What do you do with a list of names? Is this a census or a geneology? How can you tell? What difference does it make? Why would this be here?
Everyone struggles with a list of names
It can be even worse when you are not a native Hebrew speaker and struggle even pronouncing the names. You can delve deep into the meaning of each of these names. For this passage though, that is not necessary.
Part of the trouble with this passage is that it is written as prose instead of as lists. To find where the internal lists begin and end, look for the repeated words. We see “the sons of” repeated multiple times throughout this passage and that helps us know what to do with these lists. That is a marker of a beginning of a new list. Then we see “these are the families of…” repeated also. That marks the end of a list of names and a transition to something new. What does that leave us with?
The List of Names (broken down)
The Sons of Reuben – Hannoch, Pallu, Hezron, and Carmi
The Sons of Simeon – Jemual, Jamin, Ohad, Jachin, Zohar, and Shaul
The Sons of Levi – Gershon, Kohath, and Merari
- The Sons of Gershon: Libni and Shimei
- The Sons of Kohath: Amram, Ishar, Hebron, Uzziel
- The Sons of Amram: Moses and Aaron
- The Sons of Merari: Mahli and Mushi
What is this?
This is not a complete list of names of the Hebrew people. It starts out with Israel’s firstborn, Reuben, but quickly moves on to Levi. Once we get to Levi, it goes deep into his children and grandchildren, ending with Moses and Aaron.
Why start with Reuben? I think the clue for this is in the first line, the title of this list. “These are the heads of their father’s households.” Reuben was the firstborn and his tribe would assume headship over all the tribes after Israel’s death (the person, not the nation). So this list starts with who is in charge.
Then it goes to the second-born, Simeon. Next is Levi. At this point, we stop hearing about the original sons of Israel.
Here we dive deep into Levi’s lineage, following a similar pattern: first to last born, until we get to the people we seek: Moses and Aaron.
So this is not a census. It is a geneology, much like we find in Matthew and Luke’s gospel, showing us the family of Jesus.
Why do you think Moses and Aaron would need a geneology listed here?
Perhaps because Moses had spent so much time away from the Hebrew people that he needed to give them proof that he was indeed one of them. This passage could be a kind of “proof of citizenship” that Moses showed them to prove that he was able to lead the people.
Lastly, it also shows us some insights into the culture of the Hebrews. For example, even though the Hebrew people were slaves, they still had a hierarchy among themselves and set themselves apart from others. We see that in the way they begin with Reuben, as well as the footnote about the son who was born of a “Canaanite woman”.
What do you see here?
I’d love to hear what you see in this passage. You can comment below or send a text to 859-636-6965 for a faster response. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on deciphering difficult bible passages.