Are the Biblical Genealogies Reliable?

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Kenneth A. Mathews (ThM, Dallas Theological Seminary; PhD, University of Michigan) is professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School, where he teaches Old Testament and Hebrew.

Biblical genealogies must be understood in the context of the ancient Near East. Typically, genealogies expressed more than family descent. They reflected political and socioreligious realities among people groups. For example, “Salma fathered Bethlehem” (1 Ch 2:51) describes the founder of the village Bethlehem. Therefore the genealogies were fluid, showing differences due to changing political and social realities.

The adoption of Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, by Jacob created a new way of interpreting the 12-tribe configuration (Gn 48:5). “Joseph” appears in the blessing of Jacob (Gn 49:22–26), but the blessing of Moses counts 12 tribes by deleting Simeon and dividing the house of Joseph into Ephraim and Manasseh (Dt 33:17). Thus, as we see from this example, the contents of genealogies were selective and not intended to be exhaustive and precise.

Matthew 1:6-7 BBC: Why does Matthew’s genealogy differ from Luke’s genealogy?

Shortening genealogies by omitting names was commonplace. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus exhibits a pattern in which three sets of 14 generations are achieved (Mt 1:17). The number 14 was desirable because of the importance attributed to the symbolic meaning of seven (“complete, perfect”). Thus “Joram fathered Uzziah” (Mt 1:8) omits three generations (2 Ch 21:4–26:23) so as to accomplish the desired number (cp. Ezr 7:1–5 with 1 Ch 6).

From this example we discover another unexpected feature in biblical genealogies. Genetic terms, such as “son of” and “father,” were flexible in meaning, sometimes indicating a “descendant” and “grandfather or forefather.” The word “daughter,” for example, could mean a subordinate village affiliated with a nearby city and thus be translated “surrounding settlements” (Jdg 1:27, NIV).

One technique in the ancient world for legitimizing a new king was the concoction of a fictional ancestry. Moreover, scholars often assume that persons named in genealogies are metaphors for tribes and actually have no familial connection. The charge of fiction has been leveled against the genealogies of the 12 tribes of Israel as descended from the one person Jacob (e.g., Gn 46:8–27; Nm 1:20–43; 1 Ch 2:1–2).

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The argument that the term “sons of Jacob” reflects only an evolving social reality and not a reliable domestic one is an unnecessary assumption that contradicts the plain meaning of the biblical witness. The biblical account of the patriarchs reveals a family story primarily and a national one secondarily. Also, since genealogies impacted domestic, legal, and religious matters of importance, reliable genealogical records and censuses were fastidiously maintained (Nm 1:45; Ru 4:10; 1 Ch 4:33; 9:1; Neh 7:5; see Nm 27:1–11; Ezr 2:62).

NTTC MATTHEW 1:11: Why is Jacob left out of Matthew’s genealogy list?

A special problem is the long life spans in Genesis 5:1–32. In that passage, for example, Adam is said to have lived to be 930 years old.

The Sumerian King List presents a list of the reigns of kings and includes a reference to a great flood. The King List claims fantastic numbers, the longest reign at 72,000 years. After the flood the regal years diminish. Despite its fantastic numbers, however, the King List includes historical individuals, not just legendary ones.

Both Genesis and the Sumerian King List remember a time in the ancient past when people lived for long periods. The life spans before Noah’s flood were longer and afterward gradually decreased. The long lives of the patriarchs, such as Adam and Noah, shrink to moderate figures when compared to the Sumerian King List. A significant difference is that Adam’s genealogy is not for political purposes but instead shows that the descending ages of humanity were due to a moral factor when God judged a corrupt humanity (Gn 6:1–8).

