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Genealogy (in the Bible)

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The word genealogy occurs only twice in the New Testament : I Tim., i, 4, and Tit., iii, 9. In these passages commentators explain the word as referring to the Gentile theogonies, or to the Essene generation of angels, or to the emanation of spirits and aeons as conceived by the Gnostics, or to the genealogies of Jesus Christ, or finally to the genealogies of the Old Testament construed into a source of an occult doctrine. Some even appeal to Philo in order to refer St. Paul's expression to the various stories and fables told about Moses and the Patriarchs. In the Old Testament the term genealogia occurs only in a few manuscripts of the Septuagint, in I Par., iv, 33; v, 7, 17; ix, 22; I Esd., viii, 1, where the commonly received text reads katalogismos or katalochismos . In the present article, therefore, we shall not dwell upon the term genealogy , but consider the parts, usually genealogical lists, introduced by the phrase "these are the generations" or "this is the book of the generation"; we shall investigate the meaning of the introductory phrase, enumerate the principal genealogical lists, indicate their sources, draw attention to their importance, and point out their deficiencies. Special genealogical lists, for instance those of Christ, found in the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke, must be studied separately.


The introductory formula, "these are the generations" or "this is the book of the generation", is the heading to the ten parts of the Book of Genesis. It occurs also in Num., iii, 1; Ruth; iv, 18; 1 Par., i, 29. Similar expressions are found frequently, especially in the Books of Paralipomenon. What is their meaning? They do not denote any genealogy or genealogical table in our sense of these words. There can be no questions of posterity in Gen., ii, 4: "these are the generations of the heaven and the earth", as toledhoth , the Hebrew equivalent of "generations", seems to imply. In Gen., vi, 9, the introductory formula is followed by the history of the Flood ; hence it cannot point forward to a genealogical table. If we keep in mind, on the other hand, that primitive history was only genealogy adorned with various anecdotes and stories of incidents, we begin to realize that the genealogical portions of the Book of Genesis are abbreviated and rudimentary biographies. The proper meaning of our introductory formula is, therefore, simply, "this is the history".


The peculiar character of primitive history accounts for the numerous genealogical lists found in the books of the Old Testament. We shall enumerate only the principal ones: Gen., v, 1-31, give the Patriarchs from Adam to Noah ; Gen., x, 1-32, the ethnography of the sons of Noah ; Gen., xi, 10-26, the Patriarchs from Sem to Abraham ; Gen., xi, 27-32, the posterity of Thare; Gen., xxii, 20-24, the posterity of Nachor; Gen., xxv, 1-4, the descendants of Abraham by Centura; Gen., xxv, 12-18, the posterity of Ismael ; Gen., xxv, 23-29, the sons of Jacob ; Gen., xxxvi, 1-43, the posterity of Esau and the princes of Edom ; Gen., xlvi, 8-27, the family of Jacob going into Egypt ; Num., iii, 14-39, the list of the Levites ; Num., xxvi, 1-51, the heads of the tribes; Ruth, iv, 18-22, the genealogy of David ; I Esd., vii, 1-5, the genealogy of Esdras ; II Esd., xi-xii, the genealogy of a number of persons. I Par., i-ix, is replete with genealogical lists which either repeat, or abbreviate, or again develop the foregoing genealogies, adding at times other documents of an unknown origin. For instance, there is a brief genealogy of Benjamin in I par., vii, 6-12, a longer one in I Par., viii, 1-40; similarly a brief genealogy of Juda in I Par., iv, 1-23, a more complete one in I Par., ii, 3; iii, 24. The inspired historian makes no effort to harmonize these striking differences, but seems to be only careful to reproduce his sources.

In order to appreciate the foregoing lists properly, four of their peculiarities must be kept in mind :

  • In the primitive languages each word had a certain meaning. Foreign names had to be translated or replaced by other names. As the Semitic language developed out of the primitive, the proper names too underwent a similar change, so as to assume a Semitic, and at times even a Hebrew, colouring. This does not destroy the historical character of the men known under these changed appellations; the martyr St. Adauctus does not become a mere fiction simply because his real name is unknown. Lenormant has left us a comparison between the antediluvian Patriarchs of the Bible and the antediluvian heroes of Chaldee tradition (Origines de l'histoire, I, Paris, 1880, pp. 214- 90), and the Vigouroux has given us a study on the mythological origin of the antediluvian Patriarchs (Livres saints et critique ration., 1891, IV, liv. I, c. vii, p. 191-217). All this goes to show that the names actually found in the Biblical genealogies denote the same subject, but do not present the same form as the original names.
  • The names found in the Biblical genealogies do not always denote persons, but may signify a family, a tribe or nation, or even the country in which the bearers of the respective names dwelt. For instance, Jos., vii, 1, speaks of "Achan the son of Charmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zare of the tribe of Juda ", while the context (cf. 16 sqq.) shows that Zabdi stands for the "house of Zabdi" and Zare for the " family of Zare". Again, throughout Gen., x, the genealogy serves as ethnographic purpose, so that its names represent nations or countries. The name of the country can be identified with that of its inhabitants, because the country stands for its people by way of a metaphor which has almost ceased to be so on account of its frequent use. The same proper name denotes an individual, a family, a house, a tribe, or a nation, on account of the idea of solidarity of the whole community in the merits and demerits of the individual member. This width of meaning of the genealogical names does not detract from their historicity, since the obscurity of one's grandfather of great- grandfather does not prevent one from being a real offspring of his tribe or nation.
  • When the names in the Biblical genealogies denote particular persons, their connection may be only a legal one. A woman whose husband died without issue was bound by law to be married to her husband's brother, and the fist-born son of such a so-called levirate marriage was reckoned and registered as the son of the deceased brother ( Deuteronomy 25:5 sqq. ). The question proposed to Christ by the Sadducees ( Matthew 22:24 ; Mark 12:19 ; Luke 20:28 ) shows that this law was observed down to the time of Christ Such a substitution of legal for physical parentage in the Biblical genealogies does not remove the offspring from his proper family or tribe.
  • Finally, the strangers incorporated into a tribe or a family are reckoned among the descendants of the respective eponym. This custom explains the words of Jacob spoken on his death-bed ( Genesis 48:5-6 ); he ordains that the sons of Joseph, excepting Ephraim and Manasses, "shall be called by the name of their brethren in their possessions".


