Understanding the Bible’s Use of Genealogies
by August H. Konkel
One of the few books that is a family heritage in our Konkel family is entitled The Descendants of OHM Abraham Wiebe 1831–1991. It is a genealogy, names of people in chronological succession with pictures. It is frankly a boring book, unless the reader happens to know the story of someone in the book. The more the reader knows, the more interesting and informative the book becomes. It may well be the most consulted book in the family library. This book is typical of modern genealogies. It is a condensed family story of generations.
Genealogies in the Bible are not family trees. They bear little relationship to the genre of a family genealogy. The Bible gives an account of human history that drives all humans willing to understand it to trust in Jesus Christ.
Biblical genealogies are essential to understand the redemptive work of God. This story requires knowledge of the relationships of people and nations through millennia of time. Genealogy requires study, but it has great rewards. The Bible is a whole different book when it is read not only for devotions, but for the comprehensive message of God at work in the world.
Every person relates to society and an understanding of the world through an interpretation of history. A coherent history requires a continuing genealogy. The human story can only be told from generation to generation.
Beginning at the Beginning
The Bible story begins with the genealogy of Cain in Genesis 4:17–22, a critical statement against all other ancient writings in which humans begin as gods or at least partly divine. Genesis 5:1 introduces a third account of creation beginning with Adam and names ten families before the flood. This list has its ancient parallel in the Sumerian king list as recorded by Berossus (third century) who similarly provides ten families, the last being the hero of the flood.
The purpose of this history in the Bible is to identity Noah in the line of Seth, those who called upon the Lord (Genesis 4:25–26), as distinguished from Cain. The mixing of the line of Seth, the “sons of God,” with those of Cain, “the daughters of men,” led to the “fallen ones” (nephalim). This was the view of St. Augustine in City of God. Only Noah remained in the godly lineage of the Seth tradition. The “sons of God” may also refer to tyrants who married as they willed, which also explains the human race becoming “fallen.” The idea that they were not human is foreign to the context, though the book of Enoch is based on an angelic interpretation.
Noah brings the reader a step closer to the world of today in Genesis 10. The sons of Noah divide into Africa (Ham), Greece (Japhet), and Mesopotamia (Shem). Shem provides the identity of Abraham, a Semite from Mesopotamia, a person central to Jews, Muslims, and Christians to this very day.
A Christian Understanding of Human Society
Biblical theology would be impossible without genealogies. The reader does not need to know everything about them, but the more they are understood, the clearer is the message of the whole. The history of Edom in Genesis 36 is most valuable to understanding Israel’s complicated relationship with Edom from David (e.g. Psalm 52) to Obadiah to Herod the Idumean in the time of Jesus. For most readers, a general knowledge of these associations is sufficient. Reading the Bible for such theological content is the goal of a Christian understanding of human society in the present.
One of the most significant genealogies to biblical history is the carefully calculated list of exactly 70 names in Genesis 46:8–27 identifying the sons of Israel. The names are selected according to Jacob’s wives and their concubines. An abbreviated form of the list is found in identifying the people redeemed from Egypt in Exodus 1:1–7. This is the fundamental description of Israel, the redeemed people of the covenant through whom the whole earth may receive a blessing (Genesis 12:3). These genealogies are expanded considerably in the enumeration of the sons of Israel in Numbers. The genealogies in Numbers show how God is preparing the sons of Israel to enter the promised land.
Israel and the Redemption Story
These names were carefully preserved. Stephen may say there were 75 descendants that went to Egypt in Acts 7:14, but that is no careless scribal mistake. The representative list of the texts in Genesis and Exodus used by Stephen included two descendants of Manasseh and three of Ephraim (Genesis 46:20). However, the later Hebrew text of Deuteronomy 32:8 stated that God ordered the nations according to the number of the sons of Israel.
The number of nations as given in Genesis 10 is precisely 70. Genealogical comparison with Numbers 26:28–37 shows that the number of the sons of Israel in Genesis 46 was reduced to 70 to conform to the number of the nations. This was done by omitting the later generations from the genealogy of Joseph. It was critical because the number of Genesis 46:27 and Exodus 1:5 needed to conform to Genesis 10 to show Israel’s unique place among the nations according to Deuteronomy 32:8. This thorough kind of theological work is typical of all genealogies.
