Genesis 4-5 – Biblical Genealogies (RJS)

Genesis 4-5 – Biblical Genealogies (RJS) April 14, 2009

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 notWhy 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

When you look at this table what do you see?

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.

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 (on the order of 1 in 100 million or less see comments below).  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]

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  • Brian

    Do you know what the hypothesis test is behind the 1 in 100 million claim? I am suspicious that the law of small numbers is at work here. I don’t really doubt the inference being made, but the calculation has me wondering.

  • Travis Greene

    Thanks for explaining the chart, because when I looked at it I saw nothing. This is why we need more interaction between sciency and non-sciency people (please excuse my highly technical terms).
    One quibble. “In Genesis the arts of civilization are attributed to mankind fulfilling the mandate to subdue and rule the earth.” I think Genesis is more ambivalent about civilization and technology than that. The invention of bricks for the Tower of Babel, for instance, doesn’t seem to be a good development. And part of the story of Cain and Abel may be the violence of sedentary farmers against nomadic herdsmen.

  • RJS

    There are 20 independent numbers – age at birth of first son and years after first son, the total of course is not independent – so we disregard that. Consider flipping a coin 20 times – what are the odds of getting 20 straight heads? In an unbiased statistical sample the odds of only 0,2,5,7 is somewhat lower than the odds of 20 straight heads because the set is 4/10 possible or 0.4 per selection not 1/2 or 0.5 per selection as for the coin flip.
    Of course it could be “just luck” but I don’t think so.
    I think that the pattern is more significant than just statistics. The digits 0,2,5,7 are not just any set of four – but this is speculation, I have no clue what the underlying pattern is.

  • RJS

    Travis – Good point, I likely misstated here. After all, the development is in the line of Cain not Seth. But the intent or function of the genealogy is to explain – it is etiological – and this was really the point I was trying to make.

  • Brian

    The probability of a particular pattern showing up is going to be small, but the probability of some pattern or other apparently showing up is going to be comparatively high. We could swap all of the 7’s with 6’s and get a different pattern, and so on. So I’m still suspicious that the law of small numbers is driving the 1 in 100 million, rather than a properly formulated hypothesis test.

  • Good post. I think, though, that there is a problem with juxtaposing “literal” and “historical.” The genealogies can be be “historical” without being “literal.” Many evangelical scholars recognize the problems you mention with the long life spans and also recognize the numerical patterns in the genealogies, and conclude that the genealogies are a kind of historical genre that nevertheless has to be understood in terms of how ancient people told this sort of history.
    For example as to the long lives of the antedulivian patriarchs, some people argue for the non-base-10 system in ways that answer at least some of Walton’s objections. For example, see Carol Hill’s 2003 article in PSCF (
    As to the numerical patterns in the genealogies, pretty much all conservative evangelical scholars, aside from young earth creationists, agree that the genealogies are selective and have been edited for theological purposes. (See, e.g., the discussion in John Jefferson Davis, “The Frontiers of Science and Faith: Examining Questions from the Big Bang to the End of the Universe”; C. John Collins, “Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary.”) In this sense, conservative evangelicals (again, setting aside YECs) agree that the geneaologies aren’t “literal.” However, in this view, the geneologies are “historical” in that they refer to real people who existed in a real genealogical lineage.
    In my view, it gives too much away simply to say the genealogies are non-historical. The Bible places great weight on the notion that the story of redemption involves God’s real interaction with real people in human history. It’s not just a particular notion of inerrancy that’s at stake; it’s the truthfulness of the story of God’s redeeming acts in human history. Would you commit your life, fortune and future to a narrative that’s only edifying fiction?
    I think the better approach, the one many thoughtful evangelical scholars are coming to, is to move away from these dichotomies of “literal-historical” vs. “fictive,” and instead to probe more deeply into the ways in which “history” is a literary genre that allows for creative, intentional sifting, selection, and shaping.

