The History of Interpretation of the Genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11

The debate over Genesis five and eleven stretches back as far as men have commented on these passages. But, for the most part, scholars and theologians in the pre-critical era understood Genesis five and eleven to be accurate historical information. While there are some exceptions to this rule, this homogeny will be assumed for the purposes of this paper. Here, the discussion will begin just before the critical era in AD 1697.

General History

In 1697, interpreters were grappling with the meaning of Genesis five and eleven, particularly the long ages of the antediluvian patriarchs. Scholars were proposing that the years in Genesis five were not solar years, but either lunar years or months in order to shorten the years of the passage. Thomas Burnet argued against these proposals in his work The Theory of the Earth:

But as this opinion [that the years are lunar years or months] is inconsistent with Nature truly understood, so is it also with common History; for besides what I have already mention’d in the first Chapter of this Book, Josephus tells us, that, the Historians of all Nations, both Greeks and Barbarians, give the same account of the first Inhabitants of the Earth; [he lists 12 ancient histories]: We have the suffrages of all these, and their common consent, that in the first Ages of the World Men liv’d a thousand years. Now we cannot well support, that all these Historians mean Lunar Years, or that they all conspir’d together to make and propagate a Fable.[1]

This assumption changed as the critical movement began to grow and challenge how theologians interpreted the book of Genesis and its opening chapters. By 1841, scholars were proposing the idea of multiple sources of Genesis, but while Samuel Turner did not have a problem with this idea as such, he did note that the “commonly received opinion, that the whole book is the work of one individual, harmonizes exactly with the internal evidence.”[2] By 1850,  the mythical interpretation of Genesis was being promulgated, as H. A. Ch. Havernick mentions:

It is affirmed [by these individuals] that the object of that narrative proves it to be mythical ; for it is directed against the nations of Upper Asia that did not respect the worship of Jehovah, and against their agrarian mode of life, arising out of the unfavourable disposition entertained by the Israelites towards it.[3]

These assertions from the critical movement continued to grow through the rest of the century. By the 1900s, the critical movement and its source theories were in full throttle. In a lecture series during the years 1902-1906, Friedrich Delitzsch proposed that the Genesis five genealogies were a direct borrowing from the antediluvian king list recorded in Berossus’s Babyloniaca.[4] Also, Hermaan Gunkel identified at least four similarities between the two lists: first, the setting was antediluvian; second, there are ten names in each list; third, they all have unusually long lives, and fourth, several names in the list are strikingly similar.[5] As for the historicity of the text, Samuel Driver put all doubt aside:

It needs hardly be said that longevity, such as is here described, is physiologically incompatible with the structure of the human body. . .. It is more candid and natural to admit that Israelite tradition, like the traditions of other races, in dealing with personages living in prehistoric times, assigned to them abnormally protracted lives. Hebrew literature does not, in this respect, differ from other literatures. It preserves the prehistoric traditions. The study of science precludes the possibility of such figures being literally correct.[6]

Scholars continued to write on Genesis five, either defending it or dismissing it, but little additional information was added until the year 1914. In that year, Dr. Poebel published the Sumerian King List (SKL), and in the next year, George Barton proposed that the Hebrews derived their genealogy in Genesis five from the Sumerians.[7] However, the differences between the SKL and the Bible were so great that scholars began to doubt a direct relationship between the two. And so, the discussion of Genesis five dropped off after 1920 until the 1960s.

In the 1960s, anthropological research began to grow in earnest. One of the chief areas of study was the use of genealogies within tribal societies. In 1968, Abraham Malamat proposed that the Biblical genealogies were unique in ANE literature and deserved special attention. These genealogies established the relationship between the different tribal groups and they were fluid based upon the needs of the society at that time. About Biblical genealogies in general, he remarks: “the lineages are normally selective, telescoping generations here and there similar to modern tribal genealogies, and thus depriving them of true chronological value.”[8] This anthropological research gained by Malamat and others during this time sparked off the discussion on Biblical genealogies.[9]

While Malamat and company were discussing anthropology, the source-critical world continued to doubt the connection between Genesis five and the SKL. In 1972, Thomas Hartman summarized the debate as follows:

Leonard W. King observed in his translation of the first fully preserved line of his text of the Sumerian King List, this line from the dynasty at Kish, a parallel with the Hebrew text.

