Understanding Biblical Genres: Genealogies

Some of the oddest pieces of the Bible to many of us today are the long sections taken up with genealogies. We can be excused for asking why, considering the great expense of writing materials in the ancient world, biblical authors felt the need to include this content at all. Moreover, thinking of the Bible as sacred Scripture, “inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3.16), we can also be forgiven for wondering why God would ‘inspire’ the authors to include it. The premise of this series is that by understanding how the genres in which the books of the Bible were written function, we can bridge the gap a bit between the ancient world and our own and better understand what the Bible meant to its authors and original readers, and therefore what it might mean for us today. And today I hope to show that this is most definitely the case with the genealogical material in the Bible. I’m going to do this by first talking about genealogy in the Ancient Near East (ANE) and then looking at two sets of genealogies in the Bible which handle the same material differently for their own reasons: the descendants of Noah (Genesis 10 and 1 Chronicles 1) and the ancestors of Jesus (Matthew 1.1-17 and Luke 3.23-38).

In order to understand the genealogies in the Bible we have to understand what genealogy in the ANE world was for. If we assume that, like interest in genealogy today, it was about having a comprehensive list of one’s ancestors, we’d be off the mark. This may have been true for rank-and-file people — for example, in Egypt, knowing your ancestors was important for taxation laws, and in the Bible, certain priestly duties were assigned to certain families, so in these situations it would have been imperative to be able to trace one’s ancestry back as far as possible. But this isn’t how genealogy functioned when it was written down. It was instead about making a statement about who you are based on who your ancestors were.

Genealogy as a literary genre in the ANE had some common features: It was generally descending (i.e., it begins with the oldest ancestor and works down towards the present), patriarchal (i.e., fathers and sons, not mothers and daughters), monolinear rather than branching (i.e., fathers and sons, not including uncles and cousins), and fluid (i.e., they can be told in different ways at different times). This fluidity was achieved through such tactics as telescoping (i.e., skipping generations, or expanding on important figures) and patterning (i.e., arranging the material in balanced or symmetrical ways, often based on sacred numbers), and was done to tell an intentional story about the person whose genealogy is being described. If we keep these characteristics in mind — both in how they are obeyed and broken — the genealogies in the Bible cease to be boring lists of names and become wonderful and even insightful narratives.

Let’s now look at two genealogical doublets in the Bible to see how this works. From the Hebrew Bible, both Genesis 10 and 1 Chronicles 1 contain information on the descendants of Noah, including much of the same material. But they shape this information in different ways to suit their different purposes. Genesis 10 is just one of eleven genealogies in the book. In fact, the theme of origins is the central motif of the book as a whole. The discussion of Noah’s line begins in Genesis 6, but the story of the flood and its aftermath involving his sons means that most of the material has to wait until chapter 10. It begins:

These are the descendants of Noah’s sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth; children were born to them after the flood. The descendants of Japheth: Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras. The descendants of Gomer: Ashkenaz, Riphath, and Togarmah. The descendants of Javan: Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Rodanim. From these the coastland peoples spread. These are the descendants of Japheth in their lands, with their own language, by their families, in their nations. (Genesis 10.1-5)

It goes on like this for Shem and Ham’s sons as well, taking up thirty-two verses in total. It meets a lot of the characteristics discussed above: it starts with the family patriarch Noah and descends from there, and demonstrates fluidity in skipping lines that either died out or were not important for its purposes (e.g., of Japheth’s seven sons listed — seven being the most important sacred number in the Bible, representing completion — only two have their descendants named). The text also shows some internal as well as external schematization: Internally, the Genesis 10 list contains seventy names — a multiple of ten of that holy number seven — arranged roughly in groups of seven. As it happens, this is the same number of Jacob’s descendants who go into Egypt at the end of Genesis. Externally, the three major ‘peoplings’ in Genesis, through Adam after Creation, through Noah after the flood, and through Abraham after the Covenant of Promise, are patterned in a similar way: the periods of Adam to Noah and then Noah to Abraham both list ten members, with the last of those members each having three sons. (See the NRSV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible for more on this.)

But Genesis 10 diverges from the normal course of ANE genealogy by breaking the monolinear principle, listing descendants of all three of Noah’s sons. Why? Because, the purpose of this genealogy is to show how all of the world’s peoples (or, rather, all of the world’s peoples relevant to the ANE context) descended from Noah. The genealogical material is put to use for a large purpose: to explain the relationships between Israel and its neighbours, all of whom are conceived as having the same origin in Noah.

