September 20, 2011

What About the Genesis Genealogies?

The best biblical counterargument to an old earth is not what you would expect. It is not found in Genesis 1 or 2, nor is it found in the account of Noah’s Flood. To me, anyway, those passages are easily interpreted to be consistent with an old earth using standard rules of hermeneutics. Biblically speaking, I feel comfortable with the old-earth interpretations of those passages. No, the best counterargument is found in the genealogies of Genesis, namely Adam’s genealogy in Genesis 5 and Shem’s genealogy in Genesis 11. Personally, these genealogies probably prevented me from believing in an old earth more than any other argument. So, I guess it is time for me to explain why these passages are not truly problematic for old-earth creationists.

But first the problem. Simply put, if we take the genealogies of Genesis as complete records without missing generations, we must conclude that Adam existed only about 4000 BC (or, 4004 BC, if you appreciate Ussher). Compounding the problem, the genealogies of Gen. 5 and 11 seem to interlock each generation with the next generation in a way that seems to guarantee that no generations are missing. If it weren’t for this latter fact, it would be fully reasonable to presume that many generations are missing.

The answer is not obvious, and I have never heard a strong biblical defense of how there can be missing generations. However, I believe that there are good reasons to believe that the genealogies of Genesis have been telescoped—truncated to a bare minimum. What follows are those reasons.

1. It was common practice to condense genealogies by skipping generations

There are several examples of obviously telescoped genealogies in the Bible. I’m not going to bother going through all of them in any detail, since that would be a major study. I’d just ask you to ‘trust me’ on it, or read a good article that goes into some detail about these examples [1]. Some examples are Matt. 1, Moses’ lineage (cf. Ex. 6:16-20; Num. 26:57-59; 1 Chr. 6:1-3; 23:6; 23:12-13), and Num. 16:1. It seems to have been a common practice to only highlight important ancestors. This was likely done to make memorization of genealogies much easier and so to better preserve the roots of an individual.

2. Unique poetic flare of the two genealogies indicates potential for unusual interpretation

There are two strong indications that these two Genesis genealogies are partly poetic. That certainly does not mean that these people were not real, but it could indicate an unusual interpretation is required. Both lists in Genesis 5 and 11 have perfectly unique structures from all other genealogies in the Bible. As a result, it does not seem unreasonable to think the author had something different in mind.

The repeated phrase, “And he had sons and daughters,” is likely a poetic flourish to the lists. Why doesn’t it specify the number of sons and daughters? Why bother mentioning that they had other children? I think I have an answer to those questions, which I’ll mention soon.

The other poetic aspect of these lists is that there are precisely ten generations from Adam to Noah (inclusive) and from Shem to Abraham (inclusive). The parallel nature of these two genealogies seems to be intentional, similar to the repeated fourteen generations of Matt. 1.

Each generation in Gen. 5 and 11 repeats the same phrasing, which is often a poetic device. We see this exact thing in Gen. 1, where, “It became evening and it became morning…” is repeated at the end of each day of creation.

3. Genesis minimizes intermediate periods of time

If you consider the whole of Genesis for a minute, regardless of whether you believe in an old earth or a young earth, you will notice that Genesis focuses on three periods of time: (1) Adam’s time; (2) Noah’s time; and (3) Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’s time. Even under a young earth interpretation, the vast majority of Genesis—46 of 50 chapters—is devoted to a few hundred years of time out of about two thousand years. So, only parts of four chapters, Gen. 4-5 and Gen. 10-11, deal with around 2000 years of history (or more); whereas, the remaining forty-six chapters cover about 350 years of history. Even in the young-earth view, this would mean that there are about seventy times more words per year dedicated to the 350-year period compared with the number of words per year for the other 2000 years! Clearly, Genesis has little to say about the vast majority of time up until Abraham.

