The Boring Genealogies

The common assumption of many Christians that the first human couple, Adam and Eve, were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants is not only silly, but betrays an appalling narrowness and ethnocentrism. They could just as easily have been black and seven feet tall. The student of the Bible should be very careful not to allow his cultural prejudices to get in the way of proper interpretation; speculation is fine, only so long as he or she recognizes it is speculation. The minute interpretation becomes gospel, you’ve gone too far.

So let’s consider a popular interpretation of the boring genealogies in Genesis. Genesis 1:31 records that people were created on “the sixth day” of creation. Beyond that, we can’t be certain. The sixteenth/seventeenth century Bishop Ussher (1581 – 1656), basing his reckoning on the genealogies of Genesis, postulated that the world began in 4004 BC—in October, to be precise. If there are no gaps in the genealogical record of Genesis, then perhaps Ussher’s date is appropriate. But a gapless genealogy? I don’t think so.

When we compare the genealogies Bishop Ussher used in Genesis 5, 10, and 11 with genealogical lists in other parts of the Bible (and other texts from the Ancient Near East), it becomes obvious pretty quickly that we’re dealing with a selective list, whose purpose had nothing to do with creating a chronology for Bishop Ussher to play with. For instance, consider the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1.

We know for certain that Matthew’s Gospel contains a selective genealogy. In verse 17 of chapter one, Matthew outlines that: “thus there were 14 generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to Christ.” From this we know that his genealogical list artificially divides into three groups of fourteen names each. The selective nature of his genealogy is clear when we compare Matthew 1:8 and 1 Chronicles 3:10-12, or 1:12 and 1 Chronicles 3:18-19, or 1:13 and 1 Chronicles 3:19-20. So as to get the pattern described in verse 17–three lists of 14 names each–Matthew purposely left out several names. Why did Matthew want three lists with 14 names? It had nothing to do with chronology. In his case, it was because the name David, in Hebrew, is written with 3 letters–and the numerical value of those letters is 14 (dalet, the first and last letter in David’s name has the numerical value 4–think of how Roman numerals work; Hebrew used their letters in a similar way. And vav, the middle letter in David’s name has the value 6; so 4 + 6 + 4 = 14).

Since, in at least Matthew’s genealogical record, there are demonstrable gaps it is not unreasonable, nor without precedence, to suppose that gaps could exist in the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 10-11. It also demonstrates that our cultural expectations might be getting in the way of how we look at the genealogies; obviously, they are doing some things, that at least for us, seem unexpected.

So what other arguments are there for making me reject Genesis 5 and 10-11 as a strict chronology?

Well, if the list of names and ages in Genesis 10-11 has been given to us for the purpose of constructing a pre-Abrahamic chronology, it is strange that the author of Gensis failed to give the total number of years from the Flood to Abraham. The objection raised against this point (by those who disagree with me) is that the author expected the reader to do his or her own totaling, and therefore did not add unnecessary words. But, I then point out that the author of Genesis took nothing for granted in the reader’s ability to add just two numbers in the life of each antediluvian patriarch (take a look at them in Gen. 5) in order to ascertain their total life-spans. And if the time-span of the whole period was one of the reasons for giving the genealogy, how simple it would have been to give the total, as he in fact did in Exodus 12:40 for the time of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt.

A very important thing to notice about the genealogies of Genesis 5 and Genesis 11 is that they are perfectly symmetrical. This alone betrays their selective and artificial nature. You see, in each of the two genealogies, there are 10 patriarchs listed. And then the tenth patriarch has 3 sons. Consider the importance of the number 10 in Jewish thinking, as well as the importance of the number 3 (Trinity, much?) Given that the Hebrew alphabet can be read as both numbers and words, it is unsurprising that the ancient Jewish people played around with numbers as they composed their texts.

If the purpose of the genealogies was to give us a chronology, why all the irrelevant extra details? Information is given concerning each patriarch that don’t help move along a strict chronology if that was what it was all about. Genesis 5:6-8 states that “Seth lived a hundred five years and begat Enosh: and Seth lived after he begat Enosh eight hundred seven years and begat sons and daughters: and all the days of Seth were 912 years: and he died.” Now if the purpose of this genealogy was to provide us with a chronology, all we would need is that “Seth lived 105 years and begat Enosh”. But the additional facts which are provided concerning each patriarch indicate that the purpose of these genealogies was to show us much more—for instance, how faithfully God guarded the Messianic line (Gen. 3:14; 9:26) even in ages of universal apostasy (Gen. 6:1-12; 11:1-9); or to impress upon us the vigor and grandeur of humanity in those old days of the world’s prime; to demonstrate the fulfillment of the curse of Genesis 2:17 by the melancholy repetition of the phrase “and he died”; to show by the shorter life spans of post-diluvian patriarchs and by the omission of their total years of life the tightening grip of the curse upon the human body; and to make the record end in terms of the command of 9:1, which was so vitally important in view of the flood, by omitting the words “and he died” in the genealogy of Genesis 11. Since, therefore, so many pedagogical purposes are evident in these two genealogies that have nothing to do with the actual length of the overall period, it is unnecessary to press them into a rigid chronological system.

Then there’s another odd thing that shows up if you start adding up the years like Bishop Ussher did. Based on how the story of the patriarchs after the genealogies is told, it seem improbable that Noah or his sons would have been contemporaries of Abraham–yet if the strict chronological interpretation of Genesis 11 is correct, all the post-diluvian patriarchs, including Noah, would still have been living when Abraham was fifty years old! Three of those who were born before the tower of Babel would have actually outlived Abraham. Eber, the father of Peleg, not only would have outlived Abraham, he would have still been living for for the first two of the seven years that Jacob worked for Laban in order to marry Rachael!

On the face of it, this seems very odd. Stranger still, Joshua reported that Abraham’s fathers, including Terah, were idolaters when they dwelt “of old time beyond the River” (Joshua 24:2, 14, 15). If the patriarchs Noah and Shem were still alive (as a strict chronological interpretation requires) then, as “Abraham’s fathers”, they had fallen into idolatry by then! That seems rather improbable.

As if all that weren’t enough, consider what we know of the chronology of the Near East. According to Bishop Ussher’s chronology, the Flood would have occurred about 2500 BC. Given that Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations have an unbroken chronology going back to nearly 4000 BC, it just isn’t possible for a Great Flood to have occurred in 2500 BC–or at any time in recorded history, for that matter. The parallel Near Eastern stories of the Flood that appear in Sumerian and Akkadian texts, as well as the Sumerian King List, place the flood in a very remote past, long before the rise of Sumerian and later civilizations.

The problem that those who insist on a young Earth must face is that while we would like to know how old the world and the universe are, the people of the Ancient Near East, including the authors of the Bible, simply didn’t care. That was not a question they were trying to answer and Genesis does not address the issue at all. Trying to impose such an answer on the biblical text is an example of eisogesis, not exegesis.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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