6th August 2019

The Role of Bible Genealogies in Mission

The word “genealogies” seems to be a dirty word. You know the drill. It’s those long lists of names of who begat who in the Bible. It’s these supposedly “boring” bits of information in the Bible that many people have no time for.

Those who know me as a pastor in Australia and a former Bible teacher in Papua New Guinea know that I try to bring out the meaning of every verse in a passage. This conviction began long ago on the field of PNG as I carefully taught chronologically through the Bible.

I translated 7956 verses in the New Testament and also a first draft in the book of Genesis. I guess it is Bible translation work that made me realise that we need to be extremely careful in our treatment of the Word of God. If we are willing, then we can dig up and examine absolute treasures in the Bible. Many of us these days are careless and flippant with the words of God, dismissing what we don’t like and skipping over the seemingly trivial parts. Yet we must remember that every bit of the Word of God is in there for a reason, including the genealogies.

This was driven home for me when sitting at a table with my local translation helpers and the translation consultant. We read Luke 3:23-38 and tested and checked it back for accuracy. This is always a nervous time for a translator because you never really know if what you have translated has been communicated. You are always anxiously waiting for a response from your translation helper to see if it has been understood.

But I didn’t expect to hear what I was about to hear after reading this passage of Scripture. Being a “boring” piece (just the genealogies) I didn’t expect too much trouble, except maybe the pronunciation of the names. There was not much to comprehend, just that so and so was the son of so and so etc.

Verse 23 starts with Jesus being the son of Joseph and continues passing through the “son of David”, “the son of Abraham,” “the son of Methuselah” and so forth. The crescendo builds with “the son of Enosh,” “the son of Seth,” “the son of Adam,” and finally “the son of God.”

After the last genealogy was read to the group, there was a loud and surprising “whoop” let out by the locals around the table. They were so excited at what they had just heard. They could not believe that you could trace Jesus’ genealogy all the way back to God the Father. That was all the proof that they needed.

Genealogies may be boring to you and me, but not to them. Why is that? The answer is rather obvious upon reflection. In our western culture, we would struggle to come up with a dozen different kinship terms like mother, father, brother, sister and so forth. But upon immersion into the culture of this particular people group, one very quickly becomes aware that kinship is very important.

It is almost impossible to get your head around the estimated 400 different kinships terms they have. Kinship and genealogies are important to them because it determines how one behaves in a society. When I know what to call you and how I am related to you, then I know how I should act in front of you and what I can eat and drink in front of you and what I can say in front of you.

A reading of this seemingly insignificant passage gave such joy to these new believers because they could definitely say and prove to themselves that Jesus was actually the Son of God. No further proof needed! As Gentile western Christians, we have a Greek mindset focused on knowledge and intellectualism. The tribal mindset is arguably more like the Hebrew mindset, focused on right conduct rather than right thinking, having the right connections rather than having the right philosophical answers.

That instinctive reaction was an eye-opener to me that the Bible is for all cultures and that every word is in there for a reason. Maybe we can accept that all the proof we need or should need is that genealogically Jesus is the very Son of God. End of story. That should be enough to excite anyone about genealogies.

Steve Henley

Steve was a Bible Translator and worked together with his wife Cathi in a tribe in West New Britain in Papua New Guinea. The team there completed the New Testament translation in 2007. Steve now pastors a church in Queensland, Australia.