The Genealogies in Genesis: Part II
In the second part of his four-part series, Richard Middleton covers the genealogies of Genesis 5, 10, and 11.
In this second part of his four-part series, J. Richard Middleton discusses the genealogies of Genesis 5, 10, and 11.
The new beginning that is hinted at in the Seth to Enosh genealogy (Gen 4:25-26), when people begin to call on YHWH (Gen 5:26), becomes more explicit in the genealogy of chapter 5. This genealogy 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). There are two significant narrative asides in this tracing of Seth’s descendants, both of which highlight positive developments.7
First, we are told that Enoch (the seventh in the line from Adam to Noah) “walked with God” for some three hundred years (Gen 5:22).8 This is most likely a reference to Enoch’s intimacy and fellowship with his Creator (and may also imply obedience). But the text goes even further: “Enoch walked with God and he was not, for God took him” (Gen 5:24). Unlike everyone else in the genealogies of Genesis, including those who lived very long lives (some approaching 1,000 years in Genesis 5), here is one person who avoided death completely.
Although what it means to be “taken” by God is not explained here, this cryptic statement becomes the basis of later Old Testament hope for life beyond death, a precursor to the idea of resurrection. Having contemplated the seeming success of the wicked, the writer of Psalm 73 puts his hope in the fact that in this life God guides him and “afterwards you will take me with honor” (Psalm 73:24). Noting that death/Sheol is inevitable for both the wicked and the righteous, the writer of Psalm 49 does not view the grave as the end for the righteous: “God will ransom my life from the power of Sheol, for he will take me” (Psalm 49:15). Although many translations render “take” in these two psalms as “receive,” it is the same Hebrew verb (lāqaḥ) used for Enoch’s bodily translation.9
(Photo: God took Enoch. A high resolution photograph of a rare original engraving, 1728)
The second aside in Genesis 5 is a comment about the significance of Noah’s name. His father Lamech (a different Lamech from Cain’s descendant in Genesis 4) explains the name Noah as follows: “Out of the ground that YHWH cursed, this one will bring us comfort from our work and from the toil of our hands” (Gen 5:29). Here we have an allusion to the curse on the ground that was the result of human disobedience in the garden, resulting in the exceeding difficulty (toil) of agriculture (Gen 3:17-19). This curse was intensified after Cain’s murder of Abel, so much so that Cain could not even farm the land anymore (Gen 4:11-12). But, in some sense, the curse (and the ensuing difficulty of farming) will be ameliorated by Noah. Although the name Noah (nōaḥ) is most likely derived from a verbal root meaning “rest” (nwḥ), it is explained in Gen 5:29 by a similar sounding Hebrew verb meaning to “comfort” or “console” (the root nḥm in the Piel stem). Exactly how Noah will bring comfort (or relief, as many English translations have it) is not stated. It could be through his viticulture (he planted the first vineyard; Gen 9:20) or because he is the channel for the renewal of the post-flood world, since after the flood God promises never again to curse the ground because of humanity (Gen 8:21).
These two narrative asides about Enoch and Noah in the midst of the Genesis 5 genealogy suggest new, redemptive possibilities for the world, even after human sin. Not only are the generations continuing, testimony to God’s continued blessing, but Noah, like Enoch, is later said to have “walked with God” (Gen 6:9), the identical phrase used of Enoch in Genesis 5.
The account of Babel (Gen 11:1-9) stands out among the other narratives in the primeval history in that it is often read as an isolated story without reference to its context. This deceptively simple story tells of an ancient human building project on the plains of Shinar that God disrupts, scattering the builders and confusing their language. Yet the Babel story is not, in fact, isolated. It is framed by two genealogies, the Table of the Nations (chap 10) on one side and the genealogy of Shem (Gen 11:10-26) on the other. These genealogies are crucial for the interpretation of the story.
The Table of the Nations (Genesis 10) recounts the repopulation of the earth after the flood, by the descendants of Noah’s sons—Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Whereas the other genealogies in Genesis 1-11 are unilinear, listing only one individual in each generation, Genesis 10 is a multilinear or segmented genealogy, more like a family tree, listing multiple branches of descendants in each generation. The very point of this genealogy is to show the multiplication and spread of the human race over the earth, as they diversify into different nations, with distinct languages and geographical territories (“by their families, their lands, their languages, and their nations”; Gen 10:5, 10:20, 10:31). The Table of the Nations is evidence that God’s creational intent for humanity to spread out and fill the earth (Gen 1:28) is being accomplished—despite the reality of sin and the depopulation of the earth after the flood.
