Is Jesus a Descendant of Solomon? (or, When 14 times 3 equals 41)

Matthew records the genealogy of Jesus in the first chapter of his gospel, concluding that “all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations, from David until the captivity in Babylon are fourteen generations, and from the captivity in Babylon until the Christ are fourteen generations” (Matthew 1:17).

There’s a problem, though. 14 + 14 + 14 generations should give us 42 names, but we are only given 41 names from Abraham to Jesus. Someone seems to be missing. And this seems like a weird mistake for Matthew to make. I mean, he’s the one listing the names. Why would he say there were 42 generations but only list 41?

Unless… he didn’t make a mistake.

Take a closer look at verse 11: “Josiah begot Jeconiah and his brethren about the time they were carried away to Babylon.”

If you look it up, you’ll find that Josiah didn’t beget Jeconiah; Josiah was Jeconiah’s grandfather, not his father. The missing king (Josiah’s son and Jeconiah’s father) would bring Matthew’s count up to 42.

So that begs the question: Why did Matthew leave this mystery king off the list? And the answer is simple: He didn’t. Notice that the text doesn’t just say that Josiah begot Jeconiah; it says Josiah begot Jeconiah and his brethren. Matthew doesn’t just bring up Jeconiah; he is mentioning a group of male family members: Jeconiah, his brother, his uncles, and his father. This is made more clear when we see how Matthew groups his three lists of 14. He doesn’t say “from David to Jeconiah are fourteen generations”; he says “from David to the captivity in Babylon are fourteen generations.” When we plug in this mystery king during the vague time period of “about the time they were carried away,” our 14+14+14 list falls perfectly into place.

So the next question is: Who is this mystery king, and why doesn’t Matthew mention him by name?

The mystery king is Jehoiakim, and according to the scriptures “he did evil in the sight of the LORD” (2 Kings 23:37). After his father Josiah died, the enemy Pharaoh of Egypt appointed Josiah’s son to be king, changing his name from Eliakim to Jehoiakim. Though he was the rightful heir to the throne, his reign was polluted from the beginning by the influence of pagan Egypt, leading to generations of idolatry in Israel.

Eventually his kingship became so corrupted that God vowed that none of his descendants would ever sit upon the throne of David again: “He shall have no one to sit on the throne of David, and his dead body shall be cast out” (Jeremiah 36:30). This pronouncement of judgment upon his bloodline was repeated over his evil son Jeconiah: “Write this man down as childless, a man who shall not prosper in his days. For none of his descendants shall prosper, sitting on the throne of David, and ruling anymore in Judah” (Jeremiah 22:30).

Matthew only alluded to Jehoiakim (without mentioning his name) because it was during his turbulent and evil reign that his line of kings came to an end (it should be noted that this isn’t the first name left off of Matthew’s list for shameful reasons: Bathsheba is only alluded to, because her sin with David led to the eventual civil war in Israel).

But this leads to another problem: If none of Jehoiakim’s descendants will ever sit upon the throne of David… how does Jesus—the heir of David—become king? And the answer is simple: Jesus wasn’t a descendant of Jehoiakim; Joseph was. But Joseph had no biological relationship to Jesus; he was Jesus’ adoptive father.

Matthew records the kingly line of David through Solomon, which ends with Joseph. Luke provides a different genealogy, following the line of David through Nathan, which leads to Mary, the biological mother of Jesus. As such, we clearly see that Jesus was the rightful legal heir to the throne of David through Solomon, Jehoiakim, and his adoptive father Joseph, even though he didn’t have a drop of Solomon’s, Jehoiakim’s, or Joseph’s blood in Him. But Jesus is also the biological heir of David through Nathan and Mary, having the royal blood of David coursing through His veins.

In this way, Jesus uniquely has a claim to the throne of David. He is a biological descendant of King David through Mary, the rightful heir to the throne of David through King Jeconiah and Joseph, and yet avoids the curse brought upon the biological descendants of King Jehoiakim. He is, as Matthew claims, “Jesus the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.”

The “Older” Shall Serve the “Younger”

While Rebekah was pregnant with twins, God appeared to her and said,

“Two nations are in your womb,
Two peoples shall be separated from your body.
One people shall be stronger than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23)

We often interpret this in light of what we know will eventually come to pass between the two brothers: Since we know the younger brother Jacob will end up with his older brother’s birthright and blessing, this heavenly declaration must be prophesying those events. “The older (Esau) will serve the younger (Jacob)” by forfeiting his inheritance. Thus, Esau is the loser of the prophecy because he serves, while Jacob is the winner because he is served.