  • Dave Leigh

    RJS, I have no problem with the idea that the numbers and genealogies in Genesis involved symbolism and convention to communicate truth that goes beyond the surface meaning of the text. And Genesis is certainly a book laden with beautiful patterns. But isn’t is possible that the divine author of the textual patterns might have also directed the course of salvation history to follow patterns as well?
    In science we speak of “evidence of design” when we find complexity and patterns in a strand of DNA, for example. If the same God who leaves patterns in the cosmos as his finger prints is also involved in directing a salvation thread in historical events, should we be surprised when patterns appear there as evidence of his presence?
    So what I’m saying is that I don’t see the lack of randomness as reason to disregard literalness. There may be other reasons, as for example the length of lifespans. But if the text and events in history come from and/or are shaped by the same author, I’m not seeing the randomness argument.
    I do agree, however, that your students should not attempt to employ this argument in defense of their lab results. 😉

  • RJS

    The 1 in 100 million is a rough, rather unsophisticated estimate and may be an overstatement or understatement. I am trying to get a better estimate or prove my estimate rigorously. But – there is still a distinctly non-random pattern, not just luck of the draw in a small sample.

  • Brian

    We agree that the list is likely not random. It is just a question of the modeling. The probability of no apparent pattern showing up is going to be much less than 1-(1E-8).

  • Bob Brague

    RJS, you probably already know what I think.
    To my admittedly somewhat jaundiced eye, you seem to be just a little bit disingenuous.
    Let’s see, God gave ten commandments, Egypt experienced ten plagues, there were ten lost tribes of Israel, the sun went backward ten degrees, the parables of Jesus tell of ten talents and even ten virgins, oh, and Jesus healed ten lepers, I believe….
    Obviously these numbers are not random, and so, using your criteria, we can dispense with them all. We don’t have to believe any of them.
    Who decides what we believe?
    You can believe what you want to, and I will believe what I want to.
    Perhaps explaining Genesis to the masses is not your calling. I’ll bet there’s a good job waiting in Las Vegas for someone who is so good with numbers.
    I expect that you and Scot will say I’m being unnecessarily mean. I don’t mind. My skin is almost as thick as my head.
    I tire of these posts.

  • ChrisB

    Are we really doubting the numbers are meant to be taken literally because “they don’t look real” or because we have preconceived notions that people simply don’t live that long?
    “The numbers are not natural.”
    Rounding, anyone?

  • Luke

    You do a fantastic job of explaining everything in a very coherent and sophisticated manner. If I didn’t know any better, I would say that you were an OT scholar! I’ve really enjoyed this series and find it very helpful and relevant to what many of us face and will face on a day to day basis. So thank you for that. I’m also glad to see you reading some very good scholarship and interacting with OT scholars as opposed to scientists. I am no scientist (I’m a seminary student) and I don’t think I’ve disagreed with you yet. Well done.
    Don’t read the posts on here anymore if you tire of them. You mistake a careful reading of the text for a western, post-enlightenment, literal, American hermeneutic that has been the cause of this mess in the first place. The ancient didn’t think the way we think (analytically), so I’m sorry to burst that bubble. You ever been to an eastern, more primitive culture? They’re just not obsessed with quantitative values like we are and things are more figurative. Numerical values have more meaning than being a simple statistic. But, perhaps interacting intelligently with others is not your calling. The fundamentalist KJV-only church down the street needs a pastor, and I’ll be sure to put your name down.

  • Ron Newberry

    Good post. About time we got honest with Genesis 1-11. These chapters are not historical accounts. Good post.

  • dopderbeck

    Bob — I note that yours is post #10!! 🙂
    Chris (#11) — a big problem is that the human body simply isn’t designed to last for hundreds of years. The stuff we’re made of naturally wears out. And there is lots of evidence in the archeological and paleontological record showing that early humans didn’t live for hundreds of years. I’d agree that God could miraculously have sustained the lifespans of some particular people with whom He interacted after the fall and before the flood, and perhaps that’s what the Biblical accounts reflect, but it seems at least as likely to me that these numbers have some symbolic value.
    Note also that the Mesopotamian King Lists, which bear some very interesting parallels to the Genesis genealogies, include extraordinarily long life spans for some of the pre-flood Mesopotamian Kings — some over 25,000 years! (Like the Hebrew scriptures, the Mesopotamian sources tend to divide proto-history into pre-flood and post-flood periods, theirs being the flood portrayed in the Epic of Gilgamesh). So, there is a fascinating parallel — an epic period of proto-history, a monumental flood, and the “normal” post-flood period. Maybe this reflects both some common underlying historical referents and some common underlying literary-symbolic presentation of those referents.