Generally speaking, the later genealogies were derived from written sources, either inspired or profane. For instance, the genealogy of Benjamin in I Par., vii, 6-12, is based on the data given in the Books of Genesis and Numbers; a more extensive genealogy of the same patriarch found in I Par., viii, 1-40, is based, no doubt, on written sources too, which are, however, unknown to us. As to the earlier genealogies, their veracity cannot be directly proved independently of inspiration. Written documents were used much earlier than the archaeologists of the first half of the eighteenth century believed. Moreover, very little writing was required to preserve the earliest genealogical lists, which are both rare and brief. We may grant freely that the art of writing was not known from Adam to the Flood, and for centuries after Noah. But keeping in mind the following facts, we find no difficulty in admitting oral tradition and memory as sufficient sources for these periods.

  • It has been found that the power of memory is much greater among peoples who have not learnt the art of writing.
  • Each of the genealogical lists belonging to the two periods in question contains only ten generations, so that only twenty names required to be transmitted by tradition.
  • Before the introduction of writing, two devices were employed to aid the memory ; either history was versified, or the facts were reduced to certain standard numbers. This second form was in use among the Scriptural nations. There were ten antediluvian Patriarchs, ten postdiluvian; seventy descendants of Jacob are named on the occasion of Israel's going into Egypt, though some of them were dead at that time, others had not yet been born; the ethnographical list of Genesis enumerates seventy nations, though it gives some names of little importance and omits others of great importance; I Par., ii, 3-55, gives seventy descendants of Juda ; I Par., viii, 1-28, seventy descendants of Benjamin. This device guarded against arbitrary insertion or omission of any name, though it did not fully exclude the substitution of one name for another. A possible exception against such an arrangement will be considered in the last section.


The Hebrews shared the predilection for genealogies which prevailed among all the Semitic races. Among the Arabs, for instance, no biography is complete without a long list of the hero's ancestors. They register even the lineage of their horses, esteeming their nobility according to their extraction (Cf. "Revue des deux mondes", 15 May, 1855, pp. 1775-77; Caussin de Perceval, "Essai sur l'histoire des Arabes avant l'Islamisme", Paris, 1844-48). Among the Hebrews such genealogical lists were of still high importance for the following reasons:

  • According to the Mosaic enactments, the Palestinian soil was given over to definite tribes and families. In order to recover, in the year of the jubilee, these family possessions, the claimant had to prove his legal descent.
  • The nearest kinship conferred among the Hebrews the rights of the so-called Goel. Lev., xxv, 25, and Ruth, iv, 1-6, show some of the advantages implied in this right. The term Goel is rendered in the Latin Vulgate propinquus or proximus ; in the English version it is translated by "kinsman".
  • Again, the priests and Levites had to prove their legal descent in order to fulfil the honourable and remunerative functions of their respective offices. On returning from the Babylonian Captivity several were excluded from the priestly class because they could not prove their Levitical pedigree ( Ezra 2:62 ; Nehemiah 7:64 ). Josephus (Vit., I) appeals to the priestly registers and is proud of the royal descent of his mother; he shows that even the priests residing in Egypt had their sons registered authentically in Jerusalem, so as to safeguard their priestly prerogatives (C. Apion., I, vii).
  • Finally, the prophecy that the Messias was to be born of the tribe of Juda and the house of David rendered the genealogy of this family most important. Eusebius (Hist. Eccl., III, xix, 20) relates on the authority of Hegesippus that Domitian (A. D. 81-96) put to death all the descendants of David, excepting the relatives of Christ on account of their lowly condition.


It cannot be denied that some of the genealogical links are omitted in the Biblical lists; even St. Matthew had to employ this device in order to arrange the ancestors of Christ in three series of fourteen each. At first sight such omissions may seem to be at variance with Biblical inerrancy, because the single members of the genealogical lists are connected by the noun son or the verb beget. But neither of these links creates a real difficulty:

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  • The wide meaning of the noun son in the genealogies is shown in Matt., i, 1: " Jesus Christ , the son of David, the son of Abraham ". This phrase prepares the reader for the view that the noun son may connect a person with any one of his ancestors, however remote.
  • As to the verb beget , some writers maintain that the Hiphil form of its Hebrew equivalent refers to the immediate offspring, while its Qal form may denote a more remote generation. But this contention does not rest on any solid foundation. It is true that the Hiphil form occurs in Gen., v and xi; it is also true that the successive links of the genealogies in these two chapters appear to exclude any intermediate generation. But this is only apparent. Unless it be certain from other sources that the Hebrew in question signifies the begetting of an immediate offspring, Gen., v, 15, for instance, may just as well mean that Malaleel at the age of sixty- five begot the grandfather of Jared as that he begot Jared immediately. The same holds true of the other Patriarchs mentioned in the above two chapters. Nor can it be urged that such an interpretation would destroy the chronology of the Patriarchs; for the inspired writer did not intend to transmit a chronology.

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