Biblical Genealogies Interpretation Challenges and Bible Inerrancy Issues
Throughout history, the reading of genealogies in the Bible has been the source of numerous misunderstandings. Many critics claim that the genealogical records are full of “gaps” or “missing generations”, or contain inconsistent or conflicting data. They further consider any omissions or inconsistencies between lists as representing a Bible error, some even going so far as claiming that any irregularities within these records completely destroys all authority and historicity of the Scriptures.
These charges and confusions almost always stem from a lack of familiarity with the original Bible languages and/or with the functions and purposes of genealogies within the Hebrew culture. We hope this article brings some clarity to the prevailing discussions.
This article originally began as a chapter within our “Ruth 4 Genealogy – Was Rahab the Mother of Boaz”. It was included as an apologetic to demonstrate that any “gaps” or “missing generations” within the Ruth 4 genealogy did not constitute a Biblical error. Since this common charge is not limited to the Ruth list, but often directed towards the other genealogical lists in the Scriptures, we’ve split the original chapter off into this new article. In expanding the apologetics to counter the general charges frequently leveled against these portions of Scripture, we’ve also addressed many interpretation challenges associated with this literary genre.
Table of Contents
- About Genealogies
- Genealogical Interpretation Challenges
- Examining the Original Biblical Languages
- The Nature and Purposes of Biblical Genealogies
- Additional Observations and Interpretation Hints
- Determining Direct Parent-Child Relationships
- Conclusions / Modern Applications
In its simplest form, a genealogy is a record of family lineage that traces the descent of a person, family, or group from an ancestor. Most modern genealogies consist of a chronological listing of direct biological descendants tracing from a particular ancestor. As compared with family lineages of modern times however, Biblical genealogies took on several additional functions and purposes based upon God’s sovereign plan for His chosen people, and ultimately for all believers. We must understand these purposes, along with some Hebrew language and culture within the historical context in order to properly interpret these records.
The bulk of the OT genealogical data is found throughout the books of Genesis, Numbers, 1Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah. Other lists worth noting are located in Exodus 6, Ruth 4, 2Samuel 3, 2Chronicles 29, and a few scattered entries in Joshua and other OT books. The genealogies of Jesus in Matthew 1 and Luke 3 are the only entries in the NT.
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Genealogical Interpretation Challenges
A cursory reading of Biblical genealogies in modern English will reveal some apparent inconsistencies within the context of other Scripture. These discrepancies offer some challenges when defending the inerrancy of the Bible. In this chapter, we layout the main challenges that will be addressed in the following chapters.
The critics’ charges of errors can be grouped into two basic categories, inconsistent names and missing generations. The former case sometimes arises when we compare parallel lists and find a different name or names on one list between the same ancestor and descendant as compared with the other list. This is almost always due to one of two circumstances, the first being that many Bible characters are known by multiple names, so both names could refer to the same person. We could also be dealing with a Levirate marriage (Dt 25:5-6) in which a man (kinsman redeemer) marries the widow of his brother or other close relative in order to provide an heir for the deceased. In this situation, one list might have recorded the redeemer’s name while the other registered the legal name (that of the deceased).
We now turn to the second challenge, that of missing generations, or “gaps” in the various genealogies. The contention for gaps occurs when a genealogical list is compared with historical data, both internal and external to the Bible, and with other genealogies from the same time span. We now offer four examples: the lineage from Jacob to Moses, from Aaron (brother of Moses) to Ezra, from Rahab to King David, and the genealogy of our Lord Jesus. For the Moses and Ezra genealogies, we’d like to acknowledge our indebtedness to the work of the Reverend Professor William Henry and his article “Primeval Chronology”, published in Bibliotheca Sacra in 1890. We also consulted two other works that drew from Prof Henry, BB Warfield , “The Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race” in Studies in Theology from 1932, and RK Harrison’s classic Introduction to the Old Testament from 1969.
We begin with the various genealogies of Moses as found in Ex 6:13-27, Num 26:1-4, 57-60, 1Chr 6:1-3, and 1Chr 23:1-6, 12-14. From these records, we derive the lineage as Levi, Kohath, Amram (wife Jochebed), and Moses.
