Genealogies have something to say, but readers seldom listen! Without the advantage of narrative’s lively detail and arousing pathos, genealogies are often overlooked by preachers like passersby who ignore a voiceless mute amidst a crowd. Since genealogies are static, lacking the features of good storytelling, they are usually avoided.
Developed protagonists, plot entanglements, and satisfying denouements — which together give narrative its momentum and resolve — are absent in genealogy. There are no foils, no tensions, no conclusions. Readers see only the catalogue of names and cannot touch the flesh and blood of their characters. As outsiders we cannot know them; they are one-dimensional figures without the depth of portrait provided by physical description, emotional makeup, and situational activity.
Since genealogies are limited in their communicative powers, many preachers fail to appreciate the literary value they contribute to the larger narratives in which they are embedded. They are often extricated from the narrative by scholars and thereby treated as extraneous members which have been added because of someone’s antiquarian interests. In other words, genealogies are thought to disrupt good stories!
Genealogies and Literary Studies
New methodologies in biblical study, however, are resuscitating the “sepulchers” of genealogies. Rhetorical criticism, narratology, and discourse analyses are giving renewed priority to the present shape of narrative discourse without regard to how those discourses came to be, i.e., the history of their putative sources. This shift from source analysis to the study of the present makeup of biblical writings has caused many scholars to appreciate anew the literary integrity of biblical compositions.
These newer studies focusing on literary wholes are also beneficial to biblical preaching, because we are recovering the rhetorical devices that highlight for us the central thematic interests of narratives. Therefore, we are learning what should be emphasized in our preaching.
Genealogies and Narratives
Genealogies, when given their rightful due, become a resourceful factor in understanding narrative. We can learn from the example of the archaeologist who uses grave sites in reconstructing the history of an ancient mound. A cemetery can tell him something of a community’s life and contribute to, if not authenticate, written records.
In a similar fashion, genealogies supplement a narrative. They accomplish this by giving parenthetical information, by explaining a narrative’s events, or by contributing to a narrative’s message(s). They can even move the action of a narrative ahead or provide a satisfying denouement.
Genealogies are like archaeological remains waiting to be excavated. Preachers mistreat narrative when they omit or disregard the impact of the genealogy on the narrative and, in turn, the narrative on the genealogy. Narrative informs genealogy and genealogy informs narrative.
How to Preach Genealogies
Let me suggest four procedural steps toward discovering the preaching values of a genealogy. All genealogies can be approached by these same steps, but for illustration I will briefly relate each step to the genealogy of Seth (Gen. 5).
1. Consider the Structure and Theme of the Biblical Book. It is imperative that expositors have a grasp of the book’s literary structure so that they can learn how a genealogy is related to the story-line and discover how the biblical writer uses it to contribute to the purpose of the composition. In order to learn the literary role of the genealogy, the expositor must know the themes and theological interests of the book. When these are put together, the expositor will see how a genealogy functions in concert with the narrative’s story-line to communicate the truth values the author holds in esteem.
Turning to our example of Genesis 5, we discover that Genesis uses genealogies to mark off sections of the book by closing out a topic or initiating a new one. Genealogies in Genesis therefore tend to be transitional, tying together literary pieces at the seams of the book. They repeat information and anticipate new events to follow.
The theme of Genesis is God’s fulfilled promise of blessing. The primeval history begins with the promise of blessing to humankind (1:26-28) and continues to trace God’s blessing on His created order down to the founding of the Table of Nations (Gen. 10-11). In the patriarchal cycles (Gen. 12-50), these motifs are recast in the calling of Abraham and his descendants.
