The Limits of Genealogies

      Last week, we described how the genealogies of Genesis develop some of the important themes in Genesis, especially the sinfulness of man and the choices of God. By showing us the genealogies of Cain and Ham, Moses shows us how the sins of the fathers are often also the sins of the sons. By showing us the genealogies of Seth and Shem, Moses shows us how God is actively cultivating His chosen people and His Messiah.

      The Bible often uses genealogies in this thematic sense. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus is an explicit example of this thematic arrangement. Matthew opens his gospel with, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” He summarizes the genealogy, “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 the Christ fourteen generations” (Matt 1.17). Matthew invites us to think of Jesus in terms of Abraham and David: archetypes of the Faith, the fathers of God’s chosen people, and the fonts of different epochs in God’s plan of salvation.

      This is not our modern expectation for a genealogy. A modern genealogy attempts to be precise and “factual” (in other words, free of moral value), because modernity is preoccupied with precision and objectivity. The ancient world wasn’t so preoccupied.

      Matthew plainly was not concerned with objectivity. He has a point in recounting Jesus’ genealogy the way that he has. If it were a matter of merely “recording the facts,” Matthew may as well have left the genealogy out; Mark and John did so.

      And Matthew plainly was not concerned with precision, at least not in the modern sense. For starters, Matthew identifies Jesus’ father as Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of course, we know that God Himself is Jesus’ father and that Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus by the Holy Spirit (in other words, Joseph most definitely was not the father). On top of that, Matthew passes over three consecutive generations of kings to make the genealogy fit his 14/14/14 pattern (the three kings being Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah; compare Matt 1.7-8 with 1 Chr 3.10-12).

      For all this, we shouldn’t come to Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus with all of our modern preoccupations and then judge Matthew for not meeting them. His genealogy does precisely what it sets out to do: it shows Jesus’ connection in character to Abraham and to David.

      The genealogies are a perfect example of how God’s ancient purposes often ignore our modern preoccupations. For example, we should acknowledge that Genesis is not aimed particularly at Darwinism or our broader understanding of biology, just as Matthew is not concerned with Jesus’ “biological” paternity. That’s not to say that we should accept Darwinism. We simply have to acknowledge that our questions about natural selection and irreducible complexity would have been completely unintelligible to Israel in the Wilderness. Our questions about Darwin are not the first questions that we ought to bring to our reading of the Creation account, especially not at the expense of reading Genesis through the lens of ancient Israel.

      Just as God’s ancient purposes often ignore our modern preoccupations, so our modern preoccupations often ignore God’s ancient purposes. Returning to Matthew’s genealogy, our modern preoccupations about biological paternity may cause us to miss the ancient perspective on Jesus’ lineage. He may not have been Joseph’s “biological” son, but He was Joseph’s son in all the ways that mattered under the Law. Thus the New Testament writers are all able to identify Jesus as the son of David (Acts 2.29-31), the son of Judah (Heb 7.14), and the son of Abraham (Gal 3.16).

      To bring all of this back to the genealogies of Genesis, I want to consider a common application of modern thinking that has no place in our study of the Scriptures. If we assume that a genealogy must be precise—which, as we have shown, is a modern rather than an ancient assumption—then we may assume that genealogies are precise in tracking the passage of time. I know, for example, that my father was a certain age when I was born; I know my own age; I know the current year; and I may use this information to accurately calculate the year of my father’s birth. Can I then apply this same method to the genealogies of Genesis to calculate the year of the Creation? Plenty of people have in the past, usually arriving at dates ranging from 5500-4004 B.C. Perhaps the better question is, “Do the text and its original audience invite me to do this?” Some further questions: Does the text share the modern obsession with precision, or is it likely more like Matthew? Is Moses interested in proving to Israel that the creation is young rather than old? And am I ignoring God’s point in included the genealogies because I’m so busy disproving Darwinism?