As creatures seeking meaning, human beings often wonder about who they are and from where they have come. People often meditate on these questions in very grand and philosophical ways but they also consider them in much nearer and physical ways: who are my family members and what have they done?
People pursue genealogy, the study of family lineage, for many reasons. Today many want to know about possible genetic conditions or predispositions which they might be carrying. Many are simply curious about their ancestors and from whence they came. Nevertheless, for generations people have learned about their ancestry through family stories and preserved family trees in order to maintain family identity and to foster a sense of participation in the family story. The exploits of famous historical figures often seem remote and distant; they feel far closer and of greater interest if those historical figures are actually your direct ancestors! Research is beginning to show that those who have a robust understanding of their origins and family prove more resilient and stable. No matter what may happen they know who they are and from whence they came!
Genealogies play a large role in the Old Testament as is well known to anyone who has found themselves reading in Genesis, Numbers, 1 Chronicles, and other such books. Modern readers may find those genealogies tedious, boring, and may wonder about their relevance; to the ancient hearer of Scripture those genealogies were vitally important. Genealogies ensured all priests and Levites were of the tribe of Levi (2 Chronicles 31:16-19, Ezra 2:61-63); Matthew began his Gospel by assuring his readers and hearers that Jesus of Nazareth was a descendant of David and Abraham (Matthew 1:1-17).
The constant rehearsing of genealogies also served to connect the Israelites to the story of how God had delivered and rescued their ancestors. God did not rescue some other nation, nor did He work with remote and distant historical figures; He had rescued and powerfully worked through the very fathers of the people who listened to the reading of Scripture (Acts 3:25). When the living members of a given tribe, clan, and family would hear their ancestors names listed they would immediately feel that connection to the events taking place.
Connection to God and His people remains quite important in the new covenant even if our spiritual heritage is not dependent on physical descent. Paul strongly emphasizes how all Christians are the spiritual descendants of Abraham by faith and thus the inheritors of the promises God made to him (Romans 4:9-25, Galatians 3:18-29). The Hebrew author, having rehearsed all the heroes of faith, declared that apart from us they were not made perfect, we who have inherited the fullness of the promises God had made to them (Hebrews 11:1-40). We may not be the physical descendants of Abraham, yet through faith we can not only share in Abraham’s inheritance but also consider all the people of God of old as our spiritual ancestors (1 Corinthians 10:1-12). We can feel connected to the story of how God has worked among His people; God worked through our spiritual ancestors to advance His purposes, and He will do the same with us (Ephesians 3:14-21).
Genealogy is well and good when used to feel connection and continuity with God’s people but proves pernicious if used to suggest superiority or greatness. Israel sinned frequently by trusting in her genealogy, believing their election and salvation were assured by their descent from Abraham (Luke 3:8). Paul must exhort Timothy to shun and give no heed to endless genealogies and those who wish to pretend to be somebody on account of their ancestry, who attempted to suggest a genealogical descent of spiritual beings, or who provoked endless speculations based on who was related to whom (1 Timothy 1:4, Titus 3:9). In Christ it does not matter whether one’s ancestors were rich or poor, distinguished or lowly, Israelite or Gentile; we are all one in Jesus and should strive to promote the faith in love (Galatians 3:28, 5:6).
We do well to take to heart what God intended to teach Israel through genealogy. The story of God and His people is not intended to be distant history, far removed from the present, but very near, the story of how God worked with and through our ancestors for His glory and our deliverance (1 Corinthians 10:1-12, Hebrews 11:1-40). We are to feel close to them, seeing in them our spiritual grandparents. We should strive to live by the faith of our father Abraham; we should be looking forward to spending eternity with all the saints. We cannot be saved by our ancestry, nor seek to be justified by it; yet we can take encouragement from the stories of how God has worked through His people throughout time. His people should also be our people if we are His; may we be part of the people of God and seek to serve Him today!
Ethan R. Longhenry