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43 CHAPTER 4 The Theology of Genealogy A Boundary Breaking Foundation for Identity The “begats” have come to epitomize the monotonous character of the Hebrew Bible. Readers dutifully slog through them, stumbling over the names as the text becomes pure sound, devoid of meaning. Or, like telephone listings, the “begats” serve as a reference to be consulted when some particular information is needed, but remain about as worthy of reading at length as a phone book. It is easy to skip them altogether, like commercial breaks that interrupt the more interesting and important parts of the text. Even trained professionals employ versions of these same strategies, classifying the genealogies as something secondary and apart, outside the primary theological work of the text. Relegating the “begats” to such a subordinate role misses the way in which the genealogical form operates as a mode of storytelling. Although moderns tend to regard genealogy as a type of science—­ a cataloging of people according to precise biological relationships—­ it can also function as social science, or even as art. Biblical genealogies do not simply assemble real or purported facts. They interpret the world. And in Genesis they provide a framework essential for understanding the whole of the book and everything that comes after. Recognizing the theological significance of the Genesis genealogies requires moving beyond certain assumptions that limit what the book can say and how it can say it. In contrast to the reductionist approach 44 Belonging in Genesis that regards family as a biologically affiliated group of people in a nuclear or slightly larger unit, Genesis presents an expansive view of kinship that incorporates even the cosmos under the rubric of family. The union of seemingly disparate elements also characterizes the literary structure of the book. Genealogy and narrative work together in Genesis, despite the stylistic differences between the two. A piecemeal approach to the book that severs the one from the other obstructs the interplay through which some of the book’s most central theological messages are conveyed.1 Genealogy as Family Story Recognizing the theological role of the Genesis genealogies begins with developingabroaderperspectiveonthenatureandfunctionofgenealogy. The dominant modern view understands genealogy as a representation of “blood,” a mode of communal identity that is biological, immutable, and objectively verifiable.2 Although genealogy often functions in these ways, the genealogical form does not inherently convey such a view of identity. Genealogy can also reflect a more flexible approach to group membership, in which identities may evolve and change and boundaries between groups may be crossed. Genealogies come in different types suited to different functions.3 Linear genealogies relate an individual to a particular ancestor by focusing on a single line of descent, while segmented genealogies map a social network by describing all the members of each generation. It also matters whether a genealogy is oral or written, because the fluidity of oral genealogies is essential to their role in structuring society and guiding everyday interactions. Rooted in assumptions that run counter to modern conventions, oral genealogies regard ancestry as a product of social negotiations rather than an external check on them. Accordingly, “it is quite possible for apparently contradictory genealogies to coexist in the same society if they have different functions. The people who use genealogies do not hesitate to cite conflicting genealogies if it suits their purpose.”4 1 Cf. Claus Westermann, Genesis 1–­ 11: A Continental Commentary (trans. John J. Scullion ; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 3. 2 Julia Watson, “Ordering the Family: Genealogy as Autobiographical Pedigree,” in Smith and Watson, eds., Getting a Life, 299. 3 These categories come from Robert R. Wilson, Genealogy and History in the Biblical World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977). 4 Wilson, Genealogy and History, 203; cf. 31, 166. The Theology of Genealogy 45 For example, one group held a meeting to debate whether two ancestral names referred to two men, a man and his wife, or one man. The decision was not based on a determination of who was “really” behind the names, but rather on which understanding of them would have the most desirable result for the situation that necessitated the clarification. The outcome of the deliberations “fixed a disputed genealogy” in a way understood to be real and binding.5 In order to maintain the flexibility needed to address the demands of daily existence, genealogies must be oral in form.6 Committing such a genealogy to writing inhibits the capacity for change that allows it to stay current,7 as occurred when European colonial administrators...


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