  • SPSS

    A quick Kruskall-Wallis test in SPSS reveals that the final digit of the Biblical ages matches the distribution of the final digits in the ages of the first ten presidents of the US. There is no statistically significant difference between the two distributions.
    The author should not say that the distribution is skewed without showing a statistical test which shows that it is…

  • Travis Greene

    Bob @ 10, “Obviously these numbers are not random, and so, using your criteria, we can dispense with them all. We don’t have to believe any of them.”
    Well, they’re not random. Even for the ones that literally happened (which even under the most literal reading would not include the 10 virgins in the parable), the number has deeply significant meaning. Or is it an accident that Jesus chose 12 apostles? And does recognizing the significance of the number mean he didn’t really choose 12?

  • Carl Holmes

    I am lame when it comes to the textual criticisms that have all been mentioned here, but fascinated as well. I am not overly familiar with the arguements for or against the literal interpretation of the ages. But in my humble opinion longer living would make sense, especially for the ones God set aside a Godly heritage from.
    When Noah and the Patriarchs were on the earth the population was small. Longer life for the “good ones” implied more children. Those children would pass the faith onto the next generation and they would “be fruitful and multiply”. As the population of the earth grew the grace needed to live hundreds of years was not needed as much. We had lots of people starting to roam around the earth.
    One way or the other God is soverign. He multiplied the life of those who lived long. I would be a pretty poor patriarch because the heaven I know has me wanting to be there one day. Making me wait 800 years just does not sit well with me.
    I know it is just two cents, but I think calming the criticism and taking it as what it is, God miraculously sustaining life, is a good place to be.

  • RJS

    There is a big difference between a sample of 10 and a sample of 20. I wouldn’t have made any claim here if the sample was only 10.
    And give some kind of a name rather than the moniker of a statistical analysis package.

  • Bob Brague

    Luke (#12), concluding that I am fundamentalist and KJV-only and worthy of serving only in Kentucky (and won’t Michael Spencer be surprised?) is rather like my concluding that you must be anti-feminist and chauvinistic because you leapt to defend Ms. RJS’s views.
    Which is to say, totally wrong.
    Ms. RJS is capable of defending herself and does quite nicely on this blog.
    Travis (#16), I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make. Couldn’t you tell my tongue was in my cheek? I know they’re not random and I am not advocating dispensing with accepting them at face value. I think we agree. Unless I’m wrong, of course.

  • RJS, slightly off-tpic and I’m no mathematician, doesn’t the odds of any of these 4 numbers appearing multiply by 4/10 each time a new data is added. Which means by the time the data is 20 in size, there is a 0.000000011 chance of continued integrity as opposed to .000105 for only 10 data in the sample. The 10 sample set is therefore 9,5454 times more likely to occur than the 20 sample set.

  • RJS

    Both Brian and “SPSS” are right – I need to make the statistical case more rigorous. But the comparison given by “SPSS” isn’t relevant.

  • Fascinating post. I seem to remember that Hebrew did not have numbers in the Arabic sense. Letters stood for numerical values. I wonder if the numbers may have signified something alphabetically?
    I can also tell you that demographic/economic studies I’ve seen that try to estimate life expectancy at birth show 30 years dating back to at least 10,000 BCE. Only very recently in human history has that changed. The low life expectancy was do in part to very high infant mortality, probably 1 out of 4 births. Once you hit one year you had a much better chance of living well past thirty.

  • MarkE

    Thanks for the time you put into your posts, RJS. I don’t grow tired of them.

  • MarkE

    The probability of a random number being 0, 2, 5, or 7 is .4. Assuming no special pattern within these numbers, the overall probability of 20 random numbers having one of these 4 numbers is less than .000000011.
    Your estimate was not far off.

