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In 1650, James Ussher, the archbishop of Ireland came up with a detailed timeline for all the events in the Bible, going all the way back to the creation of man and the universe. According to Ussher’s chronology, Adam and Eve were created in the year 4,004 BC. In order to date backwards from Abraham to Adam and Eve, he made use of the genealogies given in Genesis 5 and 11. A critical assumption that he made in his interpretation was that these two genealogies were complete (that is, that they contained no gaps or missing names). Are these genealogies indeed complete as Ussher assumed?
Biblical genealogies are numerous and yet they are probably the most often ignored and least studied portions of the Bible. Most people find genealogies to be uninteresting and difficult to apply to current circumstances. The nature and function of Biblical genealogies is also very different from modern genealogies, which can lead to confusion and misunderstanding. For example, telescoping (leaving out some names for the sake of brevity) is common in Biblical genealogies but is rare in modern genealogies. Similarly, the key genealogical terms (such as “son” and “father”) have much broader meanings then their corresponding English words. An accurate understanding of Biblical genealogies is difficult, yet it is important for understanding of scripture. Having a proper understanding of Biblical genealogies is prerequisite to attempting to address the Genesis genealogies.
The Nature of Biblical Genealogies
In modern times, genealogies are for the purpose of communicating detailed information about history and family relations. Our modern conception of genealogies is very different from how genealogies were used and understood in Biblical times. Some background information on genealogies is helpful in order to properly understand and interpret them. Biblical genealogies fall into three main categories according to their purpose: familial, legal-political, and religious. Familial (or domestic) genealogies were primarily concerned about inheritance and privileges of firstborn sons. Legal-political genealogies are primarily centered on claims to a hereditary office, but other examples include establishing ancestry for land organization, territorial groupings, and military service. Religious genealogies were primarily used to establish membership in the Aaronic and Levitical priesthoods. The function of a genealogy largely determines its structure and organization. In each of these cases, there is little reason or need to give a complete listing of names since it is ancestry, not the actual number of generations that is important.
Very short genealogies are typically for the purpose of identifying a person’s tribal or genealogical grouping. The clearest example of this is the division of Israel into tribes according to which of the 12 patriarchs they were descended from. This tribal division was important for determining traveling arrangements (Numbers 2; 10) and allocation of land (Joshua 13-21). Each tribe was subdivided into divisions and further subdivided into clans according to which son and grandson of the patriarchs they were descendent from. For example, the Levites were assigned different duties according to which Levitical division they belonged to. So, it was usually sufficient to list only a person’s tribe, division, and clan to identify someone. This interest in genealogical identification is also seen in the time of King David and again in the time of return from exile. At these later times, genealogies often were given in terms of other key historical figures (Aaron, Moses, David, etc.) rather than going all the way back to the patriarchs. For example, Matthew starts his Gospel with “Jesus, son of David, son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). This very terse genealogy is a prelude to Matthew’s longer genealogy (Matthew 1:3-17). Some examples include:
- Moses and Aaron - Exodus 6:16-20, Numbers 26:57-59; and 1 Chronicles 6:1-3; 23:6, 12-13
With the Moses and Aaron playing such central roles in the exodus, it is not surprising that their genealogy is given four different times in the Old Testament. This genealogy serves as a striking example of telescoping a genealogy to include only the tribe, division, and clan. The genealogies defining the divisions and clans of the Levites are given in Numbers 3:17-37; 26:57-59 and 1 Chronicles 6:1-3; 23:6-23. We see from these passages that Moses and Aaron were of the tribe of Levi (the Levites), the division of Kohath (the Kohathites), and the clan of Amram (the Amramites). These genealogies were telescoped to only include the three generations needed to establish this. A more detailed study of these genealogies is given later.
- Korah – Numbers 16:1
In the second census during Israel’s desert wanderings, a few noteworthy individuals are listed along with each tribe’s genealogy. Korah, son of Izhar, son of Kohath, the son of Levi led a rebellion against Moses during the desert wandering and was engulfed by the earth along with his followers. This genealogy specifies his clan (Izhar), division (Kohath), and tribe (Levi) and telescopes out the remaining generations between Korah and Izhar.
- Dathan and Abiram – Numbers 16:1; 26:5-9
Along with Korah, Dathan and Abiram participated in the rebellion against Moses and died with him. Because of this notoriety, Dathan and Abiram are listed among the Reubenites in the second Israelite census. In this genealogy, we are given only their clan (Eliab), division (Pallu), and tribe (Reuben).
- Zelophehads’ daughters - Numbers 26:28-32; 27:1
Zelophehad and his daughters are listed as noteworthy among the Manassehites in the second census of Israel. Because he had 5 daughters and no sons, they came to Moses about the issue of inheritance. As a result, it became law that daughters would receive the inheritance if there were no sons (Numbers 27). This genealogy, Zelophehad, son of Hepher, son of Gilead, son of Machir, son of Manasseh, son of Joseph is analogous to the preceding examples except that one more name is included beyond the tribe (Manasseh), division (Machir), and clan (Gilead).
