Many Bible readers are tempted to just skip over the long lists of names that sometimes seem to interrupt the narrative of Scripture. These genealogies appear often in Genesis, Chronicles, and other places in the Old Testament. Matthew and Luke both have a genealogy of Jesus, tracing His ancestry back to Abraham and Adam. While modern people may tend to be bored by these lists, the people to whom Scripture was originally written would have viewed these genealogies as vital parts of Scripture, grounding the narrative in actual history and people who really lived.
The first genealogies we find in Genesis (in chapters 5 and 11) are called ‘chronogenealogies’ because the age of the father at the birth of the son are given. This allows us to know with a very high degree of accuracy (within a year) how much time passed during each generation. It also lets us know there is no gap between the names.
Genesis 5 gives 10 generations from Adam to Noah, ending with Noah’s three sons.
But it is not only “much time passed here”. It is specific enough to allow us to build a timeline from creation to the Flood. There are a couple of important theological points that the genealogy makes. First, Adam’s son Seth was “in his own likeness, after his image” (Genesis 5:3). This means that Adam passed his sin nature on to his descendants. Second, death went along with sin. “And he died” is a constant refrain in the genealogy, which makes the digression of Enoch’s deathless entry all the more startling, hinting that death is not the final end of humanity. Lamech’s declaration that Noah would bring them rest also tells us that God’s promise of a coming Redeemer in Genesis 3:15 had been the hope of godly antediluvians throughout the generations.
1 Chronicles 1 and Luke 3 take these genealogies to be completely historical. So theistic evolutionists who would relegate these genealogies to mythical status have to reckon not only with the plain teaching of the chronogenealogies, but how the rest of Scripture treats them as well.
Genesis 10 is not a strict genealogy as such, but it traces the origin of the nations surrounding Israel at the time of Moses. It does not deal with people groups outside of the area Israel would have been familiar with. We do not see, for instance, the origin of the Chinese, the Irish, or the Australian Aborigines; only the people groups living in the Middle East at the time of Moses. This passage is not interested in the individual children of Shem, Ham, and Japheth, as much as the people groups that came from them. This is indicated in part by an almost complete omission of chronological details, except for the note that the earth was divided in Peleg’s day (but in this part of Genesis, that part of the narrative is still yet to come—the confusion at Babel).
Even though many of these nations will become Israel’s enemies, here the focus is on their common descent from Noah’s sons, and God’s sovereign hand over the formation of the nations after the Flood. So it should not be a surprise to the astute reader of Scripture that some of these nations eventually included individuals who would be saved through promised Savior. And some—Tamar, Ruth, and Rahab—would even be included in the ancestry of this Savior.
Genesis 11 gives 9 generations from Shem to Terah, who like Noah, fathered three sons. The most important was Abraham, of course. This genealogy is a chronogenealogy like the Genesis 5 genealogy. Unlike Genesis 5, this omits the “and he died” refrain, with the slightly more optimistic X lived Y years after begetting Z”. This serves the literary function of linking the previous narrative of Babel to the history of Abram and his descendants which will follow.
The most noticeable element of the genealogy is the steady decrease in lifespans. While the only very short lifespan (compared to the norm!) in Genesis 5 was explained by Enoch being taken to heaven, the other antediluvians all seemed to live very long lives. But after the Flood, each generation lives shorter and shorter lives, until many children die before their longer-lived parents, and even before grandparents and beyond. By the time of Abraham, lifespans were only about twice what we experience in the modern-day world.
These genealogies are actually indications that Genesis intends to be taken as history, and not myth, because the chronology claims to set each person in a specific place in history. Many of the people in the genealogies are not mentioned elsewhere in Scripture, so their only purpose seems to be to link one important character with another (linking Noah back to Adam, for example). By the time Moses wrote Genesis, most of these names would not be otherwise significant to the Hebrews.
In the Old Testament period, it was important for every Jew to be able to trace his lineage back to prove his tribal affiliation—it was even more important for Levites and the descendants of Aaron in order to prove they were qualified to be priests (see Ezra 2:59–63). So we can see that in Moses’ day, he is said to be the descendant of Levi, Kohath, and Amram. This is supposed to cover a period of 400 years, and we’re given enough generations to cover just about ¼ of that. That’s not a problem however; the genealogy isn’t concerned with giving an exhaustive list of ancestors; just enough to tell us where Moses comes from. So we have Levi and his son, along with Moses’ father.
This is true with other genealogies in the OT. For instance, there’s just about 1,000 years between Judah’s son Perez and David, but Ruth 4:18–22 gives only 10 generations—again, far less than what we need to have an exhaustive genealogy. But for the same reason, that’s not a problem.
As I argued in a previous article, the purpose of Matthew’s genealogy was to trace the legal line of rightful heirs to the throne of David. This of course included biological descent, but also some ‘adoptive’ relationships where a man had no descendant, or whose descendants were disqualified. Matthew’s genealogy used obvious ‘telescoping’ where less important people were omitted.
Matthew claims that his choice of names is significant because of the number of generations listed “So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to Christ fourteen generations” (Matthew 1:17). The most plausible significance for this is because the numerical value of the letters in David’s name added up to 14.
Luke’s genealogy looks a lot more complete, and was probably the biological genealogy of Mary, so we see Jesus’ biological ancestry from David, and from Adam. We would expect that Luke would want to give us a complete chain to link Jesus biologically with David. But from Adam to David, he uses the Old Testament sources which have gaps, as explained above.
Luke’s genealogy is unusual in that it starts with Jesus and goes back to Adam—all the other genealogies go from father to son. This allows it to end with, “the son of Adam, the son of God.” This means that the genealogy starts and ends with a “son of God”, and nicely makes the theological point that Jesus is linked to all of humanity via common descent from Adam.
When we look at the biblical genealogies, we have to appreciate the purpose behind each of them, and that helps us to interpret them correctly. And when we interpret them correctly, we see that they are trustworthy historical records.