Bible Genealogies and Family Trees
I am NOT someone much into family trees (personally speaking)!
Other than a great grandmother on my father’s side, who carried me in her arms as a baby, small snippets of information passed down and a family Bible on my mother’s side (now, long lost), I cannot say much, prior to my grandparents, about my family tree. Not that these days I am disinterested, for I would like to know more about my own family background as it is a significant factor in making me the person I am today, but now the effort to dig deep would be too much. I feel it bit like Alex Haley, the author of Roots, who did dig deep. His is the saga of an American family, contained in his 1976 novel. It tells the story of, tracing back to his ancestor, Kunta Kinte, an 18th-century African, captured as an adolescent, sold into slavery in Africa, and transported to North America, where the author lived.
While less so these days, people have been interested knowing about their forefathers and their exploits for time immemorial, evidenced by ancient story telling (often oral) and popularized in writings like “Lord of the Rings”. On a further personal note, one of my interests is church history, in particular that of the denomination I have long been associated, the Plymouth Brethren, and is my attempt at discovering more about my own spiritual roots, exemplified in my book “Coleman Street’s Children” . On a more sinister note, some believe our world is nefariously controlled by a tiny number of bloodline families, which includes the British monarchy.
One criticism often leveled against the Bible is that it is full of genealogies. There is a certain justification to such an argument because, as I am about to demonstrate. There is a lot pertaining to genealogy in the Bible, even though it is still only a very small part of it. If one were to read the whole Bible, starting from Genesis, even skipping over the relatively small genealogy parts, of which there are a number, and get as far as toward the end of Exodus, which is largely narrative with interesting twists to keep the modern reader interested, we find the story telling gets overtaken by all sorts of stuff pertaining to the Law and how God is to be worshiped.
But then, if we press on, we will get back to more narrative in books like Judges, Samuel and Kings and eventually we get to Chronicles, whose first nine chapters is pure genealogy. It is worth mentioning that Chronicles is not a mere potted version of Samuel and Kings (categorized in the Hebrew Bible as prophetic books) but rather, coming as it does at the end of the Hebrew Bible, it is reminding the Israelites of their roots and looking forward to their Messiah. It should be noted that Ezra, a priest, who likely wrote Chronicles, records in detail in the Book of Ezra those who returned to Israel following the Exile. Also, following Chronicles in the Christian Bible, we have poetry and prophets books, which are light on genealogy.
I have lost count of the number of times I have read though the whole Bible, and while I find that my understanding deepens with each subsequent read, I am still tempted to skim / skip through the genealogy bits. And we are not just talking about the so and so who begat so and so parts but rather the precise territory they occupied / were to occupy (e.g. as recounted in the middle chapters of the Book of Joshua) and the parts the family played (e.g. as recounted in the Book of Numbers when it came to fighting wars or in the Book of Chronicles when it came to the parts played in Temple construction and worship). But for the discerning and desirous, there are gems to be had, for example: right in the middle of the nine-chapter list of genealogies in Chronicles we read concerning the Prayer of Jabez: “And Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, Oh that thou wouldest bless me indeed, and enlarge my coast, and that thine hand might be with me, and that thou wouldest keep me from evil, that it may not grieve me! And God granted him that which he requested” 1 Chronicles 4:10.
If you and I were writing the Bible, and were around at the time things written about happened, we might be tempted to remove the genealogy parts and replace them with the sort of fascinating detail that would aid our understanding, including that which has given rise to dispute or wonderment ever since, but we weren’t. It is God’s book and what He deems as important. What is there is for our edification, including genealogies. In a day when the idea of family is being undermined on every front, it is worth reminding ourselves that family is God’s big idea and, of all the commands He could have given to Moses, the fifth of ten was to do with family and the only one that contained a promise to those who obeyed: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you” Exodus 20:5.
What I won’t do, is go through the whole Bible and expound on every part that is genealogy related. It would be a monumental task if I tried and would likely only interest those of a more geeky ilk. Suffice to say, genealogies crop up all over the Bible, sometimes in unlikely places, e.g.: the Genealogy of David (Ruth 4:18-22) and Timothy’s ancestors (2Timothy 1:5). What I will do though is to consider what the seed book of the Bible, Genesis, has to say, as there is a lot of instructional material contained therein, and then turn to the New Testament, of which only a little is said pertaining to genealogy. And this is what I found, genealogy speaking, as a result of a quick run through of the Book of Genesis:
- From Adam to Noah: 5:1-32
- The Table of Nations: 10:1-32
- From Shem to Abram: 11:10-26
- Abram’s family: 11:27-32
- Nahor’s Sons: 22:20-24
- Ishmael’s Sons: 25:12-18
- Esau’s Descendants: 36:1-40
- Jacob Goes to Egypt: 46:1-26
From Genesis 11 and the rest of the Old Testament, the emphasis is on one nation: Israel, as descended through Abraham and yet, even here, we see the details of families, not that of Israel, given, and a similar pattern continues throughout the books of the Old Testament (albeit in lesser detail), as being something significant and written down in order to assist our understanding.
When it comes to the New Testament, with the one exception, the genealogy of Jesus, there is little said about genealogies when it comes to the church which, while originally all Jewish, ended up predominantly Gentile. Unlike Jews, with rare exception, Gentiles cannot trace their heritage to one person in the long distant (couple of centuries say) past, unlike Jews and their forefather, Abraham, and it is worth noting the emphasis now is not on a physical entity, but rather on the Church, the spiritual descendants of Abraham, by virtue of their becoming a new creation in Christ.
We are given the genealogy of Jesus twice in the New Testament:
- Matthew 1:1-17 – Abraham to Jesus
- Luke 3:23-38 – Adam to Jesus
There are differences in the accounts, principally in the Matthew account the Jesus line begins with Abraham, thus emphasising His Jewish roots, and in the Luke account it goes all the way back to “Adam, the son of God”, making the point Jesus is for both Jews and Gentiles. It is well to note that four unlikely women appear in Matthew’s account, but not Luke’s. Other significant differences include the line from David being traced through his son, Solomon, in Matthew, and his son, Nathan, in Luke. Further consideration of why the differences is outside the scope of this account.
Might I suggest, the next time you come across a list of genealogies in your Bible studies, NOT to skip over them but rather to reflect why they are there in the first place and on lessons to be learned.