I must admit that the genealogies in the Bible can be a challenge to reading the whole Bible through in one year’s time. It would not surprise me to learn that some either skip them or quit their New Year’s Resolution for 2017.
Philip Rosenbaum dedicates two whole chapters to “The Begats” in his book How to Enjoy the Boring Parts of the Bible. It took me more time than I care to admit to read with profit these sections of Scripture.
There are elements to these begats that make them valuable. I’m not going to lie to you and say that these fascinating elements have eliminated some of the tedium of reading them (in particular 1 Chron 1-9), but I have found far more value in them than I ever noticed in previous readings.
A genealogy is a list of names identifying who is the father of whom. For example, the New Testament opens with a genealogy. Matthew writes,
The book of the generation of Jesus Christ; the son of David; the son of Abraham. Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judah and his brethren…
But throughout the otherwise straightfoward list of names, some particulars are supplied concerning some of those named. For example, Matthew writes,
…Jacob begat Judah and his brethren, and Judah begat Perez and Zerah of Tamar…
Why are the names of the other mothers not mentioned? Why is Tamar included? If you don’t know who Tamar is, the significance of the reference will be lost.
Her story is recorded in Genesis 38. Tamar dressed like a prostitute, deceived Judah, her father-in-law, and through him conceived twins, Perez and Zerah. For anyone familiar with the Genesis account, the mere reference to her name would bring back the entire story. This is what is called an allusion. I call allusion “literary shorthand.”
I recently argued that the genealogy in Matthew 1 functions like a bridge connecting the Story of the Old Testament with the Story about to be told in Matthew (or the New Testament). The Old and New Testament are two parts of one grand Story. Matthew’s genealogy is a shorthand way of retelling the story “thus far.”
The reason the genealogy in Matthew is important is that it connects the narrative about Jesus with Abraham and King David. Two very important covenants were made, one with each man, and both covenants find their fulfillment in Jesus the Christ.
Although genealogies may not be as important to us today, the importance of the genealogies in the Bible should not be underestimated. Here is a case in point. Nehemiah lived after Babylonian exile and served the king of Persia as a cupbearer. He was commissioned with the task of motivating Israel to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
In an effort to restore Israel according to the Law they needed to establish who was who in order to determine who was to serve in the Temple. In Nehemiah 7:61ff, a list of names are provided. Nehemiah writes,
but they could not prove their fathers’ houses nor their descent, whether they belonged to Israel.
Another list of names is provided “of the priests” and then he writes:
These sought their registration among those enrolled in the genealogies, but it was not found there, so they were excluded from the priesthood as unclean. The governor told them that they were not to partake of the most holy food until a priest with Urim and Thummim should arise (7:64-65).
If the Old Testament is, as Johnny Ramsey used to characterize it, “a record of the preservation of the seed of Abraham” would you not suppose that being able to trace the seed of Abraham to the Christ is important?
I have a few recommendations for reading the genealogies. Read them out loud. Read them knowing they are a part of Scripture, and that all Scripture is profitable. See how many of the names you are familiar with. Take note when something more than a name is mentioned and ask yourself why that “something more” might be important to the reader. Or better yet, ask yourself why this would have been important for the original audience. Learn to delight in them.