It would be little surprise, then, if Gen. 5 and 11 were merely highlights of important figures in the genealogical history. It would be consistent with the whole focus of Genesis if these two lists were majorly telescoped. No matter what your view is of the age of the earth, Genesis does only highlight a few crucial time periods in the ancient history of mankind. There would normally be no reason to believe that the genealogies are complete lists. If many thousands of years had passed until Abraham, it would make much sense to condense the genealogies from hundreds and hundreds of individuals to only twenty significant individuals.

4. The significance of year figures is hard to determine

Some young-earth creationists assume that the main reason for the year figures in Gen. 5 and 11 is to let us calculate total elapsed time. However, that is probably not true for two reasons. For each individual, there are three year figures in Gen. 5: (1) the age of the individual when they begot the next generation, (2) the number of years the individual lived after they begot the next generation, and (3) the total number of years the individual lived. Only (1) is needed to determine the elapsed time from beginning to end. Either (2) or (3) is entirely unnecessary for computational purposes, since (3) is always just the sum of (1) and (2). There seem to be several purposes, then, in listing these year figures.

Another reason why elapsed time does not seem to be the purpose is that no total length of time is given at the end of the lists. When the total is important and a main point, it makes sense to list the sum of all previous figures. In the numbering of the people of Israel, we see that the totals were given (Num. 1), since the total was very significant. No totals are given in Gen. 5 or 11.

The total age that each person lived seems to have little other purpose than to show us that people were blessed with very old age before the Flood. The Septuagint, which was likely used by the apostles, contains several different year figures than the standard Hebrew Massoretic text. Apparently, God was not too concerned about these figures being preserved accurately for all ages. (The Hebrew version is preserved, by the way.)

The bottom line is that the genealogies contain year figures that serve little more purpose than to remind us repeatedly of the reality of these people and of their highly unusual life spans—that and to add to the poetic nature of the lists. For sure, the numbers are not there just for mathematicians and chronologists to have fun and figure out the age of the earth (if that is a reason at all).

5. There is another possible interpretation that fits with the old-earth view

I indicated earlier that there does not seem to be an easy way to reconcile these genealogies with an old earth. True, there’s no obvious way, but I believe there is a reasonable interpretation that fits with the old earth view.

The phrasing that is used over and over again in these passages could reasonably be translated as follows, I believe:

Person-X lived A years, and [then] was begetting Person-Y.
After he [started] to beget Person-Y, Person-X lived B years;
And he was begetting male and female descendents.
*So all the days of Person-X were A+B years; and he died.

(*This last sentence is only used in Gen. 5.) Without getting into a detailed explanation of this, “son” in Hebrew can mean “male descendent,” “daughter” can mean “female descendent,” and “beget” can be loosely used to mean something like “produce a descendent.” For a defense of this, please see the article linked to below [1].

So, to explain the above phrasing, let me paraphrase and offer an amplified version of the first half. The latter half does not need any amplification.

Person-X lived A years, and then he begot the next progenitor of Person-Y, continuing his ancestral line.
After he begot the next progenitor of Person-Y, Person-X lived B years…

The Hebrew verb form of the first “begot” in this repeated phrase is in the imperfect form, normally indicating ongoing, incomplete, or a progressive action. From what I understand, the word “begot” can genuinely be translated as “[he] was begetting/generating” in both Gen. 5 and 11 for the first instance of the word in the repeated phrase listed above. Most genealogies do not use this verb form for “begot.” The use of “begot” in the imperfect tense is relatively rare when associated with a male subject. There are 499 cases of the Hebrew word “begot” (Strong’s Word H3205), and there are several forms of the word. Genesis 5 and 11 use two rare forms of “begot,” basically meaning “[he] was begetting” and “[he] caused to beget,” though there are no English equivalents to these Hebrew words. The “[he] was begetting” form is used 49 times in the Old Testament but only 14 times outside of Gen. 5 and 11. Of those 14 other times it is usually used in connection with begetting multiple descendents, as you would expect since the verb form can indicate ongoing action. The “[he] caused to beget” form is only used 18 times in the whole Old Testament and only once outside of Gen. 5 and 11. Also, only the genealogies of Gen. 5 and 11 use these verb forms consistently with each new generation. I don’t think the significance of the uniqueness of these two genealogies can be overestimated.