  • Travis Greene

    Bob @ 19,
    We don’t agree. My poorly-conveyed point was that your point makes no sense. Jesus did heal lepers, but the fact that 10 specifically is the number used is deeply symbolic, and probably a deliberate choice on the part of the gospel-writer. Recognizing that doesn’t mean the denial of Jesus’ healing activity.
    And the gospels are a different sort of literature than Genesis, or the prophets, or the royal histories. It’s all divinely inspired, but it does violence to the text, not to mention people, to insist that reading Genesis mytho-historically rather than at absolute face value (always our modern face value, not what the text would have meant to the people who wrote it) is equivalent to disbelieving in the 10 lost tribes, or in the stories of Jesus. That’s the same old specious argument that if you question young earth creationism, then you really might as well just throw the whole Bible out the window and be a nihilist.

  • Percival

    I’m also NOT tired of your posts. Keep them up!

  • AHH

    The statistics of the numbers of these ages, and their unnaturally abundant use of numbers that were special in Mesopotamian culture (7, 12, 60, etc.) is discussed, along with other points relevant to this post, in the article “Meking Sense of the Numbers of Genesis” published in 2003 in the ASA’s journal “Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith”:
    Without reading closely, I see a “one in a billion” and a “one in about one-half million” statement for different aspects of this pattern.
    This is especially interesting because the author Carol Hill (a geologist) is an avowed Biblical literalist. She has written other things that, in my opinion, are pretty contorted in their efforts to make Scripture “line up” with science (for example with regard to the flood) and does not like figurative interpretations or the idea of divine accommodation. So the fact that someone with this outlook comes to the conclusion that the age numbers are symbolic suggests that the evidence is pretty strong.

  • Interesting post.., but I get very concerned with discussions like this without any real factual support. It is conjecture – no? I mean we don’t really know the author’s intent do we really? Would this stance hold up in a court of law?
    So.., the crux of my point is along the lines of Bob in #10 – “What do we believe?” I have been having discussions lately with my brother in law and others and on the surface it appears that we should question everything in the Bible? So…, then as Pilate said, “What is truth”? Dare I say that the bible was then allowed to be put together to confuse or deceive us; to distract us from from the truth of God/Jesus? I’m all for knowing things, but creating doubt and confusion can also be a very slippery slope – no?
    Until we know for sure or we have strong factual data then I think it is dangerous to use works like “I believe” or “I know” and then state something as fact. By the way RJS – I love your posts, I just get confused occasionally.
    Luke #12 – That comment to Bob was not filled with Love or Grace at all, and apparently way off the mark too! Beware the Plankeye brother!

  • Peggy

    RJS and all,
    I’m not “tired” of these posts, but I do confess to being regularly confused. Sigh….
    What is God saying, then, after the flood when the age of mankind is reduced to 120 years?
    …just wondering.

  • Brian

    It is ironic that numbers are getting thrown around in the same way that YEC people often do. Namely, “Such and such a combination is highly unlikely, and therefore not random.”
    The problem with this kind of thinking is often that the occurrence of unusual events is not unusual. There are so many possible unusual events that some of them are bound to occur. It is easy to fool ourselves by latching onto unusual events and inferring order where there may not be any. The statistical experiments and the inferences that are drawn from them must be framed carefully.

  • RJS

    Yes and no …
    How many of us would conclude that it was luck if all of the numbers ended in a five or a zero?
    The answer is that none of us would – even though unusual events can occur. We’d assume that there was rounding…a familiar pattern in our lives.
    Much of what we do is look for statistically significant patterns – and you were right that I needed to be more rigorous about it in terms of a probability.
    But the argument is not simply statistical – as AHH points out. It is an unusual pattern that makes use of “special” numbers in the relevant culture – and I tried to make that point, although not terribly well.

