The Importance of Bible Genealogy

One of the responsibilities I have at Union is working on the Audio Bible for Dr. George Guthrie’s Read the Bible for Life project.  We have been working on this for about 7 months now.  For the past couple of months we have been focusing on the Historical Books of the Old Testament.  Inherent in these books are the genealogies, which pervades 1 Chronicles and also dominant in the books of Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Nehemiah, and Ezra (among others).  In our frequent encounters with these genealogies, our project has not had the “luxury” as so many devotional readers of Scripture have, namely the option to just glance over the lists and move on to the “real stuff”.  I have found, however, that the grappling with these names, which has been absolutely necessary to read through these portions of Scripture, has caused me and our readers to see these lists of names from a new perspective.  Why are the genealogies of the Bible important?  Why are they relevant for the contemporary reader of Scripture?  Should I really read these parts of Scripture?  The following are four answers to these questions.

1.  The Genealogies Point to the Fact that Scripture is Rooted in History, Not Myth

Skeptics and secularists want to place the Scripture in the mythical genre, that the Biblical stories of the Old Testament are simply mythical accounts that have a kernel of truth tucked inside an outlandish tale.  The de-methologization program has, I believe, spread to the common culture with the base assumption that the Bible is full of “fairy tales” and really does not have any relevant impact for contemporary society.  Yet, the Biblical writers did not have this in mind when they wrote the books of the Bible.  One of the primary places you can point to in order to indicate this is the genealogies themselves.  The genealogies serve as a grounding force in the narrative that roots the text into an historical context.  This is no Homeric tale, but rather a family, tribal, national history that marks out God’s Salvation plan for Israel and the world.  The Jewish faith, hence the Christian faith, is, therefore, an inherently historical faith.  One of the main differences between the mythological stories of the Greeks and Romans over against the Bible is that the Greek myths include fantastical creatures such as centaurs, cyclops, minotaurs, sphinxes, and the like.  Biblical stories do not include any of these fictional characters, but rather seek to tell what actually happened.  The Biblical writers took pains to describe actual events, and one of the best ways in which they focused on actual history is through the use of genealogy.  When you read through and grapple with the names and lineages of the genealogies of the Jewish people and of Christ, you come away with the sensation that you are reading through a family tree, and you are struck with the fact that these were real people.  You have to then treat them as actual individuals.  This forces you to read the stories as history or biography.  This therefore also points to the trustworthiness of Scripture.  For these genealogies build upon one another and testify to one another.  The genealogies of the Law (Pentateuch) are backed up by the genealogies found in 1 Chronicles.  The genealogies of 1 Chronicles and others are attested to in the genealogies of Christ.  The accounts of Nehemiah and Ezra also point to the exact care that the writers took to give an accurate account of the occurrences concerning the return to the land of Judea.  The genealogies cry out to any skeptic that whatever one may think of the Scriptures, the Bible attests of itself that it is not myth, but history.

2.  The Genealogies Show the Importance to Lineage, Heritage, and Family Identity 

The family unit and family lineage is of utmost importance in the Bible.  This truth is further supported due to the prominent place of genealogy in the narrative.  Each family could point to the lineage of that particular clan of a particular tribe in the Nation of Israel.  Tribal identity was extremely important regarding the particular function and responsibility of a tribe/clan/family, as well as land allotment.  The genealogies are not just lists of names that are provided just for informational purposes.  No, the genealogies are provided because it gives the very focus of identity for a member of the nation of Israel.  It is a portrait of the heritage of the entire nation.  Thus, the genealogies declare to the reader that family identity and lineage is of utmost importance within scripture.  Although family identity is put into a new perspective at the coming of Christ, the importance of family never recedes.  This is a testimony to the importance of family even in today’s culture.  The family unit is under siege from a number of fronts.  It is the responsibility of the church to point to God’s Word, found especially in the genealogies, declaring that the family is extremely important to God and is the bedrock institution upon which society is built.

3.  The Genealogies of the Old Testament Point to the Genealogy of Christ, Who is Rooted in History as Well 

Christ is not some mythological force that came and then left.  Christ is not an abstract personage.  No, Matthew and Luke make a point to root Jesus to history and as a part of the lineage outlined in genealogy after genealogy in the Old Testament.  Just as the Pentateuch is rooted in history; just as the Nation of Israel is rooted to history; so Jesus Christ is rooted to that same history.  The Genealogy of Jesus then is a connection to the entire story of salvation found in the old Covenant.  Therefore, Christ genealogically connects the Old Covenant to the New Covenant.  This is why the genealogy of Jesus is so important.  There is a reason why Matthew put it in his Gospel.  He was connecting Jesus to his Jewish roots, given Him the credentials to point to the inauguration of the New Covenant prophesied in Jeremiah.  He is the Holy One of Israel.  He is the Son of David, the Servant of the Lord.  He is the True Vine.  Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of the revelation and salvation of God (Hebrews 1:1-3).  This ultimate fulfillment is first grounded in Scripture by providing Jesus’ place in the genealogy of Israel.