But this presents a problem for interpreting the Babel story, since it is usually thought to recount the origin of linguistic diversity and human spreading over the earth. Yet it is placed after the Table of the Nations. This has led some interpreters to suggest that the story and the genealogy are out of chronological order; the Babel story should logically come first. But this “solution” ignores the important narrative aside in Genesis 10 about Nimrod (Gen 10:8-12), who founded various cities in his kingdom or empire. One of the cities listed is Babel, located in the land of Shinar (Gen 10:10), which matches the location noted in the story (Gen 11:2). A careful reading of the Genesis 10 genealogy, therefore, tells us that the Babel story is meant to be an expansion of this narrative aside in Genesis 10. It isn’t about the origin of multiple languages and the original spreading of people over the earth, but recounts God’s judgment on a monolingual empire that sought homogeneity rather than diversification, and resisted spreading over the earth as God had commanded in Genesis 1:28.10 So the scattering of Babel at the end of the story, while it does signify judgment, represents a return to God’s creational intent for human spreading over the earth, which had already been occurring in the Table of the Nations.11
One of the things that leads many English readers of the Babel story astray is the translation of the name of the city as Babel. But this word (bābel) is simply the standard Hebrew word for Babylon in the rest of the Old Testament.12 It is rendered as “Babel” in English translations of Gen 11:9 because it sounds like “babble,” representing the confusion of speech mentioned in the story (plus it mimics the Hebrew word bābel). The only other place that the name of this city is translated Babel is Genesis 10:10, which should have put even English readers on notice that this isn’t about the first city in the world, but one particular historical city and empire (bābel is used of both in the Old Testament).13 This is the empire that will conquer Judah, destroy the temple in Jerusalem, and take prisoners of war into exile; it will later acquire symbolic significance in the New Testament (Rev 14:8; Rev 16:19; Rev 17:5; Rev 18:2, Rev 18:10, Rev 18:21), because of its paradigmatic defiance of God.
Although the Table of the Nations is introduced as the genealogy of “the sons of Noah—Shem, Ham, and Japheth” (Gen 10:1), the lineages of these three are then given in reverse order. The descendants of Japheth, the youngest, are first listed (Gen 10:2-5), then the descendants of Ham, the middle son (10:6-20), and finally the descendants of Shem, the eldest (Gen 10:21-31). This order is somewhat puzzling until we realize that the last person named in the genealogy of Genesis 10 is Shem (Gen 10:31) and that the genealogy immediately after the Babel story is the lineage of Shem, leading up to Abram (Gen 11:10-26).
It is ironic that the motivation for the builders of Babel is that they want to make a name for themselves (Gen 11:4); yet no-one in the story is actually named. This is in marked contrast to the other narratives in the primeval history, which have named characters, and especially to the surrounding genealogies, since one essential characteristic of a genealogy is that it is full of names.
(Photo: Attempted restitution of the tower of Babel by Father Kircher – Scanned 1890 Engraving)
But the ironies increase. The last name in the preceding genealogy is Shem (Gen 10:31) and Shem is also the first name in the genealogy that follows (Gen 11:10). But the name Shem (šēm) is itself the Hebrew word for “name”! So we have a nameless people ambitiously trying to make a name for themselves, when God has already provided a Shem through the ordinary processes of birth, grounded in creation. And in contrast to this attempt to make a name for themselves, God will later promise to make Abraham’s name great (Gen 12:2)—a fitting outcome for a descendant of Shem. And despite the dead end of Babel, it is the line of Seth leading to Abraham through whom God intends to bring blessing to the nations of the world (Gen 12:3).
It might seem strange to us that there should be a person listed in the Genesis genealogies with the name Shem (meaning “name”). But this is simply part of a pattern of many symbolic names in the primeval history. This goes beyond those I have noted—Adam (“human”), Enosh (“human”), Noah (“comfort”), and Shem (“name”). Eve, who is called “the mother of all living” (Gen 3:20), sounds like the Hebrew word for “life.” Cain, whom Eve says she acquired or got with God’s help (Gen 4:1), sounds like the verb for “acquire” or “get.” Abel, whose life is quickly snuffed out, is simply the Hebrew word for “vapor/breath” or “futility/meaninglessness,” which is a theme in Ecclesiastes. And Seth, whom Eve says God appointed to replace Abel (Gen 4:25), sounds like the verb meaning to “set,” “place,” or “appoint.”
The presence of symbolic names in the primeval history (Genesis 1-11) suggests that we misread both the narratives and the genealogies if we treat each name as representing a distinct historical person. Certainly, the names in the narratives are portrayed as individuals, but they are archetypical individuals. Rather than read the genealogies of Genesis 1-11 as if they were meant to recount accurately (by modern reckoning) every generation from creation to the present, it is better to inquire about their intended function.
When all the genealogies of Genesis 1-11 are taken together, it is clear that everyone listed is part of one human family. This picture of humanity (of which we are a part) is being held up to the readers of Genesis that we may better understand our own condition—both blessed by God and cursed by sin. A beautiful articulation of this two-fold truth is found in C. S. Lewis’s novel, Prince Caspian:
“You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,” said Aslan. “And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth.”14
Having examined the genealogies at the start of the Bible (in Genesis 1-11), my next two articles will focus on the important genealogy of Jesus with which Matthew opens his Gospel. If you think the genealogies in Genesis 1-11 communicate important theological points, just wait; Matthew’s genealogy outdoes them all.
Join the conversation on the BioLogos forum
At BioLogos, “gracious dialogue” means demonstrating the grace of Christ as we dialogue together about the tough issues of science and faith.
About the author
J. Richard Middleton
If you enjoyed this article, we recommend you check out the following resources: