The Real Significance of Genealogies in Genesis 5-11

If you were to write up a genealogy of your family, you would follow certain rules or conventions. You are of your own times. When the author of Genesis wrote genealogies in those seven chapters, he too followed certain conventions. He was of his own times. Part 5 of 5 in a series on Gen. 1-11.

Let’s get right to the basic data; then we will interpret them.

In each table, notes or comments are inserted at the bottom.

Modern generation family chart. You use it to follow modern conventions and format. The author of genealogies in Gen. 5-11 followed the format and conventions of the ancient Near East.

Source

BIBLICAL GENEALOGIES AND LISTS

Table One: Ten is Key to All of Family Histories in Genesis

Family Histories in Genesis

Hebrew word tȏlědȏt = “family story” (generations)

1 “Generations”  of heavens and earth and earliest humans (2:4b-4:26)
2 Family story of Adam (5:1-6:8)
3 Family story of Noah (6:9-9:26)
4 Family story of sons of Noah (10:1-11:9)
5 Family story of Shem (11:10-26)
6 Family story of Terah (11:27-25:11)
7 Family story of Ishmael (25:12-18)
8 Family story of Isaac (25:19-35:29
9 Family story of Esau (36:1-8; 38:9-42)
10 Family story of Jacob (37:1-50:26)
Notes:

Tȏlědȏt (generations): basic meaning is beget. Harris, Archer, and Waltke say it means descendants (378).

So ten is the organizing principle of the entire book of Genesis—including the heavens and earth!

Wenham suggests “biography,” in lieu of “family story” (p. 77 in Halton).

Therefore, all of Genesis is a sequence of family stories (or biographies).

Table: James K. Hoffmeier 29 (in Halton).

 Table Two: Two Lines from Adam

4:17-22 5:1-32
1 Adam Adam
2 Cain Seth
3 Enoch Enosh
4 Irad Kenan
5 Mehujael Mahalalel
6 Methushael Jared
7 Lamech Enoch
8 Methuselah
9 Lamech
10 Noah
Notes:

Ten is the organizing scheme of the “godly” line (Seth, not Cain) from Adam down to Noah.

As seen in Table One, ten is a feature of genealogies in Genesis because it is a feature of the larger ancient Near East (see below).

Column one: Seven is by far the most frequent number in the Bible generally.

Lamech is seventh and the end of the linear record (vertical) until it shifts to a segmented (horizontal) lineage and names his sons: Jabal, Jubal, Tubal-Cain, Naamah (a girl), which takes the line to the eighth generation. (See Table 6, below, from Sumer, which has eight generations.)

Lamech’s three sons were herdsmen, musicians, and metalworkers.

Enoch, the seventh in the second column, was famous for his walk with God and “God took him.”

Cain feared sevenfold revenge, and consider Lamech’s seventy-sevenfold revenge (4:24).

After Noah the linear (vertical) list becomes segmented and names his sons: Shem, Ham, Japheth.

In the first column, Adam’s descendants start with Cain, so this is the “ungodly” line. Abram / Abraham does not descend through them (and neither does Jesus).

The ages of Cain’s descendants are not provided, while the ages of Seth’s lines are (see Table Five).

The two linear lists of Adam to Abram is Jesus’ line in Luke 3:33-37 (except for the additional generation of Cainan between Shelah and Arphaxad.

4:17-22: Urbanization (17), pastoral nomadism (20), musical arts (21), metallurgy (22), religion (26). So these important parts of ancient near eastern culture become compressed in the short genealogy (Arnold)

Table Three: Length of Years before Flood

  5:1-32 Age at Fatherhood Age at Death
1 Adam 130 930
2 Seth 105 912
3 Enosh 90 905
4 Kenan 70 910
5 Mahalalel 65 895
6 Jared 162 962
7 Enoch 65 365
8 Methuselah 187 969
9 Lamech 182 777
10 Noah Age at Flood: 600 950
Total 1656 8575
Notes:

One interpretation of their long years is that before the flood they did not feel the effects of degradation as much as people did after it.

