This article explains why we have genealogies in the Bible, and looks at the differences between the genealogies of Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38.

Source: The Banner of Truth, 1988. 3 pages.

Genealogies in Scripture

What do you do when you come to lists of genealogies in the Bible? Most people slip quickly over these regarding them as a little dull and a not very important part of what the Bible teaches. In addition, Paul warns against paying too much attention to 'myths and genealogies', claiming that this leads to controversy.

On the other hand, these lists do form part of the Bible and there must be some good reason for their inclusion. What purpose do genealogies serve, and what place do they have in Scripture? In considering the first part of this question it is helpful to recall the importance of genealogies in history. They were used by kings to trace and prove their claim to the throne. Individuals looked to them to determine matters of kinship, rights to property and even national identity. They were particularly important in Judaism where sale or exchange of property required such details or where tribal descent was vital, as for example in the case of the Levites. By the time of Christ public records of family trees existed. Josephus the Jewish historian in his autobiography reproduces his own genealogical table as he found it 'in the public records'.

One reason for the inclusion of genealogies in the Bible seems to be that they help us see God's purpose more clearly. This is true with regard to God's creation of man and his provision for him. When Adam named his wife Eve, 'the mother of all living', it was in response to God's goodness in preserving mankind after the Fall. The genealogical table in Genesis 5:1f, states that God created man in the likeness of God and that Adam had a son in his own likeness. The list of Adam's line follows and it is a list which stresses both the longevity and mortality of each generation. The list confirms both God's grace and judgment on mankind after the Fall. It amplifies the conditions in which God left man after he had sinned.

Genealogies in Scripture also clarify God's purpose of salvation. Again, this is especially clear in the book of Genesis. God covenanted with Abraham to give him a large family, to provide a land for him to live in and to fulfil these promises through his children in the line of his generation. All of these features play a prominent part in the family lists in Genesis. The descendants of Abraham are extensively noted and they show that he had a large family clan. Sometimes there are references to areas in which branches of the family settled and attention is obviously given to the line of generation as an integral part of the story-presentation. The pattern of 'covenant theology' with its principle 'to you and your children' is reflected both in the numerical and geographical details of these family trees. It is a theme which continues in genealogies beyond the book of Genesis and is implicit in lists of generations after the patriarchs, such as we find in Chronicles.

God's sovereignty is also highlighted in the genealogies, and is illustrated in interesting ways. In the patriarchal era God ordered the line of generations through Jacob, the scheming younger twin but not through Esau, the elder brother. Later, the line came through Ruth, a Moabitess, and included many kings who openly broke God's law. Yet, through all this, God's sovereign purpose continued. God was causing man's wrath to praise him and to work for him He was using those who were weak, religiously 'unacceptable' and even immoral to accomplish his plans The lists pay tribute to God's overruling authority in this sphere.

Another way of gauging the importance of these family trees is to view them in the light of the author's purpose. This is already clear in considering genealogies in Genesis. We have noticed the way in which the lists link the story together and emphasise its continuing theme. The same is evident in Chronicles. The basic difference between a chronicle and a history is that the former simply notes events while the latter seeks to assess their significance. The book of Chronicles, however, is 'historical' in the sense that it stresses above all the importance of the royal succession and the contribution of the priesthood to the life of Israel. These emphases are evident in the genealogies in Chronicles where both kingship and Levitical lists are prominent.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah also contain registers of families and individuals. The purpose seems to be to detail those who returned from the exile so that the continuing record of God's people at that important point of their history might be preserved.

Genealogical lists in Scripture are of two main kinds, ascending and descending. The former is usually given in the form, 'A the son of B', with little additional information. The latter is normally expressed as 'A begat B' and is frequently fuller in detail. It can be misleading to depend on the tables for dating or chronology as gaps of generation occur and the Hebrew YALAD ('begat') can simply have the wider sense of 'was the ancestor of'. In addition to genealogies proper, there are also lists of prominent individuals in Scripture. For example, many of David's helpers and leaders were noted. Those who assisted in rebuilding Jerusalem and the Temple at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah are included with lists of those who were commended for keeping God's law and condemned for breaking it.

