The Bible’s Family Trees

An Introduction to Genealogies

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Genealogies matter. The biblical narrative is fundamentally a record of events — births, deaths, kings enthroned, kings deposed, covenants made, covenants broken, and so on. The Bible’s genealogies are the backdrop against which these events unfold. As such, they are a basic part of the fabric of Scripture. They tell us when events happen and who is involved in them. And, by extension, they often give us clues as to why.

But before we dive into the (sometimes murky) details of the Bible’s genealogies, it will be helpful for us to consider them in broader redemptive terms.

Forming, Naming, Filling

At the outset of the biblical story, God creates the heavens and the earth. They start out like a blank canvas, formless and empty (Genesis 1:1). Then, over the course of six days, God carries out three important types of activities: he adds form to what he has made (e.g., by the division of night and day); he names what he has formed; and, last of all, he fills what he has formed (e.g., the day with the sun; the night with the moon and stars).

Afterward, God commissions man to continue his activities. More specifically, God commands man to be fruitful and multiply and to fill and subdue the earth (Genesis 1:28). The Bible’s genealogies are thus firmly anchored in the events of Genesis 1. They are a record of how and to what extent mankind lives out God’s commission as he forms, names, and fills God’s creation.

Genesis 1–11 Redux

In Genesis 4, Eve forms three children and assigns to each of them a name.1 “I have [formed] a man with the help of the Lord,” she says after Cain’s birth (Genesis 4:1). (The verb “formed” — Hebrew kanah — is generally translated as “acquired” in this verse, but it often means “formed”; indeed, it is the verb used in Psalm 139:13, where David says to God, “You formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.”) Needless to say, Eve’s statement about the world’s first childbirth is significant. Like God, Eve adds form to what is formless, as her daughters have done ever since.

In the aftermath of Abel’s death, the lines of Cain and Seth begin to fill the earth. To some extent, the two lines unfold in parallel. For instance, both culminate in a threefold division — in Cain’s case with Jabal, Jubal, and Tubal-Cain (Genesis 4:20–22), and in Seth’s with Shem, Ham, and Japheth (Genesis 5:32). And before that, each line reaches a mini-climax in the rise of a Lamech, who is a man of sevens. Cain’s Lamech is the seventh from Adam, heads up a family of seven (him, his two wives, his three sons, and his daughter), and says his death will be repaid with a seventy-sevenfold vengeance (Genesis 4:24). Meanwhile, Seth’s Lamech lives for seven hundred and seventy-seven years (Genesis 5:31), and he fathers Noah — the life of a man of eights who heads up a family of eight (1 Peter 3:20). Hence, while Cain’s line is terminated by the flood, Seth’s lives on to inhabit a new creation.

In the aftermath of the flood, the descendants of Shem, Ham, and Japheth begin to multiply and fill the earth (in answer to a repeat of God’s command in Genesis 9:1). The result is the “Table of Nations” in Genesis 10.

“History unfolds in line with God’s pattern and purposes.”

Then, in Genesis 12, God chooses Abraham from the midst of the nations — or, more specifically, from the midst of the descendants of Shem. God does not, however, simply give Abraham the same command he gave to Adam and Noah. Instead, he gives Abraham a promise: “I will make you exceedingly fruitful,” he says (Genesis 17:6), which is exactly what he does. And so, as Abraham’s generations unfold, they recapitulate the structure of Genesis 1–11.

The events of Genesis 1 establish a twelve/thirteenfold structure composed of six environments (night, day, heaven, earth, sea, and land, formed on days one to three) filled by six created things (moon/stars, sun, birds, animals, fish, and humans, created on days four to six), or seven if we count plants (created on day three).2 In answer, the branches of Abraham’s family tree yield an array of twelve/thirteenfold generations: Nahor’s line opens into a generation of twelve (Genesis 22:21–24), as do Ishmael’s (Genesis 25:12–16) and Esau’s,3 and, last of all, Jacob’s line opens into a generation of twelve, or thirteen if we count Joseph’s sons (Genesis 48:5).

Meanwhile, just as the lines of Cain and Seth emerge from a background of three streams and divide into three streams, so too does the line of Abraham: Abraham is one of three sons, and his posterity divides into the sons of Hagar, Sarah, and Keturah (Genesis 11:27–28). Furthermore, just as the line of Noah culminates in a family tree of 75 individuals (the so-called “Table of Nations”),4 so too does the line of Jacob (Jacob, his four wives, and their seventy sons: Genesis 46:27; Exodus 1:5; Deuteronomy 10:22).