Although the years are reliable, this genealogy cannot be used to reconstruct the age of the earth. Genesis does not present genealogies for establishing absolute chronology (see 1 Kg 6:1). Also, Genesis 5 does not possess a complete list. Genesis 5 and 11 exhibit 10-name genealogies that consist of stereotypical patterns. The two genealogies are also linear, meaning that they include only one descendant per generation (segmented genealogies have more; see Gn 10:1–32). Since genealogies may telescope generations (see above), and since Genesis 5 is highly stylized, it is likely an “open” (selective) genealogy that spans many generations.

Young Christians

6:2–4 The “sons of God” and the “Nephilim” are not evidence of polytheism or mythical lore about a race of giants. On the contrary, the account repudiates the pagan belief concerning a race of giants by insisting that the children born to “the sons of God” were no more than “men” (v. 4)—not semi-divine beings. These were perhaps the warrior class, infamous for their acts of violent oppression in this decadent period (vv. 5–8). The “sons of God” have been traditionally identified either as fallen angels (see Job 1:6; 2:1) who had intercourse with women (1 Pt 3:19–20; 2 Pt 2:4), or the favored descendants of Seth (see Dt 14:1; Jn 1:12–13) who intermarried with the wicked Cainite women (cp. the two genealogies in Gn 4–5). In the first interpretation, the Nephilim are usually understood as the descendants of fallen angels. The translation “giants,” popularized by the KJV, reflected the Septuagint gigantes, which relied on the allusion to a race of tall people in Nm 13:32–33. Based on the phrase “both in those days and afterwards” (Gn 6:4), others interpret the Nephilim as contemporaries of “the sons of God,” not their children. The Nephilim of Moses’ day could not have been descendants of the same Nephilim, since these were destroyed in the flood. The Hebrew spies exaggerated (“we seemed like grasshoppers,” Nm 13:33) in their allusion to the “Nephilim” because of their ancient reputation for violence.

6:6–7 Although “regret” is the customary translation of the Hebrew verb in verse 6, its basic meaning is to “be pained.” This is the sense here, as suggested by the parallel “be grieved.” As it hurts a loving parent to see the disobedience of his children, so it pained God to see how wicked men had become. Human regret arises from one’s inability to foresee or alter the effects of one’s actions. But because of God’s perfect knowledge and unlimited power He is not subject to these human limitations. The correspondence between human emotions and the heart of God provides insight into the mystery of God’s nature. Although the Bible describes God as responding with human emotions, the correspondence is not exact. People often act out of sinful, irrational, or uncontrolled emotion, but God’s emotion is always consistent with His righteous character and eternal purposes (cp. 2 Th 2:13). A close reading of the passage shows that God’s disappointment was not with human creation but with human sin. God is not indifferent to sin’s effects, but His grief is not a feeling of helplessness. Coupled with His pained heart is the just recompense of His anger (cp. Ps 78:40–41; Is 63:10).

6:9–8:22 The story of Noah and the ark testifies to the Bible’s reliable memory of this catastrophic event. Other ancient cultures had similar stories, including the Sumerian account of Atrahasis and the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh. The Bible’s resemblance to these accounts can be attributed to a shared memory, rather than to borrowing. Although some remarkable parallels exist (such as the kind and purpose of the released birds, 8:7–12), the differences in detail and purpose are substantive. For example, in the Gilgamesh story the ark is a perfect cube of about 197 feet; such a vessel would capsize and sink in turbulent water. Noah’s ark possessed a seaworthy shape of a long rectangular barge (450 ft. by 75 ft.). More importantly, the pagan accounts are typically polytheistic. The purpose of the flood is to rid the earth of the pesky and noisy humans whose explosive population disturbs the sleep of the gods, and the survivor receives immortality from the gods. By contrast, the biblical account presents a high moral motivation for the flood, through which God judges sin and also purifies the earth. Moreover, Noah is decidedly mortal, and God preserves the human family out of His grace. The lessons of the flood account are Noah’s obedience to God’s word and the perpetuation of God’s blessing for humanity and the world.

