[Originally published as Did God Give Us Meaningless Genealogies in Genesis?]
I have a confession to make: Genealogy, anthropology, etc., are not my favorite subjects of study.
Be honest–you’ve probably skipped the reading of those ancient genealogies more than once in your regular Bible study.
It’s unfortunate, but this apathy seems to have found its way into academic circles as well. We have a very interesting and detailed accounting of human history found in the Word of God, and yet, most seminaries and many churches today all but reject this history!
I suggest that everything given to us in the Word of God was given for our learning–including the genealogies.1
They were placed there for a reason. But what is that reason? Did God give us meaningless genealogies? Empty words just to fill up space?
Here are two characteristics of the Scriptural genealogies which suggest significant historical meaning, with special regard to the age of the Earth:
1. The Intention of the Genealogies
As alluded to above, I believe that Scripture teaches every word should be considered with care, precision, and the intent of finding meaning.
It seems wildly inconsistent with the character of God to assume each of our idle words will matter on judgment day, and yet, His can be taken with a grain of salt and all but obliterated by the fallacious context of ancient mythological traditions.
As we come across these tedious passages of Scripture, then, we must ask what they mean and why they were included. Some have argued that these genealogies are merely for theological purposes and are not meant to convey chronological details at all.
For example, noted Princeton scholar of days gone by, William Henry Green, suggested that “the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11 were not intended to be used, and cannot properly be used, for the construction of a chronology.”
An article on the popular Reasons to Believe (RTB) website proposes, “The genealogies place a hard constraint that Adam and Eve appeared no more recently than 6,000 years ago. Since they contain gaps those genealogies cannot serve as timekeeping devices. However, it seems to stretch credulity to argue for anything much older than 100,000 years for Adam and Eve’s appearance on Earth.”
Is Green right when he speaks to the intent of these genealogies? Putting aside the obvious logical issues with the statement from RTB,2 do they have a point?
Many articles and even books have been written on this subject which detail the potential for gaps, etc., but I have a more pragmatic goal for this article.
My single aim is to show that the details of these genealogies lend credence to their purposefulness and usefulness in determining a chronology.
In his book Faith Form and Time, Kurt Wise makes a pretty compelling case for the usefulness of these genealogies.
First of all, he correctly points out that, “Genealogies are usually only marginally useful for chronology purposes. A list of names, even if it contains a complete list of fathers and sons in the proper sequence, provides only the number of generations.” (Wise, FFT, 48). It is well-evidenced that most ancient genealogies were not used for chronological purposes at all–merely to establish family relationship much like we would do today when investigating our own family tree.
It seems, however, fallacious to conflate the general use case for Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) genealogical data to mean that all genealogies are used this way. The most common argument furthered by this notion is that gaps must be allowed in the Genesis genealogies if one is to accommodate old-age geology with the Scriptures.
But as Lisle and Chaffey point out regarding this argument, “This is illogical. It commits a fallacy known as affirming the consequent. The argument goes like this: “If there are gaps in the Genesis genealogies, then we might find gaps in other genealogies. We find gaps in other genealogies; therefore, there must be gaps in the Genesis genealogies.” The consequent in this argument is “we might find gaps in other genealogies.” It does not follow that since this part of the argument is true, that the first statement (antecedent) is also true.”
Wise further contends,
“The genealogy that is most useful for chronology is one that provides the age of the parents at the time of the birth of their children. But this is uncommon among genealogies, both ancient and modern. It is interesting, then, that the genealogies of both Genesis 5 and Genesis 11 do provide the age of fathers at the birth of their sons—exactly the kind of information we need in developing a chronology. Since the words of Scripture are both accurate and economical, the structure of these genealogies suggests a chronological purpose…Of all the steps in a biblical chronology from the creation to Christ, only two steps require a genealogy—the time between creation and the Flood and the time between the Flood and Abraham. And guess what? These happen to be the only genealogies that have chronological information!”
So it appears we cannot conclude a priori that these are useless genealogies, chronologically speaking, and it also appears that if we were meant to draw chronological information from them, we would need exactly the kind of data we have in exactly the place we have it.
This information is, I believe, evidence enough for intent. There seem to be too many “idle words” and too much useless data in these particular genealogies if we’re not meant to use them for dating purposes.
Moses, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, could have established theological or symbolical meaning in the texts by simply treating them as the other genealogies in the Old Testament and leaving out these careful chronological details.