  • RJS, I also enjoy your work here.
    I find the quick thumbnail statistical analysis interesting. The analogy of graduate student to biblical genealogies doesn’t work for me, though. I took calculus-based physics in my undergrad and we dealt with simplified problems there that would never make the cut for graduate bio-chemical-wonky-RJS-ish stuff (like, solve for how fast the car was going but you can just forget the coefficient of friction of this or that because it would equalize out in this particular case – or something like that – it’s been over 10 years). That doesn’t invalidate the course or the instructor because it is different material for a different reason.
    OT stories often show evidence of being intended as oral histories. Numbers are often rounded, similar words are repeated, plays on words, mnemonic devices to make a story easier to remember, etc. The fact that these numbers do not seem natural as exact ages does not directly lead to the conclusion that they are unhinged from objective reality. Perhaps they are rounded or moved up and down a few years to make it easier to remember or say. I don’t know what is common among oral histories for lists like this but such constraints may possibly apply here.
    Editing the list so that it is shows a certain symmetry also does not create an either-or between literal or fabricated.
    In my mind, there is a difference between someone saying they did something at age 18 when they were actually 19, or that they were 35 when they were actually 32.5 years old. It would be very different to drastically alter the facts and invent characters or add or shave off centuries to their ages just for rhetorical effect. If I could go back in time and talk to the original audience and discover that they expected no correlation between ages recounted in the genealogies and the actual ages of the people involved, then I would attempt to adjust my expectations to match theirs as quickly as possible.
    But these people did care about genealogies, ancestry, and the like. Their society was agrarian, not industrial (days and seasons, not hours, minutes, seconds). By our own conventions, in normal conversation, we will recount that a baby was born the ninth of October. We care to the month, day, year but usually not to hour, minute, second, millisecond. My instinct is that OT Jews cared about an appropriate level of accuracy that matched an agrarian, oral culture. But my instincts have been wrong often enough…

  • Michael W. Kruse

    Here is the central issue for me. I’ve stated before, if we came across magical trees and talking serpents in any other literature of the past or present, we would presume that the story was fictional or some literary device was being used. But because the story is in the Bible, and we must come to Bible stories with a default “fact-for-fact” recounting of historical events unless someone can prove otherwise, we blind ourselves to the seemingly obvious conclusion that we are dealing with an ancient genre of literature.
    When Luke writes:
    Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” Luke 1:1-4
    Clearly we have a genre in Luke that comes closer to our idea of historical reporting, although even here events are not presented in chronological order, but in an order to make a theological point.
    What genre are the stories of Genesis 1-11? How are genealogies used in that genre? Dopderbeck points to the Mesopotamian King Lists back in comment #14. There is a parallel in the Ancient Near East literature for this type of tabulation. Genesis 1-11 makes no claim to be a Luke-like book. When such fantastical tales are present, why do we presume that it is Luke-like literature?

  • RJS

    When I work through the statistics more carefully:
    For a sample of 20 independent measures:
    The odds of getting those four digits (0,5,2,7) in a random sample is 1 in 92,117,438 (about a hundred million).
    The odds of getting only four digits (but any four) is 1 in 438,654 (about a half a million).
    If we drop the sample size to 10 (as suggested by SPSS #15)
    The odds of getting those four digits is 1 in 12,217.
    The odds of getting only four digits (but any four) is 1 in 58.
    The odds of getting only four digits in a sample of 20 is pretty low (certainly low enough to question a student carefully – they probably “cooked” the lab).
    If these numbers are special – the odds of getting only the “special” numbers is much lower.

  • Bob Brague

    Apparently the OT writers used hyperbole, as was I, which no one seemed to grasp, since so many hastened to assure RJS that they were not tired of these posts.
    If I were tired of these posts, I would have quit stopping by long ago. Obviously, since I continue to stop by, I am not tired of these posts.
    Why must one assume that if all numbers in a series ended in 5 or 0 that rounding was used? For example, if the U.S. does away with the penny as it has been threatening to do for several years, all price tags in our country would end in 5 or 0, but not because rounding was used.
    I still don’t know what Travis was trying to say in #25, and I’m still not sure we are disagreeing.

  • RJS

    One step further in a sample of 20 independent measurements
    10 digits 21.4%
    9 digits 43.6%
    8 digits 27.5%
    7 digits 6.7%
    6 digits 0.65%
    5 digits 0.02%
    4 digits 0.0002%
    3 digits 0.0000004%
    In a sample of 10 independent measurements
    10 digits 0.03%
    9 digits 1.6%
    8 digits 13.6%
    7 digits 35.6%
    6 digits 34.5%
    5 digits 12.9%
    4 digits 1.72%
    3 digits 0.06%
    2 digits 0.0005%
    Comparison of a sample of 10 with a sample of 20 here is meaningless.

