Throughout church history, biblical genealogies have been used to attempt to calculate a date for creation. This date is then cited as support for a young Earth. However, as we’ve demonstrated in this article series, closer examination of the ancient Hebrew reveals evidence for gaps in these genealogies, making them unsuitable for such calculations.
In part 1 of this series, we discuss the fundamental importance of the Hebrew word yālad—commonly translated “begat” (KJV) or “became the father of” (NIV, NASB)—in calculating biblical dates such as creation and Noah’s flood. In part 2, we examine the story of Moses, which gives evidence that yālad does not necessarily imply a parent-child relationship, but can also refer to a more general familial connection.
Part 3 discusses the critical hermeneutical problem resulting from the assumption that yālad always and literally means “begat” (KJV) or “became the father of” (NIV, NASB). If biblical timeline scholars stick to this interpretation when considering Genesis 5:32 and 11:26, then they are forced to conclude that Noah’s sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, (and Terah’s offspring Abraham, Nahor, and Haran) were triplets—which scholars usually deny.
Now we apply lessons learned from the story of Shem, Ham, and Japheth to further investigate the story of Abraham. Genesis 11:26 (NKJV) tells us, “Now Terah lived seventy years, and begot [yālad] Abram [Abraham], Nahor, and Haran.”
Our analysis of the narratives about Moses and Noah’s sons justifies two important observations:
- Just because Abraham is listed first does not mean he is the oldest.
- The use of yālad in Genesis 11:26 does not require that Abraham was born when Terah was 70 and it does not even require that Abraham was Terah’s son. Abraham could have been born later and could have even been Terah’s grandson.
As we point out in previous articles, context and narrative are key to interpreting word usage—and this is especially true of biblical Hebrew. Clues to the meaning of yāladas used in Genesis 11:26 can be gleaned from the biblical narrative which follows. Consider Genesis 11:27b–32 (NASB):
Terah [yālad] became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran; and Haran [yālad] became the father of Lot. Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldeans. Abram and Nahor took wives for themselves. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai; and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah and Iscah. Sarai was barren; she had no child. Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife; and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans in order to enter the land of Canaan; and they went as far as Haran, and settled there. the days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran.
Since Terah’s “son” Nahor marries his niece Milcah, Nahor must be much older than Milcah or much younger than his “brother” Haran. The Bible does not say Nahor traveled to the town of Haran with Terah, Abraham, and Lot. Nevertheless, it seems he left Ur then or later for “Mesopotamia” and settled in “the city of Nahor” (Genesis 24:10, NASB) because Abraham sent his servant there to acquire one of his “relatives” (Genesis 24:4, NASB), Rebekah, as a wife for Isaac. The city of Nahor is probably near the town of Haran, because Rebekah later sent Jacob to Haran to her brother Laban (Genesis 27:43).
Leaving Haran for Canaan
Genesis 12:4 (NASB) records that Abraham obeyed God’s call and left Haran for Canaan at age 75: “So Abram went forth as the LORD had spoken to him; and Lot went with him. Now Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.”
Many scholars (including Bishop James Ussher1) suggest Abraham set out for Canaan after Terah died in Haran. Typically, they base this suggestion on Stephen’s speech in the Sanhedrin, the writings of Philo,2 and/or the assumption that Genesis 12 follows Genesis 11 chronologically. This is logical: after Terah’s death, his estate would be divided between Abraham, Lot, and Nahor, giving Abraham the wealth necessary to relocate, probably delaying departure only long enough for the estate to be settled.
Under this assumption, Abraham was not more than 75 years old when Terah died at age 205, so Terah was 130 or older—not 70—when Abraham was born. Moreover Abraham’s wife, Sarah, was 10 years younger than he. If she was his half-sister as Genesis seems to indicate, then Terah was siring children at least through age 140. By modern standards, this seems unreasonable; yet consider the account of Abraham’s second wife (or concubine), Keturah. The Bible records that Abraham sired six sons with Keturah. If the story of Abraham in Genesis is chronological, this happened following Sarah’s death, when Abraham was 137.
Thus, Abraham and Nahor may have both been much younger than their brother Haran. Bishop Ussher claims Haran is the son born when Terah was 70.3 This could explain Nahor’s marriage to his niece, and it also suggests that Abraham and Lot could have been like brothers in age.
