What Can We Learn from Bible Genealogies?

If Leviticus doesn’t kill your Bible reading plans, Chronicles might.

When our church was going through 1 Chronicles, our Bible study leader said his children asked, “Do we have to read the genealogies?” He admitted he was thinking the same question.

The genealogical sections of the Bible are probably no one’s favorite part of Scripture. Our pastor has often said, “Every part of the Bible is inspired by God, but not every part is inspirational.” We’re probably not going to get warm fuzzies from those lists of unfamiliar names.

But because the genealogies are as inspired by God as every other part of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16), they have much to teach us.

The Holy Spirit doesn’t waste words. God’s works and thoughts are “more than can be numbered” (Psalm 40:5, NKJV). A former pastor used to say the Bible is divinely brief: of all the things God could have shared with us, He chose the particular words in the Bible. So everything in the Bible is there for a purpose.

Our pastor’s wife used to say of some of the “drier” passages of the Bible, “Keep digging until you find the golden nuggets.”

So what can the genealogies teach us?

God keeps records. Detailed records. Every person on those lists was someone known of God and loved by God. And He knows and cares about us as well.

Some genealogies act as bookends or transitions. For example, Genesis 36 wraps up Esau and his descendants before Jacob’s story switches focus to Joseph.

The Bible is history. Bible professor Dan Olinger said he was thrown for a loop when he learned that some theologians teach that the narratives of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, are fables. These teachers say we’re meant to learn lessons from OT stories like we do from Aesop’s fables, but the stories and people were made up. Dan struggled with this view until he realized that the genealogies ground the Biblical narratives in history. In fables, it doesn’t matter where the characters lived or came from or who their descendants were. But those details do matter in history.

God keeps His promises. Part of God’s covenant with Abraham was that in him, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). God repeated this promise to Jacob three times (Genesis 12:18; 26:4; 28:14). God had promised David that his throne would be established for ever. Paul says God “promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 1:2-4). Matthew’s genealogy establishes Jesus’ human and royal lineage from Abraham through David. Jesus was the long-awaited fulfillment of God’s promises to His people through the ages.

Jesus loves sinners. Luke’s genealogy traces the line of Christ all the way back to Adam, establishing His humanity. Matthew mentions some people we might be surprised to see there.

All of the names shout that Jesus is not only the long-awaited King but that He is the King of grace! This entire family deserved to be rejected by God for notorious wickedness—for lying (Abraham), deceit (Jacob), immorality (David), double-mindedness (Solomon), arrogance (Rehoboam), unbelief (Ahaz), and idolatry which included child sacrifice (Manasseh). And this family had a history of disreputable women, who were “outsiders” for one reason or another. Tamar was the seductive Canaanite (v. 3), Rahab, the prostitute from Jericho (v. 5), Ruth, the Moabitess (v. 5), and Bathsheba, the adulteress (v. 6). You see, Jesus was born into a family that was notoriously deserving of judgment. But that means He’s not afraid to be associated with sinners, including immoral Gentiles—including me and you! (Joe Tyrpak, Gospel Meditations for Christmas, p. 11).

Thomas Overmiller writes:

If the genealogy of Jesus himself featured mothers with disgraced or shameful reputations, then why should you expect anything different? God does not weave people into his purposes and plans because they come from a pristine family background. He weaves people into his plan instead who have disgraceful backgrounds, the kind of disgrace that comes from our own sin and the kind that comes from the sin of others towards us. God delights to find sinners and save them. He delights to redeem us from the power of sin and from the pain of sinful things that other people have done to us. The grace of God shines through disgraced people (A Genealogy of Grace: Mothers of the King).

Genealogies encourage God’s people. I don’t think I realized before this trek through 1 Chronicles that it was written to the Israelites going back to their land after having been in exile in Babylon for 70 years. They needed to be reminded of their identity and encouraged that they were “still God’s people and retain their central place in God’s purposes for humanity” (Brian E. Kelly, ESV Study Bible, p. 705).

The Chronicler sought to address some urgent questions of his day concerning the identity of Israel. He wanted to instill fresh confidence in the people. The genealogies of Israel that begin the work (1 Chronicles 1–9) start by tracing the people’s ancestry back to Adam, a striking reminder that Israel was at the center of God’s purpose from the very beginning of creation. Although only a “remnant” and a provincial outpost in a great empire, Israel must remember that its security and destiny rest with Yahweh, “who rule[s] over all the kingdoms of the nations” and has given the land to Abraham’s descendants “forever” (2 Chron. 20:6-7) (Brian E. Kelly, ESV Study Bible, p. 701).

Genealogies remind us that life is short and death is sure until the Lord returns. I don’t remember the details or the source, but I heard about a girl who invited her unsaved dad to church. The pastor happened to be in a section of genealogies. The girl was discouraged, thinking this was the worst of all sermons for her dad to hear. But her dad became a believer. He said that hearing over and over that so-and-so lived, had children, and then died struck him. The repeated phrase “and he died” drummed itself into his mind, and he decided he needed to prepare for his own end.

Many of the Bible genealogies are “telescoped”: they don’t include every ancestor in a given line. This accounts for some discrepancies between lists. Each of the genealogies is there for a particular purpose, so the author will only include the names that are pertinent to his theme.

I hope you’re more encouraged about Biblical genealogies now. They still might not be the most exciting parts of the Bible, but they’re a rich and integral part.

