My plan for reading the Bible in a year forces me to read chapters of genealogies. The longest list so far is 1 Chronicles 1-9. What are those chapters about?
I will briefly describe how the list is put together, then discuss its significance.
1. Content of the Genealogy: This genealogy begins with the pre-Israelite history from Adam or Creation (1 Chron. 1:1-3) to the Flood (verse 4), and from the post-Flood nations (verses 5-26) to Abraham (verse 27). From this point on, the list of names is restricted to the sons of Abraham through Hagar (verses 29-31), Keturah (verses 32, 33), and Sarah (verse 34). The genealogy narrows down even more by listing only the descendants of Isaac (Esau [verses 35-54] and Israel [1 Chron. 2:1, 2]). At this point we reach what seems to be one of the main genealogical interests of the biblical writer: Israel as the people of God. The tribes that came out of Jacob/Israel are listed beginning with Judah (1 Chron. 2:3-4:23). The intention of this section is to take the reader to David and his descendants (1 Chron. 3:1-24). Other descendants of Judah are also listed (1 Chron. 4:1-23).
Then the descendants of the other tribes are given. It has been suggested that the list of the tribes follow a general geographical pattern. Judah is at the center and the next one mentioned is Simeon (verses 24-43), one of its closest neighbors. The movement is from south to north, east of Jordan (Reuben [1 Chron. 5:1-10]; Gad [verses 5:11-22]; the half tribe of Manasseh [verses 23-26]; and Levi [1 Chron. 6:1-80]). This is followed by the northern tribes of Issachar (1 Chron. 7:1-5), Benjamin (verses 6-12), and Naphtali (verse 13), and concludes with a movement from the north to the south (Manasseh [verses 14-19]; Ephraim [verses 20-29]; Asher [verses 30-40]; and Benjamin/Saul [1 Chron. 8:1-40]). In chapter 9 we find a genealogical list of those who returned from exile, with a primary emphasis on the Levites (verses 1-34). We finally return to the genealogy of Saul, thus preparing the way for the reign of David (verses 35-44).
2. Significance of the Genealogy: First, it is obvious that this genealogy is a compressed history with a global dimension. It begins by affirming the historical facts of Creation and the Flood, and closes with the beginning of the reign of David. But it also includes the Exile and the return from the Exile, providing an element of hope. At a time when the people of God were discouraged as a result of the destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple, and a return from the Exile that was depressing, God tells them that they are part of a history over which He is Lord. This history has not come to an end but remains open to His guiding hand, as it has been in the past.
Second, history is depicted as a result of the human capacity, given by God, to generate children. This begetting traces the human race to a common ancestor created by God in His image: Adam. This particular genealogy binds the people of God to the human race in a bond of existential solidarity that should exclude prejudices of any kind. The birth of Abraham in the list takes us back to his election to be used by God to bless all nations of the earth.
Third, this genealogy, based on the amount of space assigned to it, places the emphasis on David and the priesthood (Levites). Genealogies were sometimes instrumental in the divine assignment of specific religious and social responsibilities and privileges to some persons, but every individual had a role to play in the arena of history by the simple fact of being begotten.
In the Bible the offices of king and priest play an important role as instruments used by God to represent the saving work and ministry of Jesus in whom the kingly and priestly offices congeal. Jesus was not simply the son of Mary. He was the Son of God in a unique way, and to Him His Father assigned a unique responsibility that He willingly accepted: the redemption of the human race.
There is much to learn from biblical genealogies. Next time you have to read one, don’t just read it, but study it carefully and reflectively. You will find embedded in the list of names many, many blessings.