The Seth genealogy is transitional, linking Adam with Noah who becomes the focal figure of the next episode, the Flood story. It continues the themes of Genesis 1-3: (1) Human life uniquely bears the image of God (1:26); this unique relationship is perpetuated through Seth who also bears God’s image (5:1-3). (2) Human life is promised the blessing of multiplication and the privilege of rule (1:27-28; 2:8-9); Seth’s lengthy genealogy shows abundant progeny and long life. (3) Although sin has meant the consequence of death, an offspring of the woman will deliver our first parents from their misery (3:15); the idea of a human vindicator is reminiscent in the naming of Noah (“comfort”) who it is hoped shall relieve humanity from its toil (5:29). Genesis 5 then is a tribute to God’s continued blessing in spite of Adam’s sin and Cain’s murder of Abel. A righteous seed has been preserved with the hope of a better future.
2. Consider the Immediate Context. The next step is to recognize the way a genealogy fits into the flow of the immediate narrative. The specifics of the genealogy are given significance by how they contribute to the story-line of the narrative. For instance, Genesis 5 is meant to correspond to the genealogy of Cain (4:17-24) by contrasting the wicked descendants of Cain and the righteous lineage of Seth. Lamech of the Cainites (4:23-24) and Enoch of the Sethites (5:21-24) are representatives of the spiritual character of their respective families. The purpose of the formal, stylized progression of the Seth genealogy is to emphasize even by its format that the righteous seed lived in harmony and enjoyed long life.
3. Formulate Principles. The crucial task is to build a bridge from your observations of the ancient text to the needs of the present hearer. After the preacher knows how the genealogy contributes to the advancement of the author’s thematic interests, the expositor will be able to formulate theological principles drawn from the interplay of the genealogy and the narrative. Here are some principles that chapter 5 contributes:
a. Genesis 3 teaches that the consequences of sin are death and human misery. The genealogy emphatically testifies to the truthfulness of God’s warning that sinners will die (cf. the refrain “and he died”).
b. However, God is faithful to His promise of blessing too and therefore Seth’s genealogy shows the fruition of the human family and the blessing of long life. God is gracious to human life in spite of sin and has a righteous witness in spite of evil’s triumphs (cf. Seth takes the place of Abel).
c. Righteous conduct reaps the reward of God (cf. Enoch’s destiny).
d. Since the genealogy reflects a plan for continued blessing from Adam to Noah, it indicates that the purpose of history is salvific and God has a sovereign design for the course of the world. Although the genealogy sweeps over thousands of years and generations of saints, it is the lives of individuals who constitute the masterplan of God and therefore every life — small or great — impacts society’s direction for good or ill.
These principles will be obvious to the expositor who has meditated upon the results of the first two steps of the study. Many more thematic threads of the book can be recognized in the weave of this genealogy, because they are the same as those of the larger context which hold the book together. An understanding of the book’s storyline and theological purpose prepares the congregation to appreciate the import of the genealogy. For this reason, exposing a congregation to a series of sermons progressing systematically through a biblical book makes it easier for the audience to recognize the value of a genealogy.
4. Apply to the Christian Setting. Now the preacher can relate these principles to a present audience by applying them to the Christian’s context.
Of course, when you have specific names of the Old Testament occurring in the New Testament, it is easier to see a connection, such as Abraham or David related to Jesus. But these kinds of observations are still only informational; the preacher has yet to explicate the importance of the observation and derive a universal principle from it.
The goal is to state universal principles which are meaningful to God’s people in any age and then apply them to the needs of your present audience. Let me restate very simply the four theological principles formulated above as principles for a Christian congregation today.
a. Because men and women are sinners, they suffer the consequences of sin. Physical death is the outward evidence that humankind experiences spiritual death and alienation from God (Rom. 5:12-21). But the Christian message of hope is that God shall crush Satan (Rom. 16:20) and provide escape from the final consequences of sin through faith in the atoning work of the Savior (Rom. 3:24-25).
b. God’s promise of salvation and life through Christ will not be thwarted by human failure or invention; God will always have a righteous seed through whom He will reach out to the world. Today, the Christian’s witness is that vehicle whereby God’s blessing of salvation can be known (Rom. 10:10-15).
c. God’s blessings are extended to those who are righteous, faithful disciples. For those who walk with God, there is the assurance of eternal life, the inner strength of spiritual peace, and the presence of joy (Phil. 4:4-7; 2 Pet. 1:3-4).
d. God is concerned about individual godliness and not just the movements of nations; godly individuals make up the world’s stage for salvation (1 Pet. 2:11-12).
