Did people really live 900+ years?
Who cares who begot who? Can we get to the action?!
Perhaps the most boring genre in the Bible is the genealogy – or at least it can seem so from our twenty first century perspective. They raise questions at times – especially for those who want to take the Bible seriously – but they don’t make for exciting reading. The author/editor of Genesis, on the other hand, clearly valued the genealogy as a key part of the story he was telling. There are a number of genealogies in Genesis each with an important purpose in the story line. The first of these come in Genesis 4:17-5:23 relating the descendants first of Cain and then of Adam’s third son, Seth.
How should we read these genealogies? What is the take-home message?
Bishop Ussher in the mid 1600’s famously used the biblical genealogies to October 23rd, 4004 BC. This was unfortunate. Among other things, it represents a misunderstanding of the literary form and structure of genealogies in the ancient Near East. In fairness to the bishop, this isn’t something he could have been expected to know in the mid 1600’s, but it is clear today. Tremper Longmann III (Genesis in the Story of God Bible Commentary) writes:
Not all these genealogies are of the same type or purpose, but no matter what precise type of genealogy we must remember that these are ancient Near eastern, not modern Western genealogies.
… Ancient genealogies are fluid; that is they can change order to reflect contemporary social and political realities. They can also skip generations rendering them useless for trying to compute how much actual time is covered by the genealogy. According to Wilson, “genealogies are not normally created for historical purposes. They are not intended to be historical records. rather in the Bible, as well as in the ancient Near Eastern literature and in the anthropological material, genealogies seem to have been created for domestic, political-jural, and religious purposes, and historical information is preserved in the genealogies only incidentally.” (p, 94, quoting Robert R. Wilson, Genealogy and History in the Biblical World p. 199)
Nor is the duration of time in the Bible always reported in a modern Western literal sense. As an example, the common occurrence of 40 days or years in a wide range of contexts is significant as a long time, but not always (probably not usually) intended with mathematical precision. Forty is the symbolic number for a generation.
The lifetimes reported in the list of Seth’s descendants are significant, but unlikely to be quantitatively accurate. The numbers themselves tell us this as they follow a pattern that is far from random. I posted on this a number of years ago in Genesis 4-5 – Biblical Genealogies. Where the numbers came from and what exactly they signify is lost in the mists of time. It is important to point out that this doesn’t diminish from the text as inspired, we are not searching for mistakes or errors that undermine the authority. 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, more importantly, theological truths. But…the genealogies of Gen 4 and Gen 5 are not and likely were never intended by the original author to be literal historical accounts of the generations of Adam. It is theologically significant that none of the lifespans exceed 1000 years, it is theologically significant that the lifespans are shorter following the flood.
Beyond the numbers, the genealogies are significant. There are similarities in the genealogies of Cain and Seth that probably serve to compare and contrast two lines that serve or stray from God. Cain’s line is distinguished by city building, tending livestock, the origin of music and metal working. It ends with Lamech, his children, and his boast of an escalation of violence, death for a wound (Gen 4:23). Bill Arnold (Genesis (New Cambridge Bible Commentary)) summarizes:
The escalation of violence in the world is captured in the limerick, “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (v. 24) The linguistic links with v. 15 appear to emphasize that the principle of justice appropriate to the crime is forsaken by Lamech’s generation. Yahweh could be expected to exact punishment against those who harm Cain, but Lamech’s irrational self-defense is inhumane. (p. 81)
Longman agrees and noted that “from the perspective of the narrator, people are not getting better as time progresses; they are worsening.” (p. 97) The fact that the first city, nomadic herding, music, and metalworking are assigned to Cain’s line may be “a reminder that there is a dark side to civilization.”(p. 101) John Walton (The NIV Application Commentary Genesis) doesn’t attach as much significance to the arts of civilization in Cain’s line. “There is nothing to reflect rebellion here, only an indication that even Cain’s line continues to enjoy the blessing by subduing and ruling.” (p. 277) The theological significance may lie only in the fact that these achievements are assigned to men rather than to gods as in the Mesopotamian literature. But the boast of Lamech is another matter. “The text has moved from unrepentant Cain to defiant Lamech. Violence is glorified, … The human situation is degenerating.” (p. 278)
In contrast, the line of Seth follows God. In 4:26 we read: “To Seth also a son was born, and he named him Enosh. At that time people began to invoke the name of the Lord.” This sets the stage. Bill Arnold notes:
Cain’s line established cultural and societal conventions for humanity, whereas Seth’s line is noted for religious contributions. To invoke (literally “call upon”) Yahweh’s name is likely a reference to the institution of public worship among all nations and the development of religious practices in general compared to the other achievements of civilization. (p. 82)
Whether the arts of civilization are intended to contrast good and evil or not, it is clear that Seth’s line is connected with the worship of God. The pattern is simple, a man is born, has a son, has more children, and dies. Only Enoch and Lamech are singled out in the genealogy of Seth before the segment ends at Noah and his sons. Enoch lived 365 years, and the text continues (v. 24): “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him.“
The same terminology, “walked with God” (iterative Hithpael of hlk) describes Noah as an especially righteous individual (6:9), and connotes a life of consistent fellowship with God. The faithful devotion of this simple ‘walk with God’ is precisely the piety fostered by the Old Testament, in contrast to the harsh legalism so often associated with it. Enoch shows that there is more to life than living and dying; there is the possibility of consistent and steady relationship with God. (Arnold, p. 88)
Lamech, the grandson of Enoch became the father of Noah saying “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands.”(v. 29)
The genealogies move the story along and set the stage for the next major scene. And they leads us to the flood.
What message should we take from the generations Cain and Seth?
Are the lifespans important? If so, how?
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