Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

7 Aug 2023

After the Exile?

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Sometimes we assume we know what a verse means, but once we slow down and read through it carefully, we realize it does not mean what we think it means. It happens to us all. We can receive help in several ways—listening to what others understand a verse to mean (especially weighing their arguments) and reading the Bible in its original languages when possible but also benefiting from the multitude of great English translations that often allow us to hear a verse differently.

I hear often, including recently, that Matthew’s “after the exile” (NIV) statement in Matthew 1:12 means that Matthew must believe that the “exile” ended many years before Jesus was born. The question is important because it goes towards identifying the problem to which Jesus is the solution. If we read it carefully, I do not think Matthew is saying the “exile” has ended; at least, he is not saying that in this particular verse.

As a reminder of the context, Matthew tells us that he deliberately structured his genealogy of Jesus the Messiah in three sets of “fourteen generations” (1:17; NIV). It is a skillfully crafted list! In addition, he has selectively chosen names so that Abraham, David, and “the exile to Babylon” (NIV; 1:11, 12, 17) serve as the pivot points in the story that culminates with Jesus. In fact, the word metoikesia, translated as “exile” (NIV, CSB, NLT), “deportation” (NASB, ESV, NRSV, NET, LEB, LSB), or “the carrying away” (ASV), stands out in the passage because it is repeated four times (twice in v. 17), the only times it occurs in the NT.

What can this word mean? In the standard lexicon for the Greek NT, the word metoikesia is glossed as “removal to another place of habitation, deportation” (BDAG, 643). Therefore, according to this resource, Matthew is using the word to describe the event of deportation. Admittedly, the word does have a wider range of meanings outside the NT. In at least one place in the Septuagint (LXX), Ezekiel 12:11, it may be used for an entire time of exile, but that is debatable. In the LXX, it usually refers to (1) the people being removed (an adjectival use) or (2) the actual removal to another place, not the period during which you live there (cf. 2 Kings 24:16 [4 Kingdoms 24:16]; 1 Chron 5:22; Lam 1:6–7; Nahum 3:10).[1]

So how do we know that the standard NT lexicon is correct and that Matthew is describing the deportation to Babylon and not the entire time of captivity with metoikesia? A decision matters because he says that it, whatever it is, has ended (“after the …”). We know that Matthew is referring to the event of the deportation and not to the entire exile in verse 12 because he says that it was “after the deportation” that Jeconiah became the father of Shealtiel.

Jeconiah (aka Jehoiachin) was eighteen when he became king and was deported to Babylon after only a little more than three months on the throne (2 Kings 24:8–15; 2 Chron 36:9–10). Therefore, it is very likely that Shealtiel was born after Jeconiah was taken to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar, which would seem to match what Matthew tells us. Children are not mentioned in the list of Jeconiah’s family members taken to Babylon (2 Kings 24:15). Like all of the other men (and one woman) named in Matthew 1:12–16, Shealtiel seems to have been born after that great turn in Israel’s history—the deportation of the Jewish people to Babylon. At the very least, Shealtiel was not born after the exile ended, for one of Shealtiel’s descendants, Zerubbabel, whose very name likely points to his birth in Babylon, accompanied the initial wave of Jewish people returning to the land of Israel (see, e.g., Ezra 2:2). Regardless of how the genealogical line progressed from Jeconiah to Shealtiel to Zerubbabel,[2] Jeconiah could not be becoming the ancestor of Shealtiel at the same time that Zerubbabel was leaving with some of the exiles for Judea.[3] Therefore when Matthew writes meta de ten metoikesian Babulonos at the beginning of verse 12, he means “after the deportation to Babylon” (NASB, ESV, NRSV, NET, LEB, LSB) or “after they were brought to Babylon” (KJV/NKJV) or “after the carrying away to Babylon” (ASV). As Nolland notes, this phrase “does not refer to the restoration, but rather to the period after the deportation has happened.”[4]

More could be said. Even if it were said, it would not settle the ongoing debate regarding the importance of or nature of exile in Matthew’s Gospel, much less the entire NT, or how and when that exile ends. However, I would suggest that this little phrase in Matthew’s carefully crafted genealogy does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that Matthew believed the exile that began with the Babylonian deportation had ended before the birth of Jesus the Messiah. Instead, Matthew’s repetition of “deportation” and his use of it as a pivot in his telling of Israel’s story fits with the hypothesis that he viewed Jesus as one born into a nation still suffering from the curse of exile. This is the covenant curse applied by God using Babylon, under which all of Jesus’ ancestors going back to Jeconiah had been born. However, unlike his ancestors, Jesus, and only Jesus, could “save his people from their sins” (1:21). Before Matthew begins to explain how Jesus is the solution, he carefully uses what we call his opening chapters to explain the plight. And Israel’s plight, culminating in her ongoing exile, is symptomatic of a malady that has affected the entire world.

[1]In the LXX, the word is also present twice in Obadiah 20, but its use in this difficult verse is hard to decipher. To illustrate, the NETS translates it both times as “migration,” while the Lexham English Septuagint, 2nd ed. translates it twice as “captivity.” So, this might support multiple options.

[2]There is the well-known puzzle of Zerubbabel being called the “son of Pedaiah” (1 Chron 3:19) after Pedaiah has been named as another son of Jeconiah (“the captive”!) alongside Shealtiel (1 Chron 3:17–18). One very plausible solution, among the several suggested, is that Shealtiel died childless and Pedaiah had a child for his brother (cf. Deut 25:5–10).

[3] My argument here is indebted to a similar but more detailed argument made by Nicholas G. Piotrowski, “‘After the Deportation’: Observations in Matthew’s Apocalyptic Genealogy,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 25 (2015): 189–203. For curious minds, Piotrowski adds an additional argument noting that Matthew uses the preposition meta (μετά) plus an accusative noun, as he does here in 1:12, four other times in his Gospel (17:1; 25:19; 26:2, 73; 27:63) to describe something that occurs after the event in the accusative has ended. Therefore, in 1:12, assuming Matthew follows this same pattern, Jeconiah becomes the father of Shealtiel after the event of the deportation.

[4] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Greek Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 84. See also Donald A. Hagner, Matthew, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1995), 1:11.