The sons of Zerah were Zimri, Ethan, Heman, Calcol, and Darda-five in all. The son of Carmi (a descendant of Zimri) was Achan, who brought disaster on Israel by taking plunder that had been set apart for the LORD. — 1 Chronicles 2:6-7, NLT
No man is an island entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main;
if a Clod be washed away by the Sea, Europe is the less,
as well as if a Promontory were,
as well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine own were;
any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee. — John Donne, 1624
My brother and I have been working on tracing our family history. My Aunt Adelaide, my mother’s sister, had done most of the work on my mother’s side of the family, but we had little more than family legend on my father’s side of the tree. Bob and I began digging for information and followed a lot of dead ends, until he discovered a database in Brittany, France, where most of our questions found answers. He has now pushed the record back to about the 15th century and created a fascinating picture of that branch of our family.
The details of a family tree are uncovered one small piece at a time. A birth record contains a date, a place and the name of a husband and wife. That leads to educated guesses about when and where a marriage occurred. A marriage record contains the names and residences of the parents on both sides, leading the search back farther into time. It’s like assembling a jigsaw puzzle without the benefit of the picture on the box; each piece is a person who lived and labored and loved and left behind children to carry on the family name.
My relatives were laborers, farmers and fishermen. A few were tradesmen. They lived in times of war and times of peace, times of want and times of plenty. Their children sometimes died in infancy. Some put down roots, some moved from place to place looking for work. It can be easy to forget that the names recorded in a bureaucratic ledger are actually lives that were lived in the capricious realities of human experience, men and women who experienced the gamut of love and loss, blessing and tragedy.
There are many genealogies in the Bible, including an extensive one in the first chapters of the book of 1 Chronicles. The care with which the records of these ancient relations were kept reflects the Jews’ sense of obligation to never forget the men and women who made their lives possible.
It’s a good thing to live with a sense of gratitude to the past. I wonder if we moderns have carelessly forgotten some of that connection to our own past, and with it, a very humbling appreciation for those who made our lives possible by their own?
Much of what we are and the opportunities we have had grew out of decisions made and actions taken by our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and on and on. I was born in America because several relatives chose to leave the countries of their birth and look here for a new start. I was raised with an appreciation for hard work because many of my relatives punched a time clock to earn a living. I had my introduction to Christianity through the Methodist church of my grandparents. My experience of family was formed through contact with the extended crowd of aunts and uncles and cousins on both sides of my family tree.
And since I was immersed from birth in an American, working class family that acknowledged the existence of the Christian God, I gained certain benefits, adopted certain values, took on a particular world view, and was presented with specific opportunities to develop my own gifts, to make my own place in the world.
I am not a self-made man. As John Donne correctly observes, none of us are islands. Not only is my DNA blended from a long genetic history going back centuries, but all that I am today has grown out of all that my ancestors were before me.
Besides suggesting an appreciation for the past, the other thing the Bible’s genealogies are meant to show is that God’s work in history occurs through the individual lives of generations of men and women, some of whom acknowledge him and some who do not. Their names are recorded to show that God himself knows every one of us, and is fully present in the moments of our lives whether we acknowledge him or not.
God accomplishes his work in the world through his people and remains faithful to them. Our names are etched into his heart. He knows us, walks with us and waits patiently for us when we wander away.
The Bible’s genealogies show that God is mindful of individuals. It is a significant and beautiful characteristic of the Lord that he desires a relationship with us one by one. Yes, he established the nation of Israel. Yes, he brought salvation to the world and has called together his church. But it would be a mistake to conclude from these sweeping movements in history that God cares nothing for the individual. On the contrary, his view of history is the particular and personal view of one who knows and loves each individual man, woman and child, and wants to draw them to himself, one by one.
None of us are islands. Some of us may be archipelagos, a few might be peninsulas, most of us are a piece of the continent. We are unique individuals whom God knows intimately, by name, and we are loved unconditionally.
And because of the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, we have each been invited to have our family tree grafted into the Father’s Tree of Life, where it will prosper forever under his care.