George A. Barton maintained that the Sumerian King List might very well be a source from which the biblical names of the antediluvians had come.

[E. A. Speiser] felt that the respective lists of antediluvians could not be divorced. . .. But unlike Barton he saw no relation between the names in the respective listings.[10]

And after some further investigations, Hartman concluded: “In sum, then, apart from the superficial difference in format, namely listing — flood — listing, the Sumerian King List and Genesis 5 and 11b seem to differ significantly enough as to suggest a denial that the Sumerian document served as a source for the latter.”[11] Thus, through the 70s and into the late 80s, the pan-Babylonian ideal of the early part of the century gave way to the brutal reality of the great differences among the genealogies.

In 1989, the scholars began to research the form and function of the genealogies. Richard Hess analyzed the genealogies in this way and compared them to their surrounding ANE context. Hess concluded that the only use for ANE parallels was to contrast their function in their societies with the Biblical examples. But their content was too different to be compared in any profitable manner.[12] After his critique, Hess left several suggestions for inquiry into the meaning and purpose of the genealogies:

A full consideration of the significance of these texts requires three additional items: 1) a study of the personal names in terms of their place in the onomastic environment of the Ancient Near East; 2) a study of the purpose which the narrative elements of Gen 1-11 serve; and 3) a comparison of the relation between the names, the genealogical forms, and the narratives. Broadening the method to include comparative and contextual study of the onomastica as well as the narratives will provide the optimum perspective from which to view the place of the genealogies in Gen 1-11.[13]

As the interest in the anthropological aspects of Genesis grew into the 1990s, another smaller interest began to emerge, this time among mathematically minded scholars. This group was interested in the mathematical and calendrical relationships of the ages of the patriarchs in Genesis five and eleven and in the Sumerian literature. In 1993, Donald Etz proposed a five-step process as to how the Hebrews came up with the ages of the patriarchs, taking them as a list developed later in history:

  1. The list of Gen. v originated as a linear genealogy, Adam-to-Noah, without reference to Noah’s sons. It may have been assembled from the Adam-Seth-Enosh sequence and a variant of the Cainite genealogy.
  2. Plausible ages at fatherhood, remaining years of life, and perhaps lifespans were either included or added later.
  3. The lifespans were increased-Enoch’s by 100 years, the rest by 300 years-to emphasize the superior longevity of these remote ancestors.
  4. The numbers were multiplied by 2.5 to obtain lifespans with Noah’s in the Flood account.
  5. Verse 32 was added to relate the list to the Flood account.[14]

In 2001, Bruce Gardner published The Genesis Calendar, an attempt to understand Genesis as covert calendar hidden in the text for the enlightened Jews to understand.[15] Later, in 2004, Dwight Young proposed that the numbers found in Genesis five were sexagesimal at their base and they were composed randomly by the author’s acquaintance with Babylonian mathematical practice problems.[16] Jeremy Northcote proposed in 2007 yet another system of understanding the meaning of the patriarchal ages, concluding that the numbers have “eschatological connotations that relates to the 1,260 days mentioned in Daniel and Revelation.”[17] Each of these systems differ widely in their interpretation of the numbers, because the challenge to find mathematical relationship in the text is highly difficult. As Northcote said,

The difficulty involved in understanding this material is not surprising, given that the ancient chronologers seem to have not wanted their numerical symbolism to be made too accessible. In its day, in fact, full comprehension of it was likely restricted to small ‘inner’ priestly circles, with only hints of its meaning passed on in the canonical literature.[18]

In the last few years, two theologians (Jeremy Sexton and Andrew Steinmann) engaged in academic warfare over the question of gaps in the genealogies found in Genesis five and eleven . The center of the argument revolves on the verb ילד and how it is used in the genealogies.

