Genealogies in the Bible by Dexter Callender


Genealogies are important for a number of reasons.  They serve a number of functions, it seems.  One of them was to establish sociopolitical ties through expressing fictive kinship ties. So, perhaps the most well known example would be with respect to the twelve tribes; you have the birth narratives of the sons of Jacob, who is “Israel” in Genesis 29 and Genesis 30.  And, when you have the tribal lists, there are lists of these twelve tribes or twelve sons and they are not all the same; and they seem to reflect different historical realties.

The list that appears in Numbers differs from the list that appears in Deuteronomy; and there is another list that appears in Judges 5, which is quite different from the others.  Tribes drop in and out; Levi is not in all of the lists; Simeon is not in all of the lists.  Ephraim and Manasseh are the sons of Joseph and Joseph is not in any of the lists; and so, they reflect different time periods and different relations among people; that’s one function. 

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Another function is just establishing social roles. Genealogies are important in Chronicles and probably reflects the period of returning after the exile and rebuilding and so, the establishing and reestablishing of social roles was important, and genealogies played a role in that.

Then there’s the aspect of genealogies that is more a literary framing device.  So, it’s an ancient genre; it probably has oral roots.  We know genealogies from Mesopotamia, forms from Egypt, from Greece as well.  And often these early genealogies connect the divine world with the human over the course of time.  And so, this is what seems to appear in Genesis when you have the creation narrative given and then, a statement that this is the genealogies, this is the generation, toledot of the heavens and the earth. And that phrase is repeated, this is the toledot, these are the generations of one thing or another as it becomes more and more specific down to the people of Israel from the most general creation, God, etc.


Dexter Callender

Dexter Callender
Associate Professor, University of Miami

Dexter Callender is associate professor of religion at the University of Miami, Florida. He is the author of Adam in Myth and History (Eisenbrauns, 2001). He specializes in myth theory and ancient Near Eastern literature and history.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

A category or type, often of literary work.

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

(tribe, not king) One of the "Joseph tribes" of the northern kingdom of Israel, the other being Ephraim. All the other tribes are named after the sons of Jacob, but Ephraim and Manasseh, geographically the largest of the tribes, are named after his grandsons, the two sons of Joseph.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

Related to tribes, especially the so-called ten tribes of Israel.

Genesis 29

Jacob Meets Rachel
1Then Jacob went on his journey, and came to the land of the people of the east.2As he looked, he saw a well in the field and three flocks of ... View more

Genesis 30

1When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!”2Jacob became very angry with ... View more

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