  • RJS

    Actually Bob – it would be because rounding was used directly or indirectly to match the currency in use. There would be a reason for the pattern – but I think that we agree here.
    And welcome back.

  • Mike M

    RJS: I like what you have to say. It’s refreshing not to have to read something parroted from someone else.
    For statistical help, try Dr. Jerrold Zar at Northern Illinois University, author of “Biostatistical Analysis.” He is professor emeritus there but has been hanging around lately to finish his latest edition.
    Also, since the cartilage in our noses and ears keep growing throughout life, people who live 100’s of years would either need plastic surgeons or walk around looking like elephants.

  • Brian

    If all of the numbers ended in a five or a zero then we have a less probable event. The less likely the event, the more likely that it is not random, but that is beside my central point.
    My central point is that the approach is wrong. A test statistic must be constructed whose distribution can either be determined or reasonably approximated. And the construction of the test statistic must incorporate cultural factors about the distribution of special numbers.
    It’s a tough problem, and simplifications of tough problems such as we have here far too often lead to incorrectly weighted inferences. My intuition is that the direction of the inference is correct, but the confidence assigned to it is way off. I’ll be interested to see where your analysis leads.

  • RJS

    dopderbeck (#6)
    I meant to respond to your comment – but got sidetracked on the numbers.
    I used literal-historical in the same sense I used it in the posts on Gen 1-3. My intent in this post was simply to make a point that I don’t think that the author intended the genealogies to be literal-historical. We err to make them so.
    I don’t think that they are fictive. They have a basis in history. But the question then becomes interpretation of the function of the text and the type of history recorded.

  • RJS

    You are right – the 1 in 100 million was way off for the hypothesis I was trying to test. My only point was that it was statistically unlikely to be the random result of an accurate historical reporting of age at birth of the first son and length of life remaining. Talk about “special numbers” complicates the issue – so I’d leave that out of the mix at this point (I don’t know enough to defend a guess and so shouldn’t venture a guess).
    If the list represents accurate historical reporting of 20 independent numbers the final digit should be randomly selected from 0-9 with no bias. This is true because the ages are 65 and higher. If we were testing a population where almost everyone had a first child between 20-25 for example, we would not expect a random distribution between 0 and 9 and the distribution would change. (The expectation of a random distribution between 0-9 was the basis of my comparison with a lab experiment).
    I don’t have a statistics text here to give a rigorous confidence, but the distribution is the one in my comment above. Out of the 10^20 equally weighted possible selections 0.0002% have only 4 digits (roughly 1 of every half million). Somebody could work out the confidence estimate that the data arises from a biased selection.
    I didn’t really mean to go any further than this in the analysis. If someone has a rationale to refute the hypothesis that it is a biased selection of numbers – I’ll listen…

