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Everyone who reads the list of the ten antediluvians in Genesis 5 and the list of ten postdiluvians in Genesis 11 is immediately struck by the longevity of these patriarchs. How is it possible that these people were able to live so long?
Moreover, we are awed by the ages at which they were still able to father children. Noah became a proud father at a mere 500 years (Gen 5:32)!
The question of the possible reconciliation of the results of scientific inquiry and the claims of Scripture could not be more challenging. The claims for the long lives and the ages at which these men were able to sire children is enough to lead to a distrust of the Scriptures almost from the very first chapters of the Bible.
In fact, so notoriously difficult are the problems presented by the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 that they have been paraded for centuries as prime examples of chronological impossibilities in the Bible. A resolution for the kinds of issues raised here are found, however, in an understanding of the writer's method.
In April 1890, William Henry Green of the Princeton faculty wrote an article in Bibliotheca Sacra pointing to some clear principles used by the writers of Scripture in the construction of genealogies. Those principles include the following:
1. Abridgment is the general rule because the sacred writers did not want to encumber their pages with more names than necessary.
2. Omissions in genealogies are fairly routine. For example, Matthew 1:8 omits three names between Joram and Ozias (Uzziah); namely, Ahaziah (2 Kings 8:25), Joash (2 Kings 12:1) and Amaziah (2 Kings 14:1). In verse 11, Matthew omits Jehoiakim (2 Kings 23:34). In fact, in Matthew 1:1 the whole of two millennia are summed up in two giant steps: "Jesus Christ, the son of David [about 1000 B.C. ], the son of Abraham [about 2000 B.C. ]."
3. The span of a biblical "generation" is more than our twenty to thirty years. In Syriac it equals eighty years. Often in the Exodus account a generation is 100 to 120 years.
4. The meanings of begat, son of, father of and even bore a son often have special nuances, as the context often indicates. To beget often means no more than "to become the ancestor of." To be the father of often means being a grandfather or great-grandfather. The point is that the next key person was descended from that male named "father" in the text.
The most instructive lesson of all can be gleaned from Kohath's descent into Egypt (Gen 46:6-11) some 430 years (Ex 12:40) before the exodus. Now if Moses (one in the Kohath line) was 80 years old at the time of the exodus (Ex 7:7), and no gaps (such as are suggested by the above-mentioned principles) are understood (as we believe the evidence above now forces us to concede), then the "grandfather" of Moses had in Moses' lifetime 8,600 descendants. Amazing as that might seem, here is the real shocker: 2,750 of those 8,600 descendants were males between the ages of 30 and 50 (Num 3:19, 27-28, 34; 4:36)! It is difficult to believe that the writers of Scripture were that naive.
The form that Genesis 5 and 11 use, with few exceptions, is a stereotypic formula giving the age of the patriarch at the birth of his son, the number of years that he lived after the birth of that son, and then the total number of years that he lived until he died. It is the question of the function of these numbers that attracts our attention here.
Since Zilpah is credited with "bearing" (yalad) her grandchildren (Gen 46:18) and Bilhah is said to "bear"(yalad) her grandchildren as well (Gen 46:25), it is clear that a legitimate usage of these numbers in the genealogies might well mean that B was a distant relative of A. In this case, the age of A is the age at the birth of that (unnamed) child from whom B (eventually) descended.
The ages given for the "father" when the "son" was born must be actual years, as we shall presently see. The conflation takes place not at the point of supplying the actual years at which the father had a child; it is instead at the point where the name of the next noteworthy descendant is given instead of the immediate son. The ages given function as an indicator of the fact that the effects of the Fall into sin had not yet affected human generative powers as seriously as they have more recently. The same point, of course, is to be made with regard to human longevity. The fact that the record wishes to stress is the sad mortality of men and women as a result of the sin in the Garden of Eden. The repeated litany "and he died" echoes from the pages like the solemn toll of a funeral bell.
Attempts to make the numbers more palatable have been crushed by the internal weight of their own argumentation or from a failure to care for all the data in a single theory. One abortive attempt was to treat the names as names of tribes rather than as names of individuals. This would seem to work until we meet up with Enoch, who was taken to heaven. It hardly seems fair to imply that the whole Enoch tribe was taken to heaven, so we are left with the idea that these really are meant to represent individuals.
Another, equally unsuccessful, rationalization was that the "years" here represented a system of counting months, or something of that sort. In this view, the years would be reduced by a factor of 10 or 12. Accordingly, Adam's total of 930 years could be reduced to the more manageable and believable 93 or 77 years. This theory runs into trouble when Nahor becomes the father of Terah at 29 years of age in Genesis 11:24. This would mean that he actually had a child when he was 2.9 or 2.4 years old! In that case we jump from the pan into the fire. Unfortunately for this theory, there are no known biblical examples of the word year meaning anything less than the solar year we are accustomed to in general speech.
One final warning might be in order: do not add up the years of these patriarchs in Genesis 5 and 11 and expect to come up with the Bible's date for the birth of the human race. The reason for this warning is clear: the Bible never adds up these numbers. It is not as though the Bible never gives us sums of years--there are the 430 years of Egyptian bondage in Exodus 12:40 and the 480 years of 1 Kings 6:1. But in Genesis 5 and 11 the writer does not employ his numbers for this purpose; neither should we.
Some who have violated this simple observation have seriously argued that the human race was created on October 24, 4004 B.C. , at 9:30 a.m., 45th Meridian time. Being careful scholars from Cambridge, the cynic William Brewster quipped, they did not dare say with any more precision when humankind was born!
The earliest definite date we can fix for any biblical person is around 2100 B.C. for the birth of Abram. The Julian calendar dates for anything before that are impossible to set with the present sets of data at our disposal.
The creation of the universe is dated in Genesis 1:1 as being "in the beginning." Of that we can be as certain as we are of revelation itself. The creation of Adam came six "days" later, but one must be warned that right there in the first chapters of Genesis the Bible uses the word day with three different meanings: (1) daylight (Gen 1:5), (2) a twenty-four-hour day (Gen 1:14) and (3) an epoch or era, as we use the word in speaking of the "day" of the horse and buggy or Abraham Lincoln's "day" (Gen 2:4; compare the RSV's "In the day" with the NIV's "When"). I would opt for the day-age theory, given all that must take place on the sixth "day" according to the Genesis record. Incidentally, this day-age view has been the majority view of the church since the fourth century, mainly through the influence of Saint Augustine.
So Adam did live a real 930 years. The sons attributed to him may have been his direct sons or they may have been from two to six generations away, but in the same line.