The Genealogies in Genesis: Part I
This is the first in a four-part series as biblical scholar J. Richard Middleton answers the often-asked question, How should we interpret biblical genealogies?
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When Christians read the book of Genesis, they tend to focus on the narratives, but skip over the genealogies. After all, who wants to read a boring list of “begats”? We much prefer to read the majestic opening creation account (Gen 1:1-2:3) and the interesting (often tension-filled) stories of the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:4-3:24), Cain and Abel (Gen 4:1-16), Noah and the flood (Genesis 6-9), and the tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9); and then we move on to the longer, more complicated narratives of Abraham and Sarah; Isaac and Rebekah; Jacob, Leah, and Rachel; and Joseph and his brothers, who are the ancestors of the twelve tribes Israel (Genesis 12-50).
If we stop to think about the genealogies (in Genesis or elsewhere), we wonder what purpose they serve. Are they meant to be a historically accurate list of generations, stretching from the creation of the world to the end of biblical times? Some Christians think that this might help us understand how long ago Adam and Eve were created and how old the world really is. Bishop Ussher (in the seventeenth century) famously collated all the genealogies of the Bible to calculate that the world was created in 4004 B.C. (he even specified the month, day, and time).
But today, even scholars who affirm the Bible’s inerrancy admit that this way of reading the genealogies in the Bible isn’t helpful, since it imposes modern expectations of precision on an ancient text that was written for very different purposes. Back in the nineteenth century, the conservative Princeton professor William Henry Green compared different biblical genealogies that cover the same time period and noted that they did not match up (various generations were skipped), so they were not meant to be exhaustive. His initial comparisons were between Chronicles, Ezra, and Matthew; but he went on to conclude that it 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 This argument convinced B. B. Warfield, Green’s colleague at Princeton. Although Warfield was instrumental in formulating the modern doctrine of inerrancy, he fully accepted the great antiquity of the earth that geological studies were beginning to show.2
Not only are questions about the “accuracy” of the biblical genealogies the wrong questions to ask (they will misdirect us about the meaning of these genealogies), but there are much more interesting questions we could put to these texts. The best way to understand what the genealogies in Genesis were meant to tell us is to ask: what is the function of these genealogies in Genesis? But that requires careful reading.
In this article and the next, I will focus on the genealogies in the primeval history (Genesis 1-11); there is so much to say about just those, without getting into the genealogies interspersed among the ancestral narratives (Gen 22:20-24; 25:1-6, 12-18; 36:1-41). In the third and fourth articles in this series, I will focus on the genealogy that begins the Gospel of Matthew, which draws on the Old Testament genealogies of Genesis, Ruth, and 1 Chronicles to present Jesus as the climactic descendant of Abraham.
There are four genealogies in the primeval history, or five if we count the genealogy of Gen 11:27-32, but this is really the beginning of the Abraham story (the primeval history technically ends at Gen 11:26). In this article and the next, I will focus on:
- The genealogy from Adam to Enosh (Gen 4:1-26), which begins in Genesis 4:1-2 and concludes in Gen 4:17-26, while framing the Cain and Abel narrative in Gen 4:3-16.
- The genealogy from Adam to Noah’s sons (chap. 5), which is traced through Seth’s line and introduced by the statement, “This is the book/scroll of the generations [tôlĕdôt] of Adam” (Gen 5:1). It is sometimes called the Toledoth Book.
- The so-called Table of the Nations (chap. 10), tracing the descendants of Noah’s sons—Shem, Ham, and Japheth (Gen 10:1)—after the flood.
- The genealogy from Shem to Terah’s three sons—Abram, Nahor, and Haran (Gen 11:10-26).
So, what is the function of these genealogies? Why are they put where they are in the book of Genesis? What are they meant to communicate?3
There is, first of all, an important link between the genealogies and the opening creation account (Gen 1:1-2:3). This can be seen specifically in the beginning of Genesis 5:
1 This is the book/scroll of the generations of Adam [’ādām]. When God created humanity [’ādām], he made them in the likeness of God. 2 Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Humanity [’ādām] when they were created. 3 When Adam [’ādām] had lived one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth. (Gen 5:1-3)4
Although verses 1a and 3 use the Hebrew word ’ādām as a proper name, verses 1b-2 use it as a generic word for the human race, clearly echoing Genesis 1:26-28. This is reinforced by the references to male and female, the image/likeness of God (the imago Dei), and the primal blessing God gives humanity—all of which derive from Genesis 1:26-28.
So, despite the disruption of sin, which we find in Genesis 3 (the disobedience of Adam and Eve) and in chap. 4 (the murders committed by Cain and Lamech), the imago Dei is passed on through the generations listed in Genesis 5, right down to Noah. And even after the flood, Genesis 9:6 reaffirms that the imago Dei still continues in the human race.