1 Chronicles 1 contains a lot of the same information, but several differences can be noted. One of the most glaring is that it omits the material from Genesis 10.9-14 on Nimrod and his descendants, who peopled regions of Mesopotamia. This would seem to be an intentional erasure of Babylon from the table of nations in the aftermath of the Exile and return to Judea: their great enemy has been excised from history. (Another plausible explanation for this omission is that Nimrod is not mentioned in any Mesopotamian genealogies, so during the Exile, his inclusion became embarrassing since it was apparently not accurate.) But more importantly, the material is arranged differently: Genesis 10 envisions the peoples of the world descended from Noah; 1 Chronicles 1 zooms out to show how they are all descended from Adam. Additionally, 1 Chronicles gets to Abraham more quickly than Genesis, and then goes into great detail in the subsequent chapters of Isaac’s descendants, David’s line, and then the twelve tribes and the returning remnant. So, whereas the focus of Genesis 10 is the world and its peoples, the genealogies of 1 Chronicles are about situating post-Exilic Judeans within the context of the wider world and their own history. While this likely had legal motivations, since land was allotted by tribe and family, it also served to remind the renewed nation that their covenant with God still stood; they were still the inheritors of all the sacred history that preceded them.

Turning now to the two genealogies of Jesus in the New Testament, one striking difference between them and the normal pattern of ANE genealogy is that they tell a story of someone’s ancestors, rather than their descendants. The focus is not on demonstrating an ancestor’s greatness, but on demonstrating the present-day figure’s pedigree. Now comparing them, the first thing to note is that while Matthew’s account (1.1-17) follows the descending structure we’d expect from ANE genealogy, Luke’s (3.23-38) does not; it starts with Jesus and works up. This difference is likely due to Luke’s cultural ties to the Greco-Roman world, where ascending genealogies were more common. But the two accounts also diverge significantly in content. While the genealogies don’t differ at all between Abraham and David, Matthew lists twenty-seven generations from David to Joseph, compared to forty-two for Luke; this is not a simple case of telescoping or schematizing either, since the two lists barely overlap at all. This has troubled interpreters from the very beginning of Christianity, but no convincing solution has been offered. Some have suggested that one list jumps to Mary’s line after Joseph, or that they differ on account of a different handling of levirate marriages, or that Matthew is offering a kind of theological rather than literal genealogy, but it’s most certainly a problem that will never be solved. Either way, no matter how they get there, both accounts serve to demonstrate that Jesus was descended from King David and thus fits the criterion of a royal Messiah.

Looking at the two lists individually, we can see how the names included tell different stories about who Jesus is. For example, Matthew’s account traces Jesus’ line from Abraham, thus focusing on his Jewish pedigree. This is further suggested by his comment that “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations” (1.17). Oddly, the numbers don’t add up when you count them, but he’s at least nodding to a schematic arrangement where God acts decisively at regular intervals, which happen to be multiples of the sacred number seven. At the same time, however, Matthew does some unexpected things with the genealogy, mostly connected to the inclusion of four women in the list, all of whom were ‘tainted’ in some way, through ties to sin, shame, and/or Gentiles. That is to say, he goes out of his way to include the names of the very kinds of people typically excluded from genealogies. First there is Tamar (introduced in Genesis 38), a woman thoroughly connected to scandal (mostly not of her making) related to her husbands and father-in-law. The second scandalous woman is Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute who betrays her people to assist the invading Hebrews. The third is Ruth, a Moabite woman, who (through the guidance of Naomi, the mother of her late husband) entraps a wealthy kinsman into marrying her. And finally, there is Bathsheba, mentioned by Matthew only as ‘the wife of Uriah’. Uriah was a Hittite serving in King David’s army; when King David spied Bathsheba bathing, he arranged for Uriah to be killed in battle so he could take her for himself. By including these women in the genealogy, Matthew seems to be telling a story of a God whose ‘mysterious ways’ include working in and and through all the messiness of human life. Salvation isn’t brought into the world by purity — whether ethnic or ethical — or keeping up appearances, but only through the activity of a God who, as Paul would put it, ‘works all things for good.’ This is a good story — it’s the Gospel as it happens! — but one that one wouldn’t expect from a genealogy. Matthew is using the conventions of the genre to subvert expectations.

Luke’s story isn’t nearly as juicy as Matthew’s. But one thing that sticks out is that where where Matthew begins the lineage with Abraham, Luke goes back all the way to Adam, stressing not Jesus’ Jewishness but his links to all humanity. Notice how both genealogies link Jesus with the wider human community, but use different strategies to do it, Luke by starting with Adam, Matthew by including women linked with Gentiles. Luke’s list is schematic in listing seventy-seven total generations, forty-two of which are after King David — both numbers being multiples of seven.

This has been a long post, but I hope it’s helped to demonstrate that biblical genealogies were far more than simple family trees; rather, they were intentional, edited and schematized documents that were shaped to tell a story about the figure in question.

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