There are two genealogical tables of Christ in the New Testament. Matthew 1:1-17 is descending while Luke 3:23-38 is ascending in form. There are difficulties of interpretation because of differences between these two tables. From Abraham to David both lists are basically the same. From David to Christ the lists appear to be following different records, as only two or possibly three names are common to both.

Three lines of explanation have been suggested.

  • First, it is said that Matthew was tracing the line through Joseph while Luke recorded Mary's ancestry. This, however, is not what Luke says and it was not usual to trace descent through the female line.
  • Secondly, Africanus (c. AD 220) claimed that there had been a Levirate marriage. He thought that Heli, Joseph's father according to Luke, had died childless and that Jacob, Joseph's father according to Matthew, married Heli's widow and Joseph was born.
  • Thirdly, J. Gresham Machen maintains that Matthew gives 'the legal descendants of David — the men who would have been legally the heir to the Davidic throne if that throne had been continued — while Luke gives the descendants of David in that particular line to which, finally, Joseph, the husband of Mary, belonged'.

It may well be impossible to say which of these three explanations is to be preferred. John Wesley suggested that the lists may have come from public or private records and the Spirit allowed their inclusion in Scripture in these different forms since the main point being made by both lists was quite clear.

Whatever the resolution of the problem, the main thrust of both genealogies is evident. Both trace Jesus' ancestry through David and in so doing affirm the fulfilment of the covenant promise that the Messiah will be the son of David. Jesus is 'great David's greater son', 'a descendant of David' as to his human nature (Romans 1:3). Davidic sonship was a central theme in the New Testament presentation of Jesus as the Messiah and is anticipated in both genealogies.

Considering each genealogy in terms of the author's purpose, further light is thrown on the matter. Matthew begins his list in this way, 'a record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the Son of David, the Son of Abraham' (Matthew 1:1). In keeping with his general purpose of presenting Christ's life as a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, Matthew introduces his theme in his genealogy majoring on the Jewish background of Christ. He commences the table with Abraham. Equally characteristic of Matthew's gospel is the portrayal of Christ as king. Again, the theme of Christ's kingship is fittingly introduced by the genealogy. Matthew closes his genealogical table by noting a structure evident in Christ's ancestry of three groups each consisting of fourteen generations — from Abraham to David, from David to the exile and from the exile to Christ (Matthew 1:17). Matthew opens and closes his genealogy stressing Christ's Davidic sonship.

Unlike Matthew, Luke traces Christ's ancestry not just to Abraham but to 'Adam, the son of God' (1:38). This accords with Luke's universalism, his tendency to extend the gospel to the Gentile world and to include in his record those outside the immediate pale of Judaism. Perhaps through this ancestry Luke was stressing Christ's humanity as well. The Messiah was truly of Jewish origin but was ultimately also of human descent.

The other interesting feature about Luke's genealogy is its position. He located it not at the very beginning of his gospel but after Jesus' baptism. It is significant that Luke places it here. He notes that Jesus was born during Augustus' reign, was circumcised on the eighth day, accompanied his parents to the Passover when he was twelve and was baptised when he was thirty. The priests and Levites usually commenced their service when they were thirty years of age and so Luke may well have been portraying Christ's baptism as his anointing to office. On this understanding, it would be highly appropriate at that point in the story to list Jesus' ancestry in the same way as Levitical descent was stressed in the Old Testament. Jesus was the Messiah as Son of Man and as anointed priest. This interpretation gives further significance to Luke's genealogy.

So perhaps we ought not to pass over Bible genealogies so quickly but rather to examine their details in the light of the author's purpose. Clearly, God has placed these genealogies in His word to help us to appreciate better the wisdom and skill with which He brings to pass His great purpose of salvation.

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