Generations: Genealogies In The Bible – (part 1)

      Comments Off on Generations: Genealogies In The Bible – (part 1)

Several sections of our Bible contain lists of successive names, known as genealogies. We find genealogies in such diverse places as Genesis 5, Exodus 6, 1 Chronicles 1-9, Matthew 1 and Luke 3. These passages (and a few other genealogical sections) tend not to be popular reading, and are generally not much appreciated or well understood. However, there are several important Biblical truths that only come to us properly through an awareness of these genealogies. In considering this though, let’s realize that all genealogies are not created equal, nor are they intended to be. The genealogies of Chronicles are of a different character and have a different purpose than those of Genesis or of Matthew. Likewise Matthew’s generations list differs from Genesis and Luke in purpose and structure. However, in all cases there is intentional structure and purpose in the Biblical records of lineage.

Without going into overmuch detail, it is plain that the genealogy in Matthew 1 is constructed to emphasize several things, and a complete ancestry for Jesus is not one of them. Matthew omits several individuals in the chain (in verse 8 he omits Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah, and in verse 11 he omits Jehoiakim) but this is neither error nor subterfuge. Old Testament scriptures (and other genealogical documents then in existence) were certainly well enough known to reveal the missing names then as now. Matthew started off by describing Jesus as “The son of David, the son of Abraham,” showing us that he was interested in establishing some important legal and spiritual points in his record, not in listing all of the generations. He used “son” as “descendant” and “father” as “ancestor,” and told us so in his opening statement. One of the reasons Matthew does this is his particular focus on Jesus as the Messiah King of Israel, the heir of David through Joseph, his legal father. The relationships Matthew lists show that Jesus is the legal heir of Abraham, and of David, and of Josiah. The genealogy is structured to emphasize those important places in the history of the promise (v. 17 summarizes this): the covenant promise to Abraham, the kingship through David, and the need for a new kingdom after the exile, setting the stage for the new king, Jesus the Messiah (a somewhat similar abbreviated ancestor list is found for Ezra, establishing the legality of his priesthood, Ezra 7:1-6). If we examine Luke’s genealogy for Jesus, on the other hand, it seems to emphasize the actual human lineage of the real man Jesus, demonstrating the firmness of his claim to be “the son of man” as well as “the son of God.”

If we move our consideration of genealogies to the Hebrew scriptures, we find a different sort of listing in 1 Chronicles 1-9. That listing is first a summary of the genealogies and “table of nations” from Genesis 5, 10, and 11 (which it sometimes quotes and sometimes summarizes), and then a listing of the offspring of Abraham in their nations, and then from chapter 2 onward a listing of the family leaders of Israel. This was a very important listing in the context of the work of Ezra and Nehemiah as they labored to reestablish proper observance of the law and proper temple ceremonies in Jerusalem in the 5th century B.C. Only people who could demonstrate their relationship to people mentioned in these lists could fully participate in the rituals of Jewish worship. Those of questionable or undocumented ancestry were considered risky for inclusion, especially in the priesthood (see Ezra 2:62-63). The genealogies of Chronicles are presented as a compilation of the surviving records of the true families of Israel (see 1 Chron. 4:33, 38, 41 for example) for the sake of establishing a recognized standard of kinship for full inclusion in the ranks of the Jews after the Babylonian exile. The writer used all the reliable material available to establish legitimacy for the returning exiles of Jerusalem and Judea, but did not claim to be able to fill in any gaps that had occurred due to the ravages of the conquest, deportation and exile of Israel and Judah (recall again Ezra 2:62-63, the genealogies were established here by records, not by revelation, and are not presented as exhaustive, though Ezra and others wished they had been). It is important to understand that in the records of Chronicles the genealogies were researched, and not given by special revelation. This fact (documented in the book itself) does not detract from the inspired accuracy of what is written, it acknowledges (as the writer did) that it was not a revealed truth but rather a matter of indisputable historical record.

The idea of historical record brings us to consideration of another other major genealogical section of scripture in Genesis 5-11. Once again, we are looking at a genealogy that is unlike those already mentioned. For one thing, the genealogy in Genesis 5 lists a series of ages (both a father’s age at the time his son was begotten, and his remaining years, and then his total life span), unlike any of the others we’ve mentioned (the first two numbers – age at the time of begetting and remaining years – but not the totals are listed in the genealogy in Genesis 11:10-32). No other genealogical list in the Bible is like this. These lists (Genesis 5 and 11:10-32) also are unique in their emphasis on the word “to beget,” twice mentioned in every generation listed. No other Biblical genealogy does this. Those in Chronicles use the word only intermittently, and the closest parallel is the brief but very important list of high priests among the returned Jews (Nehemiah 12:10-11) where each generation is specifically mentioned as begotten of the preceding high priest from Jeshua onward to Nehemiah’s time, about 80 years. Even in that very important-and complete-list of generations the word occurs only once each time to document the father-son relationship of these Jewish spiritual leaders. The emphasis in the Genesis list seems especially strong. It seems awkward to suppose that the writer in Genesis intended the reader to think that his list was incomplete, omitting generations as many interpreters have suggested (desiring to stretch the time represented in these numerical sequences) when the emphasis on father-son succession is so emphatically reported. Again, no other Biblical genealogy is presented in the way that these lists are in Genesis, with the age at begetting (an emphasis on the father to son relationship), a mention of the fact of begetting (twice every time) and a mention of the years after begetting. No other genealogy in the Bible uses the word beget as this one does or lists years as this one does. The unique structure of these genealogies in Genesis is evident in their emphasis on “begetting” and on time.

Share this article: