s narrative. Hays says that Matthew “periodizes the story of Israel [within the genealogy] into three great chapters leading up to the birth of Jesus… from Abraham to David…, from David to exile…, from exile to the Messiah”. This means that Matthew is making the Babylonian exile part of Israel’s identity: Israel is a nation exiled from their land and their God. This is curious, because Israel during the time of the birth of Christ was principally not exiled; they were back in the land, freed from the Babylonian captivity. If Israel were not in exile, Matthew should have included another period in her history: from exile to the land. Yet Matthew includes it into Israel’s narratival identity. NT Wright explains the strange emphasis on Babylon:
To get to the point, we have to understand one thing in particular. To put it simply, most Jews of Jesus’ day did not believe that the exile was really, properly over. Yes, they’d come back from Babylon… Yes, they’d built the Temple in Jerusalem. But the pagan foreigners were still ruling over them. They were still slaves even in their own land… The great promises of Isaiah and Ezekiel hadn’t yet come true.
Indeed, Israel was out of exile, free in the normal sense of the word. But they were not truly out of exile. They were still under Roman rule. YHWH’s temple had been rebuilt, and yet Herod was the temple-keeper. Certainly this was not the freedom Israel had expected. For that reason, the Jews expected a greater exodus; a greater freedom. They still lived as those in exile: in the land and yet not of the land.
This is put in even more explicit terms when one considers the numeric order of Matthew’s genealogy. Matthew ends his genealogy with a strange outlining of numbers. “All the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to…Babylon were fourteen generations, and from…Babylon to Christ were fourteen generation” (Mt 1:17). Matthew lists a three-fold list of fourteen generations. This is, as is hopefully obvious, a literary and numerical device. The question is why Matthew uses this device. NT Wright explains that Matthew is most likely referring to a passage in Daniel 9 in which God promises that after seventy sevens, God will liberate his people from Babylon. This prophecy also harkens to mind the pattern God had put into the liturgical year of Israel: every seven days was a Sabbath; even seven years was a Sabbath year; every seven-times-seven years was a Jubilee year of liberation and freedom. To put it more simply, God promised to the prophet Daniel that after a period of seven times seventy would be a “Jubilee of Jubilees”. What Matthew calls to mind here is this pattern sevens, and thus the promise of liberation and Jubilee. But, as Wright says, “instead of years, [Matthew] does it with generations, the generations of Israel’s entire history from Abraham to the present. All the generations to that point were fourteen times three, that is, six sevens—with Jesus we get the seventh seven”. What Matthew means to explicate here is that Jesus brings liberation from bondage and exile. Israel was in fact still in exile even while out of Babylon. And Jesus is the great liberator who brings an everlasting Jubilee and Sabbath for exiled Israel.
Matthew clearly intends to place Israel within the context of exile, awaiting the great liberation brought by Messiah. Even though Israel is technically free from Babylon, she awaits God’s redeeming action through a new exodus, with a new Jubilee, and a new Sabbath. As Robert W. Jenson aptly explains, Israel as placed in the context of exile is really Israel in the context of promise. Or put another way: Israel cannot save herself. She stands in need once again for liberation and exodus and freedom. Israel is thus repositioned into the situation
…described for the patriarchs; [instead of Israel’s] ancestors, now the actual historical people, with all its fears and responsibilities, was called to live by hope rather than possessions, by what was promised rather than what already was, by hearing rather than by sight. Indeed, the screw was tightened far beyond what had been imagined for the patriarchs. For Israel was called to hope for what would be, in spite of what already was…
As Abraham depended on the faithfulness of God in his wanderings, so now Israel, exiled from her reward, wandered even in their own land, hoping for the promised possession. In this way, Matthew once more makes the point that Israel depends on God’s covenant promises. She stands in need of a further and deeper liberation. And thus, she stands in need of God’s grace.