But beyond the continuation of the imago Dei, the genealogies (not only Genesis 5, but all the genealogies in the Bible) show that the blessing of fertility that God gives humanity in Genesis 1 also continues; the genealogies are evidence that people are continuing to multiply and increase and fill the earth (Gen 1:28). So the genealogies make the important theological point that despite human sin, (at least some of) God’s creational purposes have not been thwarted.
Indeed, the very patterning of the genealogies (especially in Genesis 5 and Gen 11:10-26, which have the most consistent, repetitive patterning) echoes the patterning of the opening creation account (though the patterns are, of course, different). The genealogies thus embody an orderly line of descent that suggests continuity with God’s ordering of creation. This is in contrast to the Genesis narratives, which are full of tension and disruption. So the alternation of genealogies and narratives throughout the primeval history communicates both the order and continuity of creation and the disorder and rupture of life after the fall.
So the genealogies make the important theological point that despite human sin, (at least some of) God’s creational purposes have not been thwarted.
Now, let’s look at this alternation of genealogy and narrative in more detail.
The genealogy of Genesis 4 begins with the birth of the three sons of Adam and Eve—Cain and Abel at the start of the chapter (Gen 4:1-2a) and Seth near the end (Gen 4:25). But the tragic narrative of Cain’s murder of his brother Abel (Gen 4:2b-16) intrudes between the births of Abel and Seth, which disrupts the genealogical continuity. Even though death at the end of a long life (which is the general pattern in the Genesis genealogies) is not considered in itself an evil, premature death (and especially murder) is clearly against God’s intent. Yet God’s protection of Cain (Gen 4:15) means that God intervenes to restrain evil in the midst of sin’s disruption.
Then comes the genealogy of Cain’s descendants, beginning with the birth of his son Enoch and ending with Lamech (Gen 4:17-24). But this genealogy is itself interrupted by a number of brief, narrative asides and one poetic insertion. The narrative asides are notes of positive human accomplishments—the building of the first town or village (“city” doesn’t really fit the context) and the origin of nomadic livestock herding, musical instruments, and metal tools (Gen 4:17b, Gen 20-21). These developments articulate an implicit theology of culture; they demonstrate that humans are fulfilling the mandate in Gen 1:26 and Gen 1:28 to exercise dominion on earth, despite the increase of sin.
The poetic insertion (Gen 4:23-24) is Lamech’s boast about his revenge killing, where he ups the ante on God’s protection of Cain. Lamech claims that if God would have avenged Cain sevenfold if anyone killed him, Lamech’s own killing a young man who merely injured him is vengeance multiplied seventy-seven times. So this poetic insertion is a clear case of the disruption of genealogical continuity—not only by another murder, but now heightened by a boast of vengeful prowess.
Then comes the birth of Seth, who is explicitly said to be a replacement for Abel after his murder by Cain (Gen 4:25); and the genealogy of Genesis 4 ends with Seth’s son Enosh, in whose time people began to call on the name of YHWH (Gen 4:26). The genealogy of chapter 4 thus ends on a positive note, as people begin to seek God in the midst of a corrupt world.
It is striking that the first member of the genealogy in Genesis 4 is Adam, whose name means “human.” And the last member is Enosh, whose name also means “human” (this word occurs in the psalmist’s famous question: “What is a human being [’ĕnôš] that you are mindful of him?”; Ps 8:4). In Genesis 4 we thus have a mini genealogy of the human race (our ancestors), warts and all—beginning with a human and ending with a human. As Bob Marley sings, “Man to man is so unjust,” and the chorus challenges the listener: “Who the cap fit, let them wear it.”5 Or in the words of songwriter Bruce Cockburn, “This is my trouble—these were my fathers”; “No adult of sound mind can be an innocent bystander.” In the bridge, Cockburn brings it home: “You and me—we are the break in the broken wheel.”6
It is striking that the first member of the genealogy in Genesis 4 is Adam, whose name means “human.” And the last member is Enosh, whose name also means “human.”
But the framing of chapter 4 with Adam and Enosh (both meaning “human”) might not be totally negative. Especially because it is in Enosh’s generation that people begin to seek YHWH (the true God), perhaps this indicates that Enosh (humanity) is not destined to the pattern of disobedience of Adam (the first human). A new beginning is possible. So Genesis 4, consisting in genealogy intertwined with narrative and poetry, not only indicts us for our sinful heritage, but also affirms God’s continued blessing despite sin and offers us hope for a new beginning.
This new beginning hinted at in the Seth-Enosh genealogy (Gen 4:25-26) becomes more explicit in the genealogy of chapter 5, which begins with Adam (Gen 5:1) and proceeds through Seth (Gen 5:3) down to Noah (Gen 5:29) and his three sons (Gen 5:32). But for that genealogy you will need to read the next article.
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About the author
J. Richard Middleton
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N.T. Wright | The Point of Resurrection
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