So, the “beget”-verb forms are very unusual and consistent between Genesis 5 and 11 and supports the interpretation that many generations are missing. That being said, it looks clear that there are no generations missing between Adam and Seth, Seth and Enosh, Lamech and Noah, Noah and Shem, and Terah and Abraham. However, for poetic reasons, I suggest that Moses intentionally kept all the verb tenses the same.

Finally, the repeated, consistent use of the phrase, “And [he] was begetting sons [male descendents] and daughters [female descendents],” is another possible indication of missing generations. The “sons” and “daughters,” as we’ve noted already, can mean more generally male and female descendents. So, there is no need for this to mean that every individual had at minimum five children: the primary male descendent, plus two sons and two daughters. All this could indicate is that they had children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren—many descendents of both gender. This phrase is nonspecific, I believe, because it is poetically drawing attention to the fact that large time intervals passed, and countless descendents were born. If it was only speaking of the immediate next generation of children, then it would have been significant to mention how many sons and daughters were born, as in 2 Chr. 11:21 and 13:21, or as in the case of Job 42:13. It makes better sense to interpret these references to male and female descendents as an ongoing multiplication of children and grandchildren, etc. In that case, it would be impossible or insignificant to place a specific number on the male and female descendents born.

In line with this interpretation, we see that when specific information is given about children, as in the case of Noah and Terah, the father of Abraham, they do not always have five or more children. Noah had only sons and no daughters (Gen. 5:32). Terah had apparently only three sons and no daughters (Gen. 11:26). In the Gen. 5 genealogy, we have the first eight generations having, “sons and daughters,” but the last father, Noah, only has three sons and no daughters. Similarly, in the Gen. 11 genealogy, we have the first eight generations having, “sons and daughters,” but the last father, Terah, only has three sons and no daughters. To me personally, that seems like much more than an unlikely coincidence. It fits in beautifully with the interpretation of these genealogies as being telescoped with countless generations missing.

Here’s an example to help summarize this interpretation. When it says, literally, “Eber lived 34 years, and [then] was-begetting Peleg,” it means that after Eber lived 34 years, he begot the specific child who belonged to the ancestral line leading eventually to Peleg. The “was begetting” verb allows for this interpretation by being imprecise and possibly alluding to ongoing, multiple births or generations that produced the descendent Peleg. When it says, literally, “After he caused-to-generate Peleg, Eber lived 430 years,” it means that Eber lived 430 years after he begot the specific child belonging to the ancestral line of Peleg. You see, Eber probably had several children who were not a part of Peleg’s ancestral line. When Eber begot the child who was a part of that line, he did his part to cause the eventual birth of Peleg. Eber could do no more than provide one link in the chain leading to Peleg. Once Eber made that link in the chain, he lived 430 years, and had many male and female descendents, and then he died.


The genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 are clearly unique in several ways. They are poetic in nature to some degree, which allows for a more flexible interpretation. The Hebrew language that was originally used by Moses is very flexible and nonspecific. The genealogies utilize rare verb forms that could indicate ongoing or progressive action (multiple generations) was involved in the “begetting” of a descendent. The ancient Hebrew culture seems to have often telescoped genealogies by habit to make memorization of lineage easier. Doubtlessly, the focus of Genesis is on specific time periods within a long period of time, with only brief summaries made of the intervening periods. Genesis 5 and 11 are a part of those summaries, and we would not expect a detailed listing of individuals if hundreds of generations had passed. All of these points make it reasonable to interpret these genealogies as being telescoped. I believe we have seen that even a literal understanding of the Hebrew can support this interpretation, and the specific Hebrew wording is best explained by realizing that there are missing generations.


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