4.  The Genealogies Outline the Familial Scope of God’s Salvation Plan

When you look through the names of the genealogies, you are not just seeing names, but you are getting a bird’s eye view of God’s salvation plan at work.  In our hyper-individualized world, we see salvation as a purely one-on-one enterprise between God and the sinner.  However, the trajectory of Scripture says something more.  Salvation is individualistic in the sense that one must repent and believe in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.  However, the overarching picture of God’s Salvation can be seen as God’s calling a people for himself – a corporate identity.  This is one of the great themes of God’s Word – God calling a people by His grace to be a part of his family.  Hosea speaks to this in chapter 2, verse 23 – “I will sow her for Myself in the land.  I will also have compassion on her who had not obtained compassion, And I will say to those who were not My people, ‘You are My people!’ And they will say, ‘You are my God!'”  Here are some more familial themes in Scripture:

Isaiah 54:5-8, “For your husband is your Maker, Whose name is the LORD of hosts; And your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel, Who is called the God of all the earth.  For the LORD has called you, Like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, Even like a wife of one’s youth when she is rejected,” Says your God.  “For a brief moment I forsook you, But with great compassion I will gather you.  In an outburst of anger I hid My face from you for a moment, But with everlasting lovingkindness I will have compassion on you,” says the LORD your Redeemer.

Romans 8:15-16, For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba, Father!”  The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God.

1 John 3:1, See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are.

Exodus 19:5-6, Now  then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’

1 Peter 2:9-10, But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

The genealogies point to the fact that as believers in Christ Jesus we Gentiles are, as Paul points out in Romans 11, grafted branches into the tree of the family of faith.  We are sons of Abraham!  We are a part of the very same lineage!  We are a part of the family, the people, and the story!  And we can identify with those names listed in the genealogies found throughout Scripture.  What an amazing promise and heritage!  We are a part of that same genealogy of faith that continues on from the pages of Scripture to the life of Christ’s body, the Church.

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3 thoughts on “The Importance of Bible Genealogy

  1. This was super helpful in outlining the importance and validity of Bible genealogy! For the longest time I did not get the point of why the Bible is filled with such extensive genealogies, but now I understand the significance, and it greatly improves my Bible study time. Thank you!

  2. In studying genealogical records, you mentioned that you were forced to pay closer attention to the lists than Christians usually do. I’ve been observing Matthew and Luke’s records and wonder why, if these lists are supposed to be the evidence that proves Jesus is the Messiah of the Old Testament, why can’t we find some of those names in the OT. In other words, why can’t we compare Scripture with Scripture. Did Matthew and Luke just make up a bunch of names and no First Century Jews questioned where these people came from? This is Matthew and Luke’s one chance to prove Jesus is the Messiah of the OT and yet the last name to be verifiable using the OT is Zerabbabel. Every commentary or book I have read glosses over the last ten names in Mt. and the 19 in Luke and jump right to Joseph. We are left with a lot of missing links. If we saw the names Tom, Dick and Harry in that genealogical list, or Larry, Moe and Curly we’d immediately object. I’m assuming no First Century Jews objected to the names in these genealogical records so I guess these Jews recognized all the names in the Gospel records. Do you know how they were obtained by Matthew and Luke? Were they from public records or maybe private records of Hebrew families? The Gospel writers didn’t just pull them out of thin air under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, right? Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    • Ann, thanks for the post from March. I have not been on my website for some time and missed your post. Please forgive my tardiness in replying. Your question is one that has often confused me as well. If you read the Old Testament, you will realize that this section of the Bible ends with the prophet Malachi, about the same time as the books Ezra and Nehemiah – with the Israelites back in the land of Judah after the exile. This is around 400 B.C. on the timeline. Therefore, if you don’t include the Aprocrypha (intertestamental books that Catholics consider canonical), there is a gap of 400 years before Jesus arrives in Bethlehem. Therefore, the Bible is silent for the most part regarding the genealogy of Jesus prior to Matthew and Luke. However, if you see the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew, there are many names that are recognizable from the Old Testament. For, all of the Old Testament kings of Judah are listed. Also listed is Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel. He is mentioned in the book of Ezra and also Nehemiah and some of the minor prophets. After Zerubbabel, the text goes silent due to the gap of 400 years. The MAJOR question posed by the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke is that they are both quite different. When you consider a genealogy, it should square up. But Luke’s genealogy diverges substantially from Matthew’s after David. There have been many answers to this question. The most likely candidates are that Luke’s genealogy includes the split because of a Leverite marriage, or that Luke is highlighting the lineage of Jesus from Mary. The latter possibility is difficult since Joseph is listed as the father, but it could have been that Luke was tracking Mary’s lineage, but listed Joseph, since there are no other females listed in the listing. Another key point would be the emphasis of the gospel writer. Matthew’s gospel was written with a Jewish audience in mind, and the genealogy listed emphasizes the kingly heritage of Jesus. Also, Matthew’s list starts with Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. Luke’s audience is primarily Gentile, and therefore, the list begins with Adam, the father of the human race. No matter what, these discrepancies did not trouble the Early church. Nor did it seem to cause a controversy in the years the Biblical canon was being formulated. By the very beginning of the New Testament, the Early Church fathers recognized the scriptural authority of both Matthew and Luke. If you have any questions, please let me know. Thanks for the comment!

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