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.
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.
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?
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.