Should you open the Bible to 1 Chronicles, you will find:
17 The sons of Shem: Elam, Asshur, Arpachshad, Lud, and Aram. And the sons of Aram: Uz, Hul, Gether, and Meshech.
18 Arpachshad fathered Shelah, and Shelah fathered Eber.
19 To Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg (for in his days the earth was divided), and his brother’s name was Joktan.
20 Joktan fathered Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah,
21 Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah,
22 Obal, Abimael, Sheba,
23 Ophir, Havilah, and Jobab; all these were the sons of Joktan.
1 Chronicles 1:17-23. It goes more or less in the same manner for pages. How is one supposed to understand such lists?
Calvin begins the Institutes of the Christian Religion with the observation that our knowledge consists of knowing God and knowing ourselves in relation to God (this is a gross simplification, but sufficient for our purposes). Gerald Bray in his book God is Love takes Calvin’s observation, turns it into three questions and then applies the questions to the text.
Bray first notes that a Christian must “make spiritual sense of passages like these” (59). Therefore, he asks three questions.
First question: “What do the genealogies reveal about God?” You see in the lists the names of human beings going from generation to generation — hundreds upon hundreds and thousands upon thousand whom God did not forget. Since the genealogies occur in the context of God’s dealings with humanity in light of God’s covenants, the genealogies, “tell us that he is a faithful Lord, who keeps his covenant from generation to another” (59). In Ecclesiastes 1:4, Qoheleth writes, A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
But above and greater than even the earth is the Creator of heaven and earth who remains faithful despite our failings:
11 The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
12 if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us;
13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful- for he cannot deny himself.
2 Timothy 2:11-13.
Second question, “What do the genealogies say about us?” Look at the lists: the men and women are nothing more than words, funny sounds – but we do not attach the sounds to any human being. Thus, the answer to Bray’s question is, “[F]rom the worlds point of view, most of us are nobodies” (59). That is a painful observation, but true.
It is painful, because we all know that we must be more valuable than to be a “nobody” — and yet, in the end, most of will be invisible to history. And even those who will be written down will become more and more obscure over time. Proof: Quick, name any ruler of the Hittite Empire.
Now, note Bray’s answer: It is in the eyes of all humanity that we are nobody — but the memory of the world is not the whole story. Think again: What if these men and women did not exist? What if they died without children? God has kept his words among human beings; and God has exercised his power before human beings, “We are part of a great cloud of witnesses, a long chain of faithful people who have lived for God in the place where he put them.”
Now, this does not end the analysis: There is knowledge of God and knowledge of humanity — there is also the point of interaction, “Finally, what do the genealogies say about God’s dealings with us?”
Before you jump to his answer, think for a moment. God has not abandoned history to blind forces. God has not gone far away and forgotten (even when we fear that we may be lost to space and time). But these lists tell us plainly that God has not forgotten, “They tell us that we are called to be obedient and to keep the faith we have inherited, passing it on to the next generation. They tell us that there is a purpose in our callings that goes beyond us” (59).
In short, while the genealogies demonstrate that we may be little in the eyes of men and women with little memory and little understanding; they also tell us that we part of the greater story of God’s work in the world.
There is then an application, We know that we exist for great things. We know that our life must be more than sensation, food, sleep. We all understand that there should be some magnificent about us. We desire such things, because we were made for such things. It was built into us when God created us:
3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
4 what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?
5 Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.
6 You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet,
7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
Psalm 8:3-8. We were created as the capstone of creation — we were created in the image of God. Now sin and death have obscured that image, but the stamp is not gone. Indeed, God’s covenant and end have been directed toward restoring that image:
9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices
10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.
11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
Colossians 3:9-11. Thus, when one is found in Christ, the gruesome weight of history which wears us down to invisibility is undone in Christ. Sin’s dominion is ended in the death of Christ. The waste of death is overcome in the resurrection of Christ. Alienation gone in the reconciliation of God and human beings in Jesus Christ. The genealogies with their endless story of death and death point us toward the need of Christ.