Why in the world does God want us to read ancient census data and family lists? How is that relevant to my life? Why does it matter?
It doesn’t, unless the family lists are of your family. We know this intimately in the Covenant church. In fact, we have a deep and complicated ritual upon meeting other Covenanters that revolves around these connections. “Oh, Anderson. Are you part of the Detroit Andersons? My family is from IA, not MI, but I know lots of Andersons from Detroit.” “Oh, you’re from IA. My grandparents grew up in the Red Oak and Stanton areas.” “Really? Are you related to the Stanton Johnsons?” And so on, and so on, and so on.
Why do we do this? I always marveled at my parents’ ability to ferret out even the most obscure connections within seconds. I used to chalk it up to the intimacy of the Covenant, but have found out that it goes beyond closeness and even beyond the Covenant. We as a human race thrive on connections, both to one another and to our past.
These tediously boring lists of names and numbers early in the bible are exactly this – records of the connections people have with their pasts. Most of God’s people could read these names and find family connections with them, and in this way connect with their history and with God as the chief actor in it. More than a historical data collection, the first few chapters of Numbers is a genealogy of the past, and therefore a promise to the future, for someday our descendants will look back on lists of our names and connect as well.
On a trip to the East Coast as a young boy, my family visited a graveyard where many historically important characters were buried. And as we looked, we saw the name “Larson” on a headstone. I wondered then if this was some distant past relation or just a coincidence, but it connected me with these figures of my past. Years later, we went to visit the grave of my grandmother, and the connection was more powerful because of the relationship we had when she was alive. Looking at these lists in the same way, as historical markers in time, can help us have a better appreciation for them, and a stronger connection to our spiritual ancestry.