The first evidence for gaps in this list is the historical timeline. Levi was born ~1920BC, but Moses wasn’t born until ~1526BC. We determined the birth of Levi from the well documented events in the life of Joseph in Genesis 37-45 and assuming that Levi was born about 5 years before Joseph. See “Dating the OT Bible Events” (in progress). Furthermore, Levi's son Kohath was born before their descent into Egypt (Ge 46:2-8,11). Since the Israelites lived in Egypt for 430 years (Ex 12:40-41) and Moses was eighty years old at the Exodus (Ex 7:7), he must have been born more than 350 years after his “grandfather” Kohath.
We know that Kohath died at age 133 (Ex 6:18) and Amram died at age 137 (Ex 6:20), so if there are no missing generations, Amram who is listed as the father of Moses, would have died 160 years before Moses was born. In his birth narrative (Ex 2:1-2), the Bible merely says that Moses was born to a Levite man and woman, but his parents aren’t named, thus the gap could be located either before or after Amram and Jochebed.
Additionally, the census taken at Mt Sinai shortly after the Exodus records 8,600 male descendants of Kohath who were at least a month old (Nu 3:27–28), including 2,750 between the ages of 30 and 50 (Nu 4:34–37). Since Moses was one of the oldest to make the journey, these numbers would represent the grandsons and great-grandsons of Kohath. Yet, Ex 6:18-24 lists only the names of 4 sons and 5 grandsons for Kohath, including Moses and Aaron. This strongly suggests that the Mosaic genealogies are greatly abbreviated. It is likely that there were several additional generations between Kohath and Moses for this many male descendants (not to mention the additional female descendants) of Kohath to exist only three generations later.
Finally, we can compare our list with other genealogies over the same epoch. First, the genealogical records (1Chr 2:1-20) list seven generations from Jacob (aka Israel) to Bezaleel, who was chosen to lead the construction effort of the Tabernacle under Moses (Ex 35:30-35). We also find nine generations from Jacob’s grandson Ephraim to Joshua (1 Chr 7:20-27). Thus, it appears improbable that there would be eleven generations from Jacob to Joshua (Moses’ assistant and successor), but only four from Jacob to Moses.
We now turn to two examples of the easiest case of determining gaps by comparing parallel genealogies of the same persons. The Levitical genealogy from Moses’ brother Aaron to Seriaih, the last high priest of the first Temple era and ancestor of Ezra, is recorded in 1Chronicles 6:3-14 and Ezra 7:1-5. The names and chronology of these lists are identical, except for six consecutive names (Amariah, Ahitub, Zadok, Ahimaaz, Azariah and Johanan) omitted between Meraioth and Azariah from the list in Ezra but included in the Chronicles.
Likewise, in his Messianic genealogy of the Lord Jesus, Matthew drops three consecutive names of Judah’s kings. Comparing Mt 1:7-11 with 1Chr 3:10-16, we find the names of Ahaziah, Joash and Amaziah (1Chr 3:11-12) are left out between the names of Jehoram and Uzziah (aka Azariah) in Mt 1:8. We can also compare the number of names across the same time period to these two lists. Luke’s genealogy lists 42 generations from David to Jesus (vs 27 or 28 in Matthew depending on how a generation is counted). Even though these are traced from different sons of David (Solomon vs Nathan) the difference in the number of generations further suggests additional gaps in Matthew's list.
Like that of Moses, an examination of the genealogy in the 4th chapter of Ruth in light of the historical data, and in comparison with other lists over the same era, reveals a good probability of missing generations. These records link Boaz and Ruth back to their ancestor Perez, the son of Judah who was the son of Jacob (aka Israel, and forward to their descendant, King David. In the list, it is stated that Salmon (husband of Rahab – Mt 1:5) was the father of Boaz (husband of Ruth), Boaz the father of Obed, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David (Ruth 4:21-22). Historical and internal Biblical data tells us that Rahab (Jsh 2; 6:24-25) lived during the days of Joshua (~1400 BC), but David wasn’t born until ~1040 BC.
