Unless you’re looking for baby names, the genealogies in the Bible aren’t sections we look forward to studying in our quiet times. But here we are today in our Bible reading with nothing but genealogies on the horizon from now until Monday. So why are they important? And what do we do with them, especially when we can’t even pronounce all the names? How do we learn from a genealogy?
Included are a few tips for what to do when you come across a genealogy in Scripture as well as insight into this week’s Bible reading in 1 Chronicles:
- Is there anything repeated in the genealogy? For example, the genealogy of Genesis 5 gives the lifespan of each individual and his age when he fathered his son. Why give this particular information? It’s tracing the generations from Adam to Noah. Also, Genesis is organized into sections by toledot (toledot is the Hebrew word used in the text and means “these are the generations of”), so it gives the toledot and the genealogy, with the person it ending with being the next person the book discusses. So the genealogy in Genesis 5 ends with Noah, and Genesis 6-9 focuses on Noah.
- Ask how this genealogy fits into the context of the book it’s in. Knowing the purpose and the audience of the book helps us know why the author would include a genealogy in the first place.
- Keep in mind that while genealogies may be boring to us, they served as crucial legal records for the original readers. As Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard point out in Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, “They used genealogical records to establish their claims to be king or high priest, to possess certain property, and to marry into certain families.” This is the purpose of Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1, for it establishes Jesus’ relationship to David and His ability to be the Messiah.
- Commentaries can be helpful resources when deciphering a genealogy, so use them as a resource when you have questions or want additional information about what you are studying. For example, until I read some commentaries on 1 Chronicles, I had no idea why the geneaologies followed the structure of Judah, Simeon, eastern tribes, Levi, other tribes, Benjamin (to find out why, keep reading). If you need assistance in knowing what commentary to use, here’s a helpful site that rates commentaries.
For another helpful blog post regarding genealogies, read Nancy Guthrie’s post on “The Best Things About the Boring Parts of the Bible.”
THIS WEEK’s READINGS
Background of 1 Chronicles: Scholars do not know the identity of “the Chronicler” God used to write 1 and 2 Chronicles, but the content of the book suggests that it was written after the people of Judah returned to the land after the Babylonian captivity (see 2 Chron. 36:21-23), which means that the earliest possible date for these books is 538 B.C. Chronicles follows the reigns of the Davidic kings and provides a theological interpretation of the nation’s history, demonstrating that God’s plans for the nation had not failed. For this reason, it acts as more than a supplement to Samuel and Kings, for it addresses the theological questions of God’s people after returning from exile and provides insight into the character of God, worship that pleases Him, and His covenant with His people.
This Week in 1 Chronicles: 1 Chronicles 1-9 contains two distinct genealogies: Adam to Jacob (1:1-2:2) and the twelve tribes of Israel from their development to their return from exile (2:3-9:34). By starting with these genealogies, the Chronicler reminds the people of Israel of who they are as God’s people and how God formed them for His purpose. Before the creation of the first man, He chose them. He formed Adam, chose Noah, selected Abraham, and ordained the twelve tribes (the descendants of Jacob). Therefore, the genealogies provide a zoomed out view of the nation’s formation and identity.
Two tribes are omitted from the genealogies– the tribes of Dan and Zebulun, and three tribes receive an inordinate amount of description – Judah, Levi, and Benjamin. In 1 Chronicles 4, the Chronicler begins the genealogies of the twelve tribes with Judah, Jacob’s fourth son, instead of Reuben who was Jacob’s firstborn. As prophesied in Genesis 49, Judah’s descendants would be kings, and the Davidic kings including the Messiah came from the line of Judah, which is why it receives such prioritized attention. The genealogy of the tribe of Levi stands as the longest genealogy given by the Chronicler (6:1-80) and it is included in the middle of the tribal genealogies much as the tribe was also in the physical center of the camp during Israel’s wilderness years, with Levi encamped around the tabernacle and the other tribes encamped around Levi. As Richard Pratt notes in his commentary on 1 and 2 Chronicles, “The worship of the Lord and the servants of that worship were to be the focus of hope for the traveling Israelite community, and the Chronicler reflected this symbolism in his model of the post-exilic community by setting the genealogies of Levi in the center of his description of the sons of Israel.”
In between Judah and Levi, the Chronicler lists the tribe of Simeon then the tribes that existed east of the Jordan River – Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh (4:24-5:26; see also Josh. 22), and between Levi and Benjamin, the Chronicler includes six brief sections on Issachar, Benjamin, Naphtali, Manasseh, Ephraim, and Asher (7:1-40). A short record of Benjamin is given in 1 Chronicles 7 with an extended version taking up 1 Chronicles 8, and the additional attention has to do with this being the tribe of Israel’s first king, Saul. Also, the tribe of Benjamin later became absorbed into Judah after the split of Israel and Judah, so the tribes of the Northern Kingdom are sandwiched by the two tribes of the Southern Kingdom in the Chronicler’s descriptions.
Interspersed in the genealogies of the tribes are remarks about covenant fidelity. Manasseh “broke faith” with God by worshipping false gods, which led to the Northern Kingdom’s exile by the Assyrians (5:23-26), and Judah was taken into exile by the Babylonians because of the people’s “breach of faith” (9:1). Even references such as the death of Judah’s son Er because of his wickedness point to God’s judgment of sin (2:3-4), and all of this reminds readers that God punishes the wicked and blesses the faithful (although such blessings are not always in the form of material things).