We discussed the creation narratives in Genesis 1-3 in a series of posts earlier this year. The questions on the proper interpretation of Genesis don’t stop with Genesis 3 however, and I received an e-mail last week with the following question:
My question regards the age of people and the Biblical account. Is there any scientific evidence one way or another to promote or refute Methuselah being 969 years old? If evolution was the way God brought us about, is it possible that some of those people could have lived that long?
This is a common question – and one I think worth discussion today. To get straight to the point, I don’t think that people lived that long, I don’t think that the genealogies are literal history, and I don’t think that the function or intent of the Biblical genealogies in Genesis (or elsewhere) was to provide literal, historical chronologies. I reach this conclusion not as a skeptic, not because I devalue the authority of scripture, but from a position of faith, valuing the Bible as the inspired Word of God, and with a strong desire to spread the gospel today. I reach this conclusion in part because the evidence of the text itself demands it.
What do you think – are the genealogies literal history? Why or why not?
Why do I say not literal? I could give scientific reasons, and certainly there are strong scientific reasons to question lifespans nearing a thousand years. There are also archaeological and historical reasons. But the primary reasons I doubt the literal historical nature of these genealogies are not scientific or even historical. The primary reasons come simply from a careful reading of the text itself.
First – the numbers.
Lets step back and take a different look. I am a scientist and a professor. Suppose a student included the following data in a lab report.
If a student brought me a table of data like this as part of a a lab report I would send the student before the Assistant Dean on a charge of academic dishonesty – unless they confessed first. The student wasn’t even smart about it. If one of my graduate students included the table in a paper and I published it, I would be censured. The verdict would be immediate and unquestioned – because the data are clearly fabricated. Scientific papers have been discredited and retracted because of such clearly unnatural patterns.
Why do I say this? Because the first two columns are not random in the last digit. There is no way that an “honest” data set from the lab would contain the numbers in this chart. There should be a random distribution of 0-9 in the last digit. Yet in the data here there is an evident pattern in the last digit based on an underlying pattern using 0, 2, 5, and 7.
The odds of such a pattern in an “honest” experiment are minuscule. It is not even worth considering unless the student can provide a systematic explanation for the result.
These numbers, of course, come from the genealogy in Genesis 5. This is part of a table reproduced from Kent Sparks’ book God’s Word in Human Words (p. 217).
So – one reason that I don’t consider the genealogies as literal history is because the numbers do not support that interpretation. The numbers are not natural. They were chosen to match a pattern. We don’t know exactly what the pattern was, but it is essentially certain that the original author did not intend the time spans to be literal, historical, chronological numbers. These numbers served a function, there was a systematic reason for them. And, it is probably not coincidence that 5 and 7 figure strongly in the pattern. These were important numbers in ancient Israelite thinking. I suggest that the purpose of the genealogy was not even to accurately reflect longer lifespans in ancient history. I see no reason to take the long life spans literally.
Second – other patterns in the genealogies.
Bill Arnold in his commentary on Genesis notes that the genealogies of Cain in Gen 4 and Seth in Gen 5 contain remarkable similarities, both begin with Adam, both have ten names, both contain Enoch and Lamech, and both highlight Enoch for special notation. (p. 84)
Kent Sparks in GWHW suggests that the author of Gen 5 used the genealogy in Gen 4 as a pattern. These are variations of the same genealogy only interchanging one pair of names. (p. 83-84; 216-218).
Arnold also notes:
Israelite genealogies tend to highlight especially noteworthy ancestors by placing them in the seventh position in the list, and at times in the fifth position of a genealogical order. Such a literary convention was not followed rigidly, but allowed ancient authors to focus didactic efforts on one or sometimes two positions in the genealogical tree.Thus Cain’s genealogy was segmented at the seventh generation, Lamech who was lifted for special treatment, and noted for exacting vengeance “seventy-sevenfold” (Lamech, 4:19-24). In Seth’s genealogy, Lamech is moved to the ninth position, … So unlike Cain’s genealogy and its interest in the cultural innovations of Lamech’s family, Gen 5 is more interested in lifting Enoch for special treatment in the seventh position, and culminates in the tenth position at Noah. (p. 87)
Once again – the genealogies are present to provide historical connection, but are arranged according to a pattern. This was not intended by the author to be literal-historical.
Third – The functional significance of the genealogies.
John Walton in his NIVAC commentary on Genesis is fairly traditional. He appears to take both the genealogies and the dates literally. He points out that attempts to interpret the numbers literally, but in other than base 10, or to interpret a year differently (a “moon” for example) fail because these would have Mahalel and Enoch begetting first sons at an unacceptably young age. Certainly a simple scale factor doesn’t suffice, but as we saw above – neither does a literal interpretation. Walton does point out a functional significance in the genealogies however.
In Cain’s line we find record of the first building of a city as well as the earliest development of the arts of civilization. … The arts civilization include animal domestication, invention of musical instruments, and the development of metal technology. (p. 276)
In Genesis the arts of civilization are attributed to mankind fulfilling the mandate to subdue and rule the earth. In Ancient Near East literature these developments are typically attributed to the gods. One of the functions of the genealogy of Gen 4 is to give an account of the development of human civilization in human terms.
To sum it up…
The significance of 5 and 7, the nonrandom numbers, the similarity in the lines of Cain and Seth, the etiological function of the text… these are among the reasons I don’t think that the genealogies are intended to be literal-historical accounts. The author didn’t lie – he used a legitimate genre of his time, in the manner of his time. The genealogies are key literary components of the story of Genesis, they relate key historical and theological truths. But…the genealogies of Gen 4 and Gen 5 are not and were never intended by the original author to be literal historical accounts of the generations of Adam.
What do you think?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.
If you wish to comment please see Jesus Creed.