In comparing this list of four generations in Ruth 4 (Salmon to David) with the genealogy of the Levite priests over the same time span in 1Chronicles 6:4-8, we find nine generations from Eleazar, the priest during Rahab’s time to Zadoc, the priest during David’s reign. Later in the same chapter (1Chr 6:33-37), we find a genealogy of the tabernacle musicians which lists 18 generations from Korah in the time of Moses (a generation before Joshua and Rahab; Ex 6:16-27) to Heman in the time of David (1Chr 15:16-27), thus suggesting that the lists of priests may also contain gaps.
From these examples, we observe that many Biblical genealogical lists may contain missing generations. So in light of this evidence, how can we defend the inerrancy of the Bible? We believe the best way to answer the Bible critics is by demonstrating that missing generations in Bible genealogies do not violate the doctrine of Bible inerrancy (see “The Meaning of Bible Inerrancy” for development of a working definition).
Actually, this is fairly easy to do. As we alluded to in the introduction, almost all of these charges stem from a lack of familiarity with the original Bible languages and with the functions and purposes of genealogies during Biblical times; however a misinterpretation or lack of understanding by the reader does not constitute an error in Scripture. With some basic insight into the role of these lists in Hebrew culture, it will be obvious that skipping generations was clearly a part of the authors’ intent. But first, we must consider the Hebrew and Greek meaning behind some of the terms typically found within the genealogical lists and other related texts.
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Examining the Original Biblical Languages
Examining the original OT Hebrew language for terms commonly found in genealogies, we find that the words for father (ab) or mother (em) can also mean “ancestor”, “forefather” or “households”. For example, Genesis 3:20 tells us that “Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother [em] of all the living”. Obviously, Eve was an ancestor of everyone, but only the literal mother of her natural children.
Likewise, the word for son (ben) or daughter (bat) can also mean “descendant”, refer to a male or female relative, or to someone adopted into the household. For example, Genesis 46:15 states that “These were the sons Leah bore to Jacob in Paddan Aram, besides his daughter Dinah. These sons [plural form of ben] and daughters [plural form of bat] of his were thirty-three in all.” In addition, verse 26 states that the “sons of Jacob” (Heb bene-ya-aqob) numbered sixty six. It is obvious from reading verses 8-26 that the number included grandchildren and great-grandchildren since Jacob had only twelve sons and one daughter.
The Hebrew words for aunt (dodah) and uncle (dod) were pretty straightforward (although dod is also translated as love, lover and beloved in scripture, and can be used to designate ancestors such as a great-great uncle), but “achoth” (sister) is also used for half-sister and female relative, and “ach” (brother) is also translated as half-brother, brotherhood, companion, fellow countryman or tribe member, or to refer to a male relative or kinsman.
Perhaps the most important term related to our study of genealogies is the Hebrew word “yalad”. The verb forms can mean “to father” (beget or sire) or “to mother” (bear) a child or descendant, to become the ancestor of, to be born or become the descendant of, or to register (in order to show lineage, relationship or membership). The noun forms can denote a father, ascendant, descendant, forefather, relative, or member of a household or tribe. Going back to Kohath the Levite and ancestor of Moses, Numbers 26:58 states that “Kohath was the yalad of Amram”. In the English translation of this verse, yalad is translated as “father” in the ESV and NASB, as “forefather” in the NIV, and as “ancestor” in the NLT and HCSB. Incidentally, in the next verse we find “the name of Amram’s wife was Jochebed, a bat of Levi”. Here, bat is translated as “daughter” in the ESV and NASB, and as “descendant” in the NIV, NLT and HCSB. It is obvious from Ex 6:16-20 that Jochebed is a descendant of Levi. Yalad can also be used in a symbolic or legal sense. Ruth 4:17 states “A son (ben) has been born (yalad) to Naomi.” In reality, the son was “born” to Boaz and Ruth (Naomi’s daughter-in-law), but continued the legal line of Naomi according to the levirate marriage law (Dt 5:5-10).