These four steps are only preparatory; the presentation of the sermon will be enhanced when you integrate the results of each step as you preach the genealogy expositionally. This is the most difficult challenge for any preacher who must move naturally from the “what” of the text to the “why” of the author and then the “so what” of the hearer.
Book of Ruth: Story and Genealogy
To illustrate how genealogies can augment our preaching of an Old Testament story, let’s consider the well-known story of Ruth and see how the concluding genealogy interacts with the story-line.
To appreciate the relationship of the genealogy to the story’s structure, we must first be aware of the story’s strategy for portraying the episodes of the narrative. It is widely recognized that Ruth is chiastic (inverted) in structure. While there are varying schemes proposed by scholars, I have found the following one simple and effective in preaching:
A The Family of Elimelech (1:1-5)
B The Women of Elimelech and the Questioning of Bethlehem (1:6-23)
C Barley Field (2:1-22)
C’ Threshing Floor (3:1-18)
B’ The Men of Elimelech and the Blessing of Bethlehem (4:1-17)
A’ The Family of Elimelech’s Kinsman (4:18-22)
The six units (or “legs”) are matching pairs which contain parallel settings, events, and themes. By reading these episodes as paired entities, that is A with A’ and so forth, it becomes apparent that the second half of each pair rounds out or completes the first. At the semantic (“meaning”) level, the relationship between the two parts of the paired legs is one of problem-resolution. The staging episodes (A, B, C) depict the problem while the corresponding episodes (A’, B’, C) present the resolution. The story told in this way gives a sense of cohesion and satisfies the reader that all the loose ends are accounted for.
Since the genealogy is matched with the opening verses, it is imperative for the preacher to view the genealogy from the perspective of the first unit.
The Role of the Ruth Narrative
Ruth 1:1-5 describes the migration of the Elimelech family from Bethlehem to Moab where soon thereafter Elimelech dies. His two sons marry Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah, but they, too, die without warning — leaving behind their mother Naomi and their Moabite widows without the benefit of a male protector or benefactor. Although only five verses, the passage covers ten years in Moab; more importantly, it relates the destitute condition of Naomi and the end of the family.
The ensuing story will depict the reversal of the family’s troubles. When Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem, they discover the existence of a relative, named Boaz, who at the request of Ruth agrees to fulfill the role of a family-supporter by marrying Ruth and by purchasing the property of Elimelech.
Although the central characters from the audience’s perspective are Ruth and Boaz, the thematic thread that knits together the story’s episodes is the character Naomi. The theme of the story is God’s beneficent intervention in the calamity of Naomi’s life.
The focus in the first two legs of the story’s chiasmus (A and B) is Naomi’s sorrowful state as a result of the deaths of the Elimelech men. Her own evaluation best summarizes her situation: “I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty” (1:21). Naomi’s condition will be changed by the good fortunes of Boaz whose actions secure for the Elimelech family both property and progeny.
The problem occurring in 1:1-5 therefore is integral to the whole story-line. Succinctly stated, the problem was that without a male heir the family’s prospects were threatened. This jeopardy occurs at three levels: (1) the personal level. (2) the cultural/theological level, and (3) the historical level.
First, Naomi has been touched at the two most devastating points in human experience, the loss of husband and child. From the perspective of the ancient world, a woman’s worth was largely tied to the productivity of her womb; therefore with the loss of her sons her social value was gone. Also, because women were dependent upon male assistance in those days, the deaths of her husband and sons threatened her personal security. Suddenly Naomi’s personal worth and security were lost.
