The Genesis genealogies
Historical records with deep theological significance
Published: 26 October 2021 (GMT+10)
Many people alive today do not believe that the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11 present actual history. Also, many professing Christians do not believe that these genealogies contain a complete sequence (without gaps) of the generations from Adam to Abraham. For example, in a piece that appeared on the BioLogos website in July (2021), Richard Middleton asserted, “[I]t would be a mistake to use the genealogies in the primeval history (Genesis 1–11) to calculate the age of the earth or the human race.”1 He claims that reading the Genesis genealogies in this way imposes modern expectations of precision on an ancient text that was written for different purposes. To the contrary, it is current scholars (like Middleton) who impose modern interpretations on the ancient text. Ancient Jewish scholars and essentially all Christian scholars before the mid-19th century understood that these genealogies presented a complete list of the patriarchal names and generations from Adam to Abraham.
Rather than asking questions about the accuracy of the genealogies, Middleton proposes that the more relevant question is to ask about the function of these genealogies in Genesis. However, by implying that the two options are mutually exclusive, Middleton presents a false dichotomy. In fact, the genealogies have at least two functions—one is to present an accurate, gap-free list of the progenitors leading from Adam to Abraham. A second, and more important function, is to present a theologically defensible line of the descendants of Adam and Eve that lead to the Messiah, first promised in Genesis 3:15.
There are many claims being made that undermine the belief that the Genesis genealogies are accurate, including:
- The names do not refer to real people, since there is no extra-biblical mention of most of them, including Abraham.
- The reported ages of the patriarchs are fabrications. No one could have lived for 900, or even 500 years.
- The lists were prepared by Jewish scribes, in the monarchial, Persian, or Hellenistic periods, to provide an origin myth for the Jews.
- The lists were contrived to show stylistic symmetry and not historical reality—for example, both lists end with three sons (Shem, Ham, and Japheth vs Abram, Nahor, and Haran). And, there are ten generations in both accounts (Adam to Noah vs Shem to Abram).
- The accounts were stylized after the mythical king-lists of surrounding Mesopotamian and Levant cultures.
- The lists must contain gaps2 since the timeframe from the Flood to Abraham is not consistent with accepted Stone Age and Bronze Age dates from archaeology.3
In addition, the genealogies don’t support the long-age views held by most scientists—i.e., that the earth could not be old enough to allow for evolution if the genealogies are accepted as chronologies. Thus, it is overwhelmingly unpopular to accept that Genesis 1–11 reflects real history.
We won’t specifically address each of these claims in this article. Rather, we will argue, contra Middleton, that the Genesis genealogies:
- present primeval history,
- can be used to calculate the age of the earth, and
- present important theological truths about the way God superintended the flow of generations that led to the arrival of the promised Messiah.
The genealogies anticipate the Messiah
The plan and account of redemption are intrinsically encompassed within the historicity of the Genesis genealogies. The most important feature of biblical genealogy is not how it reflects history but how it reflects a continual unfolding of the promise of the coming of the Messiah and how that promise became restricted to an increasingly specific lineage. The Messiah did not arrive with the birth of Cain, as Eve may have hoped.4 Instead, “people began to call upon the name of the LORD” (Genesis 4:26) in the time of Adam’s grandson Enosh, the son of Seth. A few generations later, Enoch walked with God (Genesis 5:21–24), giving us a great example of faithfulness in a world that was descending into violence and wickedness. And, among all the people alive right before the Flood, only Noah was called righteous (Genesis 6:9).
Yet, after the Flood, the population grew quickly while people lost their connection to the God of the Bible. Which one of the sons of Noah would give rise to the Messiah? This was unclear for several hundred years. Canaan was clearly excluded (Genesis 9:25). However, when God visited Abram, the field of potential candidates for Messianic lineage narrowed. Among all the peoples listed in Genesis 11, the Messiah was going to come from a son of Abram (Genesis 15:4), who demonstrated true faith and obedience (Genesis 12:14). From there, the line continued to narrow. And, since Abram came from idolatrous roots, faith was also restored at this time. The field was then further restricted to Isaac (not Ishmael), Jacob (not Esau), Judah (not any of his 11 brothers), David (not any of his seven brothers), Solomon (not Adonijah), and so on.
Thus, even though God waited a long time to send His son to redeem mankind, it was not like He gave mankind nothing to hope upon. He continued to restate the original promise, but with greater clarity at every step. The promise to David was better than the promise to Abram which was clearer than the protoevangelium (i.e., the early Gospel announcement in Genesis 3:15). In the end, the Genesis genealogies build excitement as the expected Messiah draws closer. Yet, none of this makes sense if the accounts are not historical. Thus, the purpose of these genealogies is both historical and theological. This is something that Middleton and many other scholars miss.