In the next verse (Ru 4:18), the genealogy from Perez (son of Jacob’s son Judah) to King David begins with “this is the toledoth of Perez…” In this verse, the Hebrew noun is translated “family line” (NIV), “generations” (ESV, NASB, KJV), “genealogy” (ISV), and “genealogical record” (NLT). It is the most common word used for genealogy, but it is also used in Genesis 2:4 (this is the toledoth of the heavens and the earth when they were created) to signify an “account” (NIV, NLT and NASB). Yet, in this same verse, it is translated as “generations” in the ESV and KJV, as “records” in the HCSB and ISV, and as “histories” and “histories of the generations” in other versions. We mention this because the Hebrew noun toledoth originates from yalad.
So, we see that yalad doesn’t necessarily denote a strict parent-child relationship, although it certainly does in many instances. At other times however, it may only indicate ancestry, other relative, member of a clan, or general records.
On the other hand, the Hebrew term harah literally means “to conceive” or to “become pregnant”. It is sometimes used metaphorically, such as Numbers 11:12 where Moses asks God, “Did I conceive (harah) all these people?” in his frustration over their complaints about the manna. It is translated only once as “ancestors”, in Jacobs blessing to his son Joseph, “The blessings of your father have surpassed the blessings of my ancestors (harah)”. So, the word harah, when encountered in conjunction with a woman (and not in combination with yalad), almost always designates a clear-cut mother-child relationship.
At this point, we could ask “why was there so much ambiguity and diversity of meaning in the Hebrew language?” The answer is that, more exacting terms for designating family relationships simply did not exist. Biblical Hebrew did not contain specific words for “grandfather”, “grandmother”, “grandson”, “granddaughter”, “great-grandfather”, “niece”, “nephew”, “cousin”, and so on. Some relationships however, could be described with a combination of existing terms such as using “brother’s or sister’s son or daughter” to refer to a nephew or niece, or using “aunt’s or uncle’s son or daughter” to refer to a cousin.
The lack of precise Hebrew terms during this era was not limited merely to family relationships. At the time of the writing of the Hebrew scriptures, etymologists estimate that there were less than 10,000 words (fewer than 8000 by many accounts) in the Hebrew language, with over 1500 used only once in the scriptures. Comparing this with the over 450,000 available words in our modern English, we can readily see how much more precise we can be in our descriptions today.
Some inquiring minds might wonder why the Hebrews didn’t invent additional words in order to better depict these other kinships. Almost all languages are continually expanding to accommodate the addition of new terms as needed. The Apostle Paul added many new terms to the Greek language due to his NT writings. In addition, the early church theologian Tertullian coined over 1000 new Latin nouns and verbs in his writings on the Trinity and other doctrines. Even modern Hebrew has expanded to about 100,000 words with essentially the same alphabet.
I believe is answer is probably connected to the fluidity of, and the numerous modes of entry into various Hebrew relationships. In addition to birth, a person could become a member of a family, clan or tribe by marriage, adoption, or even capture during war. Furthermore, in the time of Abraham and Moses, there were frequent intermarriage among relatives, including the levirate marriages to protect family lineage and property of the deceased (Dt 5:5-10). As a result, a person might have multiple relationships with the same relative (eg, a second-cousin might also be an aunt, sister etc) or have no blood-relation at all, so the more flexible terms for relatives was probably less confusing.
So, we can say that the fundamental ambiguity in the Hebrew language was originally due to necessity (lack of words), and may have continued, at least in regard to family relationships, out of convenience.
Another question that could be asked is “Why didn’t the translators of the various modern English versions of the Bible firm up these terms?”
Bible translators face many challenges when developing the various English versions of the Bible. One particular difficulty is that, there are many words in both the Hebrew and English for which an equivalent word in the other language simply doesn’t exist. This makes a strict word-for-word translation impossible. These occurrences further break down into two basic cases. In one case, we might have a precise Hebrew word with a broader or nuanced meaning than can be portrayed by a similar English word. In these instances, a functionally equivalent English phrase is often used. In our situation, we encounter the second case, in which a single ambiguous Hebrew word can take on the meaning of multiple, more precise English words depending on the environment in which it is used. Thus, the translators must determine the best English word depending on the context.