  • Tom in California

    I probably should keep my mouth shut…or my fingers otherwise occupied. But I spent a career at a University working with data and statistics. And I think one of the most valuable lessons I learned in that time was, there are certain data sets for which the application of statistics is meaningless. It doesn’t mean that you can’t run the numbers. It just means that putting a statistical test on the data set only gives the APPEARANCE of meaning and accuracy, without having actually added anything of the sort to the discussion. But it will often suffice to confuse the situation sufficiently that the real point may be obfuscated.
    If I may be so bold as to suggest, in such an august crowd as this, I think the likely understanding of this ought to hang on a couple points that have already been alluded to. One is the TYPE of literature that we are discussing. The other is the CULTURE that produced it. Neither of these is congenial to the Western analytical mindset.
    The culture that produced this would have been far more concerned with conveying significance than numerical accuracy and would have used forms that enhanced that. For example, our culture is analytical, so we use statistics to reinforce our analytical points. There are undoubtedly people who can contribute a lot more than I to the cultural values that would underlie the book of Genesis. I’ll leave that to others more expert than I.
    The type of literature appears to me very strongly to have been influenced by oral traditions that were finally written down. In that vein, I have often suggested that to understand much of the book of Genesis you need an imagination:
    The scene is a hillside in the Sinai or some remote part of Egypt several thousand years ago. It is evening. The sheep have been settled down for the night. A camp fire is burning. An old man sits with his sons. And then his youngest grandson crawls up in his lap. We begin our text with Genesis 0:1-10 “1 Look at all the stars, Poppie. 2 How many are there?”, the child asked. 3 “Oh, my child, there are a great many of them. More than you or I could count, the old man replied. 4 ” the child replied, “Where did they all come from? Tell me again, Poppie.” 5 The old man sits up straighter and a calm but resolute demeanor descends upon his face. 6 The old man’s sons perk up, too, because they know what’s coming. And they will silently rehearse the story as the old man speaks. 7 “Alright my son. But pay close attention. 8 Some day, Jacob, you will tell this same story to your sons. 9 And it will be passed from father to son for generations to come, hundreds of years. 10 The old man drew a deep breath, his voice pitch changed and deepened.
    Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning, GOD created the heavens and the earth.
    And you all know the story from there. But if you mentally attach that little passage from Genesis 0, then the flow of Genesis 1 and following suddenly springs to life as a narrative of purpose, a narrative intended to convey the important milestones of this people. And not an exercise in statistical analysis. 😉
    That’s my two bits.

  • RJS

    The main point is, of course, that neither the culture of origin nor the type of literature are consistent with any type of word-for-word literal interpretation. There are indications in the text itself that this is so.
    I shouldn’t have highlighted the numbers as prominently – but there was a rather prominent case a data fabrication a while back where, once fraud was suspected, a statistical analysis on the data along the lines here was the most damaging piece of evidence. As a result this stuck in my mind. (But as Brian points out – you need a hypothesis and to test the hypothesis – in both cases the hypothesis is/was “the data are the result of random selection.” If we ask the same question of Gen 11 – the answer supports the hypothesis of randomness.) But the analysis then becomes only one supporting piece of information, not a “smoking gun” proof. In the absence of corroborating evidence it is meaningless
    When I read the text of Genesis 1-11 especially under the influence of a “word-literal hermeneutic” the text itself causes great problems – because it isn’t written in a form to make a “word-literal hermeneutic” meaningful. This is before science even enters the picture, and it extends beyond Gen 1 and beyond Gen 2-3. But within our evangelical church the pressure for a “word-literal hermeneutic” remains. Many are willing to go for some concordist old-earth position and local flood – but where do we stop?
    One common argument is “authorial intent” in determining genre. Here I was trying to make a case that authorial intent does not support a “word literal” interpretation of the text of the genealogies. God, in the scripture, speaks through human authors, in the literary forms and genres of their time, speaking to their culture and beyond.
    Personally I think that we need to stop looking at Gen 1-11 with any kind of “word-literal” hermeneutic. And this isn’t even an “oral tradition” yet – the time span is too great and the past too vague.
    When we get to Gen 12-50 the idea of an oral culture passing along stories that are eventually written down becomes significant. This is rooted in known history to those who originated and began passing along the stories. It still isn’t the kind of modern “word-literal” history we would like – but it is much closer to it, intentionally rooted in literal history. This of course is Michael’s point in #33.
    Another too-long comment.

  • dopderbeck

    Tom (#42) said: The culture that produced this would have been far more concerned with conveying significance than numerical accuracy and would have used forms that enhanced that.
    I respond: I think you make a good point, Tom, but I’d add this: the culture that produced the final form of these documents (assuming an exhilic date for the final canonical form of the Torah) was very into numerology. The Babylonians were deep into mysticism concerning numbers, and the Torah seems to reflect this in many ways. All the more reason to think of these numerical patterns as some kind of intentional shaping of the material rather than as simple reporting.

