Do we need everything that’s in the Bible? Could we not get along perfectly well without some parts of it? If we had a kind of Readers’ Digest version, with all the important bits kept in and all the boring bits taken out, would that not be far better? Just think how much easier it would be for children, new converts with no Bible knowledge, people with limited education. That way, they would not get bogged down, for instance, in the endless genealogies, bamboozled by who begat whom. There are some people fascinated by such things, but not many. Would a slimmed-down, reader-sensitive volume not serve us rather better than the present tome? If you have ever ground to a halt in Chronicles, or given up on the oracles against the nations in Isaiah, it might seem an attractive option, and if some Christians were to admit the truth, their Bible reading might as well be from a volume a lot less than the sixty-six books. Anyone for Nahum?
But what are the ‘important bits’? We might suggest the parts that deal with God’s nature, with human nature, with sin, with the identity of Jesus, with salvation. The list, however, is hard to conclude. What about the Holy Spirit, the Church, the return of Christ? Aren’t the sacraments important? Death and what lies beyond? Very soon we will find that most of the Bible is included, of necessity.
And who decides what is important, anyway? Do you think that you are qualified? I certainly don’t think I am. If we believe that the ultimate author of all Scripture is God, that he is the one who ‘breathed it out’, to use Paul’s language in 2 Timothy 3:16, then whatever he has chosen to give us is, by definition, important. Would we accuse the Almighty of wasting words? Yet by limiting our study to only certain parts of the Bible, mostly in the New Testament, that is exactly what we are doing. Although we may hold to a high doctrine of Scripture, in a day when this is very much a matter of debate, our practice must match our profession.
There are parts of the Bible that are hard to figure out, however. The mind-benders like Ezekiel and Revelation pose all sorts of problems for Bible readers, yet their very strangeness can also exert a fascination. Perhaps it’s more of a struggle with parts that don’t seem to serve a useful purpose for readers today, even if the original readers were riveted by them. The genealogies – the ‘boring bits’ to many people – are a case in point. It might be interesting, even delightful, to work out your family tree if you are a Jew returning from exile in Babylon, but how can a twenty-first century Christian gain any benefit from time spent reading a list of mostly-unpronounceable names? It needs a bit of thought, but there are answers.
The genealogies, like the other historical material in the Bible, serve to remind us that Christianity is rooted in history. It is not based on incredible myths, nor does it offer an abstract set of philosophical ideas: it is based on the actions of a sovereign God in history by which he provided for himself a worshipping and serving community of people. Our God works in history and is Lord of history. The genealogies record the names of some of the people in whose lives he worked, people who were significant to him even if we know nothing more than their names. History matters to Christians in a way that it does not matter to people of other religions. As Paul says, ‘if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in our sins’ (I Corinthians 15:17). Biblical history, the genealogies included, matters tremendously. If we do not have reliable access to history, our faith and hope collapse.
The genealogies in particular trace the line of God’s covenant promise through history from one generation of his people to the next, an unbroken golden thread beginning with Adam and culminating in Jesus Christ, the Messiah and Redeemer of God’s people, the thread that holds the entire Scriptures together. We may not be able to trace our physical lineage in the Bible, but our spiritual ancestry is set out clearly for us. The genealogies, far from being ‘boring bits’, are shot through with the love and grace of God.