God’s Unfolding Story

Similar creationary echoes can be observed within the text of 1 Chronicles as the line of Judah becomes the inheritor of God’s promise. The genealogical path from Adam to Abraham consists of three distinct stages: first it descends a single genealogical line (1:1–3), then it splits into three streams (1:4–27), and finally it opens into a pool of nineteen potential inheritors of Abraham’s promise (1:28–33), ultimately to be taken forward by Isaac (1:34). In much the same way, the genealogical path from Judah to David descends a single genealogical line (to Hezron, 2:1–8), then splits into three streams (Caleb’s, Ram’s, and Jerahmeel’s, 2:9–55), and finally opens into a pool of nineteen potential inheritors of David’s promise (3:1–9), ultimately to be taken forward by Solomon (3:10). The chronicler even counts David’s sons for us to make sure we haven’t missed the point (3:1–8).

These patterns are not coincidental. They reveal the artistry inherent in the biblical narrative and, more fundamentally, God’s sovereignty over the course of history. History unfolds in line with God’s pattern and purposes. And in the Bible’s genealogies, we see precisely how it unfolds and comes to its fullness in the person of Christ — the one whose death and resurrection gives birth to a new creation, and who breathes life into a generation of twelve apostles (or thirteen if we count Paul), and who continues to give life to Abraham’s seed today as the church bears fruit and multiplies.

Redressing the Past

But the Bible’s genealogies aren’t merely intended to paint a big picture of the progression of God’s purposes; they are also rich with detail. They enable us to connect particular events in biblical history and to read them in light of one another.

Ruth’s Redemption

By way of illustration, consider a couple of the more unsavory ways in which family lines have been perpetuated in biblical history. In Genesis 19 and 38, an uncannily similar sequence of events unfolds: a resident of Canaan departs from his brother(s) in order to sojourn elsewhere (in Judah’s case in Chezib, and in Lot’s in Sodom). Soon afterward, his two sons die (or in Lot’s case his sons-in-law), which leaves his family line in jeopardy. The man’s daughters (or daughter-in-law) conceal their identity in order to sleep with their father (or father-in-law). And via such dubious means, the family line survives.

The Bible’s genealogies help us to see that these events are not isolated incidents in Scripture. Later in the biblical narrative, when Ruth approaches Boaz at the dead of night, it looks as if we are about to see a repeat of Judah’s and Lot’s transgressions. Earlier in the story, a resident of Canaan has departed from his brothers in order to sojourn elsewhere (Elimelech has left Bethlehem for Moab); his two sons have died and left his family line in jeopardy; and his daughter-in-law has now concealed her identity, possibly in order to take matters into her own hands. Happily, however, the behavior of Boaz and Ruth confounds our expectations. When Boaz sees Ruth, he does not seek sexual gratification; rather, he wants to know who she is. In response, Ruth discloses her identity. And soon afterward, Boaz takes Ruth as his wife in the full knowledge of what it will entail, and he thereby continues Elimelech’s line.

Given the above considerations, Boaz’s and Ruth’s genealogies/backgrounds are important for us to be aware of. Boaz is a descendant of Perez and by that token is a descendant of Judah and Tamar (Ruth 4:18–22). Meanwhile, Ruth is a Moabite and by that token is a descendant of Lot and his firstborn daughter (Genesis 19:37). These details are significant. Boaz and Ruth aren’t isolated actors on the stage of the biblical narrative. They are people with a rich and tangled past. And their actions redeem that past and weave it into God’s good purposes through the messianic line.

Esther Against Agag

A similar notion underlies the story of Esther. When we first meet Mordecai, we are provided with his genealogy. Mordecai is “the son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, a Benjaminite” (Esther 2:5). At least two of these names should be familiar to us. In 1 Samuel 9, we are introduced to a Benjaminite named Kish, who turns out to be the father of the infamous Saul (1 Samuel 9:1; see also 1 Chronicles 8:29–33), and a little later we encounter a Benjaminite named Shimei, who turns out to be one of Saul’s descendants (2 Samuel 16:5).