Second, the people of Israel enjoyed the favor of God’s blessing through land propriety; the land became the single most important sign of a family’s claim to covenantal blessing. The land was the gift of God to those who had faithfully dispossessed the Canaanite populace. With the loss of male representation, the land of the Elimelech family was jeopardized and with it their claim to God’s covenant promises.
Third, at the historical level, the death of the Elimelech men meant a fatal break between the patriarchal fathers and the kings of Israel. For the royal house of David, its dynastic origins and claims were dependent upon linkage with the covenantal blessings of the patriarchs; unless this interruption could be repaired the monarchy was cut free from Israel’s past.
The Role of the Genealogy
The second step is to study the genealogy itself. The corresponding unit is the final verses of the book (4; 18-22) which consist of the genealogy of King David; like the royal genealogies of the ancient Near East, it is a schematic consisting of the customary ten-name pattern. Of these names, three are given more significance by the arrangement of the scheme and therefore are names for the preacher’s special attention.
The first and last names in the list are naturally prominent. These are the names of “Perez” and “David.” In addition, the author has marked the prominence of “Boaz” as the most important. In a royal, ten-name genealogy, the name in the seventh position is known to be the one of prominence. In the Davidic lineage, “Boaz” occurs in that privileged place:
(1) Perez
(2) Hezron
(3) Ram
(4) Amminadab
(5) Nahshon
(6) Salmon
(7) Boaz
(8) Obed
(9) Jesse
(10) David
These three characters are the ones who are instrumental in resolving the problems indicated in the beginning unit. The existence and configuration show by implication the resolutions to those problems.
First, the name of Boaz is the genealogy’s focal concern since he provided a male heir who could become a protector for Naomi in the future. Through these two men (not her own two sons!), Boaz and Obed, she would find her personal satisfaction and future security. The narrative bears this out, because the child is declared to be Naomi’s: “Behold, a child has been born to Naomi!” (4:7 7). Therefore, at the personal level, Naomi’s tragedy is remedied.
Second, Boaz has produced the necessary heir to perpetuate family property in the house of Elimelech, solving the cultural/theological crisis. This too is proven by the narrative where we are told that Boaz purchased the property holdings of Elimelech and his sons (4:9).
Finally, the names of “Perez” and “David” indicate the uninterrupted line from the patriarchs to the monarchy. Perez was the son of Judah (Genesis 38:29) whose patriarchal roots lie in the covenantal blessing (cf. the blessing of Jacob in Gen. 49). Perez’s importance is alluded to already in the narrative where the elders of Bethlehem pray that God might give Boaz a fruitful house like that of “Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah” (4:12).
Of course, the name “David” speaks volumes to the reader; in him rests the hope of the nation. Christian readers will remember the beginning words of the New Testament and see even more at stake: “These are the generations of Jesus Christ, the son of David and the son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1).
The genealogy then rounds out the narrative, making the story have a satisfying, long-standing denouement to the crises created by the story. And, in turn, the narrative makes the ten-name genealogy mean far more than a simple catalog of names.
Preaching Values
Next, the expositor will formulate principles based on these observations. What do we learn from this genealogy that can be shared with our congregations? The principles we relate to our listeners are timeless helps. Here are but a few: (1) God answers the personal, individual needs of His people in the midst of difficulty; (2) God is concerned about each person and each detail of our lives since through the small things of life He accomplishes His perfect plan for the ages; (3) what many times appear to be our darkest hours will be the avenue for brighter experiences; (4) our decisions in life not only affect those immediately around us but also future generations, and therefore every decision we make is important; and (5) God’s salvific work is an orchestrated one which cannot be frustrated by life’s cruel circumstances. The final step is to take these principles and others that you have discovered and apply them to your congregation.
The Ruth genealogy is a resounding tribute to God’s providential care in the lives of simple believers and at the same time a testimony to His sovereign design for future generations and nations. The Seth genealogy is a monument to the truthfulness of God and His continued commitment to saving a righteous remnant among the nations. Biblical genealogies are not silent after all.

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