However, Adam’s line through Cain do not mention their ages, indicating that the line was not blessed. So maybe the better interpretation is not to focus on the longevity or the numbers, but on the sacred dimension.

The author “absorbed” long-age concepts (but reduced greatly) from ancient Near East (see Sumerian King List, (Tables Six. Seven, Eight, below).

No one exceeds 1000 years, an indication that Scripture refuses to accord godlike status to humans, in contrast to surrounding cultures, so the Genesis author did not follow his culture entirely.

(J. Finkelstein 1966 100; Hamilton 247)

Table Four: Length of Years after Flood

11:10-26, 32 Age at Fatherhood Age at Death
1 Shem 100 500
2 Arphaxad 35 403
3 Shelah 30 403
4 Eber 34 430
5 Peleg 30 209
6 Reu 32 207
7 Serug 30 200
8 Nahor 29 119
9 Terah 70 205
10 Abram 86 (Ishmael, Gen 16:16), 100 (Isaac Gen 21:5) 175
Total (Isaac only) 490 2851
Notes:

As seen in Table One, ten is a feature of genealogies in Genesis, as it is in genealogies and lists in the ancient Near East.

Ten functions in the same way from Noah’s son Shem (cf. Semites) to Abram.

The Semites (Shem) are the only line that tells their ages. They also lived a long time. The other lines descending from Noah do not list their ages. What does this indicate? They are not the chosen lineage, so they did not live as long? In any case, the Semites are God’s chosen line.

This linear list of Adam to Abram is Jesus’ line in Luke 3:33-37 (except for the additional generation of Cainan between Shelah and Arphaxad).

In v. 26, though, the linear (vertical) list becomes segmented (horizontal) and names Terah’s sons: Abram, Nahor, and Haran, but only Abram is chosen by God, so ten generations to the main character.

Eber (no. 4) is where “Hebrew” comes from.

Table Five: “Table of Nations”

Japheth Ham Shem
Generation 1:

Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech and Tiras.

Generation 1:

Cush, Mizraim, Put and Canaan.

 

Generation 1:

Sons were also born to Shem, whose older brother was Japheth; Shem was the ancestor of all the sons of Eber.

Generation 2:

Sons of Gomer:

Ashkenaz, Riphath and Togarmah.

Generation 2:

Sons of Cush:

Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah and Sabteca.

Generation 2:

Sons of Shem:

Elam, Asshur, Arphaxad, Lud and Aram.

Generation 2:

Sons of Javan:

Elishah, Tarshish, the Kittim and the Rodanim.

Generation 3:

Sons of Raamah:

Sheba and Dedan.

 

Generation 3:

Sons of Aram:

Uz, Hul, Gether and Meshech.

 

Geographical distribution:

From these the maritime peoples spread out into their territories by their clans within their nations, each with its own language.

Generation 2:

Cush was the father of Nimrod, who grew to be a mighty warrior on the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; that is why it is said, “Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord.” The first centers of his kingdom were Babylon, Erech, Akkad and Calneh, in Shinar. From that land he went to Assyria, where he built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah and Resen, which is between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city.

 

Generation 3:

Arphaxad was the father of Shelah,

and Shelah the father of Eber.

 

Generation 2:

Mizraim was the father of the Ludites, Anamites, Lehabites, Naphtuhites, Pathrusites, Casluhites (from whom the Philistines came) and Caphtorites.

Generation 4:

Sons were born to Eber:

One was named Peleg, because in his time the earth was divided; his brother was named Joktan.

 

 

Generation 2:

Canaan was the father of

Sidon his firstborn, and of the Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, Girgashites, Hivites, Arkites, Sinites, Arvadites, Zemarites and Hamathites.

Generation 5:

Joktan was the father of

Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah, Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah, Obal, Abimael, Sheba, Ophir, Havilah and Jobab. All these were sons of Joktan.

Geographical distribution: Later the Canaanite clans scattered, and the borders of Canaan reached from Sidon toward Gerar as far as Gaza, and then toward Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha. Geography distribution: The region where they lived stretched from Mesha toward Sephar, in the eastern hill country.

 

Summary:

These are the sons of Ham by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations.

Summary:

These are the sons of Shem by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations.