A similar crucial genealogy is found in Ruth 4:18–22. This is essential to the genealogy of Jesus as given in Matthew 1:1–17. These passages identify Jesus and explain his mission. Matthew had very good reasons for beginning the gospel with Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham. But just to begin to understand Matthew 1:1–17 requires some knowledge of Genesis 46:8–27, Exodus 1:1–7, Ruth 4:18–22. These passages explain Israel and the story of redemption.
The Chronicler’s Purpose Is Theological
The earliest writings of history were called a chronikon in Latin, that is the story of a people beginning with the origin of humanity. Bible translator Jerome named the biblical book Chronicles because it is such a book. Chronicles begins with Adam, the very first man, then leads the reader to know who lived in the Persian state of Yehud and why they were important in the vast Persian empire. This small group of people “punched over their weight” because they influenced all human history far more than any other group despite their very small numbers.
The first nine chapters of Chronicles are only names mined from the rest of the Old Testament. Chronicles is based on an interpretation of history as found in the Old Testament. It also incorporates many other sources preserved through the exile. The purpose of the Chronicler is completely theological. He must show how redemption is continuing in Yehud, he must tell these people how they should live, and most of all he must offer the hope of the coming kingdom of God.
Chronicles defines Israel. Definition of Israel was the thorniest theological problem in the time of Jesus. Numerous groups claimed to be the true Israel. For the gospel writers and Paul, proper understanding of Israel was necessary to understand Jesus. Chronicles defines Israel as understood in the New Testament. Understanding its genealogies requires a complete knowledge of the Old Testament, something the Chronicler could assume his readers knew.
Most biblical genealogies are what is called linear, they give only one representative member of sometimes several generations. That is how Matthew can get 14 names from Abraham to David, 14 from David to the exile, and 14 from the exile until Jesus (Matthew 1:17). The story of Israel from Adam to the times following Zerrubbabel in 1 Chronicles 1–9 is most instructive.
Two groups are central: the family of David in chapters 2–4 and the tribe of Levi in chapter 6. The first is the centre of the hope of Israel that endures for all time, the main point of Chronicles. The second was central to worship, the one single activity that really mattered to Israel during all the turmoil of the Persian empire. The history of all the rest was no less vital. There could never be ten lost tribes. The Chronicler must name families from every tribe present in Jerusalem to wait for the kingdom of God, as he calls it (e.g. 2 Chronicles 13:8) and to worship the God of the temple who alone is holy.
More Than Descendancy
Genealogies in the Bible manifest various peculiarities. There are occasions in which the names of people and places seem to be interchangeable (1 Chronicles 2:42-45). Other lists are simply descriptive of occupational groupings and communities (1 Chronicles 4:19-23).
The Chronicler is not concerned with providing complete lines of descendants. Only nine generations span the period from Judah to David, which includes 430 years in Egypt and 480 from the exodus to Solomon. Genealogies are sometimes contradictory to other lists; the genealogy of Zerubbabel in Chronicles is not the same as the one in Matthew (1 Chronicles 3:19; Matthew1:12). This does not mean either are wrong because genealogies are very complex.
Genealogy is not just descendancy. Samuel is a priest in the tribe of Levi in 1 Chronicles 6:25–28, but he belongs to the tribe of Ephraim (1 Samuel 1:1). Samuel possibly had Levitical connections as Levites lived in all the tribes of Israel. Similarly, a Konkel can suddenly pop up in the Wiebe family. Samuel was not only an Ephraimite; in the story of Israel his family had come to have an important place in the priesthood in the time of David.
Genealogies in the Bible present the progress of redemption. Israel is not just those living in the land. Israel does not always occupy its land. An ideal Israel did not exist at any time, but Israel may yet become what it is. Genealogies lead the reader to the completion of redemption when all Israel will be saved through the church, as Paul triumphantly concludes in in Romans 11:25–36. The thought leads Paul to a spontaneous doxology praising the purposes of God.
August Konkel was ordained in the Mennonite Church Canada (then General Conference of Mennonites) in 1972. Following twelve years of pastoral work he spent his career in seminary education. He is currently semi-retired, a part time professor at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton. Among his published commentaries is 1 & 2 Chronicles in the Believers Church Bible Commentary (Herald Press). He is close to celebrating 50 years with his wife Esther. They currently attend the Jerseyville Baptist Church.