There are parts the Bible that should have “Rumpelstiltskin Required” written at the top. As that little man spun straw into gold for the miller’s daughter, we could use his assistance to spin biblical straw into spiritual gold. Take your pick. Maybe it’s one of those Leviticus chapters that sounds like it’s written more for veterinarians or butchers than Christians. Maybe it’s a chapter from Exodus or Ezekiel that’s as exhilarating as staring at a blueprint. Yes, “all Scripture is breathed out by God,” but in all honesty some of it leaves us snoring (2 Tim 3:16). And perhaps nowhere is that more true than with genealogies. They’re planted throughout the OT and NT, these family trees. So-and-so begat so-and-so who begat so-and-so. Exhausting lists of tongue-twisting names. They’re evidently important, for otherwise they wouldn’t have been included. In fact, the NT itself kicks off with the genealogy of Jesus. If all Scripture “is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16), then how are genealogies profitable?
Let’s take one example, from Genesis 5. It’s a list of the ten generations from Adam to Noah. It covers 1686 years. You may be surprised that you don’t need Rumpelstiltskin at all when reading Genesis 5. This chapter doesn’t need to be spun into anything; it’s already gold.
- This family tree branches toward Bethlehem. When God first gave the promise of the Gospel, he rooted that promise in the flesh and blood of humanity. He didn’t say, “One day I’ll have my Son just show up on earth.” Rather, he said, “One day a virgin will be pregnant with my Son; he will be the woman’s seed” (Gen 3:15). The family trees in the Bible send their branches in the direction of Bethlehem, where this seed of the woman—the seed of Abraham, the seed of Judah, the seed of David—will be born. Every baby’s birth in the OT puts us one baby closer to the swaddled infant at Mary’s breast. That’s why Matthew begins his Gospel with a family tree; it’s why Luke includes one as well. The roots and trunk and branches of these genealogical trees join the angelic choir to sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth,” (Luke 2:14).
- This genealogy preaches the need for death’s conquest. Over and over in Genesis 5 the bell tolls upon the death of a sinner. “And he died…and he died…and he died”: eight times that announcement is made. Each time a check is cut for a man who was employed by evil, for “the wages of sin is death,” (Rom 6:23). “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned,” (Rom 5:12). From the demise of Adam to that of Lamech, each death declared the need for God to un-funeral the world, to put his foot on the neck of the grave and press down till death was death and life lived once more. This chapter, therefore, cries out for Good Friday, begs for Easter. It preaches the need for death’s conquest in the death and rising of the woman’s Seed.
- This genealogy testifies that these earliest of men were Christians. The first Christians were not Mary and Peter and Paul; they were Adam and Eve. Christianity began in Eden. When God promised to send the woman’s seed to crush the head of the serpent, Adam and Eve believed that promise. They had faith in the Christ who was to come. They were just as Christian as we are today who believe that promise has been fulfilled. Indeed, when Cain was born, Eve was so confident in God’s promise that she supposed her firstborn was already the Seed. She said, literally, “I have gotten a man—Yahweh,” (Gen 4:1). Seven generations later, the father of Noah made the same mistake. When Noah was born, Lamech said, “This one shall give us rest from our work and from the toil of our hands arising from the ground which the Lord has cursed,” (5:29). Because Noah was the first birth after the death of Adam, Lamech must have thought that now that the first man—the one whose sin had brought a curse upon the ground—was dead, God would renew the earth through his son. Both Eve and Lamech were wrong, of course, but their mistakes only underscore the liveliness of their Christian faith in the coming Messiah.
- Genesis 5 gives us a foretaste of Easter in Enoch. There’s one hiccup in the litany of death in Genesis 5. His name is Enoch. And he never had a funeral. We’re told that “he walked with God; and he was not, for God took him,” (5:24). By faith Enoch was pleasing to God (Heb 11:5-6). He too was a Christian; he had faith in the promised Seed. Indeed, Enoch believed not only that Christ would come; as a prophet, he saw past the first coming of Jesus all the way to his final coming, for he prophesied that the Lord will come “with many thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment upon all,” (Jude 14-15). As a testimony to early humanity that this life is but the first chapter of an ongoing life with God, the Lord took Enoch to heaven before he died, just as he would later take Elijah up to heaven in a chariot of fire. Thus, in each stage of world history, God has testified that life does not end at death. In the pre-flood world, he gave us the example of Enoch. In the post-flood world, he gave us Elijah. And finally, in the New Testament, he gave us Christ, by whose resurrection we are assured of our own resurrection on the last day. In Enoch, the seventh generation from Adam, we are given a foretaste of our Sabbath rest in Easter.
Of these ten generations, Luther says that “next to Christ and John the Baptist, they were the most outstanding heroes this world has ever produced,” (AE 1:334). “That age was truly a golden one,” he writes, “in comparison with it our age hardly deserves to be called an age of mud,” (1:342). This golden age, recorded in this genealogy, is anything but straw. It is a treasure trove of grace, faith, hope, and love. Already in this family tree, we see foreshadowed the tree of the cross. In Enoch, we see prefigured the resurrection of Easter. We observe the life of faith in these earliest of Christians. We have no need of Rumpelstiltskin to spin any straw into gold. When we read Genesis 5—and countless other genealogies—in the light of Christ, we readily grasp how these family trees preach both law and Gospel to us.
To hear a complete discussion of Genesis 5, and why genealogies are so important, listen to this episode of "40 Minutes in the Old Testament."
What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who welcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!