Genealogies: Dry Lists Or Exciting Reading?

Have you ever found yourself skipping over a biblical genealogy and thinking, “Why do we need all these dry lists?” The Bible is full of genealogies, and even the most diligent readers sometimes skip them.  These lists might, indeed, seem dry to us, but in fact, they are very important because they prove the historical character of these books. Besides, they describe the characters by telling us their names – and one of the biggest problems with reading the Bible in translation only is losing the original meaning of the names.  Translations render the names meaningless, and when one reads a biblical genealogy, it does seem like a dry and meaningless list.  But the Hebrew names are vibrant and full of meaning; they tell a lot about the people they belong to.  Here are just some examples of how meaningful the Hebrew biblical names are …


Cain and Seth: Different Worldviews 

The name of Eve is a first and great example of the fact that the Biblical names of people in translation have no connection at all with the original reference points and ideas. When we read: “And Adam: called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living,” the connecting word “because” doesn’t make any sense, since the connection is lost in translation. In Hebrew, however, her name is Chava, which comes from the root “lihyot, “to live”, and it clearly conveys the idea of her being the mother of all living.

The messages hidden in the names of Eve’s sons are less obvious, but also very significant. In Genesis 4, Cain, the firstborn of Adam and Eve, killed his brother Abel. By the end of this chapter, another son was born to Eve. She called him Seth: “For God has appointed another seed for me instead of Abel”.   The difference between the names of the brothers, Cain and Seth, is extremely significant in Hebrew, yet it’s completely lost in translation. What does this difference reflect?

The name Cain in Hebrew,קַיִן  (kayin), carries the meaning of something being “acquired”. This name referred to Eve’s action: she was the one who “acquired”. Probably, waiting for the fulfillment of the promise of Genesis 3 (and maybe also feeling guilty and trying to make up for her mistake with the forbidden fruit), she felt and thought that she had to do something; that it was her task and her responsibility to remedy the situation. That’s why Eve called Cain by this name: she thought she “acquired” him from the LORD to fix the situation.

On the other hand, the name Seth expresses an altogether different worldview. In Hebrewשֵׁת  (shet) means something like “provided”; the Hebrew verbלָשִית   means “to appoint” or “to provide”. Pay close attention: in this case, the name refers to God’s action, not Eve’s. This difference is extremely significant and shows that by this point, Eve knows:  it’s not her efforts, it’s God’s grace alone, that can help them. She already: knows it’s not what she does, that saves her – it’s what God does!

Therefore, it’s not at all surprising, that it is the line of Seth that was chosen to survive the flood!  In Genesis 5, we read about “the generations of Adam”. This entire chapter traces the righteous line of Seth – but how do we know that this line was righteous? We learn it from the names!  We read in Genesis 4, that when a son was born to Seth, he named him Enosh. “Enosh” in Hebrew means “human”: unlike the arrogant and ungodly line of Cain and, like his mother, Seth recognized his humble and complete dependence on God and “began to call on the name of the Lord”.


The Confessing one

Our next example should be of great interest to my readers because the genealogy of Jesus goes back to this name. We all know that King David – who is the type and symbol of Messiah – was a descendant of Judah. The Book of Samuel makes it very clear that God bestows His anointing, for all time, on a monarchic line arising from the Tribe of Judah in the person of King David. And Jesus, who is the “Son of David”, is also a descendant of Judah.  Have you ever wondered why? Why it was Judah – whose weaknesses, even sins, are revealed so clearly in the book of Genesis, both in the story of Joseph and the story of Tamar – who was honored with this extraordinary privilege?

Let’s look into this name. When Leah gave birth to her fourth son, she declared: “This time I will praise the Lord”. Therefore, she named him Judah.” Once again, the connecting word “therefore” seems completely meaningless in translation. However, in Hebrew the connection is very evident: the verb lehodot (להודות) means “to thank“ or “to praise”, and the Hebrew name for Judah, Yehudah (יהודה), is the noun form of the root Y-D-H (ידה), “to thank” or “to praise”. Therefore, Judah’s Hebrew name, Yehudah (יהודה), can be translated literally as “thanksgiving”.

Many Bible readers are aware of that (even those who don’t know Hebrew). However, few would be aware, that the verb, lehodot, has yet another meaning: to admit, to confess. For example, Vidui, the Hebrew name of a special prayer of confession read before and during Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), comes from the same root. One of the most beautiful and profound prayers of this season says: How can we complain? What can we say? What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselvesWe will examine our ways and scrutinize them and we will return to You for Your hand is outstretched to accept returnees. Not with abundance, not with deeds do we come before you, like paupers and mendicants we knock on your door.

Thus, the name of Judah conveys another important message: Judah is the Confessing One!  In Genesis 38, Judah becomes the very first Biblical figure who is ready to acknowledge his sin and repent,[1] his words become part of Yom Kippur prayers and thus designate the attitude that the Lord desires from his children. I believe it’s because of his repentant heart, that Judah was so special in the eyes of the Lord – as was, many centuries later, Judah’s descendant David also a man of repentant heart: “The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.”[2]

The Names and the Choices

In Numbers 27, we read about five daughters of Zelophehad.  Zelophehad left Egypt with Moses and died in the wilderness. His five daughters belonged to the new generation that would enter the Promised Land. However, since the land should be apportioned according to the number of men only, Zelophehad’s daughters would not receive any inheritance! This was probably his and their greatest fear; this family had lived their whole life in the shadow of this fear, and that’s exactly what his Hebrew name says: Zel Pahad, Shadow of Fear!

There was another man who also left Egypt under Moses’ leadership, we meet him much earlier in the Torah. In Exodus 31, God has appointed a man named Bezalel to become the chief craftsman of the Tabernacle.  According to Scripture, Bezalel was given “wisdom,” “understanding” and “knowledge”; he was filled with God’s Spirit in order to complete God’s work.  Remarkably, the character of this man is also reflected in his name – BeZelElIn the Shadow of God.

These men – Zelophehad and Bezalel – seemingly, are not connected. When one reads the Bible in translation, one would not discover any connection between them. Yet, both names contain the same root: Zel, Shadow, and their names reflect their characters and their choices:  Did they choose to live in the shadow of God, or in the shadow of fear?  If you take time to go to the original Hebrew and allow God to speak to you through the profound messages of biblical names, biblical genealogies may become one of your favorite parts of Scripture!



[1] If you are interested in learning more about Judah’s repentance, you can read my small e-book “Biblical Portraits: Judah”

[2] Ps. 51:17



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About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Lynn

    Hi Julia,
    I love your articles and I was just reading many of the genealogies in my Bible this morning and then read your blog this evening. I do have one thing that the Lord has put on my mind lately and maybe you can help. I’ve been a follower of Christ for around 45 years but I’ve never heard anyone pray for Jesus’ kingdom to come on earth unless they are reciting the Lord’s Prayer. He’s asked us to pray for that and yet no one ever does and I’ve listened to lots of prayers! I’m from the US but I’d like Israel to be the ones starting that prayer movement. We need to let Jesus know we want His Kingdom to come on earth!