The genealogies are historical
A proper hermeneutical principle is to ask how the Holy Spirit intended the God-breathed text to be understood by its original readers. This helps us understand how it should be understood by later readers, including ourselves. Clearly, the original readers of the biblical chronogenealogies would have understood them as presenting a list of real people, from Adam onwards. Jewish writers such as Josephus, and Christian scholars before the mid-19th century, held the view that they provide strict chronologies. They believed that the chronologies in Genesis are so complete that, from beginning to end, they trace every generation from Adam to Abraham, and using additional details at the end of Genesis, to Joseph, his brothers, their sons, and a few grandsons of Jacob. It was only after the theory of evolution gained acceptance among scientists and the broader community that Christians began to question the genealogies as chronologies.
Although scholars who profess to be Christians claim they are merely following the ‘evidence’, they are, in fact, letting the world set the agenda for determining the truthfulness and accuracy of the Bible. Thus, they presuppose it to be wrong.
The genealogies depict historical individuals
Genesis is written as historical narrative. It is not written as poetry, prophecy, or any other genre. This is an inescapable conclusion. Thus, a straightforward reading of the chronogenealogies in Genesis tells us that the named patriarchs are historical individuals who were the immediate fathers of their named sons. We believe this to be the case, for at least the following reasons:
- To demonstrate that there are gaps in either genealogical chronology one would have to show that there are numerous missing names in a tight account with a repeating pattern. The claim that ‘fathered’ means ‘became the ancestor of’ is an attempt to avoid the explicit statements which identify the age of the father when the named son was born and the age of the father at his own death. While in some places elsewhere in the OT, ‘fathered’ might be understood as referring to a distant ancestor, the context demands that we treat the chronogenealogies as presenting actual father/son relationships.
- The repetition of the genealogies in 1 Chronicles (1 Chronicles 1:1, 24–27) demonstrates that the Jews during the Persian period (when 1 Chronicles was compiled) accepted the data as a reliable list of the ancestors of David and subsequent kings—as did Luke (Luke 3:34–38). [A possible explanation for the addition of the extra ‘Cainan’ in Luke 3:36, is dealt with elsewhere.]
- The two genealogies show that very few transmission links were required between Adam and Abraham. This is important for the transmission of the pre-Flood account—whether it was handed down orally or was delivered in the form of a written record. The lives of Adam and Methuselah overlapped by about 240 years and Methuselah and Shem overlapped by almost 100 years. Shem lived through much of Abraham’s life (by about 150 years) and the rest of Abraham’s ancestors after Shem were also his contemporaries. Thus, there was ample opportunity for the transmission of family histories, although we are not given any specific examples and we don’t actually know that Abraham, for example, ever met Shem.
- There are parallels and differences between the genealogies in chapter 5 and 11. The primary parallel is the sequence of the named sons in the covenantal line, with only a recognition that each patriarch had “other sons and daughters”. Each genealogy also serves as a chronology, giving the age of the father when the son in the covenantal line was born, and the number of years that the father lived after the birth of that named son. The regular pattern of the genealogy in each account then ends with the identification of a patriarch’s three sons—Noah’s (Genesis 5:32) and Terah’s (Genesis 11:26). It is not necessarily the oldest5 son who is mentioned first but rather the son designated as the covenant heir in the lineage leading to each of the important covenant people (e.g., Noah, Abraham, etc.).
- A statistical analysis of the age at death of the patriarchs mentioned in Genesis—Noah to Joseph—who died after the Flood, shows that these data fit a standard decay curve with a very high degree of correlation (see, The rapid decline in biblical lifespans). The probability of this degree of correlation occurring by chance is highly unlikely, at less than one chance in 1,000. As capable as many of the ancients were in mathematics, it is extremely unlikely that they could have manufactured data (by chance or deliberately) which would have fit a standard decay curve so precisely. It also indicates that there are no missing data points (at least in the Genesis 11 genealogy). The ordered decay of the age at death of the patriarchs, points to God’s involvement in limiting lifespans.
- Although some scholars would question the historicity of the patriarchs mentioned in Genesis, few question the statement that Noah was the father of Shem or that Terah was the father of Abraham. So, it is inconsistent to accept the ‘bookends’ for the Genesis 11 genealogy, and then to argue that there are gaps between the other names. The same principle applies to the Genesis 5 genealogy.
