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Getting Into Genealogies

August 24, 2007

Recently, I received the following question by email:

“I am preparing to launch into a study on Sunday nights on Ezra/Nehemiah at our church and have discovered that these two books (one book in the original Hebrew Scriptures) contain 14 different genealogies or people lists! After taking a broader survey of Scripture, it appears that there are no less than 51 chapters in the Bible which contain genealogies, accounting for about 4% of the entire Bible (1189 chapters total).

My question, then, is this: In light of the fact that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable,” how do we get the most out of genealogies in our preaching? On the one hand, reading or explaining the genealogies could quickly grow tedious and confusing. On the other hand, it would seem unjust to never publicly read or explain these portions of Scripture. Are you aware of any homiletics books or articles that touch on this subject, or do you have any personal advice?

Unfortunately, my experience of preaching on genealogies is limited, so I won’t venture to draw water from my own shallow well. However I have heard effective preaching on genealogies and agree that it can be done with a little care. Moreover, surely it must be done unless if we really believe the force of 2 Timothy 3:16!

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Let me share, therefore, a couple of helpful resources I’ve come across:

1. Nothing beats listening to good examples of preaching genealogies. One of the best I’ve heard on this was Gordon Hugenberger (Park Street Boston) on Genesis 5. Similarly check out Steve Weaver on Matthew 1, or John Piper on Luke 3. MacArthur also shows us how to do it here.

2. Over at his excellent blog Biblical Preaching Peter Mead also offers seven lessons he has gleaned on the matter :

1. Study the function of the genealogy. The author included it for a reason. How does it fit with the flow of thought in the book? It is easy to get caught up in the details of the list, but miss the function of it.

2. Select the preaching passage carefully. If you are able to divide the preaching passages, do not assume lots of verses in a genealogy mean lots of preaching material. It may be that the genealogy can be summarized briefly, leaving plenty of time for an adjoining text.

3. Survey the framing of the genealogy. What does the author write as a lead in, and what are the first comments leading out of the genealogy? Consider, for example, Luke 3:21-23 and 4:1-3.

4. See if any pattern is broken. Sometimes there is a pattern in the way the text is written, which can become quite rhythmic to the ear. Be sure to check for any breaks in that pattern that might suggest a place of emphasis. For example, consider the change in pattern for Enoch in Genesis 5:24.

5. Scrutinize the places of emphasis. Be sure to consider carefully the first and last names in the list. Often a genealogy is a bridge through time linking one place in history with another. For example, see Ruth 4:18-22.

6. Scan for misfits. In light of the apparent function of the genealogy, are there individuals whose inclusion might be considered surprising? For example, the presence of, and similarities between the women, in Matthew 1:1-17. Be careful not to allow an interesting observation to overwhelm the rest of the genealogy. This example in Matthew has more than one interesting feature!

7. Search for every clue to the author’s intent. Your goal is not to preach random details from a list, nor to exhaust listeners with exhaustive historical details, but to search diligently for the author’s intent when he wrote and/or included the genealogy. This is a repeat of the first point, but this is worthy of restatement in this final position of emphasis!

The first one seems to me particularly important. Once we have an idea of the author’s purpose in utilizing the genealogy, we will have a fighting chance in identifying the purpose for our sermon. Any further thoughts?

2 comments

  1. I’m surprised you missed out this fine Grainger sermon (from Luke 3)!🙂

    Meanwhile, your post includes some wise counsel. It strikes me that #2 from Peter Mead’s list is worth bearing in mind: a list of names may make an important point (e.g. end of Ruth 4?). Better to be on strong ground with that one point than try to look for “insights” that might be textually marginal. (IMO!)


  2. Take a look at the women in Matthew’s genealogy. They provide a wonderful sermon outline!



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