Genealogies and census data are some of the most skipped parts of the Bible. They are still important. Here’s why.
By Mark D, Harris
Every year my wife and I read through the Bible. Some sections fly by, such as the stories of Goliath, the fiery furnace, and the raising of Lazarus. Other parts crawl, like the sacrificial system in Leviticus. The slowest portions of all are the genealogies and the census data. “How?” we ask ourselves, “does knowing that Mikloth became the father of Shimeam, and that they lived with relatives in Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 9:38) impact my life as a Christian?” Likewise, we struggle to care that “The priests, the sons of Jedaiah of the house of Jeshua, (numbered) 973 (Nehemiah 7:39)?” Isn’t this a waste of space in a book that calls itself the word of the Almighty God?
Genesis, Leviticus, Chronicles, Matthew, Luke, and many other Bible books record extensive, and some readers might say endless, genealogies describing the lineage of people. They also include census data, such as the number of priests, the size of the army, and a count of citizens by family.
Scriptures in other major religions do not include such genealogies or census data. No part of the Hindu Vedas, Upanishads, or Bhagavat Gita records that AAA begat BBB who begat CCC who begat DDD and so on. Neither the Quran nor the Hadiths (for example, the Sahih al Bukhari) have such genealogies or census data either. The Buddhist Tipitaka similarly omits lines of descendancy. In fact, no major religion on earth outside of Christianity and Judaism includes extensive genealogies and census data in its key scriptures.
Though less than compelling to Bible readers today, God included genealogies and census data in His perfect word for important reasons. The Bible was not written primarily for 21st century Americans but for ancient (then contemporary) Hebrews. Isaiah wrote to encourage, punish, shame, and frighten his countrymen so that they would know and love their God. Isaiah had no idea that a pastor in Beckley WV would be writing about him today. But God did. Though Christians throughout the ages have had to read the Bible over the shoulders of their Hebrew and Christian forebears, God made sure that His word is as applicable to believers in every land and generation, including us, as it was to them.
To anchor the Bible in history
People exist, and they exist in a specific context, a place and time inhabited by other people. History records the doings of people in their context. Abraham Lincoln was born to Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks in Kentucky in 1809. Abe married Mary Todd Lincoln and their children were Robert, Edward, Willie, and Tad Lincoln. A historian or archeologist studying Abe Lincoln would know that he is a genuine historical character by his verifiable context. Similarly, the Israelite king Jehu (882-814 BC) was the son of Jehoram and begat Jehoahaz. Biblical accounts, corroborated by archeological finds such as the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, prove that Jehu was also a genuine historical character. We need not doubt the existence of these men because multiple sources corroborate about them.
Legends lack the kind of verifiable detail that the Bible contains about people and events, and their relation to other people and events. One of the most important non-Biblical ancient stories, the epic of Gilgamesh, is light on his origins, his family, his time frame, his location, and his daily life compared to Bible accounts. Scholars think that the character Gilgamesh is based on an ancient king of Sumer but cannot be sure. If he was real, researchers can know almost nothing about his actual life from his story in the Epic.
Census data also anchor accounts that seems to be historical. 1 Chronicles 25:7 reads “And their number who were trained in singing to the Lord, with their relatives, all who were skillful, was 288.” How does this attest to the historicity of the account? First, the number 288, by its very precision, seems like a census number, not a rough estimate or legend. Second, 288 seems like a reasonable number of people to be leading music. If the text said that there were 10,000 singers, the imprecision of the number and the lack of reasonableness would suggest that it is at best a rounded over exaggeration and at worst a bald guess.
To confirm prophecy
The Old Testament predicts that the Messiah will be a descendant of King David (Isaiah 9:6-7). Matthew and Luke include genealogies in their accounts to demonstrate that Jesus could be the Messiah, as they were arguing, since He was a descendant of King David.
To demonstrate the work of God over time through people
Every religion teaches that their god, or some other being with supernatural power, helps adherents to fight their enemies and to succeed in all areas of life. The Vedas claim that Agni and Indra fight for the Aryans against the Dasyu, a group of tribes native to central and southern India, Buddhism says that Bodhisattvas help monks gain merit, and the Quran promises that Allah will give the Faithful ultimate victory. The Bible is no exception, promising that God will help those who follow Him (2 Chronicles 16:9).
