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Why You Should Read Biblical Genealogies

Evangelical Christians are Bible Christians. Being evangelical means we affirm that the Bible is true. It’s something evangelicals have fought for. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, evangelicals engaged in the “fundamentalist / modernist” controversy over the truthfulness of the Bible. In the late twentieth century, evangelicals again fought a theological battle within many of their own denominations over the inerrancy of Scripture. As a result of a century of emphasis on the truthfulness of the Bible, most evangelicals today will readily agree that they agree the Bible is true, even if there is still a variety of opinion about what “true” means for certain biblical texts.

It’s not enough, however, for the Bible to be true. After all, just because something’s true doesn’t make it valuable or worth knowing. If I told you that the shirt my daughter wore to school today was magenta in color, it might well be accurate, but you could be forgiven for thinking, “What on earth does that fact have to do with me and my life?” The Bible is vital not only because it is reliable but because it is relevant. Being evangelical means confessing not just the truth of the Bible, but its eternal relevance.

For many Christians, there are certain texts that severely test that commitment, perhaps none more than biblical genealogies. Modern readers of Genesis, Numbers, Chronicles, Nehemiah, Matthew, Luke, and other biblical works that include genealogies often find themselves asking the same question. If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we as Christians tend to avoid these texts, both in the Old Testament and in the New. To Western believers in the twenty-first century, they seem obscure and irrelevant.

Maybe that’s you. Perhaps you’re struggling with a debilitating illness. Or maybe you just lost your job. Or maybe you just had a fight with your spouse, or broke up with your significant other. I could go on, but we all know that life in the “real world” is full of problems and pain. What on earth do these genealogies have to do with you and your life? Sadly, it’s all too easy to simply skim over them in church preaching series and personal devotions, or even to skip them entirely.

I passionately believe this is not only unwise, but unfaithful to the God who sent his Holy Spirit to inspire these texts. I fear we have impoverished ourselves in the modern church by neglecting such a rich source of spiritual nutrition in our Bible intake. I may be a little odd, but I love texts like biblical genealogies. For me, they are no longer dry, irrelevant historical artefacts. They have become a deep well of encouragement, a comforting reminder of God’s sovereign control of history, a sharp and stabbing point of conviction of my own sin and faithlessness, a clarion call to courage in the face of opposition, and a spur to holiness and outreach to a lost and dying world.

Here are a few brief points that, I hope, will show how such texts can be incredibly helpful to the believer.
 
Genealogies Remind Us That Biblical Stories Are About Real People
 
One reason genealogies can be incredibly helpful is that they remind us that, when we open our Bibles, we are reading about real people, who actually lived. Keep in mind that many biblical genealogies were documents in the public record when the Scriptures were written. Writing in the first century A.D., the ancient Jewish historian Josephus wrote: “Thus have I set down the genealogy of my family as I have found it described in the public records.”[1] When, for instance, Matthew and Luke use Jesus’ ancestry to make theological points, their sources were available to their readers so that they could be independently verified. It would have been foolish, then, for a biblical writer to make a list of false names. Because they were public records, genealogies remind us that the Bible, far from being a “fairy tale,” is about real, living, historical figures.
 
Genealogies Remind Us That Biblical Stories Are About Real Life
 
In modern life, we hardly think about things like birth certificates and social insurance numbers until they are needed, but they are very much a part of the fabric of living in our world. Being public records, genealogies served similar and very practical functions in ancient society. If a couple desired to be married, genealogies were available to ensure that the lovers were indeed eligible to marry. If someone passed away, the records would show who was in line for any inheritance. The presence of genealogies in the biblical text serves to remind us that the biblical world, while different in many ways from ours, was still one where people dealt with many of the problems we face. They, too, had to pay taxes. They, too, had to make sure baby names were registered. They, too, quibbled over the estates of deceased family members. The fact that the biblical texts come to us from such a world should reassure us that, though ancient, the Scriptures have much to teach us today.   
 
Genealogies Remind Us That God Is Sovereign Over History
 
Biblical genealogies show God’s hand in history. When we see Isaac’s name, we think of how God gave him to Abraham and Sarah in their (very!) old age. When we see Noah’s name, we’re reminded of how God saved him and his family in the flood. The book of Ruth, a story riddled with timely coincidences (of all Bethlehem’s fields, how did Ruth wind up in one belonging to Boaz?) and remarkable providences (wasn’t it convenient that the first in line to redeem Ruth yielded to Boaz?), closes with the genealogy of David. The point is clear: God arranged the entire story of Ruth in order to bring King David into redemptive history. When we read biblical ancestries and lineages, we are reminded that God has been working in the lives of real people, in real life, in a very real and powerful way.
 
Genealogies Remind Us How Small We Are
 
In a culture obsessed with the latest fashions and technologies, in a society seemingly bent on ignoring or even expunging its history, biblical genealogies provide valuable perspective. Even a short genealogy like that of David in the book of Ruth covers hundreds of years of history. Each name in Luke’s seventy-seven-generation genealogy seems much smaller and less consequential. When we read the ancestry of a biblical figure, we should pause and reflect on how one day, if the Lord tarries, we will be but a name in some distant descendant’s family tree. Given how our “days are like grass” (Ps. 103:15), genealogies should cause us to marvel with the Psalmist, “What is a man, that you are mindful of him?” (Ps. 8:4).
 
Genealogies Remind Us Of Sin And Its Consequences
 
One of the grimmest texts in Scripture is the “book of the generations of Adam,” found in Genesis 5. As the writer recounts the generations from Adam to Noah, he gives the age of the man when he has his son, and how long he lived afterward. With each generation—except Enoch—the writer closes with the words: “And he died.” “And he died.” “And he died.” “And he died.” Name after name, generation after generation, they all die. Placed after Lamech’s horrific boasting over his murder of a young man, itself right after the terrible story of Cain’s murder of Abel, and only a chapter removed from the story of the Fall in the Garden of Eden, this genealogy is like a giant, flashing, neon warning sign to its readers: Look at this! This is what sin does!
 
Genealogies Remind Us That God Uses Sinners And Failures Like Us
 
The Bible is a ruthlessly realistic book. As we read its pages, biblical figures appear as they really were, warts and all. Noah was a drunk. Abraham lied to get out of trouble. Jonah, when told to go one way, went precisely the opposite. We relate to the people in Scripture because we, too, fight indwelling sin every day. Read through any biblical genealogy and you’ll see sinners. The fact that David, an adulterer and murderer, not only became the standard every Israelite king was compared to, but was a forerunner and type of our Lord Jesus himself, serves to reassure repentant Christian believers that even their sins don’t make them useless to God. God uses even great sinners to advance his plans.
 
So whether you’re working through a Bible reading plan, or you’re a pastor preaching through a book, and you see the genealogy coming up and you’re wondering whether to skip over it, I hope these brief points help you see how “whatever was written in former days,” including even genealogies, “was written for our instruction” (Rom. 15:4).

 
[1] Flavius Josephus, The Life of Flavius Josephus, in The Works Of Flavius Josephus, vol. II, trans. William Whiston (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1974), 4

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