Are the Biblical Genealogies Helpful in Establishing the Age of Man?

In 1650, James Ussher, the archbishop of Ireland, produced a detailed Biblical timeline, going all the way back to the creation of man and the Universe. Based largely on the genealogies given in Genesis 5 and 11, this chronology famously placed the creation of Adam and Eve in the year 4,004 B.C. Indeed, such a view is espoused by many Bible-believing Christians, even today. But just how sound is this view? Are Christians really committed to the view that the creation of man happened no more than 6,000 years ago? It is my personal view that using the Biblical records in this manner is ultimately misguided, and misunderstands the nature of ancient genealogies. One crucial assumption, which is employed in Ussher’s calculation, is the notion that the relevant genealogies are complete: That is to say, they contain no gaps or missing names. But are these genealogies actually complete as Ussher supposed? Here, I attempt to show that such an assumption is unfounded.

Much of the misunderstanding surrounding these genealogies results because we are reading them in modern English and in the context of modern western culture. The genealogies were written in ancient Hebrew and represent ancient Jewish culture. For one thing, the Hebrew word for “son” (ben) can mean “son”, “grandson”, “great grandson” or “descendent”. And, likewise, “father” (Hebrew ab) can mean father, grandfather, great-grandfatheror ancestor. For example, in Genesis 28:13, God says to Jacob, “I am the LORD the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac”. But Abraham wasn’t the father of Jacob. Isaac was the father of Jacob. Abraham was the father of Isaac, thus making Abraham the grandfather of Jacob. That being said, however, the verb used in Genesis 5 and 11 is the Hebrew “yalad” and is translated “became the father of” in the NIV and “begat” in the KJV. So, it does not even use the word “father” (ab), but rather “yalad” (which is similarly flexible in its meaning). This verb can mean giving birth to someone who is ancestral to the next person named (with many generations skipped). One example of this is the genealogy of Moses in Exodus 6. These genealogies report that Amram and his wife Jochebed “begat” (Hebrew yalad) Moses (two times) and refers to him as “son” (Hebrew ben). Thus, on at least two occasions, it uses the very same verb as used in Genesis 5 and 11. But what is important to notice here is that Amram and Jochebed lived at the time when the Jews entered Egypt while Moses was 80 years old during the exodus some 430 years later. This entails that approximately 350 years (and likely a minimum of 6 generations) lies between Amram/Jochebed and Moses. Thus, literally, it should be rendered ‘Jochebed begat a son (unnamed) who was ancestral to Moses’.

For a thorough discussion of this fascinating topic, I refer readers to this excellent paper by Dr. John Millam. The article lists the following examples where one can definitively say that the genealogies have been telescoped in this manner:

  1. Matthew 1:8 compared to 2 Chronicles 21:4-26:23
    Matthew 1:8 has Jehoram listed as the father of Uzziah but there were several generations between these men.  The names Ahaziah (2 Chronicles 22:1), Joash (2 Chronicles 22:11), and Amaziah (2 Chronicles 24:27) come between Jehoram and Uzziah.
  2. Matthew 1:11 compared to 2 Chronicles 36:1-9
    In Matthew 1:11 we read that Josiah is the father of Jeconiah (Jehoiachin).  In 2 Chronicles, we see that Josiah is the father of Jehoiakim (2 Chronicles 36:4) and grandfather of Jehoiachin (2 Chronicles 36:8).
  3. Luke 3:35-36 compared to Genesis 10:24, 11:12; 1 Chronicles 1:24
    Luke contains the name Cainan between Shelah and Arphaxad that is missing in Genesis 10:24 and 11:12 and 1 Chronicles 1:24. Since all of the genealogies are true and Luke is the one with more names, then Luke must be more complete and the rest more telescoped.
  4. Ezra 7:1-5 compared to 1 Chronicles 6:3-15
    The genealogy of 1 Chronicles 6:3-15 lists the descendents of Aaron down to Jehozadak (Jozadak).  Ezra 7 lists Ezra’s own genealogy going back to Aaron.  Where the two genealogies overlap, 1 Chronicles contains 22 names and Ezra contains 16 names, making Ezra’s genealogy no more than 70% complete. Both genealogies span a time period of about 860 years from the exodus to the fall of Jerusalem, which suggests that both genealogies are in fact highly telescoped.  A thorough search of the Old Testament reveals that there were many high priests during this time period who are not included in either of these two genealogies, which provides additional evidence that these genealogies are not complete.  The following high priests are known from the OT but are not included in these genealogies:  Jehoiada (2 Kings 12:2), Uriah (2 Kings 16:10-16), possibly two Azariahs (2 Chronicles 26:17, 20; 31:10-31), Eli (1 Samuel 1:9; 14:3) and Abiathar (2 Samuel 8:17).
  5. 1 Samuel 16:10-13 compared to 1 Chronicles 2:13-15
    In the 1 Samuel passage, the prophet Samuel goes to Jesse to anoint one of his sons as the new king of Israel.  Jesse has his seven eldest sons pass before Samuel but each is rejected.  Finally, David, the 8th son is brought in and is anointed by Samuel as king.  We find in 1 Chronicles, however, that David is listed as the 7th son of Jesse.  One of David’s brothers is omitted from the list to allow David to occupy the favored 7th position.  This may seem a bit odd to modern readers but this was an accepted genealogical practice.