This process often involves much discussion and debate, some of which are recorded for our benefit in the preface or the study notes of various English study bibles. So, we have the testimony of a few translators that they often used the words “father” or “son” in ambiguous situations simply because the English words “ancestor” and “descendant” do not carry the intimacy or the close relationship implied in the original Hebrew or Greek languages. In Hebrew culture, ancestors were regularly referred to as fathers, and descendants as sons. In addition, in a teacher-student relation, a student was often called a son of the rabbi that he was studying under. Even today, both natural Israelites and Christians are often referred to as “sons” of Abraham.
We’ve concentrated primarily on the Hebrew language since almost all of the Biblical genealogies are located in the OT, but we can also draw similar conclusions from the Greek terms.
Regarding the NT genealogy in Matthew 1:5, we read “Salmon was the father of Boaz” or “Salmon fathered Boaz” or “Salmon begat Boaz”. In the Greek language, the verb translated “was the father”, “fathered” or “begat” is egennēsen, (beget or bring forth) from gennao (descent, birth).
Incidentally, the Greek noun translated “son” in the NT is huiou, which is used widely to mean immediate, remote or figurative kinship. Common translations are child, son (by birth or adoption) or even foal (Mt 21:5). When used in phrases such as “sons (or children) of God (or of the kingdom)”, huiou also includes female believers. This same list in Matthew begins the NT with “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son (huiou) of David, the son (huiou) of Abraham” (Mt 1:1). So, we see that, like the Hebrew, we also have multiple meanings for these terms in the Greek language. In this particular verse, it is obvious that we’re not dealing with direct father-son relationships since Abraham was born in the 2100s BC, David in the mid 1000s BC, and Jesus incarnated about 4 BC. Thus, the author’s intended use of the term uhiou must be taken as “descendant”.
As we stated earlier, most interpretation problems with biblical genealogies stem from a faulty understanding of the original languages (I’ve even run into a few people who believe that the Bible was originally written in English), or from a misunderstanding of the functions of genealogies in the Scriptures and Hebrew customs. We’ve addressed the former, so now we turn to the latter.
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Nature and Purposes of Biblical Genealogies
When encountering a genealogical list as we read through the OT, the tendency for most of us is to briefly glance at the odd looking, hard-to-pronounce names or to just skip them altogether. For the ancient Jewish people however, these records were some of the most important of the biblical writings that would eventually be canonized. Historically, no other society has placed more significance on family lineage than the Hebrews. These records are usually related to one or more of the covenants and actually reveal much of God’s will.
To properly interpret the genealogies, we must let the scriptures speak for themselves according to author intent rather than reading our modern definitions back into the text. T his requires a basic understanding of the roles of genealogies within Hebrew culture.
The first purpose of a national genealogy was to establish a person as a legitimate Israelite, one of God’s chosen people. Inclusion guaranteed a share of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants to anyone who could trace his or her descent from the family of Jacob. National genealogies also protected the purity of the Jewish nation by guarding against intermarriage with foreigners (see Ezra 10). These lists differ from the international genealogies, such as the table of nations that reveal the origins of some of the other nations that sprang from Noah (the Israelites are descendants of Noah’s son Shem).
The tribal genealogies are related to the division, settlement and continued inheritance of the land. This insured the maintenance of the original tribal boundaries. A person could not buy a partial of land without first proving that his ancestors came from the same tribe as those who were originally allotted the property. Tribal records were also used to determine military duties.
A special type of tribal genealogy, which we could call a priesthood genealogy, was exclusive to the tribe of Jacob’s son Levi. descendants of this tribe were qualified to serve in various capacities at the tabernacle, temple and in other religious functions. These records were crucial when Hezekiah re-instituted Temple worship, and when the Jews re-established worship in the land under Ezra and Nehemiah after returning from exile in Babylon.
