The NT genealogies function to smooth the hard edges of historicism.
Historicism is the perspective that all knowledge and cognition are historically conditioned. While the major expositors of historicism are Vico and Herder, historicism can be traced all the way back to Jesus, who bases the changes He makes in divorce laws upon changes in society and culture. That God’s law is a fluid phenomenon that accommodates itself to social and cultural change finds substantial support in Scripture. With respect to sexual mores, polygamy, divorce, slavery, marriage, genocide, war, oaths, inheritance, and other moral issues, we see that our standards of behavior are different from the standards of behavior God instituted for the ancient Israelites. God’s law is necessarily a reflection not only of Him but on those to whom the law has been given. Accordingly, a Christian historicist might hold that God’s law is imperfect and ever-changing, not because He is imperfect and ever-changing, which He of course is not, but because we are. If there is such a thing as universal and transcendent truth, we cannot possibly know what it is, because once we learn of such truth that truth becomes historically conditioned.
For a radical historicist, historical judgments about the ancients are fruitless. Attempts to discern the meaning, as per authorial will, of an ancient text are fruitless. There are too many manifestations of distance that impede understanding, including differences in language, customs, cosmological awareness, scientific understanding, morals, culture, worldview. It is important to be cognizant of distance to the extent it exists. What can be said to the young boy who criticizes Ruth for uncovering the penis of Boaz and doing to Boaz what the biblical author is so polite not to set forth in explicit detail? What can be said for starters is that the young boy needs to better understand the culture and society in which Ruth lived and not superimpose upon the text his alien notion of morality.
Seventh-day Adventists have never understood or grappled with historicism and have remained largely ignorant about hermeneutics in general. Ellen White wrote about the characters of the Bible as if they were her next door neighbors. The highly-promoted “plain meaning” approach to interpretation essentially refuses to recognize that there is any distance between the ancient text and reader. The understandable sensitivity about the change from Sabbath to Sunday has helped to condition Seventh-day Adventists to avert their eyes from historicism and a correct hermeneutical understanding of law. I am unaware that any serious treatment of historicism as it relates to Scripture has been written by a Seventh-day Adventist. The clumsy and half-baked discussion about a “trajectory hermeneutic” in the context of the recent debate regarding women’s ordination illustrates the discomfort and uncertainty Seventh-day Adventists have with the hermeneutical concept of historicism. As a result of this discomfort and uncertainty, most Seventh-day Adventists do not know what to say about polygamy, slavery, genocide, capital punishment, weird Levitical laws, the wearing of veils, and other historical anomalies set forth in Scripture.
What the genealogies do to help counter or balance historicism is “shorten” time. The genealogies give the impression of a list of parents and their children living in one historical time period, not a list of strangers to each other who existed in different historical contexts over thousands of years. The extended family listed has one morality, one culture, one worldview, one set of norms and customs, etc. The NT writers in the genealogies speak of the OT ancestors as if they were intimate friends; no distance is remarked upon. There is no apparent reticence about judging the OT ancestors or cognizance that such judgments should be accommodating to a different historical context. Probably the best counters to historicism are the stubborn fixity of human nature and an explication of some notion of a linear progression of history. I see no counter as dispositive and there may be some hermeneutical circularity here.
I thank David Trim for the issues he explores in his excellent essay.