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Help! I’m Reading a Genealogy in the Bible

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As part of the 4 Year Bible Reading Plan, many of us at Faith Church have been journeying through the genealogies that compose the first few chapters of 1 Chronicles. While it is the longest section of genealogies in the Bible, it is not the only place where you will find one of these lists of ancestors. These lists appear both in the Old Testament (especially in Genesis – see e.g. Genesis 4:17-22, 5:1-32, 10:1-32, 11:10-32, 25:12-28, 36:1-43, and 46:8-27 – as well as Exodus 6:14-27, Ruth 4:18-22, Ezra 8:1-14, Nehemiah 11-12) and in the New Testament (Matthew 1:1-18 and Luke 3:23-38). Genealogies thus stand as a common genre (literary type) in Scripture, but is one that most people don’t particularly enjoy reading or pastors are prone to choose as a sermon topic. In fact, I looked at some of the books in my library on biblical interpretation; I found much discussion about how to read genres like narratives, poetry, discourse, prophetic messages, and apocalypse but very little on genealogies! Therefore, it seems likely that many of us are in need of some help in reading this literature, help greater than just “slug through it.” Here are five pointers that I hope offer some help for you when you read genealogies in the Bible.

1. Don’t Let the Names Trip You Up
One reason I think the biblical genealogies are so difficult to read (and can even be intimidating) for today’s Bible reader is that the majority of names are unfamiliar to us – not just that we don’t know who the people are, but we don’t even know how to pronounce their names! The mystery of pronunciation can cause us to just jump over the names or think they must have no relevance for us. However, I would encourage you not to let these names hinder you from reading. Do your best to sound them out and make an attempt to say them (in your mind or out loud). Feel free to give the disclaimer you might give when speaking with someone who’s name you are not sure how to pronounce (“please forgive me if I butcher this…..”). And as you do so, it helps you remember that these are real people just like you (and that your name might have been difficult for them to pronounce!), and the stories in the Bible are not stories from someone’s imagination or another world, but are from this world in which we live.

2. Don’t Think That You Are Alone
Part of the purpose of the genealogies is to link God’s people in later eras to those in those in the past, showing the rootedness of their community of faith. In light of that truth, I don’t think we should be ashamed to ask others to help us understand them. I don’t believe God expects us to know every single background detail in the Bible; we are a community, and thus we support each other with our gifts as well as knowledge. Feel free to look at notes in a study Bible or commentary that might help point out things such as the meaning of names (in the ancient world, one’s name pointed to their character and heritage) or connections that emerge in these lists. The genealogies remind us that our faith is not just between us and God, but part of a wider community. We need to utilize the community of believers (past and present) to help us see and understand new things.

3. Don’t Think of Genealogies As Merely Family Trees
I suspect most of us at some point have had to compile our “family tree” for a project or perhaps have an even more formalized genealogical record of our family as that has become a popular thing (i.e. Ancestry.com). The genealogies in the Bible are a little different than those because the purpose of them is not simply to compose a family tree — they are placed within larger works in the Bible. Therefore, they are not there simply to pass along information, but for a reason in the larger narrative in which they are placed. Ask yourself – why is this genealogy placed here in this book? How does it set things up or sum things up in terms of the overall story being told? What would be missing if these details were not included? 

4. Don’t Fall into Auto-pilot
It is easy to skip over reading a genealogy just to get past it, but when you start to explore genealogies you see that they are not all alike. Different genealogies include different details and structures to them; perhaps those differences reveal a special purpose or emphasis. A particular genealogy may also have a pattern that it then breaks. For example, Matthew 1:1-18 is notable for its inclusion of a few women at various places as well as for references to “brothers” (as well as the fact that each list is 14). When there is a variation in that normal pattern, it is likely significant and a detail to ponder – why did they include this detail? Rather than zoning out, we should zoom in as we read these lists and look for times when “one of these things is not like the other” rather than not belonging; that  likely is an important element.

5. Don’t Forget  – God’s Faithfulness, Mercy, and Grace is on Display
The overarching message of the Bible is how God keeps His promises and shows mercy and grace to sinful people. Therefore, whenever we read Scripture, we should think through that: how does this text point me to God, who He is, and what He has done – and then how do I live in light of that? The genealogies are no exception. We see names of people who sin and strive, yet God remains faithful. We see that God does not work overnight, but is in it for the long-game, patiently working in and through people so that His name might be glorified and honored. Therefore, as you read these lists, see if there are names that jump out from other stories or other details that remind you of how God uses broken and unlikely people (and often the people who we expect Him to use reject Him). See how God continues to call people by name – literally! – even as people stray from Him. And know that this God is with you and guiding you as you seek to follow Him in this world – and to read His Word that includes these genealogies.

Questions about the Bible or theology? Email them to Pastor Brian at Theology@WeAreFaith.org. You can also request to receive weekly emails with our blog posts by filling out the information on the right side.

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