The royal or kingly genealogies are based on the Davidic covenant in 2Samuel 7, where God promised David (from the tribe of Judah) and his decedents an heirship to the throne of Judah. Of course, the most important aspect of these records is the related messianic genealogies of Jesus. In fact, the NT opens with one of these genealogies (the other is located in Luke 3). According to the aforementioned Davidic covenant, the Messiah comes from the tribe of Judah (Ge 49:10) and must be a physical descendant of King David (2Sa 7). These requirements eliminated many of those falsely claiming to be the Messiah.
Taken together, the various genealogies give us a good picture of God’s historical plans for national Israel. The apocryphal book of 1Maccabees indicates that the Jews continued to keep careful genealogical records through the intertestamental period, making them available for Matthew and Luke (the doctrine of Bible Inspiration does not preclude the use of written records). The records were later destroyed along with the Temple by the Romans in 70AD, after Jesus the Messiah had already fulfilled the covenants, including God’s promise to Abraham that all nations would be blessed through him (Ge 18:18).
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Additional Observations and Interpretation Hints
Genealogies in the Bible are not always intended to record the exact sequential descent of each member within a family line. An author may intentionally skip a few generations of the family tree (a technique known as telescoping) depending on the primary function of a particular list.
We’ve already discussed the messianic, political (royal), religious (priesthood) and tribal purposes, but sometimes an author will telescope to limit the list to a particular number of names, usually a multiple of seven or ten. For example, Matthew’s messianic genealogy from Abraham to Jesus (Mt 1:3-21) contains three sets of fourteen (2x7) generations. Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah (Mt 1:17). Some commentators have speculated that Matthew uses fourteen generations because the numerical value of the Hebrew letters in David’s name totals 14.
Another interpretation challenge is that we will sometimes find the names of nations, regions, cities or clans intermingled with the names of individuals in national, international and tribal lists. Nations or tribes are often personified using the name of its originator or by an ancestor of its founder. Fortunately, most of these cases are readily apparent, so the most accepted rule is to interpret all names as representing an individual unless we have clear evidence otherwise.
Finally, with regard to critical methods of evaluating genealogical records, we must proceed with caution. We should not dismiss such factors as alternate spellings, multiple names for the same individual, and the transmission methods of the records themselves resulting in different versions at different stages of development. Thus, we should make every attempt to let the text speak for itself and avoid over-speculation. Just as we should not automatically assume that a genealogical list records the exact sequential descent of each member within a family line, we should not arbitrarily assume that gaps exist anywhere unless we have evidence otherwise.
At this point, we’ve addressed the primary claims of the critics and have shown that gaps in genealogical lists do not constitute an error or impugn the integrity of the Scriptures. Before concluding, we ask the question, “How can we ascertain a direct parent-child relationship vs an ancestor-descendant relation?”
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Determining Direct Parent-Child Relationships
We’ve seen from the ambiguity of the Hebrew language and from the purpose of Biblical genealogies that, in determining exact relationships between individuals, we’ll generally need to look outside the genealogy for our corroborating evidence. There are however, some exceptions that allow for confirming a direct parent-child kinship within the list itself. One case is when a child is “named”, such as Adam naming Seth and Lamech naming Noah in the Genesis 5 genealogy. A child is almost always named by the parents, usually by the father in Jewish culture (Lk 1:11-25, 57-66).
Another case is when we encounter the Hebrew word “harah”, meaning “to conceive” or to “become pregnant”. As discussed in the “Original Languages” chapter above, this term almost always designates a clear-cut mother-child relationship.
Turning to internal Biblical evidence outside of genealogical lists, we can look for interactions between the pair, associations with mutual events, people or known time periods, or for other indications within the narratives. For further illustration, see our application of some of the above methods to the Ruth 4 genealogy in the “Location of the Gap(s)” chapter of our “Was Rahab the Mother of Boaz?” article.
We can also apply external historical and evidence to the various lists. From the time of David forward, we have reliable extra-biblical records from which we can establish dates for most Biblical events and characters, but prior to David, we must use other techniques. While archaeological data can rarely confirm a direct relationship, it can sometimes support other evidence by placing events within an approximate historical timeline.
