Open your Bible to the first chapter 1 Chronicles and see what you find there. Now look at the second chapter. Now the third. If you were to continue this, you would find that the first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles are all genealogies.
Genealogies crop up constantly in Scripture, though none are lengthier than the genealogies of 1 Chronicles. Genesis features them prominently. Genealogies often divide one section of Genesis from the next.
If we are honest with ourselves, most of us skip over genealogies when we come to them (for that matter, most of us skip over 1 Chronicles). They don’t make for compelling reading, at least not to the English mind. We tend to skip long lists of names wherever we find them, whether in the Bible or in Homer’s Iliad. One practically never sees long lists of names in English literature. For whatever reason, English-speaking people tend to shun such lists.
We have to resist this tendency in our Bible study. If we’re unwilling to submit to the text, then we’ll never learn from it. God didn’t have Moses include his genealogies on a whim; they are there for the instruction of God’s people.
So what do we make of the genealogies that we find in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, what we are calling the “primeval cycle”? Let’s consider the genealogies that we find there one by one.
The first genealogy that appears is Cain’s. This may surprise us, because Cain is a fratricide whom God curses to a life of wandering. Why feature his lineage first instead of, say, Adam’s or Seth’s?
The answer lies in the way in which Cain’s genealogy ties into the story of Genesis. Genesis 3 shows us the immediate consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin: God ejects them from the Garden and curses them. Genesis 4 shows us the long-term consequences of sin: brother murders brother, and man is doomed to wander the face of the earth. The scourge of sin is amplified. In Genesis 3, man is doomed to die; in Genesis 4, he dies at his own hand. In Genesis 3, the ground is cursed so that man must work it to gain its produce; in Genesis 4, the ground is cursed even further so that Cain will gain nothing from it. In Genesis 3, man must leave their home in Eden and establish a new home; in Genesis 4, Cain must leave even that humble abode east of Eden and wander, homeless.
Cain’s genealogy continues the story of these consequences and shows that they are not just limited to Cain himself. They are part of his bloodline, as it were. Cain murders one man and is ashamed; his descendent, Lamech, murders two men and is proud. The rottenness of sin continues to fester in man, getting worse and worse.
The consequences of sin continue even through the line of Adam through Seth, which takes up all of Genesis 5. As we noted in class last week, the refrain through Adam’s genealogy is “and he died.” Every generation save one concludes with this line. Violent men like Cain and Lamech bring some men to their end; others are taken in other ways; but in this fallen world, all men die.
The strange exception is Enoch. We are not told precisely what Enoch did or what happened to him. All that we know is that he didn’t die; “he was not, for God took him.” We are told twice that “Enoch walked with God,” which presumably has something to do with his righteousness, though the text is frustrating vague on everything having to do with Enoch. The point seems to be that death doesn’t have to be the end for everyone. Man doesn’t have to be alienated from God. Yet the Scriptures show us just how uncommon Enoch was.
The genealogies of Cain and Seth converge in Genesis 6. We learned from Cain’s genealogy that man grew increasingly violent. We learned from Seth’s genealogy that all men die. Genesis 6 amplifies both of those lessons in a most dramatic way.
Cain and Lamech didn’t corner the market on violence. It spilled out into mankind at large, so much so that we read a couple of times in Genesis 6 that the earth is “full of violence,” and this violence, among other things, moves God to repent of ever making man. This is where the theme of Seth’s genealogy comes out in the text. Seth’s genealogy has conditioned us to hearing “and he died” over and over again, and Genesis 6 puts that conditioning to the test as God choses to eradicate man in a flood. “He died” turns into “everyone died.”
The genealogies play an essential part in telling the Genesis story. They are the connective tissue that takes individual problems and conflicts—Adam’s rebellion, Cain’s violence—and shows how they become the common lot of all mankind. They show how the individual consequences of sin become global consequences.
Most importantly, as we will see in coming lessons, the genealogies track the progress not only of man’s sin but of God’s promises to solve the problem of sin once and for all.