6:14–22 The ability of the ark to house the many animal species known today has elicited doubt, but this is the result of a misreading of the text. The word “kinds” refers to general categories; the animals on board were representative of genera, or groups of species. Moreover, the three levels of the ark provided approximately 1.4 million cubic feet. The gathering of the animals was divinely guided (v. 22), so it is reasonable to propose that the Lord superintended the care and feeding of the animals.

6:17; 7:19–23 Although the geological record contains ample evidence of widespread, devastating local flooding, most geologists claim to see no evidence of a universal flood. Nevertheless, many ancient cultures preserved the memory of a worldwide flood. Some Christian geologists contend that only a worldwide flood can best explain the earth’s sedimentary layers. The description “all the high mountains … were covered” indicates the same (7:19–20), and the planet’s lack of sufficient water for such a flood can be explained if the water’s weight pushed mountains higher than they were before. The Biblical account abounds with expressions that indicate a universal flood (e.g., “all flesh under heaven”). Some who hold to the idea of a regional flood explain this as exaggeration or hyperbole or claim that it represents only the situation as viewed from the ark. But the flood’s purpose was to judge all human life with divine destruction (e.g., 6:7, 12–13; cp. Lk 17:26–30; 2 Pt 2:5; 3:6), and animal life would not have to have been rescued from a local flood unless all life were located in that region. From the Bible’s standpoint, Noah’s flood was the greatest flood in world history (9:15).

6:19–7:3 Those unfamiliar with ancient Near Eastern narrative literary style have supposed that repetitions in the flood account result from the clumsy collage of two contradictory traditions. Repetition in Hebrew narrative is a common device that gives emphasis, coherence, and structural symmetry. For example, the command to take on board “two” of every creature (6:19–20) is a general instruction to gather the animals in reproductive pairs. Then follow the specific instructions to collect “seven” such pairs of clean animals, which will be used for offerings (8:20), and only one pair of unclean animals (7:2–3; cp. 7:13–16). In this case, the repetition reveals that there was more than one purpose for collecting the animals. The “clean” and “unclean” distinctions would later be standardized (Lv 11; Dt 14), but recognition of these differences occurred before Moses. The Sabbath was also observed before Moses’ command normalized it (Ex 16:23–29; 20:8–11).

7:4, 11–12, 17, 24 The chronology of the flood may seem confusing but it is consistent. Noah waited on the ark seven days before the 40 days of rain began. The waters “surged” for 150 days (five months) of destruction (v. 24). This includes 40 days of rain followed by 110 days, during which the waters began to recede until the ark settled somewhere on the mountains of Ararat. In 40 more days land became visible (8:5–6). For about three weeks Noah sent out birds until the dove failed to return (8:12). But Noah had to wait another three months before he saw that the “ground was drying” (8:13), and another month before he and his shipmates could disembark, 377 days after climbing aboard.

7:12 Although some contend that Noah’s flood was the first time it ever rained, therefore a new experience for Noah’s generation, the Bible does not say this. The first mention of something is not necessarily the first time it occurred. Sunrise and sunset occurred before they are specifically mentioned in the text (15:12, 17; 19:23).

7:13–17 The entry of Noah, his family, and the animals into the ark is repeated here (in the case of the animals twice, vv. 13, 15). The repetition is part of the literary buildup to the concluding remark, “Then the Lord shut him in” (v. 16).

7:20 Where did all that water go? The story is internally consistent with its claims of God’s special intervention at points in the flood events. The Lord “caused a wind to pass over the earth” (8:1). It was a divinely-induced wind that divided the sea and dried the riverbed to allow the exodus (Ex 14:21). God accomplished the drying of the earth by a unique means in the times of Noah and Moses. Some prefer the explanation that the flood was not global but local.

8:1 The expression that “God remembered” does not imply that He had forgotten. It is a figure of speech meaning that God acted on the basis of His promise to save Noah (cp. 19:29; Ps 105:42).

