Why Bother Reading the Lists in the Bible?

You don’t have to go far in either the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament before you hit them—those lists of unpronounceable names! The lists and genealogies in the Bible have been a source of much consternation (and sometimes merriment) as hapless readers struggle through exotic and multisyllabic Middle Eastern names in their Bible study groups. Do we really have to bother with these lists? Is it so bad to just skip them?

They may be a tongue-twisting challenge, but there can be great benefits to studying the lists in the Bible. Quite often there are treasures buried in the driest, hardest places in God’s word, hidden for those who love the Bible enough to start digging. When it comes to tricky passages, we can say the words Jacob said when wrestling the Angel of the Lord: “I will not let you go until you bless me!”

Names mean something

The first thing to point out is that Hebrew names all have meanings—often rich, deep, spiritual meanings. When you know what the meanings of the names are, there are often great insights into the passage itself, or even another message that God wants to convey. These things have not come about by accident. When looking at the meanings of the names in the genealogy in Genesis 5, Chuck Missler found something rather remarkable. He made a note of the meaning of each of the names in the list in Genesis and found that it seemed to be telling the story of the gospel!

Adam = Man
Seth = Appointed
Enosh = Mortal
Kenan = Sorrow
Mahalalel = The Blessed God
Jared = Will come down
Enoch = Teaching / education
Methuselah = His death shall bring
Lamech = The despairing
Noah = Comfort

Thinking about the meanings of the names in the Bible can bring new understanding to passages, or even, like in this case, give a clue about the meta-narrative that God is telling. Moses, Joshua, David and others all have names which greatly enhance the significance of the story—and the wider story of redemption – when you know what they mean. We are so blessed to live in an age when anyone can easily look up these meanings in seconds, and find new insights in familiar Biblical passages.

Lists and genealogies are evidence that the Bible is no fairy tale

Consider the profound difference between “Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, lived a king…” and the Biblical way of introducing a story:

“The words of Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah, one of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, to whom the word of the Lord came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. It came also in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, and until the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah, the son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month.” (Jeremiah 1:1-3)

Instead of the vague introductions of myths and legends, the Biblical insistence on telling you not just one but often several generations of relatives, on clarifying the tribe and clan, specifying the exact year and month (and sometimes day), giving the timing in reference to other events (the reign of a certain king, the captivity of Jerusalem, and so on) is an indication that the author expects their readers to accept what they are saying as historical fact. They provide abundant and verifiable data because they are giving an account of what actually happened, and want you to be sure of that. Lists of people, numbers and places are a sign of authenticity. Through examination of verifiable names and places in the New Testament, scholars can show that the gospels are eyewitness accounts, and not fabrications. Similarly, thanks to the information given to us in such great detail, study of the Bible is made a lot easier when trying to build timelines and understand family trees. Archaeologists and historians use the Bible as a source for these reasons.

Ask yourself, who would put lists in a story they had made up? It is not a good fiction writing device, and makes for a rather dull story. No – these were real people in real places, and these lists are historical records. They catalog important aspects of the history of Israel.

Tracing through the generations shows God’s faithfulness

1 Chronicles 26 is a chapter of names, which many might overlook, but it has a treasure inside:

“Obed-edom had sons: Shemaiah the firstborn, Jehozabad the second, Joah the third, Sacar the fourth, Nethanel the fifth, Ammiel the sixth, Issachar the seventh, and Peullethai the eighth, (for God had blessed him). To his son Shemaiah were born sons who were leaders of their clans, for they were men of great ability. The sons of Shemaiah: Othni, Rephael, Obed and Elzabad. His brothers Elihu and Semachiah were also valiant men. All these were descendants of Obed-edom. They and their sons and their kinsmen were capable men with the strength to do the work—62 of Obed-edom.” (1 Chronicles 26:4-8)

Dull list of names, right? Unless you know who Obed-edom is. In 2 Samuel 6, we have the story of David trying to move the ark of the covenant from Kiryat Jearim to Jerusalem, and they had the brilliant idea of putting it on wheels instead of carrying it on the shoulders of priests as God required. The cart wobbled at one point, Uzziel reached out to steady it, and died on the spot. David felt this was extremely harsh and essentially sulked about it for a few months before getting over the incident and trying again – this time taking care to carry it the way that God had prescribed back in Exodus. But where was the ark for the duration of those few months? David decided to put it in the house of Obed-edom.

“David was not willing to take the ark of the Lord into the city of David, but took it aside to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. And the ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months, and the Lord blessed Obed-edom and all his household.” (2 Samuel 6:10-11)

So basically, Obed-edom hosted the ark of the Lord for three months, and we are told that God “blessed him”. But many generations later, if we are paying attention and remember the names, we can see that this blessing of God was profound, and lasted for generations! The list in 1 Chronicles 26 tells us that he had eight sons because God had blessed him, that they were men of great ability, and that their descendants were also valiant men, capable and strong in the service of the Lord.

