In 1977 a miniseries of eight episodes entitled “Roots” appeared on television (ABC network) based on Alex Haley’s 1976 historical novel about his personal ancestry that traced his “roots” for the slave era in America to his present times. It was a national sensation and generated a fascination with people’s personal story of heritage. Today the trend is still alive, fueled by DNA results, as evidenced by commercial internet websites, magazines, and related media.
The Importance of Genealogy
But in the ancient world when genealogical ancestry was essential to national identities and royal claims of credibility, this was no mere trend. The Israelites deeply valued their ancestry and ensured reliable connections with their ancestors by genealogies and authentic stories preserved across generations. The Israelites identified themselves as the people of God by recalling the divine promises made to their ancestors, especially to Abraham (Gen. 12:1–3; Exod. 3:1–17). The author of Genesis made this connection clear to his first readers, even tracing their roots back to creation. How did the author achieve this?
1. For a full description, see Kenneth Mathews, Genesis 1–11:26, Christian Standard Commentary (Nashville: B&H, 2023).
There is a consensus that Genesis focused on genealogy and blessing, interlacing these two prominent themes. A fundamental aspect to blessing was procreation (Gen. 1:26–28). Among the many ways he accomplished this focus was a framework of a recurring catch phrase. The traditional translation is “these are the generations of” (KJV). Modern versions recognize the heading introduced both formal genealogies and narratives. They offered a broader inclusive translation such as “these are the family records of” (CSB). For Christian readers, the New Testament makes the point of showing the qualification of Jesus, who was the sole legitimate and ideal royal messiah in the family of King David (Matt. 1:1–17). In this article, I’ll explore what the Hebrew word for “generations” is and its significance to Israelite readers and to readers today.
The “Generations” of Genesis
First, the Hebrew word is a noun, toledoth, derived from the verb yalad that means “to bear, give birth.” Second, the expression occurs eleven times, dividing the whole book of Genesis into twelve parts (Gen. 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12, 19; 36:1, 9; 37:2). The catchphrase spans the book and effectively holds together into a coherent whole the diverse genre and theological emphases of these fifty chapters. The author was highly intentional in the use of the catchphrase, and it was plainly important to him and his readers. Third, the author was not slavish to an exact wording of the formula every time; he adapted it for the contents of each section. The heading to Adam/Seth’s genealogy in Genesis 5:1a is an excellent example. It reads “This is the document [literally, “book”] containing the family records [toledoth] of Adam” (CSB). This heading indicates a pre-Genesis written source of family records, e.g., “the document containing the family records.” This is one of many indications that the author drew on available written sources for the composition and suggests to readers he also accessed family memories. Fourth, the headings were adaptable to the specific context. At Genesis 2:4a the unique heading is the brainchild of the author, imitating the superscription found for the genealogies and family stories. It reads “These are the records (toledoth) of the heavens and the earth, concerning their creation” (CSB). Since in its context, no family lineage has occurred, the author treated “heavens and earth” as the parentage of what happened in the creation, in the section of Genesis 2:4–4:26.
How does the toledoth phrase function? It is a linking device that ties together the former and the following units. As in the case of a hinge on a door, it swings back, recalling the information in the prior section, and swings forward by suggesting the topic in the section it introduces. The formula indicates an organic unity—from the creation to the election of Israel’s historical precursors. The superscription then has a unifying effect. By this overarching pattern, the composition’s framework is historical genealogy, tying creation and human history in continuum. Also, the toledoth heading collaborates with Genesis’s recurring use of genealogy to achieve a restricting effect. Within the flow of human history, from the universal to the particular, the genealogies indicate God is separating out a righteous lineage by whom he chooses to bless the nations (comp. Gen. 5:1 and 10:1; 11:10). The same heading introduces the genealogies of the non-elect families of Ishmael (Gen. 25:12–18) and Esau (Gen. 36:1–37:1), showing that they too may receive God’s blessing for all nations (Gen. 12:3).
What did the Israelites learn from this strategy? They discovered that they were not a parochial nation; they are a part of world history with a special role in filling the divine plan for the ages. Their covenant relationship was with the sole Creator of the universe. The insistence on the historicity of the events distinguished their God and his revelation as of a radically different category than the deities of their neighbors. Their God (Yahweh) could be loved and trusted. He was the all-powerful and wise Lord of history who was bringing to pass the promised blessing.
Readers face a separate set of questions. Chapters 1–11 and 12–50 appear to historical-critical scholars to be distinct ways of telling ancient events. According to them, chapters 1–11 are the Hebrew version of the Mesopotamian mythopoetic stories of creation and early humanity. Chapters 12–50 are stories that possess a “kernel” of historical reality but have been so embellished by folklore that they are not historically dependable. However, such an analysis undercuts the carefully crafted unity of Genesis as a historical narrative. The author of Genesis goes to great lengths, even to the point of polemic, to distance its materials from the common Ancient Near East fare of myth and legend. When Genesis is compared with the mythopoetic language of pagan cosmogonies, it is radically different in literary genre, since it is set in a historical framework by the toledoth (“generations”) pattern that stretches into the history of Genesis 12–50. The composer of Genesis establishes that the creation stories are just as fundamentally true as are the patriarchal accounts. Biblical revelation is grounded in real events which have been interpreted by the sole authoritative voice of the text. Now, readers can agree with the author’s testimony or reject it, but it is intellectually unfair to the author to say that he treats Genesis chapters 1–11 in any other way than actual reality.
“Historical dislocation” means that we lose connection with the past and therefore have doubt if today makes any difference for the future. It’s called the cultural tyranny of the present. Genesis presents a view of reality that sees individual life as part of the divine, larger, coherent purpose that has continuity and hence a hope for the future. What occurs today is meaningful and bears on our future—efforts at building a life, a family, community, work, and spiritual development results. Henri Nouwen sums this up for Christian readers, “But when our historical consciousness is broken, the whole Christian message seems like a lecture about the great pioneers to someone on an acid trip.” If we don’t know where we’ve come from, we don’t know who we are or where we are going. But recognizing that our roots go back to the “generations” of Genesis helps us to see our lives in the larger purpose of our Creator God.