8:13–14 Was the date of the earth’s drying the first month or the second month? The drying of the “ground” (adamah, v. 13) on the first of the month was the beginning, and the drying of the whole “earth” (erets, v. 14) was not complete until the twenty-seventh day of the second month.

8:21–22 The Lord mercifully promised not to destroy the earth again in the same manner (by flood), yet He will destroy the earth again by fire (2 Pt 3:10–13). The promise of uninterrupted seasons refers to the general pattern of seed and harvest that would provide agricultural stability for the people of earth. It does not entail the absence of famines and other natural disasters due to climatic conditions that might arise.

9:2 After the flood the animal world received a new decree imposing on them an inherent fear of humans. As with the creation decree that animals are subject to mankind, the new command is not a license for the inhumane treatment of animals. The new environment following the flood’s judgment was a hostile one characterized by violence and death. Humans maintained their authority over the lower animals, but the relationship would involve struggle in a sinful, fallen world (Rm 8:19–23). All life is valuable to God (Lv 17:14), and the new decree contributed to the preservation of both human and animal life. Israel’s laws provided animals for food but prohibited wanton killing (Lv 17:8–16; Dt 12:23; 15:21–23) and required special protections (Ex 20:10; 23:11; Dt 22:10; 25:4). Despite the fall, God did not revoke man’s stewardship of the earth.

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9:4 The purpose of prohibiting the eating of unbled meat (cp. Lv 17:10–14; Acts 15:29) was to affirm the value of life, for the blood represents the life force (Lv 17:14; 19:26) and the prerogatives of life and death belong to God alone. But the commands to Noah’s family in verses 1–7, such as diet, procreation, and capital punishment, were never intended to be absolute, as was shown by subsequent laws (e.g., proscribed foods, Lv. 11). Not every divine command or prohibition in the Bible applies to everyone. Jeremiah, for example, was told not to marry (Jr 16:2), and Isaiah was told to go naked and barefoot for three years (Is 20:2–4). The prohibition required by the Jerusalem Council was a temporary measure (Acts 15:28–29), designed to appease the ritual practices of the Jews for the sake of the unity of the church. Paul’s higher principle permitted the consumption of previously unlawful foods (Rm 14:20; Col 2:16–17). Unbled meat is not prohibited for Christians today, even though some groups (e.g., the Watchtower Society, see the article “Are the Teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses Compatible with the Bible?” in Lk 23) have mistakenly inferred that the Bible prohibits the transfusion of whole blood and certain products.

9:12–17 The passage does not claim that God newly created the rainbow, indicating that it had not existed before; rather, the Lord attached new meaning to the bow’s appearance as “the sign of the covenant.”

9:25 Although Ham was the one guilty of dishonoring his father, the curse is against his son Canaan. The Bible prohibits inflicting judgment against an innocent son in the place of his guilty father (Dt 24:16; Ezk 18:20), but it also recognizes that the influence of sinful parents typically leads children to follow their pattern of behavior (Ex 20:5). This was especially the case in ancient Israel’s patriarchal society where multiple generations often lived in the household of the patriarch.

The creation account makes it clear that all people are of equal worth (Gn 1:26–27). Slavery contradicts this principle. Those OT and NT passages that provide for and regulate slavery assume it as a regrettable aspect of sinful human society. Early indications that slavery eventually would become obsolete were laws that prohibited the mistreatment of slaves (see notes on Ex 21:2, 7; 21:20–21, 26). The gospel and the brotherhood of the saints (Gl 3:28; Phm) undermine the practice of slavery. These considerations suggest that Noah’s curse of Canaan was either figurative, or a misunderstanding of the Lord’s intent. The narrative does not portray Noah as an entirely exemplary character (v. 21).

