God's Word Is Living and Active (Even Genealogies)

The Lineage of Redemption

The scene is familiar to many of us: we wake up in the morning with an awareness of our need for the word of God. We want to see the world through the lens of the word, and we want to be led into prayer by the word. We are also conscious of the limited time we have before the demands of our day creep in, so we roll over, grab our Bible, and open to the place we left off the day before. And we read:

This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created. When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth. The days of Adam after he fathered Seth were 800 years; and he had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days that Adam lived were 930 years, and he died. (Gen. 5:1–5)

Okay, we tell ourselves, that first bit felt about as edifying as reading the phone book, but let’s keep reading: “When Seth had lived 105 years, he fathered Enosh. Seth lived after he fathered Enosh 807 years and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Seth were 912 years, and he died” (Gen. 5:6–8). At this point we begin to panic, and our fears are confirmed as our eyes scan down the page. This is an entire chapter of genealogy, of births and deaths and really long lifespans. We had wanted the voice of Scripture to be crisp and clear, an encounter with the living God at the beginning of our day. But instead we are experiencing a muted voice that is easy to ignore.1 As we survey the book of Genesis, we find three chapters devoted entirely to genealogies (Gen. 5; 10; 36). That is a lot of “phone book” reading!

The Dawning of Redemption

Ian J. Vaillancourt

In this accessible book, Ian J. Vaillancourt gives Christians a helpful introduction to the Pentateuch as the essential first act in the Bible’s grand story of redemption.

In this common scene from our personal Bible reading, it is possible that our understanding of Scripture led us to anticipate an encounter with God. After all, we know that “the word of God is living and active” (Heb. 4:12). And we also know that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man [or woman, or boy, or girl] of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). As our approach to every passage of Scripture is informed by the Bible’s own teaching about itself, we realize that any time we fail to encounter God in the Bible, the problem is with us, not the Bible.

In light of this, is there any hope that reading a biblical genealogy can lead us to encounter God? The (perhaps surprising) answer is yes, but first we need to learn about the purpose of these passages. The Bible tells the grand story of redemption, and genealogies (or general statements of family lineage) in Genesis sketch the lineage of redemption. To help us get a handle on these surprisingly important passages, we are going to unpack four truths about the genealogies in Genesis before looking forward to Christ in light of them.

1. Genesis 3:15 is the key to understanding the family lineage passages in the rest of the book.

As a part of his curse on the serpent, YHWH God said: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15). Not only is this the first glimmer of gospel hope in the entire Bible, but in the context of this discussion of genealogies, notice that it also points to two lineages.2

It is understandable that the horrible scene from Genesis 3 would produce conflict between the serpent (the deceiver) and the woman (the deceived). However, YHWH God took it a step further by extending the conflict to the “offspring” (or seed) of the serpent and the “offspring” (or seed) of the woman. In other words, there will be a lineage for the serpent and a lineage for the woman, and they will be in conflict with one another. Ultimately, the offspring of the woman will “bruise” (or crush) the head of the offspring of the serpent, and the offspring of the serpent will “bruise” (or crush) the heel of the offspring of the woman.

When we understand Genesis 3:15, we can turn back to the book of Genesis and notice that the verse begins to get “filled out” in this fifty-chapter book. As the first glimmer of gospel hope, Genesis 3:15 teaches us that when we read through Genesis, we ought to be looking for the offspring of the serpent and the offspring of the woman. Now we can see how statements of family lineage in Genesis may be significant! Before we explain this further, it is important to understand the structure of Genesis.

2. Genesis is framed around ten statements of family lineage.

In our Bibles, chapters and verses are helpful. But chapters and verses were not a part of the original Bible manuscripts. They were added later as a helpful way of “getting on the same page,” but they were not inspired. As we approach the book of Genesis, we find that its original author (Moses) framed it around two halves and ten sections. This is a part of the original shape of the book.

As we look at the big picture of Genesis, we find that its first “half” is found in Genesis 1:1–11:26. These chapters record what biblical scholars refer to as “primordial history.” The term primordial refers to the beginning of time, so primordial history refers to all of history from creation to the fall to the flood to the Tower of Babel.

Its second “half” is found in Genesis 11:27–50:26. These chapters record what biblical scholars refer to as “patriarchal history.” If a patriarch is the male head of a family or tribe, patriarchal history in these chapters of Genesis concerns the four generations from Abraham (the patriarch) to Isaac to Jacob to the twelve sons of Jacob. In this second half of Genesis, we encounter only four generations in thirty-nine chapters. So Genesis is split into two uneven “halves”: primordial (ancient) history (Gen. 1:1–11:26) and patriarchal history (Gen. 11:27–50:26).

Genesis is also split into ten sections, and this is something we will spot only if we are using a literal translation of the Bible. As Moses was shaping this book of beginnings, he used the phrase “These are the generations” to structure his material. In the big picture of Genesis, this phrase is used to introduce ten different sections in the book. Just as the two halves of Genesis are uneven in length, so are the ten “These are the generations” sections.

The symmetry of the book—two halves, ten sections—is even more clear when we learn that the first half of Genesis has five “These are the generations” sections, and the second half of Genesis also has five “These are the generations” sections. The symmetry of Genesis is unmistakable.

The Bible tells the grand story of redemption, and genealogies (or general statements of family lineage) in Genesis sketch the lineage of redemption.