Finally, we mention two rules-of-thumb that can be consistently applied to genealogies. First, if we read that “Y” is the son of “X” outside of a genealogy, there is a higher probability that “Y” is an actual son rather than a descendant of “X” as compared to finding the same statement within a genealogy. This is not a statement about the commonality of gaps (more about this in our “conclusions”). We’re merely making a comparison between the two lists.
We can also note that, even outside a list, it is not unusual to refer to a distant descendant as the son of a famous forefather (such as Abraham, Jacob, David etc), but quite rare to do so of a lesser known ancestor. Therefore, the less famous the person listed as the father, the more likely that we’re dealing with a direct father-son relationship.
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Conclusions / Modern Applications
In this article, we’ve dealt with claims by some critics of Bible errors due to “missing” names in the genealogical records. We’ve also addressed many of the interpretation challenges associated with these lists by examining the original biblical languages and the purposes of the lists in relation the covenants in Hebrew culture. We've also seen the importance of these records to the Jewish people during Bible times, but in conclusion, we’d like to turn our attention to their significance for us today.
The interpretation of the genealogies plays a significant role in one of the most debated issues of our day, namely the age of the earth. There are two major factors in this debate between the “old-earthers” and “young-earthers”. The first is the method of how things began. Biblical Creationists hold to the biblical belief that God created all things ex nihilo. The more generic Intelligent Design position recognizes the need for a creator, but with varying specifics on person or mode. On the other end of the spectrum, those believing in Evolution have no answers as to how life began, but believe that species continue to develop into higher forms of being by natural selection. Finally, Theistic Evolutionists attempt to harmonize the Bible account with evolution. Beliefs in this group can be quite diverse but in general, most believe that God created the initial matter and natural laws that led to the first amoeba or simplest life form, then somehow guided the evolutionary process. Of course, the latter two groups must maintain an old-earth position for their theories to “work”. The majority of young earth proponents are creationists, but some can also be found in the ID camp.
The second factor in the earth-age debate and the primary issue that divides the old and the young earth positions is the interpretation of the “seven days” of creation (for those who believe in a creator). Young-earth supporters believe the plain literary meaning that the world was created in six literal 24-hour days (plus one day for “rest”). Old-earth advocates claim that the creation took place over an indefinite period of time.
Numerous volumes have been written on these topics from the perspectives of all groups, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on the genealogical related issues only.
James Ussher (1581-1656), Archbishop of Ireland was also a highly respected historian who spent several years carefully researching and writing a history of the world that was published in Latin in 1650 and translated into English in 1658, two years after his death. This impressive work, entitled The Annals of the World in the English version contained a chronological account of the major events from creation to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. During his research, he chose the death of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II (562 BC) as his anchor date, which parallels the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Judah’s King Jehoiachin (2Kg 25:27). He then worked backward using biblical and extra-biblical historical records, until he determined the year of creation as 4004 BC.
This date gained wide acceptance among theologians and historians, even finding its way into some Bible versions such as the King James. Since the publication of Ussher’s work, dozens of other scholars have re-traced the events with similar results.
Since we now have reasonably established dates back to the days of Abraham, the related genealogical debate comes down to the listings in Genesis 5 and 11. Chapter 5 records the generations from Adam to Noah, and chapter 11 provides the post-flood lineage from Noah’s son Shem to Abraham. Many view these records as being greatly telescoped, that the author’s main goal was to create two symmetrical lists of ten names each. The names are thus viewed as representative of a longer list and the numbers are included to demonstrate the longer life spans before the flood. None of these assumptions violate the nature of the Hebrew language or the purposes of genealogies, but let’s take a closer look.