I think this interpretation is wrong.

For one, this verse doesn’t actually say that “the *older* shall serve the younger.” The word “older” is the Hebrew word “rab,” which actually means “greater.” And of the 458 times it appears in the Hebrew Scriptures, it’s only translated “older” in this passage. In fact, if the author meant to say “older,” there’s another word he could have chosen. The word “gadol” means “older,” as we see in Genesis 27:1, where Isaac refers to Esau as his “beni ha-gadol”: “my older son.”

In my opinion, a better translation of the end of Genesis 25:23 would be, “…and the greater shall serve the lesser.” When read this way, the passage is ambiguous as to who is the “greater” and who is the “lesser.” So… who was the greater one?

At first, we might think that the greater one was Jacob. After all, he outsmarted his brother and ended up with the blessing, right? Well… it’s not actually so clear. It’s true that Jacob deceived his father and brother in order to receive his father’s blessing (Hebrew berakah). But twenty years later, when Jacob returned home to face his brother, he returns the berakah, saying, “Please, take my blessing” (Genesis 33:11).

Okay, so maybe Esau is the greater one. He is stronger than his brother, after all. Additionally, after he meets up with his brother after twenty years apart, he tells Jacob that he doesn’t need his brother’s gifts, for “I am great (rab) enough” (Genesis 33:8). Right there, Esau declares himself to be the great one. Case closed, problem solved.

Except… Esau isn’t the only brother who is called great. After living in exile for twenty years, the Bible calls Jacob “exceedingly great” (rab) (Genesis 30:43).

So, both brothers are called great (rab), both brothers were increased greatly, and the blessing changes hands several times and doesn’t really seem to play into this all that much. Which one is the “greater” one? That original prophecy tells us:

“The greater *shall serve* the lesser.”

The greater one is the one who serves.

And with that in mind, which of the two brothers served? During the twenty years that they were separated, we read eleven times that Jacob served (abad) his uncle Laban. This service to his uncle led directly to Jacob becoming great, both in terms of finances, family, and influence. And then when Jacob and Esau finally reunite, Jacob calls himself Esau’s servant (ebed) five times. Those twins spent years and years seeking greatness by trying to steal the inheritance from one another. But finally, Jacob began to seek greatness *through service*.

You find this dynamic live on through their descendants. Esau’s people became the Edomites, while Jacob’s people became the Israelites. After 400+ years in slavery, the Israelites asked permission to pass through the Edomite’s land. The Edomites chose not to serve, refusing them entry into their land (Numbers 20:21).

Despite this poor treatment, God wrote it into the Israelites’ legal code that the Edomites would always be welcome to join the congregation of Israel and worship the One True God beside them, “for he is your brother” (Deuteronomy 23:7, 8). The Israelites were commanded to serve their brother Edom.

So often we read Genesis 25:23 and assume that the one who “serves” is the one that gets the short end of the stick, but the opposite is true. The one who “serves” is the one who is considered “great.”

And this interpretation of greatness and service fits much better within the whole narrative of scripture. The very first usage of the word “service” in the Bible (abad) is found in the Garden of Eden, where Adam was given the important task of abading the garden—of serving it, of tilling it. Hundreds of years later, Moses demands that Pharaoh “let God’s people go,” that they may abad Him. After their salvation from Egypt, God gives the priests and Levites the important job of abading Him in the tabernacle. And throughout the prophets, the future Messiah is called the ebed of the LORD—the Servant of God. Service is what God’s people are called to, and serving God and others is what makes us great in the eyes of the LORD.

And thousands of years later, we see this play out between two opposing kings. King Herod was an appointed “king of the Jews.” He was rich, ruthless, and wanted to be served. He considered himself to be so great that he gave himself the title, “Herod the Great.” And did I mention that he also was an Idumaean—an Edomite, a descendant of Esau.

But there was another King of the Jews. This One came not to be served but to serve. This One became poor that we might be made rich. This One bore our sicknesses that we might be healed. This One who knew no sin became sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God. This One—an Israelite, a descendant of Jacob—was the True King, the Servant King, the Great King.

And this Great Servant King taught all who would listen how to achieve greatness as well, by echoing the words He had spoken to Rebekah thousands of years earlier:

“He who is greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Matthew 23:11)