3. Each time we encounter a family lineage passage in Genesis, we need to ask an important question.

Now that we understand the way Genesis is structured around two unequal halves and ten statements of family lineage, we can begin to see their significance. Each time we encounter a statement of family lineage in Genesis, we must remember that we are entering a new section of the book. But Genesis 3:15 also prompts us to read each section with an important question in mind: Will the people in this section carry on the family lineage of the woman that will lead to the ultimate deliverer who will decisively defeat the serpent and all the effects of sin?

In other words, as we read the family lineage passages in Genesis through the lens of the promise in Genesis 3:15, we are led to the heroes of the story—the ones through whom YHWH would accomplish his promised redemption. As we read the accounts of these “heroes,” we quickly find that there was nothing in them that made them worthy of such a role in YHWH’s plan—whether it was Noah sinning after the flood, or Abraham and Isaac’s failures of faith, or Jacob’s serial deception. This leads us to conclude that the real hero of the story—the only true hero, in fact—is YHWH God.

4. Understanding the family lineage passages in Genesis helps us to interpret all of Genesis.

At this point it will be helpful—and very practical—to focus on one example of how the family lineage statements impact our interpretation and application of a passage in Genesis. Genesis 37–50 is a beloved section of the Bible, usually for its portrayal of the innocent suffering and ultimate exaltation of Joseph. As we examine the story, however, some of its chapters do not seem to fit. In particular, between the selling of Joseph into slavery (Gen. 37), and the account of Joseph in Potiphar’s house (Gen. 39), we encounter a seemingly out-of-place chapter about Judah’s sin with his daughter-in-law, Tamar. More than one Bible study leader or pastor has been tripped up by this chapter; how can it fit into their otherwise inspiring series through “the Joseph narrative”? As they encounter Genesis 38, they are left with a dilemma: if they skip over it, they are implicitly telling their people that it is not important, but if they dive into it, they are not sure how it relates to the overall story of Joseph (Gen. 37–50).

As we step back and read Genesis 37–50 through the lens of the statements of family lineage, the surprising insight is this: it is not the Joseph narrative after all! We recall that Genesis 37:2–50:26 records “the generations of Jacob” (Gen. 37:2). We also recall that the narrative that follows statements like this one usually details the life (or lives) of the son(s) of the person named at the section’s beginning. This section is no different: Genesis 37:2–50:26 records the story of the twelve sons of Jacob. We also remember that when we interpret these fourteen chapters as “the generations of Jacob,” we are meant to be asking an important question: Which character in the drama will carry on the lineage of redemption, the one who will be set apart as the human “hero” in the lineage of the woman? (Gen. 3:15).

When we interpret Genesis 37:2–50:26 through this lens, it transforms our reading. Instead of thinking of these chapters as “the Joseph narrative,” we begin to see that Joseph—though very prominent in this section—would win the Oscar for best supporting actor in this drama of redemption. As we read to the end of the section, we find that Judah is the brother who will be centered out by Jacob: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples” (Gen. 49:10). Just like we can never watch a suspenseful movie in the same way twice, as we go back and reread Genesis 37:2–50:26 in light of its ending, the entire story makes much more sense.

Looking Forward to Christ: The Family Lineage of Jesus

As we look beyond Genesis, we find that there are several other records of family lineage in the Old Testament. For example, at the end of Ruth we encounter the genealogy of King David through the lineage of Judah’s sons (Ruth 4:18–22). Evidently, the promise that “the scepter/ruler’s staff will not depart from Judah” (Gen. 49:10) was being fulfilled in King David. Although our English Bibles place Chronicles in the middle of the Old Testament—immediately after the books of Samuel and Kings—the Hebrew Old Testament places Chronicles at the very end. Whereas our English Bibles implicitly suggest that Chronicles represents a repackaging and building on the material recorded in Samuel/Kings, the Hebrew Old Testament places it last, as a way of looking ahead with hope.

As we read Chronicles from this perspective, we find that the Hebrew Old Testament ends in a similar way as it began, with a genealogy-heavy book—this time with a book that begins with nine entire chapters of genealogy. As the author of Chronicles was beginning his work, he traced the lineage of his readers all the way back to Adam and Eve, through the offspring of the woman. The message was clear to them as they waited for full restoration after the Babylonian exile: “You can and should have the audacity to place all of your hope in YHWH’s faithful restoration (see Deut. 30:1–10), because you are the very people he has promised to restore (see Gen. 3:15).” So the Old Testament is bookended with genealogy-heavy books, and these books take their interpretive cues from Genesis 3:15.

As we move to the New Testament, we discover that it begins with—you guessed it—a genealogy. This means that the Old Testament (in its Hebrew order) is bookended with genealogy-heavy books, and the New Testament begins with a genealogy.

The way the New Testament begins hearkens our minds back to the original gospel promise in the Old Testament— Genesis 3:15—and the way the four Gospels unfold shows the ultimate fulfillment of this promise. Praise God that as his Son was receiving the fatal snake bite on his heel, he was also dealing the fatal blow to the head of the offspring of the serpent. As he died on the cross, Jesus won the decisive victory over sin and all of its effects, and he did this for us. Then when he rose from the dead on the third day, he showed himself as the first fruit of this victory.


  1. Although it is hard to convey in print, and although only some readers will be familiar with the illustration, I often liken the voice we instinctively hear when reading the Bible’s genealogies to the voice of the teacher in the old Peanuts cartoons—“wa, wa, wa wa, wa wa wa.” In other words, we may be aware that someone is speaking, but we have no idea what is being said because we are not paying attention.
  2. My thinking on this topic was born in 2008, when I read the following in preparation for a sermon series through Genesis: Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 93–94.

This article is adapted from The Dawning of Redemption: The Story of the Pentateuch and the Hope of the Gospel by Ian J. Vaillancourt.

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