The online Bible teaching ministry of John Brand

Chronological Conundrums (1)

I came across an interesting chronological conundrum in my studies that somehow I have managed to overlook in my previous studies in these passages and I thought I would share it with you, as well as others I come across on my journey. I do so because although some of the issues may seem a little pedantic at times, and are certainly not earth-shattering in their significance, they do provide illustrative teaching points about how and why we handle Scripture.

This first conundrum relates to dates surrounding the birth of Shem, the eldest son of Noah.

The Problem

As I work my way through genealogical references in the early pages of Genesis – and there are many of them – I am struck by the absence of a specific reference as to how old Noah was when Shem was born. We do not have a statement such as we have for Shem himself in Genesis 11:10-11 – “When Shem was 100 years old, he fathered Arpachshad two years after the flood. And Shem lived after he fathered Arpachshad 500 years and had other sons and daughters.” There are several of them in Genesis 11, and also, of course, in Genesis 5, but all we have in Noah’s case is, “After Noah was 500 years old he fathered Ahem, Ham, and Japheth” (5:32).

But, as we have seen, when we get to 11:10 we are given a date reference, not based on Noah’s age, but on the date of the flood, so now we have something to go on. “When Shem was 100 years old, he fathered Arpachshad two years after the flood”.

The Flood

We know from the precise language of 7:6, that Noah was “six hundred years old” when the flood started; though it is expressed slightly differently in 7:11 where we read, “In the sixth hundredth year of Noah’s life”. We also know from the previous genealogical data in 5:28-29 that Noah would have been born in 3119 BC. So we now know that the flood started in the year 2519 BC.

From Genesis 10:10 we know that Shem was 100 years old when, “two years after the flood” he fathered Arpachshad, so Arpachshad must have been born in 2517 or 2516, meaning that Shem was born in 2617 or 2616.

Now, there is some very slight uncertainty still, which is why I say 2517 or 2516. You see, the question is, does “after the flood” mean after the start of the flood on “the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second month” (7:11), or does it mean after the end of the flood, “In the six hundred and first year…In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month” (8:14)?

Note also, as we have seen, the difference in language between 7:6, which says that Noah was “six hundred years old” when the flood started, and 7:11 where we read, “In the sixth hundredth year of Noah’s life”. So had Noah turned 600 yet or was he still, technically speaking, 599?

Bringing all that together, I am going to plump for Noah being 600 in 2519 BC, with Shem having been born in 2616 and Arpachshad being born in 2516, since, “after the flood” would seem to refer to the end of the flood rather than the beginning. But once again, I am not going to fall out with anyone over one year in four and a half thousand!

The Lessons

So what do we learn from this exercise?

First, we have to bear in mind that we are reading back into a culture and original language that is very different from our own, and so not impose on it our expectations or interpretations, but tease out what was the intention of the original author and what would have been understood by the original reader.

Ancient Hebrews had a different way of referencing time and events than we do. For example, when the biblical text says, in English, “Noah was six hundred years old” (7:6), the literal reading of the original Hebrew is that he was “a son of 600 years”, which means that Noah was not 600 years old as we understand it and reference time, but that he was in his 600th year.

I am richly blessed with two precious grand-daughters. The youngest is, as I write, 10 months old. She is in her first year, but we won’t consider her to be one year old until her first birthday. And when that day comes, her second year will begin but we will still refer to her as being one for another 364 days.

By contrast, for the patriarchs, their years were not reckoned by birthdays, but by beginning each year of age at the beginning of the calendar year. We know that it has been the custom in the Far East for as long as we can trace to reckon a child to be a year old in their first calendar year, and to be two years old on the next New Year’s Day. This means a child born, by our calendar on December 29th, for example, would be counted as one until the 31st and as two on January 1st, though by our reckoning they are only 3 days old!

At the end of the day, let’s be honest, it doesn’t really matter; after all what is a year in four and a half thousand years between friends. Nonetheless, it is a useful reminder to us to be careful and humble in our handling of this sort of biblical data, and not impose on it our cultural and linguistic norms.

The second lesson we learn is that all of this sort of study and research reinforces and underlines the integrity of the biblical text. There are, as you will be aware, many, even professing believers, that would have us believe that these opening chapters of Genesis are myth and fable and are certainly not reliable historical records. However, the more I read these pages of Scripture, I am struck by the amazing historical and geographical and chronological details that God has put in there; reinforcing the fact that these pages should be understood as literal historical narrative and, because, like every word of the Bible, they are “breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16), they are true and accurate.

Now, just for a moment, let’s go back about 100 years to 5:32 which is really quite non-specific – “After Noah was 500 years old he fathered Shem, Ham, and Japheth”. The text does not say “When Noah was 500 years old” but “after“, so all we can say is that while we know that by the time he was 600 years old, at the start of the flood, Noah had three sons, he didn’t have any before he was 500, unless, of course, he had some who did not survive, but we can’t – from this verse – be more precise and that raises a couple more chronological conundrums.

You see, I have always worked on the basis that Shem was the oldest of Noah’s three sons, because that’s the way they are usually referred to – see 5:32 and 9:18. But that is something of an assumption. But, is Shem simply mentioned first because of his subsequent importance in the Hebrew line as we see in Genesis 10; and what about 9:24 which raises the question as to whether Ham was actually the youngest of the three, and so the usually favoured age order that I have referenced may not be accurate. What happens if Shem, Ham and Japheth were actually triplets?

But’s a chronological conundrum for another day!

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