The difference between the Bible and other scriptures is that the Bible covers over 2,000 years of history and gives specific evidence of the work of God in people’s lives. God promised to make Abram a great nation (Genesis 12:1-3) and He did it, as is evidenced by the survival of the Jews, despite terrible odds, today. God promised David an everlasting kingdom, and in the person of Jesus as Messiah and as leader of the Church, which now includes almost a third of the world’s population, He did it (2 Samuel 7:8-17). God promised Simeon, Mary, Joseph, and John the Baptist various things regarding Jesus Christ, and the Lord kept His word. These people did not fulfill their own hopes…God did it in ways that they never could have imagined, much less engineered. Detailed historical accounts in the Bible provide powerful historical evidence of the historicity of the Bible. Often, as is noted in the examples above, archeology confirms the scriptural accounts.
Census data, likewise, confirm the work of God over time through people. Seventy people of Jacob’s family entered Egypt to find relief from the famine (Genesis 46:27). When they left 430 years later (Exodus 12:40-41), they numbered up to the millions. As fantastic as it seems, these numbers are plausible. Assuming a population growth rate of a modest 2% (the Hebrew were being persecuted, after all), and only four generations (an implausibly high 100 years each), then 70 Hebrews could have grown to 26 million in 400 years (70 x 1+0.02)4. Clearly, God took a family into Egypt, and brought a nation out of it. Again and again in Scripture, God works amazing things in the world.
To emphasize the importance of families
Americans may have trouble naming their grandparents, but few people in the rest of the world do. Across most of the globe and throughout history, people have been defined more by “whose” they are than “who” they are. Abraham and Isaac both insisted that their sons take wives from their own extended family, despite the fact that to do so required a dangerous trip of hundreds of miles.
Families can be a great blessing. For example, Boaz’ kindness to Ruth resulted in Obed, who was the father of Jesse, who sired King David. Families can be a great curse. For example, Lot’s daughters wanted children, and after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and there were no eligible men around. So they intoxicated their father and had sex with him. From their incest, the older girl bore Moab and the younger Ben-Ammi. Their offspring, the Moabites and the Ammonite, became perennial enemies of Israel.
Families organize our understanding of human relationships in the world. Genesis 10 lists the descendants of Noah and how they developed into people groups of the ancient middle east. Genesis 11 notes the family origins of Abraham, fixing this important patriarch, the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, into his historical context.
To reveal the ordinary lives of individual Bible characters, making them accessible to readers of all ages in all eras.
Bible characters do not appear on the stage of life full grown and ready to fight. They are not Superman, who appears in a pod from the planet Krypton, or Spiderman, a kid who gained superpowers by being exposed to a radioactive spider bite. They, as we, are products of the normal laws of nature, brought up in normal societies, feeling normal emotions, and experiencing life very much like we do (birth, growth, marriage, children, weakness, loss, and death). Bible characters are approachable because they are as flawed as we are. Knowing their families through genealogies makes them that way.
Faithful Joseph suffered for years for a crime that he did not commit. Brilliant Solomon was not wise enough to avoid being led astray by foreign women. Good King Hezekiah was terrified when he was about to die, and happy when he learned that he would not be around to see the punishment of Judah. Jeremiah battled despair, and Hosea had to marry a harlot. Ezekiel lost his beloved wife. Job lost his wealth and family, and he suffered with terrible health and chronic pain. Sound familiar? Some of these characters appear in Biblical genealogies, and some do not. But all had ordinary lives and we can relate to their examples.
To demonstrate the fallenness of man and the forgiveness of God
Tamar, a daughter in law, Rahab, a prostitute, Ruth, a foreigner, and Bathsheba, a mistress and later wife of King David, are women listed in Jesus’ genealogy. So are Abraham and Isaac, who lied about their wives, and their great grandson Judah, who impregnated Tamar while she was posing as a harlot to seduce him. David, the king, poet, warrior, adulterer, and murderer, is there. Manasseh, the most evil king in Israelite history, makes an appearance. A major theme of the Bible is the stark contrast between the fallenness of man and the righteousness of God.
Despite the wickedness of the ancestors, the Almighty used these broken people to bring the Messiah, God the Son, into the world. The Best and the Brightest in the Universe, the Creator and Sustainer of all, came from a line of rapscallions bad enough to scandalize any biographer and shame any family member. All the goodness comes from God…none from us.
Scientists once thought that most of human DNA was junk, serving no purpose in the human body. Now they know that every part of it is vital to making people what they are. Many people today, and even some pastors and theologians, think that the genealogies and the census data in the Bible are junk. They are equally wrong. God’s word is perfect, including no more and no less than our Creator intended. Genealogies and census data anchor the Bible and its characters in history, confirm prophecies, highlight the importance of families, make Bible characters real, and demonstrate man’s wickedness and God’s grace. Every part of the Holy Word deserves a careful look.