Notes:

This table carries on the family of Noah introduced at 9:19, and the inserted labels “generations” are tentative, for the names are dynastic.

On some counts, the number of nations and sons come to seventy (the remark about the Philistines is an aside, so says Wenham 77, in Halton).

The number seventy again looks like artifice or is deliberate as a multiple of seven.

The genealogy of Japeth shows his seven sons and seven grandsons. Cush has five sons and two grandsons (seven). Mizraim (Egypt) has seven sons.

Col. 1 = sea people; col. 2 = urban people; col. 3 = Nomadic people.

Eber in third column is where “Hebrew” comes from.

This genealogy is both vertical (linear or straight descent) and horizontal (segmented).

Names: individuals, locations, people groups; each is progenitor of other children not part of Israelite ancestry, in the known world.

The main goal is to relate (future) Israel to ancient peoples.

EXTRABIBLICAL GENEALOGIES OR LISTS

They are not found in the Bible, but one or two parallels (specifically the number of generations) with the biblical genealogies are clear.

Parallelophobia = an excessive fear that if the poetry, stories, genealogies, concepts, and histories in the Old Testament look like those of the Ancient Near East, then these parallels detract from the reliability and inspiration of Scripture.

Reply: But even the New Testament authors were inspired to quote from pagans:  Acts 17:28;  1 Cor. 15:33; and Titus 1:12. So there is nothing to fear from parallels in the Old Testament with the ancient Near East.

Further, it must be noted that the Old Testament authors went in different directions from their pagan neighbors, like proclaiming monotheism and man’s humanness, not his demigod status. But some things they did borrow, if not directly, then from the “cultural air.”

Table Six: Sumerian King List

King City Length of Reigns
1 Alulim Eridu 28,000
2 Alalgar Eridu 36,000
3 Enmenluanna Badtibira 43,200
4 Enmengalanna Badtibira 28,000
5 Dumuzi Badtibira 36,000
6 Ensipazianna Larak 28,000
7 Enmenduranna Sippar 21,000
8 Ubartutu Shuruppak 18,600
8 Kings 5 Cities 241,200 years
Notes:

The Sumerian King List is dated around 2000 B.C.

Nimrod in the biblical genealogy (Table Five) was also a mighty city builder.

These kings lived before the Sumerian version of the flood.

The rest of the Sumerian King List says: “These are five cities, eight kings ruled them for 241,000 [sic] years. (Then the flood swept over [the earth]).”

After the flood, thirty-nine kings rules for a total of 26,997.

The Bible trims the antediluvian ages, such that no one lived over a millennium, indicating their humanness, not demigod status.

However, Hartman (29-30) and Malamat (165) and J. Finkelstein (1963, 44) say the repetition of ten in genealogies of Gen 1-11 probably parallel Western Semitic (Amorite) tribes and their ten generations.

But the author/s of Genesis did not directly borrow from them; the organizing principle of ten was “in the cultural air,” so to speak.

Table Two, above, has eight generations with Lamech’s sons.

(Table Hamilton 252, but see Hasel 366)

Table Seven: Sumerian King List

Kings Length of Reign
1 Alulim 67,200
2 Alalgar 72,000
3 . . . kidunnu 72,000
4 . . alinuna 21,600
5 Dumuzi 26,800
6 Enmendurauna 21,600
7 Ensipaizianna 36,000
8 Enmenduranna 72,000
9 Suruppak 28,800
10 Ziusudra 36,000
Ten kings 456,000 years
Notes:

No. 6 should probably read Enmenduranna (but I am not a specialist in that ancient language).

Scholars agree that this Sumerian King List probably does not provide a direct source for the biblical genealogies, but the organizing principle of ten was “in the cultural air,” so to speak,

No. 10 is not the only number in the Sumerian king lists (see Table Six), but the number still adds to the interest of ten in Genesis.

Once again, the author’s of Genesis did not directly copy or borrow from these lists. Also, it is more likely that the Western Semitic (Amorite) tribes influenced the genealogies in Gen. 5-11. Ten was “in the cultural air.”

The biblical author/s greatly reduced the ages of antediluvian individuals to below a millennium, indicating their humanity, not godlike status.