Of course, this argument could be undermined if there is significant evidence for gaps. Is there?
2. The Convention of the Genealogies
By convention, I mean to convey that the linguistic structure accompanied by the relational details seem to argue for gapless (closed) genealogies.
In keeping with Wise’s argument (which I use due to his clarity and because I find it most compelling), the following case can be made for gapless genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11:
- First, the narrative makes it clear that Seth was the actual son of Adam and Eve (Gen. 4:25); Shem, Ham, and Japheth were the sons of Noah (Gen. 5:32; 6:10; 7:13; 9:18-27; 10:1); and Abram, Nahor, and Haran were the sons of Terah (Gen. 11:26-31).
- Second, the Scripture indicates that the names of some patriarchs were almost certainly given to them by their actual fathers. This suggests that Seth was the actual son of Adam (Gen. 5:3); Enos was the son of Seth (Gen. 4:26), and Noah was the son of Lamech (Gen. 5:29).
- Third, the distinct way in which the relationship between parent and child is related in Genesis 4:25-26 and 10:25 further suggests that Seth was the actual son of Adam and Eve, Enos was the son of Seth, and Peleg and Joktan were the sons of Eber.
- Fourth, the facts that Noah, Shem, Ham, Japheth, and their wives were the only survivors of the Flood and that Arphaxad was born only two years after the Flood (Gen. 11:10) suggests that Arphaxad was actually the son of Shem.
- Fifth, Jude 14 states that Enoch was the seventh generation from Adam. This suggests that no gaps exist in the Genesis 5 list between Adam and Enoch.
Finally, the Hebrew name Methuselah is thought by some to mean “when he dies it will come” or “when he dies, judgment.” If one assumes that no gaps exist and that the numbers of Genesis 5 are correct, Methuselah’s death is found to occur in the same year the Flood began. This suggests that God may have waited for the death of Methuselah (“when he dies”) to bring judgment upon the Earth (“it shall come”). This also suggests that the ages and years of at least the second half of Genesis 5 are complete and accurate.
One who has studied this issue at length may remain unconvinced; after all, doesn’t the Hebrew word for “begat” used in the Old Testament allow for wider relational context?
Lisle and Chaffey comment,
“The Hebrew word translated as “beget” in the King James Version of the Bible is yalad (ילד). Although it could (in principle) indicate something more distant than a direct parent-child relationship, it is apparently never used that way in the Old Testament. That is, whenever the form “X begat Y” occurs in the Old Testament, it always indicates a direct parent-child relationship. We are aware of no exceptions. The New Testament does sometimes skip generations when using “X begat Y”…But the New Testament is written in Greek, and is using a different word for “begat” (γενναω). The Old Testament “begats” (which are the ones involved in age-of-the-earth estimations) appear to be airtight—and in many cases, the surrounding passages confirm a direct parent-child relationship.”
It’s worth mentioning that even if we were to place gaps in these historical accounts, the time required by old-age chronology for the appearance of modern humans is, at minimum, an order of magnitude longer than could be allowed for.
It’s been argued by some that inserting reasonable gaps in the few places where they could exist would raise the age of the Earth to around 10,000 years; but again, this is a far cry from the time required by old-age chronology.
This article has not attempted to refute the minute details of arguments offered by either open or closed view proponents, however, the concise cumulative case I’ve presented here seems to suggest that:
- God has not placed any “idle words” in Scripture;
- We cannot dismiss the intent of these genealogies just because others from the ANE don’t convey chronological content;
- In regards to chronological intent, the Genesis 5 and 11 accounts give us unique information at exactly the necessary times;
- The argument in favor of a gapless (closed) understanding is quite thorough and compelling;
- The OT provides no evidence that distant relationships are implied by the word “begat”;
- Any reasonable insertion of gaps could raise the Earth’s age to around 10,000 years, but not the ~100,000 proposed by Hugh Ross and RTB.
In light of the above observations, I therefore conclude that not only are we permitted by the immediate and wider context of Scripture to draw chronological information from the Genesis 5 and 11 genealogies, but it appears they were intentionally inspired and written in such a way that we do so.
Recommended Further Reading:
- Faith, Form, and Time by Dr. Kurt Wise
- Old-Earth Creationism on Trial by Dr. Jason Lisle and Tim Chaffey