Another important difference between ancient and modern genealogies is vocabulary. In modern English, we have a whole host of words to describe precise familial relationships. For example, we have son, grandson, uncle, father, cousin, brother, and ancestor. Hebrew has a very small vocabulary, so only a few Hebrew words to carry all of these modern meanings. For example, the Hebrew words for “son” (ben, 1121) means son, grandson, great grandson, and descendent. Similarly, “father” (ab, 1) means father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and ancestor. We find in Genesis 28:13 that God tells Jacob, “I am the L ORD, the God of your father (ab) Abraham and the God of Isaac,” but Abraham was the grandfather of Jacob. Similarly, father (ab) can refer to multiple ancestors as in when Elijah cried, “Take my life, I am no better than my ancestors (ab)” (1 Kings 19:4). According to Vine’s, ab “may refer to the first man, a ‘forefather,’ a clan (Jeremiah 35:6), a tribe (Joshua 19:47), a group with a special calling (1 Chronicles 24:19), a dynasty (1 Kings 15:3), or a nation (Joshua 24:3). Thus ‘father’ does not necessarily mean the man who directly sired a given individual” (Vine’s “father,” but see also HGKSB, p. 1574). Similar word usage also applies to the New Testament in Greek, such as the genealogies in Matthew and Luke.
The word “begat” (yalad, 3205) is another word that is commonly used in Biblical genealogies. (The NIV translates yalad as “became the father of” or “gave birth to.”) Like father (ab) and son (ben), this word has a much broader meaning than the corresponding English usage (Vine’s, “to bear”). An example of this broader usage is found in Deuteronomy 32:18, where God reminds Israel that He “begat” them. And similarly in Numbers 11:12, where Moses declares that he hadn’t “begotten” Israel and hence was not responsible for them.
Numerous examples of the broad use of genealogical terms can be given from scripture but a few clear examples are given here.
- Daniel 5
Belshazzar is described as the “son” of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 5:22) and likewise Nebuchadnezzar is called his “father” (Daniel 5:2, 11, 18). However, Belshazzar was the son of Nabonidus and hence not even biologically related to Nebuchadnezzar. So, Belshazzar was “son” in the sense of legal heir of Nebuchadnezzar.
- Ruth 4:17
At the end of the book of Ruth, Boaz and Ruth have their first son, Obed (Ruth 4:13, 17). In verse 4:17, the people declare, “there is a son born to Naomi.” Clearly, Naomi was not the actual mother of Obed but is the mother-in-law of Ruth who is the actual mother of Obed. Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, and her two sons died leaving Elimelech and Naomi without heirs. Boaz married Ruth in fulfillment of the Levirate law, which was enacted to ensure sons to continue the family line (Deuteronomy 25:5-6). The first son of a Levirate marriage was legally the son of the dead husband. In this case, since Ruth’s father-in-law, Elimelech, was also dead, Obed was also legally the son of Elimelech and Naomi. So, Obed was the legal son of Naomi but the biological son of Ruth.
- Matthew 1:12 and Luke 3:27
In both Matthew and Luke, Zerubbabel is listed as the son of Shealtiel. (Ezra 3:2, 8; 5:2; Nehemiah 12:1; Haggai 1:1, 12; 2:2 also say the same thing.) In 1 Chronicles 3:17-19 we find that Zerubbabel was actually the son of Shealtiel’s brother, Pedaiah. While it is not stated in the Bible, it is reasonable to assume that Pedaiah died early and that his uncle, Shealtiel, adopted Zerubbabel. So, Pedaiah was the biological father of Zerubbabel but Shealtiel was his legal (adoptive) father.
- 1 Chronicles 1:36
This verse lists the sons of Eliphaz, the son of Esau. In the Hebrew text, seven names are listed without comment or connecting words, so it would be easy to assume that all seven people are the male children of Eliphaz. By comparing these names with Genesis 36:11-12, we see that the sixth name, Timna, was actually the concubine of Eliphaz and the seventh name, Amalek, was the son of Eliphaz by Timna. The Chronicler omitted this distinction for brevity since the readers would have been familiar with the listing in Genesis. The NIV inserts the word “by” in front of Timna and sets it apart from the preceding five names to make this clear to modern readers.
- Genesis 48:1-6
Shortly before Jacob (Israel) died, he adopted both of Joseph’s sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, as his own sons. Jacob told Joseph, “your two sons … will be reckoned as mine” (Genesis 48:5 NIV). So both Manasseh and Ephraim were the biological sons of Joseph but were legally considered sons of Jacob. (This becomes significant later, when the Levites are set apart from the other tribes for priestly service. Joseph’s tribe was then split into two tribes, one for each son, to make up for the absence of the Levites and bringing the number of tribes back to 12.)