Does anything in this list of what genealogies teach us resonate with you? Can you think of other purposes for genealogies in the Bible?

(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)

21 thoughts on “What Can We Learn from Bible Genealogies?

  1. Sounds as though you’ve had some pretty wise teachers along your path Ms. Barbara. The “begats” as I call them, provide lots of insight into the mind of God. For me, it reminds me (like Hebrews 11) that God chooses to use the least of us because in this way, His glory and power are shown throughout the story. I can’t wait to see how He will use me. Enjoyed your perspectives ma’am.

  2. Good morning, Barbara,

    Thank you for this fresh look at the value of Bible genealogies. I found the insights you shared very helpful.

    To corroborate what you wrote – just this week I listened to a sermon by R.C. Sproul, in which he talked about Matthew’s genealogy – A Jewish Look at Jesus, a Sermon from R.C. Sproul | Listen to Free Sermons from R.C. Sproul at Ligonier.org https://www.ligonier.org/learn/sermons/jewish-look-jesus At 13:26 or so, he told about a missionary friend of his whose long and laborious task it was to learn to speak and put into writing the language of a tribe that had only oral tradition. She taught the people to read, and began translating the Bible, focusing on Matthew first. However, she left out the genealogy in order to get to the “meat” more quickly . Response was minimal. In her second edition, she included the genealogy, and the chief said, “Are you trying to tell us that this Jesus you’ve been telling us about for 10 years really lived, and was a real person?” When he understood that Jesus actually lived in space and time, he came to Christ, and his whole tribe followed soon after.

    I appreciated what you wrote about the unsaved dad who came to church and heard a sermon about all the people who were born, and begat, and died — and was convicted of his own need to find peace with God. How beautiful that the Holy Spirit can use any portion of Scripture, any sermon, to convict a sinner and bring him to Christ!

    Thank you for using your writing to serve Christ in this way.

    In His family, Marjorie Goertzen Fort St. John, BC, Canada

  3. Good thoughts! I remember Jen Wilkin always is a fan of the genealogies too, and pulls good “meat” out of them (that I have, sadly, forgotten at the moment). I find that it’s much more helpful for me if I read a commentary or hear someone knowledgeable make the relevant points on these than if I just try plugging through them on my own. So thank you for the points you made here!

    • You brought up a point I meant to mention. I think I have been getting more out of some passages this time through the Bible because of a good study Bible and commentaries that bring out background information or point out connections I might not have gotten just from reading the text.

  4. Great post! I just wrote about how the genealogy at the end of Ruth is a note of hope because it ends with David, implying that it extends also to Jesus, the one who ultimately solves the afflictions of people like Ruth and Naomi. Genealogies connect people and stories across time and show that acts of faith that might seem small have lasting consequences.

  5. I find the genealogies interesting for many of the reasons you listed, and you’ve presented a couple more insights that I hadn’t considered – that the genealogies were (and are) an encouragement to God’s people. When slogging through a list of hard-to-pronounce names, I like to remind myself that I’ll meet a lot of those people – and many more whose names are NOT given in Scripture – when I get to heaven. Because God knows all our names. ❤

  6. The story of the father who came to Christ from hearing the genealogies is amazing! I think I would’ve been like the daughter, thinking, “Great. I’ll never get him back to church after this!” God is so good and knows what we all need to see and hear. Yes reading the lists of who begot whom can be boring, but I love seeing how God brought Jesus into the world through sinners just like me. A sinner saved by grace!! I found your blog over at Esme Salon’s link party. I’d love to have you come share on my link party, Crafty Creators, so that my readers can find you! It’s open Thursdays at 6am CST through Mondays at 11:59pm. You can share on Happiness is Homemade Link Party and You’re the Star Blog Hop while you’re there if you’d like!
    Hope to see you there. Have a great week!
    Niki | Life as a LEO (law enforcement officer) Wife

    • Thanks for the invitation! Jesus’ human family line reminds me of Hebrews 2:11: “For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren.”

  7. Barbara, lovely article. I love reading the genealogies for many of these reasons. I find them interesting, hopeful, and comforting and now that you have written about it this is probably why. Thank you!

  8. Pingback: August Reflections | Stray Thoughts

  9. Barbara, confession time. I have to admit that most times I skip reading the genealogies. But you’ve awakened a curiosity and need to know for me. Bible history is so important, it allows us to see where we’ve been and where we’re going.
    Let’s Have Coffee #7

  10. I appreciate these great insights, Barbara! On a humorous note, when our children were young, we played a cassette tape of the Bible for them as they fell asleep. Every night, I would hear my oldest daughter (@age 3 or 4) burst out in laughter. I finally went back into her room and asked her what she was laughing at – she said that one of the genealogy lists had nachos in it. LOL! I rewound the tape, and it did sound like nachos, but I assured her it wasn’t, then we looked it up in family devotions the next morning and got the “real” name.

  11. Barbara,
    Each time I’ve read through the Bible, I admit groaning when I got to the “begats.” I often wondered why God offered such complete detail in listing geneologies and left out specific details in places where I wanted to know more. Thank you for reminding me God chose each word, in the Bible, carefully and for good reason. Though I’m not a Jew, I’m grafted into the family tree by faith and grace. These are my roots. I never cease to be amazed when I trace Jesus’s lineage — further proof God can bring beauty from the dirtiest ashes.
    Blessings,
    Bev xx

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