One question which often comes up is the literary construct of the genealogical reports. For example, according to Genesis 5:9-11, “When Enosh had lived 90 years, he became the father of Kenan. And after he became the father of Kenan, Enosh lived 815 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Enosh lived 905 years, and then he died.” Some have suggested that the understanding, proposed above, of Biblical genealogies faces difficulty in accounting for the fact that the text would still read: “When Enosh had lived 90 years, be became the ancestor of Kenan…Enosh lived 815 years and had other descendants.” The dates, it is argued, would remain unchanged, even when considering this interpretation – whether Enosh became the father or ancestor of Kenan at age 90, it is argued, is irrelevant to the calculation. In light of what I have tried to show above, however, it is my view that the correct rendering of the text runs along the lines of: “At age 90, Enosh gave birth to a son whose descendants would include Kenan.” Thus, the 90 years refers to when Enosh became a father, not when Kenan was born. While this may seem very peculiar (or even wrong) in English, one must always keep in mind that we are dealing with an ancient Hebrew genealogy.

In conclusion, to try to place dates on Biblical events, squarely on the basis of the genealogies alone, faces significant obstacles, and springs from a misapprehension of the nature of ancient Hebrew genealogies. It is also important to bear in mind that this argument does not concern or address the age of the earth (nor, for that matter, the proper interpretation of Genesis 1). Rather, all it shows is that the Christian need not feel committed, as many contend that we are, to placing the creation of Adam roughly 6,000 years ago. Moreover, such a conclusion may be accepted by young-earth and old-earth advocate alike (I personally fall into the latter of those camps). On the flip side of the coin, the non-believer need not be turned off Christianity by the apparently extremely recent origin of modern humans. There is simply no compelling Biblical mandate for supposing that this is the case.

8 replies
  1. Charles says:

    When considering that people such as Abraham or Jacob, even Ishmael are referred to as “Nations” also inclines one to rethink all the geneologies. I mean, who is to say that Adam and Eve were not a nation of many instead of just two individuals? I guess it was the “path of least resistance” to infer a literal view of the ancient geneologies when only using Biblical text without considering Semetic history and, as Mr. McLatchie mentions, the actual Hebrew language and also their philosophies.

    I believe there is such a thing as figurative or even metaphorical truth in Scripture that doesn’t make the Bible any less true. This actually enhances the legitamacy of Scripture by dissolving superstitious ideology and promoting a realistic perspective of the Bible.

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  2. Ryan Frazier says:

    I think we should rethink the use of the word “literal.” Reading something literally means to read it in the sense in which it was intended. So when the Bible speaks in conceits and metaphors, we should read it as such. Reading it in any different way would not be literal.

    Reading the Bible in this way does not get rid of the superstition (supernatural), and for a true literal reading, we should not want to get rid of it. As an example, we have the Gospels which present Jesus and his miracles bluntly as historical fact along with the rest of the non-supernatural history they record. Reading the genealogies in the way a Hebrew would read them will lead us to the most true interpretation of the books.

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  3. Pierre says:

    I have always been interested in this topic. After hearing both sides of this for a while I read this:
    http://www.icr.org/article/how-young-earth-applying-simple-math-data-provided/

    Jonathan article addressed it some of this, but I’m not convinced that a good translation would be ” … descendants would include …”.

    What would be the point of having these names in scripture, as this is the only place that some of them are recorded?

    I love this blog BTW, ever since I found it a few months ago!

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  4. Joshua says:

    Even with these gaps, the earth would still be young in comparison to secular opinions on the age of the earth, IE millions or billions of years. While the bible does speak in metaphors, such as when Jesus said he was the door, they are obvious. Genesis is clearly a historical account of events, not a metaphor or figurative language. We should not doubt the bible because the world tells us to, we are not supposed to conform to the world, but rather to allow the holy spirit to work through us to bring the world to Jesus Christ.

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  5. kpolo says:

    The problem with this view is that you now have no basis to say that Abraham was the father of Isaac. I can argue that Abraham at an old age became the father of someone who would eventually give birth to Isaac.

    Gen 6:20 reads, “Amram took as his wife Jochebed his father’s sister, and she bore him Aaron and Moses, the years of the life of Amram being 137 years.” (ESV). She bore him Moses would be a strange way of saying that Jochebed is the ancestor. I know Frank is an old-earther. I think the problem with old-earth lies more with Gen 1 than with genealogies.

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  6. Aurelio says:

    You left out the verse in Jude which states that Enoch was the seventh from Adam…. In other words, there were no gaps in the genealogy of Genesis 5

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  7. Richard Greig II says:

    This article was very enlightening. However, I’m still not convinced or certain that the earth is millions or billions of years old. I concede that we should read the Biblical genealogies with an ancient hebrew mind/context. However, even if there is a substantial margin of error with the genealogies can we really figure that the error is as huge from 6,000 years to millions or billions of years. There could be a margin of error of several thousand years but it seems like a too big of a leap from 6 to more thousand of years to millions or billions of years.

    Lastly, the atheist when interpreting data on the age of the universe is looking through the atheistic worldview that will not even include the supernatural or the possibility of miracles. That being said, an atheist can say that this dinosaur fossil is billion years old when some supernatural event could have occurred to cause the process to speed up.

    I would really like to see Christian historians, biologists and scientists look at the same evidence that atheists claim to prove a billion year old earth and see if they come up with the same conclusion looking at the evidence through a Christian worldview. Maybe this has been done, but I haven’t heard of it yet.

    Great article though Dr. Turek. You really get me to think.

    Reply
  8. Jonathan McLatchie says:

    @Richard Greig II:

    Just to clarify… The age of man is different from the age of the earth. The age of the earth I would maintain to be about 4.6 billion years old. To our most recent common ancestor takes us back maybe 50 or 100 thousand years. The methods of calculating times to common ancestors are of course contingent on the molecular clock, and hence the presumption of constancy with respect to things like mutation rates.

    One doesn’t need to extrapolate the genealogies back more than a few tens of thousands of years. But asserting that man was created merely 6000 years ago flies in the face of numerous facts.

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