Moreover, Obed-edom was a Gittite, from Gath. Most scholars agree that this means he was Philistine! In 1 Samuel, the Philistines steal the ark and come to bitterly regret it, so they send it back with five golden offerings, one for each Philistine king, one of whom was king of Gath, but when we look at the list in Chronicles, we see that Obed-edom the Gittite and his descendents have been elevated to serve as Levites in the house of the Lord. What an honour, and what great blessing came upon that man and his family. It testifies to the power of God’s blessing on whole families and across generations.

When God blesses a family, it has a powerful and lasting effect that you might not know about if you always skipped those lists.

Details are included in the lists of the Bible to make points

Sometimes it is the case that a list is in full flow, and suddenly it seems to be interrupted by an apparently irrelevant detail. These details are never irrelevant! They are signs to prick up our ears and pay attention to what God wants to say.

An example is the random inclusion of the prayer of Jabez, a jewel that you might easily miss if you were a serial list-skipper (and had somehow missed the flurry of books on the subject, promising health and wealth). Again, Jabez’s name carries great significance—we are told in 1 Chronicles 4:9 that “his mother called his name Jabez, saying, “Because I bore him in pain.”” The letters are the same, but they are switched up in a different order—sadness is etzev and his name in Hebrew is yevetz. Jabez was not willing to let his fate be fixed by this curse over his life, and asked God to turn things around to blessing: just as his name was “sadness” turned around, so was his destiny!

“Jabez called upon the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!” And God granted what he asked.”

How about that?
It is in the middle of an apparently hum drum rundown of who got what bit of land in Joshua 17 that we see some shocking cultural taboos about women smashed. Inheritance in Middle Eastern cultures traditionally goes only to men, but in the Bible, God authorises women as heirs too! The story is jarring to the reader both in the flow of the lists and also in our expectations.

And by the way, another treat is the discovery of the background to the Esther story—when we find out who the ancestors of Mordecai the Jew and the evil Haman are, the story takes on a whole new dimension.

There are several treasures like this, snuck in between lists of names and numbers that are worth finding. Sometimes the message is not immediately obvious, but if we ask God to show us why he put that short story in there, and do the work of digging, it’s amazing what jewels can be found.

Yeshua’s genealogy is a story in itself

One of the first things to notice when reading the very first chapter of the New Testament (after noting that God decided to start with yet another list) is that this genealogy contains a decidedly significant number of women. The lists often skip women altogether, but not this list. Not only is the number of women significant, but also the women themselves are very significant people, each with an important story to tell, and reason why they are included in the genealogy of Yeshua. The five women are: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, wife of Uriah, and Mary, mother of Yeshua.

Initially one might find it shocking to see the Bible carefully noting these women: one who pretended to be a prostitute to lure her father-in-law to sleep with her, another was actually a prostitute, then there’s the Moabite who had been previously married, there’s someone else’s wife who had become pregnant from the extramarital carry-ons while still married, and Mary, a young, unmarried mother. They certainly seem the sort of stories one might see in a soap opera. But just as Mary’s story was wrongly judged to be the height of scandal by those around her at the time, these other women are also highly favoured by God, and he took the trouble to note their names in order to give them honour.

Of Tamar, Judah admits in Genesis 38:26, “She is more righteous than I”. She has a rough time in that family, but the Bible says not a single negative word about her. She is esteemed in words but also in being part of the “scarlet cord of salvation” that runs through the Bible leading up to the birth of Yeshua as the midwife symbolically ties a scarlet cord around the foot of the one of her twins. Rahab the prostitute is honoured as a heroine of faith for believing in the God of Israel and her willingness to hide the Israelite spies. She too gets a red cord in her story, as the spies tell her, “tie this line of scarlet thread in the window” (Joshua 2:18). Despite the fact that she is not an Israelite, she ends up joining the tribe of Judah by marrying Salmon, and becoming the mother of Boaz, who went on to marry Ruth the Moabite, of whom the Bible has nothing but praise. Their grandson, David, then grabs the wife of Uriah, Bathsheba, and they give birth to Solomon. It is interesting that her name is not in the genealogy, but rather her husband’s name, highlighting David’s sin, but again, the Bible does not attribute blame to Bathsheba. And finally Mary, whose purity has been so elevated that some people seem to forget she was just as human as the rest of us!

The twists and turns of Yeshua’s genealogy show us that God esteems both men and women, Jews and gentiles, the pure and the prostitute. He is the Messiah of all.

So next time you find yourself up against a list, don’t skip it, but linger a while, and see what you find in what looks like dry and dusty ground.

Photo by Luke Palmer on Unsplash

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