Hasel 366 has another table of seven or eight generations (text is unclear whether seven or eight).

Table Eight: Berossus’ List

Kings Length of Reign
1 Aloros 36,000
2 Alaparos 10,800
3 Amelon 46,800
4 Amenon 43,200
5 Megalaros 64,800
6 Daonos 36,000
7 Euedorachos 64,800
8 Amempsinos 36,000
9 Otiartes 28,800
10 Xisuthros 64,800
Ten Kings 432,000
Notes:

Berossus was a Babylonian priest in 3rd century B.C.

I don’t know which sources he used, but he surely had access to ancient records.

He believed that the Babylonians counted their kings by ten from creation to the Flood.

Since his list comes later than the OT, this list cannot be a source for the genealogies in Genesis, but again the number ten is interesting for Genesis.

The biblical authors greatly trimmed the ages of the antediluvian persons, to indicate their humanity, not any godlike status.

Hasel 366; Hamilton 252, note 8.

Not shown: Genealogies of the western Semitic tribes (Amorites), which scholars say also have a penchant for generations of tens. They have not been translated yet, or I have not been able to find them.

HOW TO INTERPRET BIBLICAL GENEALOGIES

This section references scholars who discuss the best way to interpret those tables.

1.. Abraham Malamat says that the repetition of ten generations in more areas than Sumer, like Western Semitic tribes, means harmonization (skipping or compressing) generations in Genesis:

The ante- and postdiluvian lines (i.e. Adam and of Shem, respectively), symmetrically arranged to a ten-generation depth, are undoubtedly the product of intentional harmonization and in imitation of the concrete genealogical model (Malamat 165).

In other words, the author of the genealogies in Gen. 5-11 was a man of his own times and his genealogies are stylistic and not to be taken ultraliterally.

2.. Robert Wilson states the main purpose of Old Testament genealogies: “These genealogies are not attempts to write history, but are simply reflections of social conditions at the time they were composed” (The Old Testament 201)

3.. But then Wilson says that some of the later “OT genealogies are potentially valuable historiographical sources” (ibid. 202). He explains this potential accuracy, in the next point.

4.. Finally, Wilson insightfully adds that asking which (later) genealogy is historically accurate would be a mistake. “All of them are accurate when their differing functions are taken into consideration” (ibid. 215). By “functions” he means their purpose or role in the domestic sphere (kinship and relationships), political-jural (support monarchies), and religious (priests). He does not necessarily mean numerical or mathematical accuracy.

5.. David Tsumura adds that the genealogies surrounding the Genesis author are a formulaic pattern. “Thus the ten-generation scheme of the ancient Near Eastern genealogies might be taken as a formulaic pattern of the Genesis account of the primeval history” (Tsumura 50).

6..Victor Hamilton, a conservative scholar, says that the genealogies in Genesis stem from Western Semitic tribes and their penchant for ten generations. One must not add the numbers up to find the age of humanity.

This is not to say that Gen. 5 was produced in the midst of a literary vacuum. A. Malamat has shown that these early genealogies in Genesis stem from archetypes among Western Semitic tribes from the Old Babylonian period where the ten generation list is frequent. Apply this observation to Gen. 5 leads us to believe that the names of Gen 5 need not be understood sequentially. Thus the figures cannot be added up to arrive at the age of mankind. Instead, what we have here are symmetrical genealogies: Ten generations before the Flood (Gen. 5) and ten generations after the Flood (Gen. 11). So when Gen 5 says that “X fathered Y” it may mean that X fathered the line culminating in Y. (254)

7.. K. A. Kitchen agrees with what Prof. Hamilton said. First Kitchen sets up his main point about Genesis by referring to Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus:

Thus within Genesis “sons” can include grandsons and great-grandson, and is not always literal sons. In the early Roman period the Jewish-Greek Gospel of Matthews used both of the conventions observed so far: (i) a limited, representative number of generations (for him 14 + 14 + 14) and (ii) telescoped sonship to cover son, grandson, great-grandson, and great-great-grandson (Matt. 1:1-17). His “Jehoram fathered Uzziah” (1:18) is shorthand for Jehoram fathered (Ahaziah [2 Kings 8:25], who fathered Joash (11:2), who fathered Amaziah [14:1] who fathered [14:21]) Uzziah. Such an author would have known his Hebrew Bible perfectly well, as would his Jewish contemporaries; but this abregé [abridgement] suited his needs. (440)

