Our Bible Q&A series explores the questions you’ve asked us about the Bible.
This article represents the author’s personal view. It accords with Bible Society’s values, but is not intended to express our position as an organisation.
Why does the Bible include lots of ancestral lineage in the middle of a story, e.g. Nehemiah?
There are, it's true, lots and lots of names in the Bible, and coming across them in the middle of an otherwise gripping story can be quite off-putting. Nehemiah isn't the only place – think of Numbers 1–3, for example, or chunks of 1 Chronicles.
There are three reasons why genealogies are included in the Bible:
First, they reflect the time the Bible was written. In those early days, someone's ancestry was vitally important. It located you as a member of a particular family or clan, and said something about who your 'neighbour' was – that is, who you owed loyalty to and who you were responsible for supporting in a fight or bailing out of trouble. People could recite their ancestry back many generations, and finding they shared a common ancestry forged a bond between them. What might not seem very interesting to us was extremely interesting to the Bible's first readers. This was particularly important in cases of property and land; the story of Ruth, for instance, all hangs on who is related to whom.
Second, and linked to that: some names had a particular significance. In the case of Nehemiah, what's recorded are the names of those who returned from exile or worked on building the wall of Jerusalem. Today, we might very well honour those who have contributed to a building project by preserving their names on a memorial plaque. That was what was happening in Nehemiah: they had been part of a huge endeavour that resulted in the nation being rebuilt, and preserving their names was a mark of that. And, of course, it was a matter of pride for their descendants to see their ancestors commemorated in this way.
Sometimes, too, it's possible to see particular patterns in genealogies. Back to the book of Ruth: it ends with a list of the descent of King David, the greatest king of Israel, all the way back to the son of Judah, Perez – through Boaz and his wife Ruth. This is a way of emphasizing God's hand in history.
Third, though, and perhaps more immediately relevant to us today: when we see these lists of names we might know nothing about them other than the name. But the name reminds us that this was a real person, with their own hopes and dreams, their own family and friends and unique human identity.
In the theatre, there's a class of actors known as 'spear carriers'. They don't have lines to say; they are just there as decoration, or perhaps for the hero to kill. In action films, they're the villains gunned down by the hero in vast numbers, whose names we never know; they are just part of someone else's story.
The long lists of names in the Bible remind us that for God, there are no spear carriers. We are all known and loved; we are part of his story, and he is part of ours.
Have you got a question about the Bible? Let us know and we’ll do our best to answer it!
This article was written Mark Woods, who is Bible Society's Editor.
Author: Mark Woods, 2 December 2019