Apparently, then, the biblical author wants us to associate Mordecai and Esther with the house of Saul. (The names Kish and Shimei may have been common Benjaminite names, passed down from father to son and borne by many members of the tribe of Benjamin.5) If so, it is a significant detail, since Esther and Mordecai’s enemy, Haman, is a descendant of Saul’s old enemy, Agag the Amalekite (Esther 3:1) — the man whom Saul failed to make an end of (1 Samuel 15:9).

Like the story of Ruth, then, the book of Esther doesn’t recount an isolated incident; it describes a resurgence of an age-old rivalry and, importantly, an opportunity for Esther and Mordecai to make amends for their ancestor’s failures. Indeed, viewed against that backdrop, some of the more unusual features of the book of Esther make good sense. Why does the book go to such lengths to tell us the Jews were allowed to plunder their enemies’ goods yet declined to do so (Esther 8:10–13; 9:10, 15–16)? The answer is that what takes place is a reversal/rectification of Saul’s failures. Whereas Saul wasn’t permitted to plunder Agag’s goods and yet disobediently did so, thrice proclaiming his innocence (1 Samuel 15:13, 15, 20), the Jews were allowed to plunder their enemies’ goods and yet thrice declined to do so (see above).

Significant for a similar reason is Esther’s attitude toward Mordecai. Why does Esther go to such lengths to have Mordecai exalted alongside her in Esther 8–9 (which seems to needlessly prolong the book’s conclusion)? As before, one answer is that what takes place is a reversal of Saul’s failures: whereas Saul sought to oust a man who had been like a son to him (David), Esther sought to promote a man who had been like a father to her (Mordecai).

Hence, just as Boaz and Ruth put right what their ancestors got wrong, so Esther and Mordecai put right what their ancestor (Saul) got wrong. And such mini-redemptions set the stage for a greater redemption to come — for a redeemer who will atone for what Israel and Adam got wrong (hence Matthew’s genealogy takes us from Jesus back to Abraham, and Luke’s takes us from Jesus back to Adam).

Far more can be said about the Bible’s genealogies and the role they play in the biblical narrative, but the topics outlined above give us a feel for the kind of questions we can ask ourselves when confronted with a genealogy. What is its shape and structure — and what does that remind us of? Do we recognize any of its names and contents from elsewhere — and which biblical events might that prompt us to connect and read in light of one another?

Thus interrogated, genealogies can greatly further our comprehension of the biblical text as well as our place in today’s generation.

  1. That Eve named Cain and Abel isn’t explicitly stated, but she certainly named Seth (Genesis 4:25), and her statement about how she formed Cain plays on the sound of Cain’s name, which suggests she was the one who named him too. 

  2. Significantly, these six/seven created things consist of twelve/thirteen subcategories, each of which is denoted by a different Hebrew word: vegetation, plants, trees, lights, stars, living creatures, birds, sea creatures, cattle, creeping things, beasts of the earth, mankind, and, last of all, fish (not explicitly mentioned in the account of day five but presumably created then). 

  3. Esau’s generation of twelve consists of the five sons of Eliphaz, the four of Reuel, and the three of Oholibamah (Genesis 36:11–14). If we include Amalek (who was fathered through an Edomite concubine), it becomes a generation of thirteen. 

  4. The “Table of Nations” is sometimes said to consist of seventy nations, but it does not. It consists of Noah, his three sons, and their 71 descendants (Genesis 10). 

  5. The Benjaminites like to recycle names in their tribe, and many of their names are distinctive. For instance, Gera is a uniquely Benjaminite name, borne by Benjamin’s son (Genesis 46:21), two or three Benjaminites/clans (1 Chronicles 8:3–7), and perhaps also Ehud’s and/or Shimei’s father (Judges 3:15; 2 Samuel 16:5). The same is true of the names Kish (borne by Saul’s father and, apparently, a Benjaminite clan: 1 Samuel 9:1; 1 Chronicles 8:29) and Ner (borne by Saul’s uncle and one of his ancestors: 1 Samuel 14:51; 1 Chronicles 8:33). And the name Shimei, though attested in other tribes, is most commonly borne by Benjaminites (see 2 Samuel 16:5; 21:21; 1 Kings 4:18; 1 Chronicles 8:21). 

is a junior researcher at Tyndale House — an international evangelical research community based in Cambridge (UK), focused on biblical languages, biblical manuscripts, and the ancient world. He is also a trustee at Biblical Creation Trust.