Genesis 10:1 These are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth; sons were born to them after the flood. 2 The sons of Japheth: Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras. 3 The sons of Gomer: Ash’kenaz, Riphath, and Togar’mah. 4 The sons of Javan: Eli’shah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Do’danim. 5 From these the coastland peoples spread. These are the sons of Japheth in their lands, each with his own language, by their families, in their nations. 6 The sons of Ham: Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan. 7 The sons of Cush: Seba, Hav’ilah, Sabtah, Ra’amah, and Sab’teca. The sons of Ra’amah: Sheba and Dedan. 8 Cush became the father of Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man. 9 He was a mighty hunter before the LORD; therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the LORD.” 10 The beginning of his kingdom was Ba’bel, Erech, and Accad, all of them in the land of Shinar. 11 From that land he went into Assyria, and built Nin’eveh, Reho’both-Ir, Calah, and 12 Resen between Nin’eveh and Calah; that is the great city. 13 Egypt became the father of Ludim, An’amim, Leha’bim, Naph-tu’him, 14 Pathru’sim, Caslu’him (whence came the Philistines), and Caph’torim.
Genealogies are often skimmed through by modern readers of the Bible because they are somewhat boring and not particularly pertinent to life. St. Jerome (d. 420AD) saw the writers of Scripture as “the inspired vehicles of the divine mysteries” and so felt it important for us to pay attention to all of the historical details and peculiarities of their written words as they offer us insight into the person who is God’s chosen vessel for the sacred mysteries. It is an interesting concept for it emphasizes that the authors of Scripture are more the vehicle of the divine mysteries (as they are the ones inspired by God) than are the written words themselves. Their written words are almost a feeble attempt to record the inspiration which is really contained in humans not mostly in a book. The written words thus in their details offer us insight into the inspired saint who wrote the text (besides, saints, not scriptures are made in the image and likeness of God). This is a common idea found in the Christians of the early centuries: the Scriptures are mere signs which point to the spiritual reality, the real substance, God’s revelation. Thus they don’t equate God’s revelation to the words themselves but to the reality to which the words direct our attention. This very subtle and nuanced approach to the Bible helps prevent them from reading the text in a wooden or overly literal way. It is not the words which are so important – they point to the truth which we are seeking. In a certain sense it prevents what happens sometimes to modern fundamentalist and biblical literalists – Bibliolatry. The text contains the revelation but is not to be equated with it, for the revelation is always beyond the limits of the written word. As Jesus told the Jews: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40).
Genealogies help establish an orderly succession of fathers to son in civil society, and become the basis for tradition – that common knowledge and wisdom which humans pass down from generation to generation. But in early Christianity they also were the source of controversy and argument. In Titus 3:9, we are warned, “But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels over the law, for they are unprofitable and futile.” A very similar warning is found in 1 Timothy 1:3-4: “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations rather than the divine training that is in faith.” Genealogies which for the modern reader often appear boring and uninteresting were obviously at one time the seedbed for speculation which led to quarrels and dissension in the Church. Interests in and emphases on different passages of Scripture do change over time and in different cultures. This does give witness for the importance of understanding how Christians in previous times read and used the Bible – it helps us avoid being limited by or trapped in our contemporary culture and thinking. Aspects of the Scripture which were important, even critically, in ancient times are often glossed over by our modern sensibilities and lack of historical depth.
No matter how diverse the people are in terms of nations, geography, languages, what is stunning in the genealogies and the first 11 chapters of Genesis is the absolute monotheism of this ancient text. There is only one God. Satan is not mentioned, neither are demons. The gods of the nations are not mentioned. Angels are not mentioned. Idols are not mentioned. There is no other spiritual being but the Lord God. There is no celestial hierarchy in the first eleven chapters of Genesis. The text establishes absolute monotheism – there are no other beings even close to God and not cosmic battle between God and evil. Chaos exists which God is able to shape, contain and control for His own purposes. Chaos is impersonal, not an evil one. The only indication in these early chapters of Genesis of something other than the One God is found in Genesis 1:26 and 11:7 in which God speaks in the plural, “let us…” Christians have understood this to be a clear reference to the Trinitarian nature of God within the Jewish scriptures. All the peoples of the world no matter how diverse have only one God. This is another way in which the genealogies tie all of humanity together. Our oneness with Adam is not so much a genetic thing; it is an issue that we all were created by the one God who is Creator of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible. There are no other gods or spiritual beings. There is none of the heavenly mythologies that are so common in virtually every other ancient religion. There is no mention of astrology or any form of the worship of the heavenly bodies. The entire opening chapters of Genesis are focused on this one God and His particular interest in and relationship with a very select group of people – a lineage that is completely tied in with the God of the universe.
Genealogies especially confront one of the most tenaciously held entitlements of modern capitalistic man: self interest. Adam Smith felt the very thing that will drive capitalism for the benefit of each person is self interest. And we now assume our personal self interest to be a main reason why we would participate in anything. The self is both king and god with each person living in an egocentric universe. The genealogies tell us God has chosen certain individuals other than ourselves to be His chosen people and to serve the unique requirements of the Kingdom. We read the genealogies to realize how many people God has chosen and worked with, and that not everything is governed by self interest. Even Christ told us the two main laws were to love God and to love neighbor. It is not always about me. Salvation is learning about something greater than my self and my self interests. It is learning that my story is but a sentence is a bigger chapter in a much larger book whose author is God. Scriptural genealogies offer to all humans the meta-narrative which ties every single human together in one grand story with God being the narrator. Postmodernism denies the existence of one meta-narrative, but the Bible – and the science of DNA and genetics supports the Bible on this issue – offers that there is in fact a narrative which unites all of humanity and human nature itself. For the believer the Bible is the meta-narrative in which our own story is unfolding while in science it is DNA which provides the thread connecting all humans and all living things.