This point of view is supported by the claim of Josephus4 and Bishop Ussher5 that Sarah is Haran’s daughter, Abraham’s niece. English translations render Genesis 20:12 that Abraham says of Sarah, “Besides, she actually is my sister [׳āḥôt], the daughter [bat] of my father [׳āb], but not the daughter of my mother [׳ēm]” (NASB). However, the meaning of the Hebrew words ׳āḥôt, bat, ׳āb, and ׳ēm is sufficiently flexible that Abraham could be saying Sarah is his niece, the granddaughter of his father. For example, Genesis 46:15 uses the word bat to include granddaughters as well as daughters, and ׳āḥôt is so imprecise that Rebekah is referred to as ׳āḥôt in Genesis 24:60 in a blessing from her entire household, including her mother. Such flexibility in biblical Hebrew familial terms enhances the likelihood that there are unrecognized gaps in the biblical genealogical record.
Other Interpretations of Abraham’s Departure
Alternatively, if yālad in Genesis 11:26 literally means “begot” or “became the father of,” Abraham was in fact born when Terah was 70—as suggested by Josephus6—and he is either a triplet or at least the oldest son. This justifies Josephus’ claim that Abraham adopted Lot,7 but it presents a problem biologically with his claim that Sarah is Abraham’s niece. How could a younger brother (Haran) sire a daughter (Sarah) who is only 10 years younger than his older (or even twin/triplet) brother (Abraham)? Even with an older wife, Haran would have had difficulty copulating at age 9.
Josephus’ claim also presents a major cultural problem because Terah would have died when Abraham was 135 and Isaac was 35, just five years before he married Rebekah. Abraham would have been expected to attend his father’s funeral, but the Isaac-Rebekah marriage narrative (Genesis 24) makes it appear Abraham had not visited Haran recently.
The problem is resolved by assuming Terah died at age 145. Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke is a proponent of this viewpoint, based on “the Samaritan Pentateuch [SP], which preserves an original text type and informs Acts 7:2-4” and on the belief that it is unlikely Terah sired Abraham at age 130.8 New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce agrees. He believes Abraham being born when Terah was 130 is “improbable” and suggests the possibility of “a Greek version of Gen 11:32 agreeing with the Samaritan Text on Terah’s age at death, but no longer extant.”9 Bruce bases this suggestion on the first edition of German Masoretic scholar Paul Kahle’s book The Cairo Geniza, specifically on Kahle’s analysis of Philo’s quotations with respect to the LXX.10 However, this analysis is not included in the book’s second edition,11 published twelve years later. Nevertheless, if Terah died at age 145, then Abraham could have been born when Terah was 70 and left Haran at age 75 after Terah died.
On the other hand, the LXX confounds the problem. According to the LXX, Genesis 11:32 reads that Terah spent 205 years in Haran,12 and hence would have lived to be at least 275 since Abraham was born in Ur (Genesis 11:31).
In summary, a comparison of the Hebrew text, the LXX, and the SP suggests Terah died at age 145, 205, or 275, respectively, or something in between (a 130-year range, equivalent to 90 percent of Terah’s minimum age of death). We question the LXX and SP’s accuracy because the LXX consistently inflates the early patriarchs’ age-to-birth-of-son13 while the SP not only changes ages from the Hebrew text, but also makes other changes advantageous to the Samaritans (such as commanding an altar be built on Mount Gerizim upon which to make sacrifices).
We respect the scholarship of Waltke and Bruce and Kahle, but one wonders if they are trying too hard to remove what they perceive as a biblical inconsistency. Nevertheless, our position is not to judge which is correct, but to suggest that this discrepancy may show that Old Testament writers were not interested in timelines. As people of an ancient Near Eastern culture, they did not think or write with the precision characteristic of later cultures, and did not express themselves in a way that anticipated Western scholars’ efforts, centuries later, to calculate timelines.
What This Reveals about Yālad
In summary, the Abraham narrative provides a strong argument that yālad in Genesis 11:26 does not imply Abraham was a triplet or even that he was born when Terah was 70. Although that interpretation is linguistically valid, the meaning of yālad is much more general. It is more probable that Stephen was right in stating that Abraham left for Canaan after his father’s death, which would place his birth during or after Terah’s 130th year.
Furthermore, since analysis of Moses’ genealogy shows that yālad does not necessarily imply a parent-child relationship and often means “was the ancestor of,” it is linguistically possible that Abraham was Terah’s grandson. This would resolve Waltke’s and Bruce’s concern that Terah could not sire a son at age 130!
In the fifth and final part of this series, we will apply what we’ve discussed about yālad to Genesis 5, 10, and 11. We will go even further to suggest yālad has a cultural-sociological significance that transcends biological reproduction.
Hugh Henry, PhD
Dr. Hugh Henry received his PhD in Physics from the University of Virginia in 1971, retired after 26 years at Varian Medical Systems, and currently serves as a lecturer in physics at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, KY.
Daniel J. Dyke, MDiv, MTh
Mr. Daniel J. Dyke received his Master of Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary 1981 and currently serves as professor of Old Testament at Cincinnati Christian University in Cincinnati, OH.