From Amram to Zelophehad

Lengthy genealogies may seem boring, but there are connections worth making.

The sons of Kohath were Amram, Izhar, Hebron and Uzziel,” says the Book of Exodus, and “Kohath lived 133 years” (Ex. 6:18 NIV). Passages such as these these tend to make most churchgoers’ eyes glaze over like Krispy Kreme doughnuts.


For me, though, the name Amram begins to tumble around in my head like a pair of pants in a dryer. I repeat it incessantly: Amram Amram Amram. Writers are drawn to strange names, I think.

Try substituting the names listed in any biblical genealogy with, say, the inscrutable ingredients listed on a shampoo bottle, and the reading will prove equally impenetrable. “And Polysorbate begat Methylisothiazolinone … .”

Which prompts the question: Why read such passages? Why not just skip them? While the psalmist writes of hiding God’s word in his heart, I’m betting a cardiologist wouldn’t find Exodus 6:18 lodged in either of his ventricles.

When I resolved to read the Bible in a year, I knew my journey would include slogging through names like Mephibosheth and Maher-Shahal-Hash-Baz. But did I really need to pay close attention to every name I came across? Did that information actually matter? It soon occurred to me that if God loved even me, He surely loved the people in His Word. As much as my reading was from Genesis to Revelation, I saw it also as an A to Z journey—from Amram to Zelophehad.

One name in particular led me down a genealogical rabbit hole: Levi, son of Jacob, brother of Joseph. In Genesis 34, when Levi’s sister Dinah visits the town of Shechem and is raped by “Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite,” Levi and his brother Simeon retaliate (Gen. 34:2). They con the men of Shechem into subjecting themselves to circumcision, then slaughter them while they are still suffering the procedure’s aftereffects (and without ice packs, no less).

While the psalmist writes of hiding God’s word in his heart, I’m betting a cardiologist wouldn’t find Exodus 6:18 lodged in either of his ventricles.

Displeased with the severity of his sons’ actions, Jacob has harsh words for Simeon and Levi when he blesses his 12 sons at the end of his life. “Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce; and their wrath, for it is cruel. I will disperse them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel” (Gen. 49:7).

In the Bible, the individual is part of an ongoing story that includes his or her forebears and also descendants. Perhaps I should not have been surprised, then, to see green shoots of the Lord’s grace sprout from Levi’s family tree, despite Jacob’s deathbed pronouncement. Remember Amram, son of Kohath? Levi was Kohath’s father. With that in mind, consider Exodus 6:20: “Amram married his father’s sister Jochebed, and she bore him Aaron and Moses.” Moses and Aaron—strange fruit for a family tree that has been cursed.

Although Aaron made the golden calf that inflamed the ire of God in Exodus 32, Yahweh still promised the priesthood to him and his offspring. Furthermore, while the Levites do not inherit land like the other tribes of Israel, instead finding themselves scattered as Jacob foretold—living as priests throughout Israel—the tribe has a relationship with God unlike any other. Instead of granting them land, God offers Himself to the Levites as an inheritance (Josh. 13:33).

So even though Levi sinned greatly, his lineage receives unexpected and undeserved blessings. Had I glossed over every name I encountered, I never would have considered any of these things. Paying attention to the minutiae in Scripture led to a cosmic game of connect the dots that helped me see how God worked in one family to demonstrate His grace. In the story of Levi and his descendants, the Creator acted in a way that foreshadowed a future dispensation of grace through another lineage: that of King David and ultimately Jesus Himself.

After learning what I did about Levi’s family line, I read the other genealogical portions of the Bible with new eyes. Sure, a lot of it remained about as riveting as a phonebook. But instead of thinking of these passages as dry or difficult and nothing more, I began to imagine them as stretches of desert dotted with possibilities—spots where I might find buried treasure, if only I would be bold enough to dig.


Illustration by Jeff Gregory

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What happens to my notes

18 The sons of Kohath: Amram and Izhar and Hebron and Uzziel; and the length of Kohath's life was one hundred and thirty-three years.

2 When Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her, he took her and lay with her by force.

7 Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce; And their wrath, for it is cruel. I will disperse them in Jacob, And scatter them in Israel.

20 Amram married his father's sister Jochebed, and she bore him Aaron and Moses; and the length of Amram's life was one hundred and thirty-seven years.

33 But to the tribe of Levi, Moses did not give an inheritance; the LORD, the God of Israel, is their inheritance, as He had promised to them.

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