Why are there so many genealogies in the Bible? Are they important? What purpose do they serve?
Let’s be honest. When reading the bible sometimes we are excited and engaged but other times we are bored out of our minds. Reading through genealogies usually constitutes the latter sentiment. But to be bored by a genealogy you actually have to read it, and most of us skip right over them, don’t we? You might be surprised to find that genealogies can actually be interesting, and some even have some broader interpretive significance.
There are genealogies for the descendants of 23 people in scripture (you can see them listed below, as recorded in Willmington’s Book of Bible Lists). Genealogies were kept for the purpose of records and understanding family connections. Several times in scripture they are referred to as necessary for some type of legal or ceremonial proof, or as historical documents for study (1Ch 9:1; 2Ch 31:19; 2Ch 12:15; Ne 7:5). Obviously the historical book keeping practices were much different in Ancient Palestine. For example, Genealogies rarely contained women (the fact that Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew contains 5 women is somewhat rare). It’s important to remember though that the bible is not a scientific document, nor is it a historical document as we understand historical documents today.
The interpretation of genealogies can be an interesting thing as well. For example, Adam’s genealogy is one of the more interesting genealogies because it lists the ages of the men who lived very long (see previous blog on long life spans). But perhaps most interesting is the way that this particular list of names subtly highlights one person in particular, Enoch. Each of the men in that genealogy dies, except Enoch, of whom it is said “he walked with faithfully with God” and then God “took him away”. What a powerful commentary on the value of walking with God. And we see it in a genealogy!
In Matthew and Luke’s gospel we find the two genealogies of Jesus. Each is slightly different, especially for the generations between David and Jesus. Causing some to refer to the Lukan genealogy (Luke 3:23-38) as that of Mary, and the Matthean genealogy (Matt. 1:1-17)as that of Joseph. But more interesting is the direction of the genealogies. Matthew’s genealogy goes from Abraham to Jesus while focusing on David’s line in the middle. But Luke’s genealogy uncharacteristically goes from Jesus back to Adam. The difference is not insignificant. Each evangelist trying to communicate different messages with their genealogies. Matthew’s gospel is emphasizing the redemptive history from Abraham to Jesus, and specifically the royalty of Jesus, as emphasized by highlighting King David. Thus Matthew’s genealogy screams to the first-century reader, “this is the King,” “here comes the Kingdom of God,” “here comes redemption”. A message which is very consistent with the themes of Matthew. Luke’s genealogy however, goes back to Adam, thus emphasizing the humanity of Jesus, the truth that Jesus comes from the first man, like each of us. It is also a reminder that through Adam sin entered the world, but through Jesus sin will be destroyed.
For the astute reader out there, you will be quick to find discrepancies when comparing the various genealogies. Give yourself a nice pat on the back for being observant, but don’t worry you haven’t discredited the Bible. Remember that the Bible is an ancient document written to ancient people (not us), who had different priorities when recording life, history, and ancestry. Even the infamous genealogical term ‘beget’ is loose enough to skip entire generations (see past blog). So we should be cautious to proof text genealogies against each other. Paul warns Timothy and Titus to avoid controversies over genealogies (1 Timothy 1:4; Titus 3:9). We should probably adhere to that advice as well and simply allow the genealogies to speak the messages they were meant to speak, no more, no less.
The Genealogies of the Bible
1. Cain’s Gen. 4:16-24
2. Adam’s Gen. 5:1-32
3. Japheth’s Gen. 10:1-5; 1 Chron. 1:5-7
4. Ham’s Gen. 10:6-20; 1 Chron. 1:8-16
5. Shem’s Gen. 10:22-31; 11:10-30; 1 Chron. 1:17-27
6. Abraham’s Gen. 25:1-4, 12-18; 1 Chron. 1:28-34
7. Isaac’s Gen. 25:19-23
8. Jacob’s Gen. 49:1-27; 1 Chron. 2:1-2
9. Esau’s Gen. 36:1-43;1 Chron. 1:35-42
10. Judah’s 1 Chron. 2:3-12; 4:1-4
11. Simeon’s 1 Chron. 4:24-38
12. Reuben’s 1 Chron. 5:1-8
13. Levi’s 1 Chron. 6:1-53
14. Issachar’s 1 Chron. 7:1-5
15. Benjamin’s 1 Chron. 7:6-12
16. Naphtali’s 1 Chron. 7:13
17. Asher’s 1 Chron. 7:30-40
18. Jesse’s 1 Chron. 2:13-17
19. Caleb’s 1 Chron. 2:18-20, 42-55
20. David’s 1 Chron. 3:1-24
21. Ephraim’s 1 Chron. 7:20-27
22. Pharez’s Ruth 4:18-22
23. Jesus’ a. The genealogy of Mary Luke 3:23-38 b. The genealogy of Joseph Matt. 1:1-17
H.L. Willmington, Willmington’s Book of Bible Lists (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1987), 118.