Telescoping of Genealogies
When names are intentionally left out of a genealogy, it is referred to as “telescoping.” In a telescoped genealogy only the highlights are given, usually the names of the most important and relevant people. As an example, if we were to telescope “Abraham was the father of Isaac, who was the father of Jacob,” it might read in Hebrew, “Abraham was the father (ab) of Jacob” (e.g. Genesis 28:13). In English, this telescoped genealogy would be considered erroneous and should read “grandfather” instead. In Hebrew (and similarly for Greek), this telescoped genealogy would be perfectly true and acceptable because there is no separate word for grandfather in Hebrew and the word “father” (ab) includes the meaning grandfather.
Typically when a genealogy is telescoped, the number of names is reduced to an aesthetically pleasing number, usually a multiple of either 7 or 10 and less important names are omitted until that number is reached. For example, the genealogy of Genesis 4:17-18 contains 7 names. The genealogies in Genesis 5:3-32; 11:10-26; and Ruth 4:18-22 all have 10 names each. The genealogy of the nations (Genesis 10:2-29; 1 Chronicles 1:5-23) contains 70 names. Matthew arranged his genealogy (Matthew 1:2-17) into 3 groups of 14 names each. There are 14 names from Abraham to David, 14 from David to the exile, and 14 from the exile to Jesus Christ. To get the groups of 14, Matthew omitted at least 4 names (see below) and counted Jeconiah’s name twice. (See Matthew’s Genealogy on page 16.) Matthew clearly indicates in his gospel that that arrangement was intentional (Matthew 1:17). Whereas Matthew’s genealogy is broken into sections, Luke’s genealogy (Luke 3:23-28) is given as a single list. Luke has 14 names from Abraham to David, 21 from David to the exile, and 21 from the exile to Jesus Christ (in contrast to Matthew’s 14 names each). Luke also has an additional 21 names from Abraham back to Adam. (See Luke’s Genealogy on page 17.)
While modern genealogies are generally intended to be complete, most Biblical genealogies are telescoped. So, while Biblical genealogies are generally not complete, they are still historically accurate. They correctly communicate everything that we need to know (ancestry) but not necessarily everything we want to know (absolute genealogical relationships). It is often very difficult or even impossible to know with certainty whether or not a given genealogy is telescoped. The genealogies themselves give little or no indication of whether or not they are telescoped. So the only way to establish the completeness of a genealogy is to compare it with other Biblical genealogies or against history. Such study is difficult, painstaking, and is often inconclusive. Below are listed a few well-known examples where one can definitively say that they are telescoped.
- 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. (See Matthew’s Genealogy on page 16.)
- 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). (See Matthew’s Genealogy on page 16.)
- 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 more rest telescoped. (See Luke’s Genealogy on page 17.) A more detailed discussion of these genealogies is given in the section on the Genesis genealogies.
- 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. (See Priestly Lineage on page 18.) 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).
- 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
Estimating the Degree of Telescoping
Based on the above discussion and Biblical examples, we can see that the telescoping of genealogies was a fairly common practice in ancient times. Such telescoping is perfectly acceptable and literal (based on Hebrew word usage)—even if it may be disconcerting to modern readers. We can also see that it is usually impossible to tell from the genealogy itself whether or not it is complete. For a few genealogies, we can establish specific names that have been omitted and where they belong in the list. In general, however, the genealogy only establishes a minimum limit to the number of generations spanned. We have to look at other portions of scripture or history to estimate the degree of telescoping involved. While the degree of telescoping in a particular genealogy may be uncertain, it is certainly not arbitrary or unlimited. Upper limits on how far a genealogy might be pushed can be reasonably estimated by looking at Biblical examples for which we can establish the time span involved. Conservative Bible scholars estimate that genealogies are generally not less than 10% complete (i.e. including only 1 name in 10) based on such analysis.
- Ruth 4:18-22; 1 Chronicles 2:5-15; Matthew 1:3-6; and Luke 3:31-33
The genealogy of David given in the book of Ruth lists 10 names from Perez to David. The remaining 3 genealogies repeat these 10 names but also include Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Judah as the ancestors of Perez to round out the genealogy to 14 names. The time between Abraham and David spans more than 1,000 years. This time span is too long for the genealogy to be complete. One can estimate that the genealogy is about 20 to 50% complete.
