Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

27 June 2010


In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Then trees and animals and such. Then people, who, sadly, didn’t love him as much as he loved them. In fact, they didn’t pay him much attention at all and went through many generations at a stretch before they acknowledged his existence or proclaimed his name.

So, to punish them perhaps, or maybe to nudge forth a like-kind exchange of sorts, God created genealogies: list upon list of people’s forgotten names that God crammed into an anthology he was busy editing that, through the voices of other forgotten people, told the story of his relationship with humankind. Thus it is that, having forgotten all these people, the tellers and the ones whose existence is recorded in the anthology, we can nevertheless not escape their names: Enosh, Kenan, Mahilalel, Eliud, Eliezar, Jeconiah, Peleg, Esli—as worthless and unrelenting as socks whose mates were lost in the wash. Nor can we escape the abiding worry that maybe these forgotten names and people and their unrecorded deeds were important, somehow, else why were they included in the Bible to begin with? That, perhaps, for some unfathomable reason, God had had these people in his sights all along—that he had loved them and kept on loving them and yearned for them, even now, centuries after their deaths.

None of which makes biblical genealogies much fun to read. The typical response is to skip over them to the stories of those among the many who by faith still speak, as the forgotten writer of Hebrews writes, even though they are dead. Abel. Enoch. Noah. Abraham. Their names appear in the genealogies, too, sprinkled among the forgotten. Rahab. Jacob. David. Jephthah.

Today I glean this from the “written account” the writer of Genesis offers us of Adam’s line. First off, unlike most genealogies undertaken in modern times, this one makes no attempt to be exhaustive. Indeed, it is highly selective. Adam had lots of kids, but only one son figures in his official line: Seth—a son “in his own likeness, in his own image,” as the Genesis writer remarks, echoing both the words and the emphatic repetition of the creation song of Genesis 1. Just as humans were God’s special creatures, made in his own image, in his likeness, so this one son of Adam is also special—mirroring Adam’s sinfulness, as my Bible notes point out, yes, but also special in that we can follow this particular vein in the genealogy of Adam (as Luke does in the genealogy he includes in his gospel) right down to Jesus, the Son of God. And of that one son of Adam’s many sons and daughters, only one grandchild makes the list. And so on. This singling of one child out of the many makes the people in the biblical genealogies significant, at least by association. Many many are called, but only a few are chosen for the written account.

The biblical genealogies are, as I have pointed out, written accounts. Presumably oral accounts—probably recited or sung in some sort of rhythm to aid memory—predated it. This selective account is, in other words, archived, not intended to be forgotten, as I imagine many oral genealogies were in the old days. And as, in fact, many written genealogies are these days, despite the arduous efforts of self-appointed family genealogists. I know, at least, that the two fat books of genealogical research taken up by relatives of mine—plus the genealogical results of my own efforts to establish my Choctaw lineage—lie amouldering in the closet.

A few names do come accompanied by enough story to arrest the modern reader. It doesn’t take much. About Methuselah, for example, all we’re told is that he lived for 969 years, which happens to be the oldest age recorded in scripture. So he lives on in all manner of hyperbolic expressions of longevity as well as in the names of a scientific organization dedicated to the reversal of aging and of a much revered bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California believed to be almost 5000 years old.

Adam’s line in Genesis 5 also includes Enoch, my mother-in-law’s favorite Bible character for no other reason than that, rather than dying like the rest of us, he was taken away by God. I would take Mamaw’s fondness for Enoch to be the wishful thinking of an eighty-five year old who has outlived ten siblings and a husband and surely seen much suffering, except that she also told me that she has always envied Enoch. Since childhood. And so I hear in her longing the voice of my daughter Lulu and my own voice as a child, the voice of every child who has contemplated death with fear and considered and ranked the ways that one might go. A pain-free dying in one’s sleep is hands down the best, but the worst can rank from long and slow—like, say, the skin cancer of the husband of an acquaintance whose name I have forgotten that rotted him from the inside out—to fast and violent. A fall from a height. A thorough car crash. Gunshot to the head.

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