The Significance of the Chronicler’s Genealogies

  While reading through the Solomon accounts in Chronicles, I’m using The IVP Biblical Background Commentary.  Though it is a brief commentary, I’ve really appreciated it.  Recently I ran across a helpful paragraph entitled, “The Significance of Genealogies to [a] Postexilic Audience.”  In other words, what would the Chronicler’s genealogies mean to the 5th and 6th century exiles?

“Though most of the material of Chronicles covers the history of the preexilic period, it is written for those who returned from the Babylonian exile in the sixth and fifth centuries and reestablished themselves in the land.  Genealogies to them represented the charter of their identity.  Their covenant with the Lord had established them as an elect people of God living in the land promised by him.  Their family lineage was their certificate of membership.  It was their heritage and their legacy.”

“Often in the ancient world genealogies served sociological rather than historical functions.  Instead of offering a strictly sequential report of the order of generations, they were designed to use continuity with the past as an explanation of the current structure and condition of society.  Israel carried along with this an additional theological emphasis and significance that was inherent in their genealogical reports.  Continuity with the past would give meaning to their current theological situation.”

“Individuals in the ancient world found their identity not in their individualism, but in their solidarity with the group.  This included not only those that made up their contemporary kinship group but extended throughout the generations.  The genealogies were their way of fitting themselves into this pangenerational solidarity.  Every generation is not necessarily represented.  One might compare the selective list of heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11.  Americans today take pride in being able to trace their ancestry back to those who crossed on the Mayflower or those who signed the Declaration of Independence.  The difference is that in Israel these connections gave rights and privileges rather than being simply status symbols” (p. 413).

These paragraphs are helpful to remember as we consider the long list of names in 1 Chronicles – and other genealogies in the Bible.  I especially appreciate the emphasis on covenant, solidarity, history, and sociology – not to mention the fact that genealogies weren’t meant to be exhaustive.  There is more to say about genealogies, but this is a good start.

The IVP Bible Background Commentary: The Old Testament Ed. Walton, Matthews, & Chavalas (Downer’s Grove, IVP Academic, 2000).

5 thoughts on “The Significance of the Chronicler’s Genealogies”

  1. These comments are great! I love those genealogies of I Chron 1-8! If you compare them with other Bible genealogies the differences are so intriguing and tell us so much about the community after the exile, as does the Chronicler’s use of I Sam-II Kings. The best commentaries I have read on these books are Braun and Dillard’s in the Word Biblical Commentary series. The next time I read through I and II Chron, I want to use Sara Japhet’s massive commentary: no inerrantist (no Christian, in fact) but what a wealth of information!

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  2. Had I continued on in my PhD program, I was heading toward writing my dissertation on Chronicles 1-9. It is a remarkable portion of scripture and is an amazing example of expressing theological and ideological convictions through the genealogies.

    Monty is right on – Braun and Dillard are top notch commentaries. I’ve used Japhet fairly extensively and she too is tied for first as my favorite Chronicles commentary. The other volume is Gary Knoppers’ two-volume commentary on 1 Chronicles in the Anchor Bible. Wow … volume 1 is 500+ pages dealing only with chapters 1-9 (although it also contains general introduction to the book). He has a fine excursus on genealogies as well where he surveys the work that has been done. (BTW – Knoppers grew up the son of a Christian Reformed pastor and has even contributed to more close-to-home sources like the Reformation Study Bible. He’s simply top-notch as an academic … the true upper echelon … I can’t say enough good about his work!)

    A slightly more up-to-date source, though far less convenient, was an article by Rodney K Duke in “Currents in Biblical Research” (2009) surveying recent research in Chronicles. This included a fairly large section devoted to genealogy studies in Chronicles. But Yigal Levin has written a CBR article specifically on genealogy research (although that was in 2001). He has several articles in JBL and such on Chronicles and the Genealogies. There really is a wealth of information out there, including 3 or 4 dissertations in the last few years focusing on the genealogies. (Yes, I’m not exactly sure how I would have kept myself from reinventing the wheel!)

    Well, I’ll quit writing here … you’ve caused all these former ideas to come burbling up again … makes me want to do some writing!

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  3. Thanks for the note about Knoppers. I guess I just figured that the Anchor series would be so skeptical and belittling that it would not be worth looking at–though I know some of the other volumes are in fact not bad.

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    1. I know, it’s funny in that way. My main reason for checking Knoppers out was that I knew of his Reformed affiliation, but had also used more of his academic writings in other work I was doing while at UCLA. You won’t find him expressing the same kinds of confessional sensitivity in the Anchor Bible as he does in the Reformation Study Bible – after all, AB is a semi-secular academic series – but his care and concern as a historian results in a really excellent treatment.

      Oh, and one other volume. I don’t have the book, but HGM Williamson’s commentary on Chronicles has been recommended to me as another excellent volume.

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  4. I have Williamsons’s commentary and it is not bad, shows more respect for the historicity of the text than I expected, but does not hold up that well against Braun and Dillard; Shelman is not bad, but, in the nature of its series, not very detailed.

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