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The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.


    This entry consists of two articles, the first on genealogies in the Hebrew Bible, especially in the book of Genesis, and the second on geneologies in the New Testament.

    Hebrew Bible

    A genealogy is a catalogue of the most important information about the successive members of a family's lineage, including their birth, marriage, offspring, age achieved, and death (with many variations). This listing of biographical facts serves to preserve the continuity of a family in its progression through time. Genesis 11.10–11 (P) is an example of a simple genealogy: “These are the descendants of Shem. When Shem was one hundred years old, he became the father of Arpachshad two years after the flood; and Shem lived after the birth of Arpachshad five hundred years, and had other sons and daughters.” Originally, genealogies simply preserved a family's generational succession; later they also came to express kinship and social, political, and religious relationships, as well as connections within larger communities.

    Genealogies are an independent genre whose origins go back to nomadic tribes; evidence is found mainly among Arab nomads and African tribes, in some cases to this day. They represent the history of a “prehistoric” period and lose their function after the creation of a state, to be replaced by historical facts.

    There are two main types of genealogy. In the linear form, family heads are given in a straight progression from the founder of the clan down to the last or currently living representative; this serves simply to establish the lineage of the latest descendant. The other form follows the diverging branches of a family and exhibits the divisions among the communities descended from the sons of a single ancestor (e.g., Noah in Gen. 10). Genealogies, which were transmitted orally, are intrinsically mutable; changes in the relationships of groups within a larger community are expressed as changes in their genealogies. This capacity for change explains the contradictions between some genealogies: they reflect actual developments in the history of such groups.

    Genealogies are an important component of the Bible and of Genesis in particular, establishing the continuity of events through the succession of generations. The original locus of genealogy is the history of the ancestors in Genesis 12–50, where generational succession provides the framework for the narrative; subsequently, genealogies were used in accounts of primeval history as well. In religious‐historical terms, this corresponds to the depiction of cosmogony as theogony; in some religions, as in those of Egypt and Mesopotamia, the origin of the world and its elements is attributed to a succession of divine births. An echo of this can still be found in the Hebrew designation of creation as tôlēdôt (“generations” in the literal sense) of heaven and earth (Gen. 1.1). Genealogies, however, occur in the Bible only after the creation of humankind; primeval events have been shifted from divine to human history. The genealogies in Genesis depict all of humanity as the effect of the creator's blessing, from Adam to Noah (chap. 5: linear genealogy) and then branching out from Noah's sons to cover the entire known world (chap. 10: branching genealogy). These genealogies knit the individual accounts of primeval events in Genesis 1–11 into a coherent narrative.

    Genealogies enclose the history of the ancestors as a whole, as well as framing each of the smaller sections (chaps. 12–25 and 25–36); they thus serve as formal elements in the composition of narrative units. Narratives sometimes begin and/or end with genealogies (e.g., Gen. 34; Ruth 1.2; 4.18–22). Genealogical information delineates the lives of Abraham and his sons. A genealogy marks the transition from primeval times to the history of the ancestors (Shem to Terah in Gen. 11.10–26 and Terah's sons in 11.27–32). Difficulties concerning the genealogies within the ancestral history arise primarily because they reflect two stages: first, the development of a small kinship group (as in Gen. 25.19–20), and second, the formation of the tribes (e.g., the twelve sons of Jacob as the fathers of the later twelve tribes of Israel).

    In earlier stages of the development of the genre, genealogy and narrative are more tightly integrated. Genealogical information anchors the narrative in a continuous temporal progression. One can merge into the other; a narrative frequently grows out of an item in a genealogy. The proximity of genealogy to narrative is demonstrated in the short elaborations within genealogies, including references to an occupation, as in Genesis 4.2 and 10.9; mention of a contemporaneous event, as in 10.25; or a remark concerning childlessness, as in 11.30. Thus, in the early stages, genealogies contained quite a few narrative elements. In subsequent traditions (P in particular), they follow a fixed format of identical or near‐identical sentences, as in Genesis 5.6–8: “When Seth had lived one hundred five years, he became the father of Enoch. Seth lived after the birth of Enoch eight hundred seven years, and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Seth were nine hundred twelve years; and he died.” Though limited to a few facts, this form still preserves the life histories of those making up the chain of generations. In a final, later stage, all that remains is a list of names—no longer genealogy in the true sense of the word. A variant development is illustrated by the story of Joseph, in which genealogy has so completely merged with the narrative as to lose its independent existence.

    The developmental phases of the genre of genealogy can be observed in the line of Esau's descendants (Gen. 36), where a kinship phase (his sons) is followed by one of tribes (the chiefs) and then by one of kings; the format changes accordingly.

    After the formation of a state, genealogies, having been reduced to mere lists, tend to lose their importance. In a monarchy, they serve a political function in securing the succession to the throne; for a priesthood they have religious significance in securing succession to sacred office. In these contexts, genealogies still play a role in the life of the community; the lists of names in 1 Chronicles 1–9, however, are a purely literary device.

    See also Chronology, article on Israelite Chronology


    Claus Westermann

    New Testament

    The New Testament contains two genealogies of Jesus: one in Matthew 1.1–16, which traces his descent from Abraham, and one in Luke 3.23–38, which reverses the order. While Greek New Testament), there are 11 × 7 generations from Adam to Jesus (that is, from Adam to Abraham, 3 × 7 generations; from Isaac to David, 2 × 7 generations; from Nathan to Salathiel (preexilic), 3 × 7 generations; from Zerubbabel (postexilic) to Jesus, 3 × 7 generations). Other Greek manuscripts, the Latin Vulgate, and the Syriac Peshitta record 76 generations, and some Latin manuscripts list 72 generations. Most likely Luke traces Jesus' genealogy back through Abraham to Adam to show that Jesus is not only the fulfillment of the history of Israel, but also that he is the savior of the world.

    Many attempts have been made to reconcile the two genealogies, which after David agree in only two names (Shealtiel [Salathiel] and Zerubbabel). Because none of these attempts have been generally accepted, it is likely that these inconsistent genealogies serve separate literary functions and are not to be interpreted like modern registers of pedigree. Matthew's genealogy is meant to show Jesus' Davidic, royal descent, and Luke's to underscore the universal role of Jesus as Son of God.

    The word genealogy occurs twice in a disparaging sense: in 1 Timothy 1.4 (“endless genealogies that promote speculations”), and in Titus 3.9 (“avoid … genealogies … for they are unprofitable”). Because the larger contexts refer to myths, the allusions may be to the various emanations (“aeons”) between God and humankind in gnostic belief. Or, since Titus 1.14 relates to Jewish myths and 1 Timothy 1.7 calls into question the claims of those who desire to be teachers of the Law, the genealogies referred to may be based on biblical sources but elaborated in the same way as the Book of Jubilees and more generally aggadah.

    Bruce M. Metzger

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