In Genesis 5, we can establish direct father-son relationships for the first three generations (from Adam to Enosh) by interaction and naming of the child (Ge 4:25-26). In the NT, Jude testifies to the direct father-son relationship of the first seven, calling Enoch the “seventh from Adam” (Jude 14). According to Hebrew tradition, Methuselah died very shortly before the flood began. Some scholars believe his name means “when he dies it [the flood] is sent”. Finally, we note that that the list ends with Lamech naming Noah (Ge 5:28-29), so this leaves only one position (between Enoch and Methuselah) as a possible location for any gaps. Yet, this appears to be an unlikely scenario for an abbreviated representation of a longer listing of names. If these names and ages were truly representative, we would expect the gaps to be somewhat evenly spaced throughout.
We can rule out any gaps between the Genesis 5 and11 records by establishing a direct father-son connection between Noah and Shem from the description of the family entering the ark together (Ge 7:13). We also verify the direct relationship between Terah and Abram (Abraham) from the expanded account of the family line (Ge 11:27-32). Regarding the generations from Shem to Terah, we observe that the author employs the same form and elements of each generation (age of the father at birth of firstborn, name of the firstborn, number of years the father lived after birth of his firstborn, info on fathering other children, and the father’s total lifespan) in both the pre-flood chapter 5 and post-flood chapter 11 lists. Therefore, since it appears unlikely that any gaps exist in the former, it is reasonable to assume the same for the latter. In addition, the extra information given within the list appears to argue for direct relationships.
In summarizing the association of genealogies to the dating of the creation and other events, we should use caution when using these records without other corroborating internal or external evidence in establishing exact historical dates. That said, the pre-Abrahamic genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 appear to be without gaps, and the post Abrahamic records can be reasonably tied to historic dates at certain points despite the acknowledged gaps in the later lists, so the overall estimated biblical timeline is not greatly affected. Therefore, while we disagree with the exact dating of some of the events in Ussher's work, we believe that there is a reasonably good probability that his calculations are accurate within a few hundred years, rather than thousands or even millions of years as some critics charge.
A widely accepted rule of hermeneutics is that, when the literal interpretation of a portion of Scripture makes sense within the context and doesn't conflict with other parts of Scripture, it is usually the correct interpretation. When analyzing genealogical records, it is probably best to assume that we're dealing with direct relationships unless we have evidence otherwise, such as comparative lists, potential conflicts with known timelines, indications within the context, or other situations as outlined above. We must let the Scripture authors speak for themselves rather than attempting to twist their intended meaning to comply with our interpretation of fallible changing external data sources.
In conclusion, we mention the most important significance of these recorded lists for us today. In the genealogies, we see the hand of God carrying out His covenant promises and predetermined plan of salvation in real history through the Israeli people, the tribe of Judah, the house of David, and ultimately its consummation through Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
The genealogies show us that our Christian faith is not a blind faith, but quite the opposite. We can trust God for our future based upon what He’s done in the past. God remains faithful even when we fail. His mercies are new every morning (Lam 3:23). Even during the darkest times, when it seems that our country and even many of our churches are abandoning Him, He always raises up a remnant. Just as He comforted Elijah during his lowest moments of despair (1Kg 19:1-18), we have the same assurance that a day of deliverance is coming. Our sovereign, loving and benevolent God continues to guide history to its pre-ordained conclusion.
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- International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, The Howard-Severance Company, 1915
- Expositor's Bible Commentary, The (Mt & Lk) (NT-Messianic) Frank Gaebelein, Zondervan 1984
- New Unger's Bible Dictionary, Merrill Unger, Moody Press of Chicago, Illinois. 1988
- Holman Bible Dictionary, Holman Bible Publishers, 1991
- Tyndale Bible Dictionary, Walter Elwell, Philip Confort, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 2001
- Introduction to the Old Testament, RK Harrison, Eerdmans, 1969
- “Primeval Chronology” Green, Rev Prof William Henry, Bibliotheca Sacra (April, 1890), pg 285-303
- “The Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race” BB Warfield, Studies in Theology, 1932, pg 235-58).
- Bible Knowledge Commentary, An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Seminary Faculty, John F Walvoord, Roy B Zuck, Victor Books, A Division of Scripture Press Publications Inc, USA Canada England 1983, by Scripture Press Publications Inc, Licensed by Victor Books.
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