The story starts, however, in 1890. William Henry Green wrote an article in Bibliotheca Sacra entitled “Primeval Chronology.” In it, he proposed that gaps exist in the chronologies. He reasoned that the verb ילד does not always mean that a father directly gave birth to his son, but a great grandfather could claim to have fathered (ילד) his great grandchildren. Therefore, “on these various grounds we conclude that the Scriptures furnish no data for a chronological computation prior to the life of Abraham; and that the Mosaic records do not fix and were not intended to fix the precise date either of the Flood or of the creation of the world.”[19] This position became the dominate explanation for the genealogies in evangelical circles.

Over a hundred years later in 2015, Jeremy Sexton published a critique of Green’s conclusions in Westminster Theological Journal. Here, he conceded that Green did show that ילד can skip several generations. However, Sexton concluded that Green failed to prove that the genealogies in Genesis five and eleven contained gaps between generations. Further, he proposed that Green conflated genealogical gaps with chronological gaps. Just because every generation is not listed does not mean that the chronological aspect of the years has no historical value. He concludes, “we commend Green for seeking a scriptural response to the aspersions of skeptics, but we must conclude that he did not find a tenable one. A computable chronology of the human race, going back to Adam on the sixth day of creation (Gen 1:26–27; 5:1–3), is lexically and grammatically inescapable.”[20]

He further proposed, in a later article in 2016, that the history of interpretation favors the no-gaps view. This view, however, did make for difficulties when compared to world history, and so he proposed that the Septuagint’s rendering of the years (which are longer than the MT) should be used.[21]

In response to Sexton’s articles and other proponents of the no-gap theory, Andrew Steinmann published an article in 2017 in Bibliotheca Sacra entitled “Gaps in the Genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11?” Here, he reasoned that  ילד  definitely could contain gaps and that it should be considered in the Genesis genealogies. He concluded that the formula birth formula (a father lived X-years and begat a son) only meant that the father began the line that would lead to the next son.[22] Further, he proposed that the numerical data provided in Genesis was to contrast the lifespan of the patriarchs before and after the flood, but not to date the earth.[23] He also adds that if no-gaps are assumed in the text, then the chronology presented would place the flood at 2543 B.C. This date, however, is too late because of the ample evidence of Sumerian and Egyptian cultures in existence well before that date.[24] In the end, he concludes:

A careful look at the major arguments adduced by no-gap advocates demonstrates that all of them are falsifiable. Instead, the modern consensus among evangelical scholars that the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11 are selective is a more plausible reading. This does not, however, require an old earth that is millions or billions of years old. Instead, it simply argues that the earth is older than the 6,000 years that can be obtained by a simple arithmetic calculation based on the Genesis 5 and 11 genealogies.[25]

After this publication, tensions mounted and a dual ensued in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. Early in 2018, Sexton published an article which covered the history of the genealogical gap theory and then focused on Steinmann’s interpretation of the ילד in the hiphil. He accused Steinmann of special pleading, arguing that he invented a new use for ילד in the hiphil just to explain the theory of the long gaps in the genealogies.[26] In the same issue, Steinmann replied to is Sexton’s accusations:

I find Sexton’s assertions and conclusions about my analysis to be fatally flawed. Based on his incorrect notion of verbal causation, he reasons about the semantics of the verbal root ילד in the H stem from a starting point that is incorrect and which therefore invalidates his entire argument.[27]

Finally, Sexton answered Steinman one more time in a rejoinder published in the same issue. He said that Steinmann simply sidestepped the issue. Additionally, Sexton repeated that Steinmann invented a new use of the verb to fit his theory. And even if this use were possible, it would not prove that it did indeed occur in the genealogical lists in Genesis. Sexton lays the burden of proof on Steinmann to muster enough evidence to necessitate the gaps in the genealogical line.[28]

Dissertations on Genesis Five and Eleven

In 1972, Robert Wilson, currently a professor of Old Testament at Yale Divinity School, wrote his dissertation entitled Genealogy and History in the Old Testament: A Study of the Form and Function of the Old Testament Genealogies in Their Near Eastern Context.[29] In it, he explored three questions related to Biblical genealogies:

(1) Were genealogies ever created for historiographic purposes in the ancient Near East or in the Old Testament? (2) Do genealogies have the same form and function at both the oral and written levels? (3) What is the relation of genealogies to narrative traditions containing the same names found in the genealogies?[30]

In answer to the first question, he concluded that historical nature of the genealogies is complex. They were certainly viewed as historical by some authors, but the purpose of the genealogies was not meant for historiographic purposes. They were polemical and thus their historical value to the modern historians is limited. In answer to his second question, he proposes that the oral and written genealogies do share the same function in society. Finally, he answers his third question by concluding that the genealogies may be drawn from the narratives in which they are found. This fact, however, does not negate or confirm the historical accuracy of the narratives. Their historical accuracy depends on the accuracy of the account from which they are drawn.

