A genealogy is a record of the descent of a person or group from an ancestor. Outside of Israel, genealogies rarely appear in ancient Near Eastern literature. However, the Hebrew Bible contains about 25 genealogies, suggesting their importance in ancient Israel (Wilson, vol. 2, p. 929).
In the Hebrew Bible, genealogies are found most frequently in books that deal with Israel’s early history (Genesis, Exodus) or in post-exilic books (Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah). However, this does not mean that Israelites living during the monarchy were disinterested in genealogies. Tribal ties were still important and groups such as priests, scribes, craftsmen and kings undoubtedly kept genealogies.
Scholars generally agree that the OT’s attribution of genealogical interest to the early Israelites is not an anachronism but is rooted in the social structure of the groups that formed premonarchical Israel. The narratives that deal with this period all suggest that kinship was a major organizational principle, and for this reason genealogies, which use the idiom of kinship, became an important means of expressing all sorts of social, political, and religious relationships. Because of the persistence of genealogical thinking in Israel’s later history, an understanding of the idiom of genealogy is important for an accurate comprehension of the OT examples of the genre. (Wilson, vol. 2, p. 930)
The genealogies of the Hebrew Bible come in a couple of forms:
- A segmented genealogy will start with a single parent and will show the relationship of his children to each other (e.g., Genesis 35:22-26; Numbers 26:5-51). This kind of genealogy will have both a horizontal and vertical element to it.
- A linear genealogy simply connects an individual with an ancestor by listing the names that connect the two people (e.g., 1 Chronicles 9:10-13). This kind of genealogy has a vertical element only.
However, the distinction between segmented and linear genealogies is not absolute and the two forms can be mixed (e.g., 1 Chronicles 6). Moreover, genealogies may be given in descending order from parent to child (e.g., 1 Chronicles 9:39-44) or in ascending order from child to parent (1 Chronicles 9:14-16).
All genealogies, whether oral or written, are characterized by fluidity. Where two or more versions of the same genealogy exist, it is usually possible to detect changes in the relationship of names within the genealogy or to note the deletion or addition of names. This sort of fluidity may occur because the names involved are unimportant and thus liable to be forgotten or at least to be poorly remembered. On the other hand, fluidity may be crucial for understanding the genealogies and may indicate significant shifts in social relationships. A number of examples of genealogical fluidity can be found in the OT, but unfortunately the reasons for the phenomenon cannot always be determined. In some cases simple scribal error may be involved (1 Chr 4:39), but in others changes in the social structure may be at the root of the alterations. For example, the variants in the genealogy of Esau (Gen 36:9-14, 15-19; 1 Chr 1:35-36) may reflect the different purposes for which the genealogies were originally created, while changes within the genealogies of the 12 Israelite tribes may reflect political or geographical realignments (Gen 46:9, 12, 17; 1 Chr 7:23). (Wilson, vol. 2, p. 930-931)
According to Robert R. Wilson, segmented genealogies can have a couple functions. First, to express biological relationships, which help regulate social rights and obligations (e.g., marriage, inheritance). Second, to express a sociological relationship (e.g., politics, economics, geography, religion) between two families (or groups) that have no biological relationship. A common ancestor is created so that the relationship can be described by using the idiom of genealogy.
In a given society, segmented genealogies being used for differing purposes may exhibit a great deal of variation, for the society’s political, economic, and religious configurations may be quite different. In such cases the apparently conflicting genealogies are in fact accurately reflecting the way in which the society sees itself in a particular social sphere. (Wilson, vol. 2, p. 931)
On the other hand, linear genealogies are meant to ground a claim to power, status, or inheritance to an earlier ancestor.
The genealogies of the twelve tribes of Israel probably reflect a time when Israel’s political system was based on a kinship system (Genesis 29:31-30:24; 35:16-20, 22-26; 46:8-24; Numbers 26:5-51; 1 Chronicles 2:1-2). Certain genealogies describe a relationship between Israel and its neighbors (Genesis 10:6-7, 21-31; 22:20-24; 25:1-6, 12-20; 36). Other genealogies function to control access to the priesthood (Genesis 46:11; Numbers 26:57-62; Exodus 6:16-25; 1 Chronicles 6:1-81; 9:10-34; Ezra 2:59-63; 10:9-44; Nehemiah 13:23-28) or the throne (1 Samuel 9:1; 14:49-51; 1 Chronicles 2:3-17; 3:1-24; 8:29-40; Ruth 4:18-22).
Wilson, Robert R. “Genealogy, Genealogies.” Anchor Bible Dictionary. Ed. D.N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday. 1992.