If you clicked on this post—what is wrong with you? Step back for a moment and think about it: you clicked on a post about genealogies! Seriously. Go find something to do.
If you’re still here, thanks for hanging around. Just promise me later today you’ll do something for yourself: take a walk outside, chase squirrels, talk to a human being, anything.
When the topic turns to Genesis 1-11, namely whether or not these chapters are “historical,” people will often kindly tolerate me as I go on and on (and on) about how those chapters aren’t really historical accounts but something else. Pick your word: metaphor, symbol, myth, legend, or whatever. Frankly, after you take “history” off the table, it doesn’t matter what you call it.
But sooner or later someone will ask, “But what about the genealogies in chapters 4, 5, 10, and 11? These aren’t stories of talking serpents or magic trees, but a record of names. Surely, this is a clear sign that the author intended to write history, not fiction. ”
Perhaps. And don’t call me Shirley.
The truth is, the appearance of names in a list does not mean we are reading “history.”
As tedious as it may sound, sit down one day and make a side-by-side list of the names (yes, you heard me) in 4:17-26 and 5:1-32. Commentaries and some study Bibles will correctly tell you that these genealogies are parallel (cover the same ground) but are not identical. These are two traditions that the editor of Genesis decided to keep, even though including them side-by-side like this is a blatant assault our modern notions of what history writing is supposed to look like (the nerve).
A second genealogical pair is found in 10:1-32 and 11:10-26. They are less parallel than the first pair, but they do cover some of the same ground and differently. (They also give two different accounts for the spread of humanity after the Flood, but I digress.)
Even Jesus has 2 genealogies that do not square up: Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-28. They are not completely different—they overlap a lot—but they are also significantly different.
Almost as if they did this on purpose. Which they did.
In fact, it’s the differences that help us see the different theological purposes of the Gospel writers.
Without getting longwinded, Matthew’s genealogy, divided into 3 neat segments of 14, goes back to Abraham and portrays Jesus as the king of David’s line who will bring an end to Israel’s exile. Luke’s genealogy overlaps with many of Matthew’s names, but is much longer and connects Jesus back to “Adam, Son of God,” perhaps to present “Jesus, Son of God” as a second Adam. (Note that the next scene in chapter 4 shows Jesus successfully resisting the devil’s temptation, unlike the first Adam’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden.)
I am not saying that genealogies are all automatically fabrications, devoid of any sort of historical memory. I actually think that is not the case. Some no doubt have genuine historical value in our sense of the word, but the degree of historicity in the genealogies is up for discussion on a case by case basis.
My bigger point here, however, is that seeing how genealogies behave takes off the table the common assumption that genealogies place us safely (whew) on historical ground and are indications of the writer’s intention to write history and so we should accept them as such.
But, frankly, we have no earthly idea what ancient writers intended, nor do we know what “historical” would have meant to them.
But whatever the writers were after exactly, the inconvenient presence of parallel genealogies is, ironically for some, biblical proof that their conception of “historical” differs markedly from ours.
Taking a step further back, the parallel genealogies are simply examples of a general pattern in the Bible for writing about the past: the inclusion of more than one version—like the 2 “accounts” of Israel’s monarchy (books of Samuel/kings and the books of Chronicles) and of Jesus’s life (4 Gospels).
The biblical writers were not “historians” writing “accounts” of the past. They were storytellers accessing past tradition to say something about their present. That includes genealogies.
Genealogies in the ancient world were not examples of a plain and simple, just the bare fact, recording of the objective past. They were—like the Bible’s handling of the past in general—creative retellings of the past where the line between history and fiction are blurred and often for us difficult, if not impossible, to discern.