In 1998, Travis Richard Freeman, currently a professor of Old Testament at the Baptist College of Florida, wrote his dissertation entitled The Chronological Value of Genesis 5 and 11 in Light of Recent Biblical Investigation.[31] His purpose for his research was “to demonstrate the reasonableness of basing pre-Abrahamic chronology on the information contained in the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11, at least as far as the biblical evidence without regard to scientific issues is concerned.”[32] After a survey of historical and modern sources, he concluded that the arguments against the historical accuracy of Genesis five and eleven were flawed hermeneutically. Therefore, there is no compelling reason for abandoning the traditional interpretation of Genesis five and eleven.

In 2004, Benjamin Shaw, currently the academic dean and a professor of Hebrew and Old Testament studies at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, wrote his dissertation entitled The Genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 and Their Significance for Chronology.[33] He states as the purpose of his research:

To address the issue of the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 and their significance for the construction of a chronology from the time of Abraham back to the time of Adam. It is the intent of this work to reexamine the chronological significance of the genealogies on the basis of recent developments in hermeneutics and textual criticism, and to determine whether the recent hesitance with regard to pre-Abrahamic chronology has a sound basis in the biblical text properly interpreted.[34]

While he does engage some with relevant historical material, Shaw focused on hermeneutics and textual criticism to support his thesis that the genealogies are indeed reliable accounts.

In 2017, Craig Olson, currently an adjunct professor in Biblical exposition at Dallas Theological Seminary, wrote his dissertation entitled A Proposal for a Symbolic Interpretation of Patriarchal Lifespans.[35] He proposes that the purpose of the long lifespans was “to bestow honor on ancestors who were blessed by Yahweh and obedient to him in the formation of the nation of Israel.”[36] He argues that this purpose of the genealogies fits the anthropological and archaeological data (i.e. the genealogies are not historically accurate), as well as upholds a high view of Scripture.

In 2018, Brenden Lang, currently a staff member at Willow Creek Community Church and a Teaching Assistant at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, wrote his thesis entitled When Imageship was Lowered from Heaven: A Study of the Genre and Functions of Genesis 5 in Light of Comparative Literature. He argued that Genesis Five should be compared to other ANE literature, despite the current academic trends denying this possibility. He observes that genres fluctuate over time, and so even though Genesis five contains unique aspects, it still has similarities to other chronographic texts and thus legitimately can be classified in the same genre. As far as the purpose of the Genesis five genealogies, he states,

[1]. Thomas Burnet, The Theory of the Earth: Containing an Account of the Original of the Earth, and of All the General Changes Which It Hath Already Undergone or Is to Undergo Throughout the Whole Course of Its Duration (London: Bishop’s Head, 1697), 147.

[2]. Samuel Turner, A Companion to the Book of Genesis (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1841), 212.

[3]. Heinrich Andreas Christoph Hävernick, An Historico-Critical Introduction to the Pentateuch, trans. Alexander Thomson (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1850), 105.

[4]. Friedrich Delitzsch, Babel and Bible: Three Lectures on the Significance of Assyriological Research for Religion (Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1906), 41; See also, Brenden Lang, “When Imageship Was Lowered from Heaven: A Study of the Genre and Functions of Genesis 5 in Light of Comparative Literature” (M.A., Trinity International University, 2018), 1.

[5]. Gunkel Hermann, Genesis, trans. Mark Biddle and Ernest Nicholson (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997), 133–138.

[6]. Samuel Driver, The Book of Genesis with Introduction and Notes, Eigth. (London: Methuen & Co. LTD., 1911), 75.

[7]. George A. Barton, “A Sumerian Source of the Fourth and Fifth Chapters of Genesis,” Journal of Biblical Literature 34, no. 1/4 (1915): 1–9.