  • Peggy (#29) said: What is God saying, then, after the flood when the age of mankind is reduced to 120 years?
    I respond: IMHO, this really is the $10,000 question (to use a culturally significant non-literal number!). Put this together with the Mesopotamian King Lists, and you get what seems to be a common tradition of a heroic age of long lives before the deluge.
    From a very conservative / fundamentalist perspective, this is a clear indication that the fall and the flood radically changed some physical aspects of creation in ways that directly affected human lifespans.
    From a more critical perspective, this could suggest that the Hebrews borrowed and theologically reshaped the Babylonian / Sumerian tradition, which is an example of outright accommodation to the incorrect “science of the day.”
    From a moderate perspective, this could suggest that there was something about God’s dealings with humanity (at least the portion of humanity within the horizon of the Biblical authors), whereby God had perhaps miraculously sustained longer-than-normal lives for some people prior to the flood judgment and ceased to do that afterward. (For example, John Walton, a moderate-to-conservative, suggests in his Genesis commentary that perhaps the residual effects of the Edenic “Tree of Life” gradually wear off leading up to the flood).
    Personally, in all honesty, I prefer the “critical” option. All other things being equal, it seems to me to be the most straightforward explanation (Ockham’s Razor). However, at another level, “all other things” seem to me not to be equal, because we need to wrestle with the doctrine of scripture. If the Bible is inerrant, then the critical option seems precluded; if the Bible is infallible, then there is a greater or lesser degree of difficulty with the critical option depending on the exact meaning and purpose of infallibility. (Personally, I think we need to think of scripture as inerrant or infallible, properly defined and nuanced, if we’re going to maintain scripture as the final norming norm for the Christian community — i.e., if we’re going to remain historically Protestant).
    SO — I will not be too critical of anyone who, for reasons relating to the doctrine of scripture, want to see the long ages of the antedulivan patriarchs as reflecting some kind of real sustaining by God of their life spans — and on some days of the week, this is my own view.

  • Michael in #33 queried:
    What genre are the stories of Genesis 1-11? How are genealogies used in that genre?
    I believe that is a critical question.
    On the one hand, an overly-literal approach tries to force a precision or intention onto details in the story that were not intended by the original story-teller or hearers.
    A different view is that it does not matter what the original tellers and hearers believed about the details. They were simpler and the story was told for them without benefit of our scientific perspective and understanding. My question is, do those who hold this view give any importance to the question asked by Michael? If so, why – what difference does it make?

  • RJS

    I don’t understand exactly what you are asking with the “A different view.” Are you suggesting that the authors were unwittingly made to tell the truth no matter what they themselves may have believed?
    If I understand it right I think that a significant problem with this view arises with the textual evidence of the OT, in things like the variation of the details in the narrative histories of the kings. These differences are no real problem if we view scripture as God speaking through people in the accepted manner of their times, but cause real problems with some other views of scripture.

  • David

    This link might be interesting to your readers..
    Symbolic numbers, I think so!

  • David

    Peggy (#29) said: What is God saying, then, after the flood when the age of mankind is reduced to 120 years?
    Hi Peggy,
    I know this is a common interpretation of that passage, but it’s not the only one. First off, it’s said *before* the flood. Also my NIV study Bible suggests “the verse seems to announce that the grace period between God’s declaration of judgement and and its arrival would be 120 years”. I.e. that this is nothing about lifespans of modern man, more about God’s patience.
    dopderbeck (#45) also said lots of interesting things.
    I suspect that the big problem we have when we look at the early chapters of Genesis is that we’ve got a looong history of interpreting them in a certain way which is probably wrong, but anything else looks heretical.
    But it seems pretty clear that we Christians don’t understand the genre(s)
    (else we’d be probably be saying “wow” about the deep significance of the genealogies in Numbers), so the theologians have guessed “fiction” on one side or “strictly literal” on the other, and of course called each other names in the interest of scholarly debate.
    The original hearers of course understood the genre, (and I guess later generations too, since it was accepted as canon) and so it spoke to them so clearly that they recognised God’s voice in the text. It was assuredly inerrant then, and the text hasn’t changed, so our challenge is to recover that lost ability to understand the inerrant truth(s) it contains without forcing it to say things it was never meant to.
    (e.g. If I say “it’s raining cats and dogs”, I mean it is raining heavily. If you don’t know that genre/metaphor, you might think I’m saying that cats and dogs are falling from the sky. Truth / Fiction are both false categories to interpret that statement. We know that, so why don’t we realise when we’re doing it to Holy Scripture??)