They provide a date for creation
The question, “When was the world created?” has been debated for centuries. A well-known, and widely ridiculed answer to the question was provided by Archbishop James Ussher of Ireland, who in his book Annals of the World, placed the date of creation at 4004 BC. While it is not possible to know the specific year of creation, his scholarship was of the highest caliber, was detailed, and used scholarly sources that have since been lost. He certainly does not deserve ridicule.
Other scholars, including Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler, who accepted the Bible’s statements as accurate, have calculated dates for creation ranging from 3836 BC to 5501 BC,6 with most clustered around 4000 BC. Regardless of the exact date of creation, it is clear that the Bible supplies sufficient information to determine that the world was created about 6,000 years ago. Since the sun, moon, and stars were created on the fourth day of the creation week, they cannot be older than the earth, which was created on the first day. Therefore, the rest of the universe cannot be billions of years old.7 This approach for calculating the age of the earth (and universe) is scorned by almost every scientist and professor in secular and Christian universities. Regardless, it is based on the Word of God, as revealed in the OT Scriptures.
Genesis 5 and Genesis 11 provide an unbroken genealogical and chronological chain from Adam to Abraham. God provided this information, along with other key dated signposts which can be associated with events referenced in extra-biblical history (e.g., the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC), so that we would not be ignorant about when He created the world and when the Flood occurred. He gave this chronological information to provide an independent and objective standard for judging claims about the history and age of the earth and to confound the foolishness of the worldly wise (1 Corinthians 1:19, 27).
The genealogies are theological
Some, like Middleton, claim that we do not need to consider the Genesis genealogies as historical accounts, but instead should look for the theological truths which they teach. However, as stated earlier, these two ideas are not mutually exclusive. The genealogies are both accurate accounts of God’s work in history and they are intended to provide theological lessons. There simply cannot be any theological meaning to the accounts if they are mere myth. Paul illustrates the connection between history and theology in multiple places, when he uses the accounts of the historical Adam and Eve to derive key theological lessons (e.g., Acts 17:26; Romans 5:14; 1 Corinthians 15:22, 49; 1 Timothy 2:13–14).
They are Christological
A Messianic expectation among the Jews and their forebearers was not a late theological development. It originated in the midst of the Curse (Genesis 3:15) and is implied in subsequent passages before the Flood (Genesis 4:25; 5:29) and immediately after (Genesis 9:7–18). Luke shows the significance of these genealogies in validating the physical descent of the Messiah (Jesus) from Adam (Luke 3:23–38).
The Genesis genealogies (with subsequent genealogies in 1 Chronicles and Luke) are important because they position Christ (the Messiah) in history. Why the ancient patriarchs maintained genealogical records is not easy to explain. Later, after the Jewish settlement of Palestine, records were kept so families could maintain their rights to land inheritance. The ultimate answer lies in God’s superintendence of history. God intended that the genealogies would be preserved so that Jesus, in his human nature, could be traced through every generation to Adam; and thus, the promise to Eve could be unequivocally demonstrated to have been fulfilled about 4,000 years after it was delivered.
They remind us of the need for a Saviour
The structure of the Genesis 5 genealogy (e.g., the mention of ages), the refrains (e.g., “when … had lived, he fathered”, “other sons and daughters”, “and he died”), and its rapid pacing serve to emphasize continuity and constancy in human affairs. It presents an uninterrupted succession of the Divine image (Genesis 5:3) in mankind from generation to generation. Although sin has been introduced into the world, and men who have no fear or respect for God have despoiled it (Genesis 4:5–24), the world of mankind is marching with a steady beat toward its redemption. God is displaying His mercy to the line of Adam through the regularity of birth, life, and death. Each named patriarch plays a role in the ongoing chain of human existence and the realization of the promised blessing through the occasional birth of a key son who is in the line of the Messiah (Luke 3:23-38). Interspersed in this genealogy are additional hints of the blessing that God intends for mankind. Enoch is mentioned as having “walked with God” (Genesis 5:22, 24), Lamech makes a prophecy that his son Noah will bring relief from painful toil (Genesis 5:29), and Noah’s three sons are identified since they would go with him into the ark and become the fathers of all the nations (Genesis 10).
In the Genesis 5 account, “And he died” appears in the Hebrew text as a single word, which is repeated eight times as the final word of the summary of each patriarch’s life (except for Enoch’s). When the text is read aloud, the word echoes through the ages as a drum, beating out an ominous refrain. However, before men began to hear the drumbeat of death, a significant death had to occur—the death of Adam, at the age of 930 years. There had been shocking murders (Genesis 4:8, 23), but death may have been a rare occurrence until after Adam had lived almost a millennium. Adam may have encountered very few deaths during his lifetime (possibly other murders and some accidental deaths), and his own death may have been the first death from what we call ‘natural causes’. So, we can imagine that his death would have been in all the news channels of his day.
