This is the first in a five-part series about things in the Bible that we tend to skip over, but which nevertheless merit our attention and can bless us if we read them with openness and faith. This series comes to us from Brian Sigmon, editor of United Methodist resources at the United Methodist Publishing House.
As someone who loves the Bible and has dedicated a substantial portion of his life to studying it, I find the Bible both interesting and beautiful. The words of Scripture are rich and life-giving, and I find myself continually challenged and supported by the narratives, poetry, letters, and other writings in the biblical books. And yet sometimes, I must admit that parts of the Bible can be…well, boring.
If you’ve spent much time in the Bible, chances are you know the parts I’m talking about. Genealogies and other lists. Detailed descriptions of geographical locations and sacred spaces. Laws and regulations that are clearly most suited for another time and place. Discussions of sacrifices and other ritual procedures. When we encounter these things and others, we find our mind wandering or drifting off to sleep. We flip the page and skim to the end, trying to gauge how long this part will go on before we get to the next familiar story. Or we just skip it altogether, perhaps feeling a little guilty for doing so but not, after all, so guilty that we’ll go back and read what we’ve missed.
I have done all of the above, as well as a few other techniques to avoid reading these “boring” parts of the Bible. But I have also learned in the course of time and study that there is something good and rich within them. They’re worth paying attention to. In this post and the ones that follow, I’ll lift up some of the reasons I see for paying attention to the genealogies, descriptions of worship places, lists, laws and regulations, and detailed rituals within the Bible. My hope is that you’ll pay closer attention to these things next time you read them, and that doing so will draw you closer to God and into a deeper appreciation of our Scriptures.
So-and-so begat so-and-so, who begat so-and-so, who begat so-and-so… Some version of this familiar pattern occurs many times in the Bible: you can find several genealogies in Genesis, and there are others in books such as Exodus, Numbers, and 1 Chronicles. The New Testament begins with a genealogy too, as Matthew 1 traces Jesus’ ancestry descending from Abraham. There’s also a genealogy of Jesus in Luke 3, following Jesus’ lineage all the way back to Adam. Many of the names in these genealogies are unfamiliar to most readers. But the very presence of several genealogies in the Bible shows that they held some importance in the minds of the biblical writers and, presumably, that of their audience. What is the purpose of these lists of names? What can they tell us about our relationship to God, our relationship with one another, and the world we live in?
I want to suggest four things these genealogies can communicate to us. First, and probably most obviously, genealogies establish a connection with the past. This is no small thing in the Bible, where the lives of the biblical characters are intertwined across time and space. Genealogies are a reminder that the story we are reading—whether it be the story of Joseph or the story of Ruth—is not the whole story. These narratives are a part of the grand sweep of what God is doing in and through God’s people.
This is probably most clear in Genesis, where genealogies actually give shape and structure to the whole book. Pay close attention, and you’ll see a frequently repeated phrase, “These are the descendants [or generations] of…” or “This is the story of the family of…” followed by a person’s name (Genesis 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12, 19; 36:1, 9; 37:2). Sometimes what follows is a genealogy, and sometimes what follows is a story or set of stories. Taken as a whole, these statements create a sense that the whole book of Genesis is an extended genealogy, expanded with details and stories for the key figures of Noah and his family, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Rachel, and Leah, and Joseph and his brothers. The story of one person is not just the story of that person and his or her contemporaries. It’s a part of a much larger story, the story of God’s people, which the genealogies keep in the forefront.
Second, and related to the first point, genealogies are useful summaries of what has happened before. We as the readers get a sense of the big picture by reading the names we come across. If we’re not super familiar with the overall biblical narrative, it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture when we’re reading an individual story or set of narratives. When exactly did the matter between David and Bathsheba take place? Was it before or after Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt? What about Elijah? How do Abraham and Sarah fit in? When did God bring down the walls of Jericho? The Bible itself contains short summaries of the story up to that point in various places, almost like a recap of what has gone before. Sometimes these are short historical narratives (see, for instance, Joshua 24). But I believe genealogies function in a similar way, giving us as readers an opportunity to pause and recollect everything that has happened before we plunge ahead into the next episode.
Consider, for instance, Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of the New Testament. If we were just reading about Jesus for the first time, we might wonder where he had come from. We might have heard stories of Abraham, Judah, David and Bathsheba, Solomon, and Ruth, and the Exile of God’s people to Babylon, but we might be unsure of how exactly all of these fit together into a larger narrative. The genealogy of Jesus puts these stories together into a concise, coherent whole, simply by listing the names of those who were involved. We know from this account that Jesus comes long after the Exile to Babylon and still longer after Abraham. From this useful summary of all that has gone before, we receive a hint about how Jesus’ life and ministry, and ultimately his death and resurrection, fit into the larger biblical narrative.
A third thing genealogies in the Bible accomplish is that they preserve the names and memories of faithful people who would otherwise be unknown. We receive remarkably little information about most of the individuals who are listed in the various genealogies. Usually it’s just a name, nothing more. But this name represents the life of a person who was a part of God’s chosen people in his or her own way. That name represents hopes, dreams, successes, failures, a life of righteousness or one of wickedness, which nevertheless became redeemed by virtue of its inclusion in the story. I remember reading through a genealogy once and encountering some name that was otherwise unfamiliar to me. I remember thinking, “Whoever this person was, he managed to have his name written in the Bible.” That counts for something. Ever since then I’ve tried to read genealogies slowly, pausing at each name for just a moment, to honor whatever that person might have done so many years ago. Doing so reminds me of my own place within this larger story of God’s people. I may never have my name written in the Bible—I hear they’ve stopped taking submissions for that particular book—but I do contribute in my own small way to the story of God’s people, connecting the faith of the past and present with the faith of the future. My name is part of the story. So is yours.
Fourth and finally, genealogies give us an opportunity to have different perspective on life. We live in an individualistic society, where the most important thing is what I do with my brief time on this earth. I have one life, and I want to make it count. I want to accomplish something, to make a statement, to leave a mark. Life is short, incredibly short, so we must make the most of it. So goes the common wisdom, and I do think such a perspective is wise. But genealogies in the Bible help us to take a longer view. They remind us that our importance lies not only in what we manage to accomplish in our handful of decades on this earth, but in how we carry forward a story that began before us and will continue after us. Our importance lies in how we honor our ancestors and our children. Obed left his mark (Matthew 1:5), but that mark was not in great accomplishments or exploits. Leaving his mark meant simply being a link in a chain, continuing the bloodline from Abraham to David to Jesus. It meant a life of unsung, everyday faithfulness. It meant working toward something that he wouldn’t live to see bear fruit, and trusting the outcome to his children and his God. What might it mean for us to recover and lift up perspective like this in our more individualistic world? How would it change our attitudes and our behaviors?
Anyway, that’s what I see when I come across a list of names, ancestors and descendants, in the Bible. What do you think? Are they worth paying attention to? What do you see in them?
Brian O. Sigmon is editor of United Methodist resources at The United Methodist Publishing House, where he edits books, Bible studies, and official UM resources. In this role he is the editor of the Daily Christian Advocate and managing editor of the Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions. Brian has a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Marquette University, where he has also taught courses in theology. Brian’s research and teaching have focused on the Pentateuch, especially the books of Genesis and Exodus, but he has a passion for anything and everything related to the Bible. Brian finds great joy in helping people of all backgrounds deepen their understanding of Scripture.