Mosaic Authorship HOW RELIABLE ARE THE GOSPELS

10:5, 20, 31 The description of the nations in chapter 10 chronologically follows the tower of Babylon incident in 11:1–9. However, the narrative reverses the order for rhetorical effect, concluding the pre-Abrahamic history with an illustration of the incorrigibility of human sin. As long as the people of the tower had a common language (11:1, 6–9) they could maintain their prideful autonomy despite God’s command to spread over the earth (9:1). (That the nations continued to develop diverse languages was a natural result of their dispersion, 11:8–9.) To underscore his point, the author then returns in 11:10–26 to the genealogy of Shem, ancestor of the patriarchs through whom salvation will come to the nations (12:3).

10:22; 11:10 According to 11:10, Arpachshad was Shem’s firstborn. In 10:22 Shem’s children are listed geographically rather than in birth order (see notes on 11:10; 11:26, 32).

11:7 On the plural pronouns for God, see note on 1:26–27.

11:10 Shem was 100 years old “two years after the deluge” and thus 98 at the flood. But Noah was 500 when he “fathered Shem, Ham, and Japheth” (5:32) and 600 when the flood began (7:6, 11), suggesting that Shem may have been 100 at the flood. But this neglects some facts that the reader is expected to observe: (1) Shem, Ham, and Japheth were not triplets (cp. 9:24), so they were not all born when Noah was 500, making 5:32 an approximation. The NIV translation “After Noah was 500 years old” is syntactically possible, but no word for “after” is in the text. (2) Since Ham was the youngest, Noah’s sons are apparently listed in order of importance rather than birth order. Japheth may have been the oldest, born when Noah was 500, allowing Shem to be born two years later. (3) We are not told whether “two years” counts from the beginning or the end of the flood period, which lasted one year and ten days (7:11; 8:14).

11:26, 32 How old was Abraham when he left Haran? If Abram was the eldest son, he was born when Terah was 70. Genesis 12:4 says Abram was 75 when he departed, which would mean that he left 60 years before the death of his father. However, Stephen’s sermon indicates that he left after the death of Terah (Acts 7:4), making Abram 135 years old. Was Abraham 75 or 135 when he left? There are three plausible responses. (1) Haran was the eldest son born when Terah was 70 (Gn 11:26) and Abraham was the youngest son born 60 years later when Terah was 130. Thus, 70 (birth of Haran) + 60 (birth of Abraham) + 75 (Abraham’s departure) = 205. Abraham was 75 when his father died at 205. A difficulty for this proposal is the surprise of Abraham at fathering a son at 100 (17:17) when his own father did so at 130. (2) The Samaritan Pentateuch has Terah’s death at “145 years”; some scholars conclude that Stephen and the Jewish author Philo (On the Migration of Abraham, 177) reflected an alternative tradition. (3) The author announced the death of Terah proleptically for thematic reasons, to close out the career of Terah since he plays no further part in the story. Stephen’s sermon gave a general accounting of the history of Israel (e.g., sometimes telescoping events) rather than a strict chronology, which did not impact his central message.

THE CREATION DAYS OF GENESIS gift of prophecy

12:1 Did God call Abram from Ur or from Haran to leave Mesopotamia for Canaan? According to 11:31, it was Abram’s father Terah who decided to take his family from Ur in Mesopotamia to Canaan, though we are not told why. The context of verses 1–3 suggests that Abram was in Haran when God summoned him to Canaan. According to Stephen in Acts 7:2 God appeared to Abram in Mesopotamia “before he settled in Haran” and called him to leave for a new land. If God had spoken to Abram while Abram was in Ur, this could have been part of Terah’s motive for moving his family. God could then have repeated His summons to Abram to proceed to Canaan after his father had died in Haran (Gn 11:32).

12:2 Abram would not become “a great nation,” as God had promised, during his lifetime. However, his descendants apparently numbered over two million by the time of the exodus (some 600,000 men, plus their wives and many children; Ex 12:37). Abram has become significant in history as the physical father of Israel and the one regarded as spiritual “father” by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Abram became “a blessing” by his example of proper worship and proclamation of the Lord’s name (12:8), as well as by his justifying faith (15:6; Rm 4:3). His name may be reflected in a tenth-century b.c. Egyptian list of places in the Negev that includes “The Enclosure of Abram.”

