What does our family history tell us?
INSTEAD of focusing on a particular biblical family today, I want to talk about the recurring statement running through the rest of the Book of Genesis. “This is the family history of” introduces each new section as either the genealogy or detailed narrative of the family history of Adam, Noah, and the succeeding generations are related. There are lessons we can learn from these family histories.
When my mother was still alive, I asked about her life and family. Being next to the youngest of 8 children, there was much I did not know. I wish I were more thorough and intentional in asking her and my grandmother when I still had the chance to find out more about my ancestors. It is very helpful to know about our roots.
First, family history gives a sense of identity of who we are. For instance, Isaac was a lackluster personality but his father Abraham’s faith in God was strong, so he too was blessed and his future descendants. Likewise, a friend sent me someone’s write-up about my father’s early years and how he started his business and flourished which I did not know much about. Reading about the kind of person he was and what he accomplished gave me a healthy sense of pride. A 2010 published research conducted at Emory University showed that the more children knew and discussed about their family history, the higher their self-esteem and the better adjusted and more resilient they were in the face of challenges (Fivush, Duke, & Bohanek).
Second, family history makes us understand why things are the way they are, or why we are the way we are. For example, the present Israeli-Arab conflict started in the story of Abraham and Sarah. Sarah helped God out by giving Hagar to Abraham to have a son (Ishmael, from whom the Arabs descended) instead of waiting for God’s promised son through Sarah (Isaac, from whom Israel and the Jews arose). Gen. 16:11-12 says, “You shall name him Ishmael, ... He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.” With this background, peace may not really be possible in the Middle East until the Prince of Peace comes again to reign. Studies have shown that genetic DNA is not the only thing that gets passed on to us. Things like animosity as in tribal wars, or trauma (profound stress like war, famine, the holocaust - see Kellerman 2011, Epigenetic Transmission) affect generations through epigenesis (modification of expression of the genes although the code remains unchanged). A study of health records of nearly 4,600 children whose fathers had been POWs, compared to over 15,300 children of war veterans who had not been captured showed that the sons of POWs had an 11% higher mortality rate than the sons of non-POW veterans (Costa, Yetter & DeSomer 2018). Understanding may help us better cope with the present and make necessary adjustments so that the trauma is not passed on further.
Third, learning our family history helps us harness the good and alter the bad from our ancestors’ lives in our own and in future generations. God has established laws to govern our world and our lives. One cannot spurn God’s commandments meant to help us and not reap consequences, not only for ourselves but for those closest to us and those after us. Such was Abraham’s case who lied about his relationship with his wife Sarah to protect himself from Pharaoh (Gen. 12:11-13), repeated a generation later by Isaac (Gen. 26:7-9). Isaac’s son, Jacob was also caught in deception until he had his own dose of medicine and had to wrestle with God who changed him (Gen. 29-32). This offers great hope to us. Even if our family history may be marked by generational sin, it does not have to continue. Like Jacob, God can change us and the course of our future to model good things for the succeeding generations. A research on the legacy of Jonathan Edwards, pastor and President of Princeton College, and his wife Sarah showed 1 U.S. Vice-President, 3 Senators, 3 governors, 3 mayors, 13 college presidents, 30 judges, 65 professors, 80 public office holders, 100 lawyers and 100 missionaries. May we too have a great legacy.
Fourth, family history shows how God deals faithfully through the generations. God fulfilled his promise to Abraham to make him a great nation, despite all the messes and mistakes, trauma and tragedies, to the present Israel. We, too, can be assured as the Psalmist affirms, “For the Lord is good and his love endures forever, his faithfulness through all generations” (Ps. 100:5).