“For whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction, so that we may have hope through endurance and through the encouragement from the Scriptures.”-Romans 15:4
We’ve all been there. We were making great progress in our Bible reading plan until we stub our proverbial reading toe on the four nemeses of all Bible reading plans: genealogies, law, long temple building narratives, and tribal locations. If you’re trying to read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation you’ll encounter many of these challenging passages early on, and as a result your reading plan progress can get derailed.
Comfort, comfort, my people! There is hope for your Bible reading, and that hope comes from two key sources: a clear biblical theology and a genre sensitive reading strategy. The key to tackling these tough stretches of Bible reading is having a good grasp on how what your reading fits into the overall scheme of the Bible. How does it advance the story of redemption? With that question answered we can then consider some genre-specific reading tips to help us not lose sight of why these harder to read sections are in the Bible.
In this series of four posts we’ll unpack the biblical theology of genealogies, law, temple building narratives, and tribal location descriptions. If you believe God’s Word is inspired and yet you struggle when coming to these passages in your Bible reading then this series is for you. Let’s get started with genealogies which are NOT the OT equivalent a phone book.
A Biblical Theology of Genealogies
Genealogies occur in specific literary contexts to show the faithfulness of God in keeping his promises in particular ways. They occur within OT narratives and the gospels to connect chronological dots. There are roughly 25 genealogies in the Bible, and they aren’t just for show. They advance a narrative through time, showing God’s purposes do not fail. Let’s consider a few examples.
In Genesis 46:8-27 we find the list of Jacob’s family as they head down to Egypt during a famine. Listing the names of the family shows how God was faithful to provide for all 66 members of Jacob’s family upon their entry into Egypt. But it also is relevant in light of the later census in Numbers 1:1-46 as those 66 people had grown into over 600,000. Why? Because God was faithful to bless Israel while in Egypt.
As another example, consider the genealogy of Moses & Aaron in Exodus 6:14-27. This genealogy focuses on the priestly legacy of Moses and Aaron. Somewhat familiar names stand out like Korah, Nadab and Abihu, Eliezar and Ithamar, and Phineas. These are all relevant to the priestly lineage whether in positive or negative terms. In this genealogy Moses and Aaron are presented with a focus on their faithful and not-so-faithful descendants. The main emphasis is on the former as the list ends with Phineas, a hero of sorts from Numbers 25:6-15.
The most famous genealogies in the Bible are those of Jesus found in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-48. Matthew’s genealogy emphasizes Jesus’s identity as the Son of David and the Son of Abraham. Matthew’s genealogy highlights how God’s promises to Abraham and David are fulfilled in him. This genealogy also includes Gentiles and Gentile women, hinting at the reality that Jesus’s mission is not just to rescue ethnic Israel. Luke’s genealogy occurs between the description of Jesus’s baptism and the start of his earthly ministry in chapter 4. Luke traces Jesus’s human lineage back to Adam, emphasizing that Jesus is the Son of God. This genealogy establishes why Jesus is qualified to serve as the representative of all mankind, a crucial aspect of the gospel.
Tips for Reading Genealogies
One common mistake is to read genealogies like we read Romans or James, pouring over each clause looking for spiritual lessons. The key spiritual takeaway in a genealogy is the sum total, not in picking it apart. Don’t hesitate to read through a genealogy at a brisk pace.
Don’t Just Dive In
Before reading a genealogy identify the starting and ending place—where does the genealogy “go”? If you have a study Bible read the description of the genealogy first, it will help orient you to how the genealogy is presented.
Note the Faithfulness of God
Don’t try to find a hidden spiritual message as you read. Instead, look for how God’s faithfulness is on display in the narrative context of the genealogy. Keep the forest in view as you quickly read through the trees.
Look for Familiar Names
As you read make a mental note any familiar names (or names that you think might be significant in other place in the Bible). Don’t work too hard at pronouncing names correctly if you’re reading out loud. Also note any extra descriptions which may add emphasis (these are rare).
So don’t let tough genealogies discourage you in your Bible reading. God has gifted them to his church to show particular ways he is faithful. He designed them so that we might love and trust him more after reading them. Let’s prepare to read them, learn from them, and forge ahead in our reading of God’s Word. In the next post we’ll consider how to read the Law.
Bonus Devotional Thoughts from Lists of Names in 1 Chronicles
1 Chronicles 1-8 is eight solid chapters of genealogy. Since Chronicles records the history of Israel as a nation, the authors begin by noting Israel’s history all the way back to Adam. But this isn’t just record keeping. In 1 Chronicles 9 the authors list those from each tribe who returned to the land from exile. God’s faithfulness to Israel is in focus up to and through exile, culminating in God keeping his promise to restore Israel to the land. What seems like just a list of names actually shows the glory of God as rescued Israel from exile.
In that same vein we find a list of temple officials and workers as well as military and civic officials in 1 Chronicles 23-27. This list occurs at the end of David’s reign, and focuses on the fact that God blessed David’s reign and thus the nation was in good working order upon his death. The centrality of the temple is clear from the amount of literary real estate given to it. This section of 1 Chronicles anticipates greater blessings to come through God’s promises to the line of David.