Then Kitchen explains how to not over-read the genealogies in Gen. 4, 5, 11, that is, not ultraliterally:

Thus, in the formal, representative genealogies of Gen. 4, 5, 11, “A fathered B” can be literal; or it may equally stand for “A fathered [P who fathered Q, who fathered R, who fathered S, who fathered T, who fathered …] B”. Or in short “A fathered (the line culminating in) B.” So no exception can legitimately be taken to this view. (440-41)

Kitchen applies this principle of representative names further:

Returning to Gen. 1-11, we see the narratives in some cases presupposing immediate fatherhood. See, for example, the wording of Adam-Seth in Gen. 4:25-26. But in most cases, one may in principle as easily read the recurrent formulae “A fathered B, and after fathering B lived x years” as “A fathered (the line culminating in) B, and after fathering (the line culminating in) B, lived x years. (441)

Kitchen’s punchline:

Thus we can neither date the flood before Abraham nor the creation before Noah merely by counting the Genesis figures continuously as did the worthy Archbishop Ussher in the carefree days when no evidence from outside the Bible was even imagined, still less thought about or seen. And in the context of that external data, any such literalism fails. (441, emphasis added)

More from Kitchen about how we must apply the rules of antiquity and not modern ultraliteralism:

If Abraham be set at roughly 2000 B.C., then on those figures the flood would have come in about 2300. But that is about the time of Sargon of Akkad; having been rescued from river at birth, he would not have been amused by a flood. Worse, his time looked back up to 400 years back to Gilgamesh (ca. 2700), for whom in turn in traditions the flood was even more ancient still! So an Ussherite solution is ruled out; the methods of antiquity apply. The date of the flood remains fluid, one might say! As for the date of creation, why waste time number-crunching when Gen. 1:1 says it all: “In the beginning …” –which is soon enough. (441)

See also Jim Stump at “Long Lifespans in Genesis: Literal or Symbolic?” He concludes:

The question is whether it is a better explanation to interpret the numbers as having some symbolic or rhetorical significance to the original audience (even if we don’t know what that is), or that they were just a straightforward listing of numbers the way we would use them today. Knowing what we do about the culture, and in the absence of any persuasive reasons for thinking that the ages of these men were so radically different than they are today, it seems that a symbolic or rhetorical interpretation is a legitimate option and maybe even a preferable one.

Geologist Carol A. Hill published an article for a Christian-and-science website called the American Scientific Affiliation. Her article is titled, “Making Sense of the Numbers in Genesis.” She concludes after a brilliant study:

The important question to ask is: Is Genesis, and the record of the patriarchs from Adam to Abraham, to be considered mythological or historical? Ironically, by interpreting the numbers of Genesis “literally” Christians have created a mythological world that does not fit with the historical or scientific record. Or as Hyers aptly put it: “unwittingly, ‘literal’ or ‘concordist’ [harmonizing the Bible and modern science] views are secular rather than sacred interpretations of the text.” The “literal” (or numerical) view is secular while the “symbolic” (or numerological) view is sacred because that is how the original biblical author(s) intended for it to be. To faithfully interpret Genesis is to be faithful to what it really means as it was written, not to what people living in a later age assume or desire it to be. It is also ironic that the mythological world created by many well-intentioned and serious “literal” Christians, based partly on the numbers in Genesis, has caused millions of people to reject the Bible and the truths contained therein.

Please click on her linked article and read the whole thing. She got help from mathematicians and it is brilliant.

