Published: 29 November 2021

Fake Family Trees? How An American President’s Family Sheds Light On A Biblical Puzzle

family tree

Does Genesis present us with a fake family tree for Moses? Not everyone accepts that only four generations elapsed between the Patriarchs arriving in Egypt and their descendants leaving under the leadership of Moses. Those who do not accept a short stay in Egypt contend that Moses’s genealogy is telescoped.

What is a “telescoped genealogy?” A genealogy is telescoped when some names are intentionally left out so as to highlight certain important people in a family tree. Matthew does this with Jesus’s genealogy in order to group Jesus’s ancestors into blocks of fourteen generations (Mt 1:1-17). We know Matthew left out some names because we can compare his genealogy of Jesus with Old Testament genealogies of Jesus’s ancestors.

Matthew telescoped Jesus’s genealogy in order to make certain symbolic and theological statements. This was an accepted practice in ancient Jewish literature. Matthew wasn’t trying to get one over on us; his ancient readers would have understood exactly what he was doing.[1]“Jesus & Genealogies | BibleProjectTM.” BibleProject. https://bibleproject.com/blog/jesus-genealogies/. Even though telescoped genealogies can be found in the Bible, this doesn’t mean that all biblical genealogies contain omissions.

Was Moses’s family tree telescoped?

Moses’s genealogy would almost certainly be telescoped if the Israelites were in Egypt for 430 years as some claim. The reason is that 430 years is far too large of a time period for four generations to span. Dr. John Millam explains his conclusion:

“This genealogy [of Moses] serves as a striking example of telescoping a genealogy to include only the tribe, division, and clan. The genealogies defining the divisions and clans of the Levites are given in Numbers 3:17–37; 26:57–59; and 1 Chronicles 6:1–3; 23:6–23. We see from these passages that Moses and Aaron were of the tribe of Levi (the Levites), the division of Kohath (the Kohathites), and the clan of Amram (the Amramites). Using Scripture and other historical sources, we can reasonably conclude that the remaining names (probably at least 6) between Amram and Moses were intentionally left out. (See Table 3, The Genealogies of Moses and Joshua.)”[2]Millam, John. “The Genesis Genealogies.” Reasons To Believe, 2. https://reasons.org/explore/publications/tnrtb/read/tnrtb/2003/01/01/the-genesis-genealogies.

Dr. Millam’s Table 3.[3]Ibid., 34.

As you can see, Dr. Millam compares Moses and Joshua’s genealogies showing what appears to be several missing generations in Moses’s family tree. The assumption is that since both of these men lived at the same time, there should be about the same number of generations in their family trees. As I’ll show later, this is an unwarranted assumption.

Was Joshua’s family tree added to?

On the flip side, those who accept that Moses’s genealogy has not been telescoped look at Joshua’s family tree with suspicion. Dr. Gary Rendsburg offers two explanations for the apparent discrepancy:

“Either (a) Joshua’s genealogy is accurate and those of Bezalel, Nahshon/Elisheba, Achan, Jair, Zelophehad, Aaron/Moses and their children, Mishael/Elisheba, Korah, and Dathan/Abiram have all been telescoped, presumably independently by different authors, or (b) these genealogies are correct and Joshua’s is inaccurate. It is plain that there is no choice; we must opt for (b).”[4]Rendsburg, Gary A (Gary Alan). “The Internal Consistency and Historical Reliability of the Biblical Genealogies.” Vetus testamentum 40, no. 2 (April 1990): 200.

In Rendsburg’s paper, he examines the difficulties of reconciling the genealogies of Moses and Joshua, but ultimately concludes that Joshua’s genealogy has had extra generations inserted. Is there no way to reconcile this? I think there is a way.

Flawed assumption

President John Tyler

There is a basic assumption on both sides of this argument that two people who live at the same time must have a similar number of generations between them and their most recent common ancestor. This is a demonstrably false assumption. There is a third option.

To show that people living at the same time can have vastly different numbers of generations over the same time period, let’s take a look at American history. President John Tyler was born in 1790. At the age of 52 he married his second wife (who was 22) who gave birth to a son, Lyon Tyler. President Tyler was 63 when his son Lyon was born. Lyon Tyler, like his father, married a young bride after his first wife died. Lyon was 75 years old when his son Harrison was born in 1928.[5]https://www.cbsnews.com/news/how-two-of-president-john-tylers-grandsons-are-still-alive/

At the time of this writing Harrison Tyler is alive and a resident of a nursing home in VA.[6]https://www.newsweek.com/president-john-tyler-grandson-alive-1790-1648359 He is the living grandson of a man born in 1790! Three generations of Tyler men spanned a period of 231 years (and counting)! By comparison, my own family tree consists of eight generations during the same 231 year time period.

Same time period but very different number of generations

This demonstrates how Joshua and Moses could be contemporaries and still have such a different number of generations in their family trees. Based on the conclusion that the Israelites were in Egypt for 215 years we can do some math to get some averages. 

Joshua descended from the Patriarch Joseph (1 Chr 7:20-27) with 12 generations (including Joseph and Joshua). This means, on average, that each generation in Joshua’s family tree was eighteen years. In comparison, there were 4 generations between Moses and  his Patriarch Levi. On average, each generation in Moses’s family tree was 54 years. You may be thinking that 54 is a little old to be having children, but even today this is not unheard of. If we could ask John Tyler and his son Lyon about it, they might say 54 was pretty young to be having children. 

Conclusion

Biblical genealogies were not necessarily intended to be complete the way modern people expect them to be. They serve different purposes than modern genealogies and they are not always easy for us to understand. 

It is a false dichotomy to say that either Moses’s genealogy is correct, or Joshua’s is. I contend they are both correct, complete, and unaltered because the alleged discrepancy in the number of generations is explainable. Don’t forget that God told Abraham his offspring would return to Canaan in the fourth generation (Gen 15:16). Recent American history illustrates that God might just know what He is talking about.

References

References
1 “Jesus & Genealogies | BibleProjectTM.” BibleProject. https://bibleproject.com/blog/jesus-genealogies/.
2 Millam, John. “The Genesis Genealogies.” Reasons To Believe, 2. https://reasons.org/explore/publications/tnrtb/read/tnrtb/2003/01/01/the-genesis-genealogies.
3 Ibid., 34.
4 Rendsburg, Gary A (Gary Alan). “The Internal Consistency and Historical Reliability of the Biblical Genealogies.” Vetus testamentum 40, no. 2 (April 1990): 200.
5 https://www.cbsnews.com/news/how-two-of-president-john-tylers-grandsons-are-still-alive/
6 https://www.newsweek.com/president-john-tyler-grandson-alive-1790-1648359