Published: 24 May 2021

Genealogies: The Abused Lists Of The Bible

God did not put genealogies in the Bible so that we can calculate the age of the Earth. If God thought it important for us to know the Earth’s age He would have told us in unambiguous terms. So, if they aren’t there so that we can ascertain the various ages of time, what is the purpose of genealogies such as the one in Genesis 5? 

Lacking any clear cut statements in the Bible about the Earth’s age, numerous Bible students have sought to use the genealogies to discover the age of the world. Perhaps the most famous attempt was made by James Ussher in the 17th century. Ussher assumed that there are no gaps in the Bible’s genealogies and that an unbroken line of family generations are recorded from Adam all the way to Jesus. 

Based on the Bible’s genealogies Ussher concluded that the first day of the creation of the Earth was Sunday, 23 October 4004 BC.[1]Theodossiou, E. Th. “The Christian Chronologies of the Creation and the View of Modern Astrophysics.” Astronomical & Astrophysical Transactions 23, no. 1 (February 2004): 78. 

How did the Bible’s original readers use genealogies?

If the reason genealogies were recorded in the Bible was for date calculations, using them to date the Earth would be a legitimate use. However, people in biblical times did not think about genealogies the way modern people do. Our expectations of a genealogy is that it is mainly (if not solely) for the purpose of knowing one’s ancestors. However, the authors of the Bible had different purposes and expectations about genealogies..

Biblical genealogies fall into three main categories according to their purpose: familial, legal–political, and religious. Familial (or domestic) genealogies were primarily concerned with inheritance and privileges of firstborn sons. Legal–political genealogies are primarily centered on claims to a hereditary office, but other examples include establishing ancestry for land organization, territorial groupings, and military service. Religious genealogies were primarily used to establish membership in the Aaronic and Levitical priesthoods.”[2]Millam, John. “The Genesis Genealogies.” Reasons To Believe. https://reasons.org/explore/publications/tnrtb/read/tnrtb/2003/01/01/the-genesis-genealogies, 1-2. (emphasis added)

I would expand Millam’s religious genealogies category to include theological purposes.

Genealogies as theological statements

Before we take a look at the genealogies in Genesis 4-5, let’s use Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus to show how it was used to make a theological claim.

“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” (Matt. 1:1 ESV)

From the very beginning of his gospel, Matthew uses an abbreviated genealogy to show that Jesus fulfilled two very important Old Testament promises. As a descendant of David, Jesus is portrayed as the rightful heir to David’s throne and the fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant of 2 Sam 7. By linking Jesus to Abraham, Matthew is claiming that Jesus is one who will begin the restoration of all things to God. This is a reminder of God’s promise that all the nations of the Earth would be blessed through Abraham’s offspring (Gen 12). 

Matthew goes on to list some of Jesus’s ancestors, but he intentionally leaves out multiple generations. In a future blog series we’ll investigate the challenges of understanding Bible genealogies, but for now you might want to take a look at this article on the Bible Project website which has some very interesting observations about why Matthew didn’t provide a complete genealogy. 

The bottom line is that we must evaluate each and every genealogy we encounter in the Bible to determine why God had the human author record it for us. We have to ask ourselves what the genealogies are trying to tell us. If we only see genealogies as a means of dating historical events, we will miss the real reason the author put them in the Bible.

The genealogies of Genesis 4-5 are making theological statements!

Context matters! To understand what is going on in Genesis 5, we must look at the context of the previous chapter. Genesis 4 gives us a glimpse of Cain’s family beginning with Cain who is a murderer and ends with Lamech who vows murderous vengeance on anyone who crosses him. In fact he brags to his wives how he had killed a man who had wounded him (Gen 4:23). 

The reputation of Cain’s family

What message is this story communicating about Cain’s branch of the family? While they are credited as city builders, herdsmen, musicians, and metal workers – all notable achievements – the text is describing a people whose pursuits are entirely materialistic. Not one of them is said to be seeking after God. The two men (Cain and Lamech) the author chose to represent the character of this family line are unrepentant murderers!  

The reputation of Seth’s family

The contrast between these two branches of Adam and Eve’s family becomes obvious when we examine the genealogy of Genesis 5. As in Cain’s genealogy, certain men are spotlighted in Seth’s family tree and they are portrayed as righteous men who sought after God. 

Enoch for example is one of the few men in the entire Bible of whom it is said that he “walked with God” (Gen 5:22). The next man in this line, of which more is spoken than just numbers, is also, curiously, named Lamech. This Lamech was the father of righteous Noah and we can infer that he was a godly man. He was keenly aware of the LORD’s actions after the fall and the naming of his son suggests he understood that Noah would somehow play a significant role in the affairs of man (Gen 5:29). The subtle implication here is that Lamech was sensitive to spiritual matters.

Perhaps the most obvious difference in the genealogies of Cain and Seth is that we are told how long Seth’s offspring lived as well as their age when they became the father of the next recorded generation. Nothing is said about the ages of Cain and his offspring, but Moses shares lots of numbers with us about Seth’s descendants. We can reasonably conclude that Moses (the inspired author of Genesis) wanted to make these men stand out. Long life is equated with obedience and submission to God elsewhere in the Bible (Prov 3:1-2, 4:10, 9:11) and this may be the implication here also. 

Many explanations for the numbers and ages in Genesis 5 have been proposed and they are not all mutually exclusive. One possible explanation is that these long lives may serve to contrast with Enoch’s short life of “only” 365 years:

“[T]he author purposefully underscores the death of each patriarch in chapter 5 in order to highlight and focus the reader’s attention on the exceptional case of Enoch.

Enoch is pictured as one who did not suffer the fate of Adam (“you shall surely die”) because, unlike the others, he “walked with God.” The sense of the author is clear. Enoch is an example of one who found life amid the curse of death. In Enoch the author is able to show that the pronouncement of death is not the last word that need be said about a person’s life. One can find life if one “walks with God.” For the author, then, a door is left open for a return to the Tree of Life in the Garden. Enoch found that door in his “walking with God” and in so doing has become a paradigm for all who seek to find life. It is significant that the author returns to this theme at the opening of chapter 17, where God establishes his covenant promise with Abraham. Here the meaning is clear: “walk before me and be perfect, and I will establish my covenant with you” (17:1– 2). To “walk with God” is to fulfill one’s covenant obligations.”[3]Sailhamer, John H.. The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary (pp. 118-119). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

What’s the point?

There is a practical point to all of this. These two contrasting genealogies are laying the groundwork for what is coming next in the story of mankind. The Bible is clearly describing two distinct kinds of people: the offspring of the woman and the offspring of the serpent (Gen 3:15). Unfortunately, they did not remain distinct. The next section in the Bible’s story tells us what happened when the godly joined with the ungodly.

References

References
1 Theodossiou, E. Th. “The Christian Chronologies of the Creation and the View of Modern Astrophysics.” Astronomical & Astrophysical Transactions 23, no. 1 (February 2004): 78.
2 Millam, John. “The Genesis Genealogies.” Reasons To Believe. https://reasons.org/explore/publications/tnrtb/read/tnrtb/2003/01/01/the-genesis-genealogies, 1-2.
3 Sailhamer, John H.. The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary (pp. 118-119). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.