BOTTOM LINE

  • The author of the genealogies in Gen. 5-11 followed the conventions of his own times, just as we would if we wrote up a genealogy today.
  • The number ten is a representative genealogical formula throughout the Ancient Near East, including Gen 5-11. Seven and seventy are also important numbers in the generations. The repetitive appearance of these numbers looks like artifice and not accurate in the modern sense–but accurate in the ancient, sacred sense.
  • Therefore, it is unwise to over-interpret these genealogies towards literalism.
  • The linear (vertical) genealogies show the generations, while the segmented (horizontal) ones show territory and skills (Table of Nations and Lamech’s three sons, for example).
  • Another purpose of (later) genealogies is to express a charter for landholdings (Wenham 76, in Halton).
  • Nowadays scholars say that the author/s of the genealogies in Gen. 5-11 may not have directly borrowed and directly copied from a specific list or genealogy in the Ancient Near East, but these numbers were “in the air,” culturally speaking.
  • Scholars (mostly) agree that it is more likely that the Western Semitic (Amorite) tribes influenced the genealogies in Gen. 5-11 than the Sumerian King Lists influenced the genealogies in that section of Scripture. The Amorite genealogies also show generations of tens. The Sumerian King Lists were shown here just to inform the reader that ten is a common feature of genealogies throughout the ancient Near East.
  • The genealogies of Gen. 5-11 are elliptical, condensed, representative, patterned, formulaic, harmonized, stylized, and dynastic.
  • Therefore, ultraliteralism (or just plain literalism) is out of place, and the scholars in the section “How to Interpret Biblical Tables” agree.
  • In general, one must keep a “loose interpretive grip” on Gen. 1-11, in more areas than just genealogies. (A “loose interpretive grip” is opposite to literalism.)
  • Therefore, the early genealogies are stylized to fit a sacred story, not modern tastes and demands.
  • Therefore, adding up the numbers literally, as written, is needless and misguided.
  • For pastors, the words of commentator Bill Arnold work out for sermons on biblical genealogies. He writes: “Gen 10 thus prepares ancient Israelites to embrace their identity as the people of God. Similarly, it prepares today’s readers for the rest of Genesis account, and therefore, for the rest of biblical literature, as a means of embracing one’s own identity in the ongoing saga of God’s story” (119). He wrote that about Gen. 10, but it works for all the genealogies in Gen. 5-11.

ADDENDUM

Other Significant Tens in the Bible

Since the number ten is one key to understanding genealogies in the primordial beginnings, and the entire book of Genesis, here are just some of other significant tens throughout Scripture.

  • The Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:1-17; 34:28; Deut. 4:13; 5:1-21; 10:4)
  • Tithe (Gen. 14:18-20; Lev. 27:30; Deut. 14:22) and tenth of the tithe (Num. 18:26)
  • Children of Israel tested God in desert ten times (Num. 14:22)
  • No one born of foreigner can enter assembly of Lord to tenth generation (Deut. 23:2).
  • No Amorite or Moabite can enter assembly of Lord to tenth generation (Deut. 23:3)
  • Ten tribes of north (1 Kings 11:31-35)
  • Wise, productive servant gets ten minas and ten cities (Luke 19:11-27)
  • Red dragon has seven heads and ten horns (Rev. 12:3)
  • The Beast has ten horns, seven heads, and ten crowns on horns (Rev. 13:1)

There are too many examples of seven to list here—the most numerous digit of all.

SERIES ON GENESIS 1-11

1.. Genesis 1-11 in Its Ancient Religious Environment

2. Reading Genesis 1 as originally intended

3. Adam and Eve-olution: Five Options

4. Rescuing Noah’s ark from the flood of science

5. The real significance of genealogies in Genesis 5-11

RELATED

Evolution = Intelligent Design = God’s Design

Christian scientists comment on young earth creationism

The Accommodator and Scripture,

Billy Graham and Evolution,

Augustine says no to silly interpretations of Genesis.

SOURCES

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Westermann, Clus. Genesis 1-11: A Commentary. Vol. 1 Trans. John J. Scullion. (Augsburg, 1974).

Wilson, Robert R. “The Old Testament Genealogies in Recent Research.” In Hess and Tsumura, eds.

—. “Genealogy, Genealogies.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 2, pp. 929-32 (Doubleday, 1992).

Wiseman, D. J. “Genesis 10: Some Archaeological Considerations.” In Hess and Tsumura.

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