[8]. Abraham Malamat, “King Lists of the Old Babylonian Period and Biblical Genealogies,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 88, no. 1 (1968): 170.

[9]. See also, Marshall Johnson, The Purpose of the Biblical Genealogies, with Special Reference to the Setting of the Genealogies of Jesus, Second., Society for New Testament Studies, Monograph Series, 8 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); Travis Freeman, “A New Look at the Genesis 5 and 11 Fluidity Problem,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 42, no. 2 (2004): 259–86.

[10]. Thomas C. Hartman, “Some Thoughts on the Sumerian King List and Genesis 5 and 11B,” Journal of Biblical Literature 91, no. 1 (1972): 25–26.

[11]. Ibid., 32.

[12]. Richard S. Hess, “The Genealogies of Genesis 1-11 and Comparative Literature,” Biblica 70, no. 2 (1989): 242.

[13]. Ibid., 253–254.

  1. Donald Etz, “The Numbers of Genesis V 3–31: A Suggest Conversion and Its Implications,” Vetus Testamentum 43, no. 2 (1993): 186.

[15]. Bruce K. Gardner, The Genesis Calendar: The Synchronistic Tradition in Genesis 1-11 (Lanham: University Press of America, 2001).

[16]. Dwight Wayne Young, “The Step-Down to Two Hundred in Genesis 11,10-25,” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 116, no. 3 (2004): 323–33; Dwight Wayne Young, “The Sexagesimal Basis for the Total Years of the Antediluvian and Postdiluvian Epochs,” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 116, no. 4 (2004): 502–27.

[17]. Jeremy Northcote, “The Lifespans of the Patriarchs: Schematic Orderings in the Chrono-Genealogy,” Vetus Testamentum 57, no. 2 (2007): 243.

[18]. Ibid., 257.

[19]. William Henry Green, “Primeval Chronology,” Bibliotheca Sacra 47 (1890): 303.

[20]. Jeremy Sexton, “Who Was Born When Enosh Was 90? A Semantic Reevaluation of William Henry Green’s Chronological Gaps,” Westminster Theological Journal 77 (2015): 207.

[21]. Jeremy Sexton, “Primeval Chronology Restored: Revisiting The Genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11,” Bible and Spade (Second Run) 29, no. 2 (2016): 42–56.

[22]. Andrew E. Steinmann, “Gaps in the Genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11?” Bibliotheca Sacra 174 (2017): 147.

[23]. Ibid., 148.

[24]. Ibid., 153.

[25]. Ibid., 158.

[26]. Jeremy Sexton, “Evangelicalism’s Search for Chronological Gaps in Genesis 5 and 11: A Historical, Hermeneutical, and Linguistic Critique,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 61, no. 1 (2018): 5–25.

[27]. Andrew E. Steinmann, “A Reply to Jeremy Sexton Regarding the Genealogies in Genesis,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 61, no. 1 (2018): 37.

[28]. Jeremy Sexton, “Andrew E. Steinmann’s Search for Chronological Gaps in Genesis 5 and 11: A Rejoinder,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 61, no. 1 (2018): 39–45.

[29]. Robert R. Wilson, “Genealogy and History in the Old Testament: A Study of the Form and Function of the Old Testament Genealogies in Their Near Eastern Context” (Ph.D., Yale University, 1972). Later, he published his dissertation in a book: Robert R. Wilson, Genealogy and History in the Biblical World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977).

[30]. Wilson, “Genealogy and History in the Old Testament: A Study of the Form and Function of the Old Testament Genealogies in Their Near Eastern Context,” i.

[31]. Travis Richard Freeman, “The Chronological Value of Genesis 5 and 11 in Light of Recent Biblical Investigation” (Ph.D., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1998).

[32]. Ibid., 1.

[33]. Benjamin Shaw, “The Genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 and Their Significance for Chronology” (Ph.D., Bob Jones University, 2004).

[34]. Ibid., 2.

[35]. Craig Olson, “A Proposal for a Symbolic Interpretation of Patriarchal Lifespans” (Ph.D., Dallas Theological Seminary, 2017).

[36]. Ibid., 197.

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