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12:3 The blessing and curse here have played out repeatedly in history. The nations or groups (plural: “those”) who have blessed Abram or his descendants have been blessed by God. The individuals (singular: “him”) who have cursed Abram or Israel have been “cursed,” coming eventually to a bad end. This, however, is not a blank check for the actions of unbelieving Israel, as if the nation could do no wrong or deserves no criticism or has no accountability for its actions. It is a general ongoing promise. Acts 3:25 and Gl 3:8 indicate that all the families of the earth are blessed in the availability of salvation through Jesus Christ, and Gl 6:16 refers to the church as “the Israel of God” through which, by implication, that blessing is extended.

12:5 In referring to “the people [Abram] had acquired in Haran” the Bible is not sanctioning slavery. “Acquired” may refer to household servants, which wealthy families of the era had, rather than to slaves. Furthermore, even characters whom the Bible views favorably do not always act in accordance with what God approves. In evaluating their actions, we must recall that God did not reveal His will in its entirety at the beginning, but rather gradually throughout the course of biblical history. Biblical narrative often conveys the divine and human authors’ evaluation of a character’s actions implicitly rather than explicitly, not by denouncing the actions but by recording their outcome. The disgrace resulting from Abram’s lie in verses 12–13 is an example of this.

12:6 Some have supposed the note “At that time the Canaanites were in the land” (see note on 13:7) means that in the author’s day they were no longer there. If so, Moses could not be the author. But “that time” is clearly not being contrasted to the author’s time but to Abram’s time. The point is that when God made His promise to Abram the land was already occupied.

12:10–15 A tomb painting of Khnumhotep III at Beni Hasan from 870 b.c. depicts a trading donkey caravan of “Asiatics” visiting Egypt. Their beards, multicolored robes, weapons, and goods would have been typical of visitors from Canaan during the time of the patriarchs. During the first half of the second millennium b.c. Egyptian kings had a northern palace in the eastern Delta region near Avaris. Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen points out that “the pharaohs were commonly partial to attractive foreign ladies, as finds and texts for the Middle and New Kingdoms attest.”

Twisted Scripture

Genesis 12:10–20

Mormons claim that while Abraham was in Egypt he wrote The Book of Abraham, one of the Mormon sacred scriptures, which had been lost until it fell into the hands of Joseph Smith in 1835. After Smith allegedly translated the papyrus into English, it passed through several hands before landing at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Egyptologists immediately identified it as a portion of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, dealing with funeral customs and worship of the various Egyptian gods. Smith’s identification of the manuscript and his translation were completely wrong. To this day Mormons refuse to accept the scholarly evaluation and cling to Smith’s erroneous claims.

13:7 “At that time” does not mean the Canaanites and Perizzites were not there when the book was written but that in Abram’s time the land promised to him was already occupied (see note on 12:6). So Abram and Lot were competing not only with each other but also with others for water and food.

14:1–2 Skeptical scholars in earlier generations doubted the historical existence of some, or all, of the kings in these verses. Although these kings of ancient city-states cannot be identified (Amraphel is no longer supposed to be the later famous king Hammurabi), their names are recognized as authentic ancient names from the regions they are here said to rule.

14:3, 8, 10 The “Valley of Siddim” was apparently the name of the land now covered by the Dead Sea, one of the world’s richest areas in mineral content (perhaps reflected by the presence of “many asphalt pits,” v. 10). How the valley filled in to become a great body of water is not known, though it appears the flow of the Jordan River out of the south end of the valley into the Arabah was blocked, damming the river. That could have been caused by upheaval related to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, ed. Ted Cabal et al. (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007), 14–25.

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