When Adam ate the forbidden fruit, he did not immediately die physically, but he became mortal—the process of death began to consume him—the Hebrew can be translated as “dying you shall die” (Genesis 2.17). Therefore, Adam’s entire life was a pause on physical death and a long wait for the sentence for his crime to be fully realized. Eventually, physical death caught up with him. From that point, ‘natural’ death would have become increasingly common as the generations following Adam and Eve began to die off. The refrain in Genesis 5 teaches of the inevitability of death—first for Adam and then for us, for whom death is appointed (Ezekiel 18:20; Hebrews 9:27).
Death before sin?
After failing to accept the biblical account, people are left without a way to explain why death is present in the world. Thus, they claim that death is a natural part of life, and not an enemy. But death is unnatural—an abomination that has spoiled God’s beautiful creation. The battle between life and death is vividly displayed with each patriarch bringing sons and daughters to life and then giving up his own life to death. Even Methuselah, the person who lived the longest of all men (969 years), had to die.
However, death is the last enemy, not the last victor standing. Looking back, we can see multiple signs of hope that death can be overcome:
- Each generation gave birth to many sons and daughters (Genesis 5:4ff).
- None of the named patriarchs were killed in the Flood of judgement. Lamech (Noah’s father) died five years before the Flood and Methuselah (Noah’s grandfather) died in the year of the Flood (Jewish tradition says that he died seven days before the Flood).
- Enoch was spared from death entirely and was taken directly into heaven with a transformed physical body.
- Noah and the seven members of his family were spared the experience of cataclysmic death.
Before the Flood, the appearance of death was a significant intrusion into generations which could live for nearly a thousand years. After the Flood, and as the age of each generation began to decline, death became an ever-present reality for everyone. Thus, it may be that Genesis 11 doesn’t restate “and he died” because it is now obvious that everyone must die. Before the Flood, the intentions of man’s heart was “only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5), and there appeared to be only a handful (e.g., Enoch, and Noah) of righteous men among the potentially millions. However, in the postdiluvian world, despite the ongoing presence of wickedness, God had plans to begin to build a new nation (that is, the church) founded on Abraham’s faith. Thus, Genesis 11 has a more hopeful tone than Genesis 5.
Paul tells us that death reigned from Adam to Christ (Romans 5:14–18). The Covenant of Sinai did not have a solution for the problem of death—in fact it required the slaughter of millions of animals to demonstrate that death was necessary because of sin. God demands death as a punishment for sin and no animal substitute can provide the solution. So, with the failure of that covenant (Hebrews 8:7), The only hope for conquering the universal death of living creatures that was introduced by Adam’s sin was through the perfect death of the God-man, Jesus Christ.
God is not a liar
Mankind’s problem—the problem of sin—began when Satan presented a question to Eve, “Did God actually say … ?” Many of our moral problems arise from our questioning what God says in His Word. If the historical details in the Bible, including in the Genesis genealogies, are not true, then the theological meaning is that God is a liar! If what God declares in his word is not accurate with respect to how and when He created all things, then we have no grounds for accepting his word on anything. It is highly inconsistent to claim to believe the Bible and to accept that God is the Creator of the universe, and that Jesus was conceived by a virgin, and at the same time to reject God’s Word about when the world was created.
The simple truth that we should accept what the Bible states at face value is scorned as a naïve fundamentalism. However, we can trust the Word of God. We shouldn’t cloud the Gospel with humanistic revisionist interpretations (1 Timothy 6:20) to cater to the opinions of the pseudo-intellectuals of today’s world who suppress God’s truth (Romans 1:19–20), which is plainly presented to them in the Genesis genealogies.
References and notes
- Middleton, J. Richard, https://biologos.org/series/how-should-we-interpret-biblical-genealogies/articles/the-genealogies-in-genesis-part-i, July 28, 2021. Return to text.
- Freeman, Travis R., The Genesis 5 and 11 fluidity question. Return to text.
- See Carter, R., What were the so-called Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age? Creation. Return to text.
- See Genesis 4:1, where the name Cain might reflect back to the protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15. Return to text.
- There is scholarly debate about the birth order of Noah’s sons. For example, some translations say Japheth was the elder and others claim Shem was older in Genesis 10:21. This will not be resolved here. Return to text.
- Hardy, C. and Carter, R., The biblical minimum and maximum age of the earth, Journal of Creation 28(2):89–96, 2014. Return to text.
- Batten, Don, Age of the earth - 101 evidences for a young age of the earth and the universe. Return to text.