The online Bible teaching ministry of John Brand

Genesis 5: The First Biblical Genealogy

Genesis 5 brings us the first of numerous genealogical lists in the Bible and it’s worth taking a few moments to consider it.

5:1-2

The opening, introductory verses contain an expression, with a slight variation in this case, frequently found in Genesis. It is one of the 10 incidences of the “toledoth formula”, from the Hebrew word toledoth meaning “story” or “account”, i.e. “And these are the descendants of..” or “This is the story of…”.  You’ll find these in Genesis 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12; 25:19; 36:1; 37:2.

5:3-32

We need to comment on the reliability of this important genealogical record.  It is almost taken for granted today that the genealogical records of Genesis contain gaps, and that they are characterised by what is termed fluidity; “the practice of omitting names from or adding names to a genealogy, or to the practice of changing the spelling of names. When omissions are made, fluidity results in compression; that is, a shortened list. Sometimes omissions result in symmetry; that is, an equal number of names in each section of a divided genealogy.”

In summary, the arguments in favour of fluidity appear to be:

  • The ten-generation symmetrical form of the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11 are stylized, so it is said, in the tradition of ancient Mesopotamian genealogies.
  • The actual recorded lives of the patriarchs overlap too much to make sense in accepting the genealogy without any omissions.
  • The frequently repeated formula that ‘so-and-so fathered so-and-so’ need not be strictly chronological because the term ‘fathered’ or ‘begat’ (Heb: yalad) can be used in a trans-generational  way, and, in fact, it clearly is used that way elsewhere in the Scriptures, as in Matthew 1.  
  • The earth is, according to alleged, extra-biblical, evidence, much older than can be computed from a non-fluid reading of Genesis 5 and 11.

None of the above, however, is fully persuasive and certainly not conclusive.   In favour of a strictly chronological, non-fluid, record, it can be argued that:

  • The most natural, objective reading of the text would suggest that both genealogies are precise and correct and they are more detailed than other genealogies.
  • The recorded relationships from Adam to Seth, and from Terah to Abraham, can be supported by other verses outside these genealogies, and the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 indicate direct father/son relationships.
  • Jude 14 describes Enoch as “the seventh from Adam”, confirming the strict, non-fluid chronology of Genesis 5.
  • While it is true that yalad can refer to a trans-generation connection, it doesn’t necessarily refer to that and can refer to a direct father/son relationship.
  • The added detail of the age of the father at the birth of the son given in the genealogies suggests that chronology is important to the genealogy.

Another argument has been posited to differentiate between what have been described as the non-chronological genealogies (those where there is some fluidity and omissions) and the chronological genealogies (those where there are no gaps or omissions).

This approach says that there are, in fact, two genres of genealogies, one which is aimed at establishing someone’s entitlement to a certain position, office or inheritance, the other aimed at establishing an unbroken chronology.   The genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11, with their specific numbers and ages would place them in the second category or genre.

The repeated formulaic expression of these verses has been described as, “the solemn toll of the patriarchal funeral bell”.

The formula follows the pattern:

  • number of years lived
  • fathered next entry on list
  • lived number of years more
  • total number of years lived
  • then death is recorded

There is, of course, the glorious exception of Enoch.  After the birth of his son it does not say “and he lived” but that he “walked with God”, and not “and he died” but that “God took him away” because “he walked with God”.

We need, of course, to note the longevity of life spans with all except three living in excess of 900 years. Clearly, the full effects of the curse of death had not yet fully impacted.

Also, note the expression related to Seth (5:3) being in Adam’s likeness not God’s, stressing the inherent sinful nature of humankind.

[1] Freeman, T. R. (2004). A New Look at the Genesis 5 and 11 Fluidity Problem. Andrew University. pp 259, 286

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