- Heman, Asaph, and Ethan - 1 Chronicles 6:33-47
At the time of David, there were three head temple musicians, one from each of the 3 divisions of the Levites. There is Heman of the Kohathite division (verses 33-38), Asaph of the Gershonite division (verses 39-42), and Ethan of the Merarite division (verses 44-47). In each case, the genealogies start with Levi, who was the father of Kohath, Gershon, and Merari and ancestor of these three men. So, we have three genealogies side-by-side extending from Levi to the time of King David, yet the genealogies contain 21, 15, and 14 names respectively for exactly the same span of time. This suggests that at least the latter two genealogies are highly telescoped. (See Head Temple Musicians on page 19.)
- Jeriah (Jerijah) – 1 Chronicles 23:6, 12, 19; 26:31
Jeriah (or Jerijah) was the head of the Hebronites (a Levitical clan) and put in charge of other men by King David. His genealogy is telescoped to only mention his tribe (Levite), division (Kohathite), and clan (Hebronite). This four name genealogy covers the same approximately 900-year of history as that of Heman, Asaph, and Ethan (see previous point and see Head Temple Musicians on page 19). Since the other three genealogies contain 14 to 21 generations for this same time span, we can only conclude that this genealogy is no more than 15% complete.
- Shebuel (Shubael) – 1 Chronicles 23:15-16; 26:24
Shebuel (or Shubael) was put in charge of the treasury in the time of King David. Both of these genealogies have Shebuel, the son of Gershom, the son of Moses. Both Moses and Gershom lived during the time of the exodus while Shebuel lived in the time of King David, some 400 to 500 years later. This is highly telescoped and was only for the purpose of identifying his ancestry from Moses and Gershom.
- Ezra 8:1-2
In this verse, Ezra lists a number of leading men of his time period according to ancestry. So Gershom was the son of Phinehas (who was the grandson of Aaron); Daniel was the son of Ithamar (who was the son of Aaron); and Hattush was the son of David. The first two examples span approximately 1,000 years of time, and the third spans about 500 years. Clearly, these genealogies are highly telescoped!
A Detailed Example: The Mosaic Genealogies
The genealogy of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam illustrates all of the points made above and helps provide a clearer understanding of Biblical genealogies. Because of the central importance of these three figures, their genealogy is given four different times in scripture (Exodus 6:16-20; Numbers 26:57-59; and 1 Chronicles 6:1-3; 23:6, 12-13) and a lot of supporting information can also be gleaned from other scripture references.
Each of the Mosaic genealogies lists the same four generations (Levi to Kohath to Amram to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam). By cross-referencing with other scripture verses, we can clearly establish that these genealogies are telescoped. We know that both Levi and his son, Kohath, entered Egypt (Genesis 46:5-27; Exodus 1:1-4), which was 430 years before the Exodus (Exodus 12:40-41; Acts 7:6). Since Moses was 80 years old at the time of the Exodus (Exodus 7:7), from Kohath to Amram to Moses spans at least 350 years!!! A typical generation is 20 to 40 years, so one would expect that these genealogies to span between 10 and 20 generations. We find in 1 Chronicles 7:20-27 the genealogy of Ephraim, son of Joseph, which covers the same period of history as the Mosaic genealogies. Joseph (brother of Levi) and his son Ephraim were alive when the Israelites settled in Egypt (Genesis 41:52; 46:27). There are 12 generations listed from Joseph to Joshua. Since Joshua was alive at the time of the exodus and was a contemporary of Moses, these 12 generations span the 430-year stay in Egypt. This would fit nicely with a generation being about 40 years. Thus, this genealogy gives (at least) 12 generations that correspond to the same time period as the 4 generations of the Mosaic genealogies. (See The Genealogies of Moses and Joshua on page 18.) Yet, another evidence for telescoping is that Kohath’s descendents at the time of Moses numbered 8,600 men (Numbers 3:27, 28) of whom 2,750 were between the age of 30 and 50 (Numbers 4:36). This number of descendents is inexplicable if this genealogy is not telescoped and Kohath was Moses’ was grandfather. Based on these arguments, we can conclude that the Mosaic genealogies are perhaps only 20 to 40% complete.
Was Amram the immediate father of Moses and Aaron, or was he their ancestor? A number of evidences show there were quite a few generations separating Amram and Moses. (a) Kohath to Amram to Moses spans 350 years (as discussed above) and hence requires unnamed generations. (b) Amram and his wife, Jochebed, are mentioned in Exodus 6 as giving rise to Moses. Yet in the account of Exodus 2, the names of Moses parents are conspicuously absent. [They are instead referred to as “a man of the house of Levi” (vs. 2:1), “a Levite woman” (vs. 2:1), and “the baby’s mother” (vs. 2:8).] (c) Descendents of Amram are given in 1 Chronicles 24:20 but don’t mention Aaron, Moses, and Miriam neither does the Exodus account mention additional brothers for Moses. (d) Jochebed, Amram’s wife, is referred to as the daughter of Levi (Numbers 26:59) and Amram’s father’s sister (Exodus 6:20), which would place Jochebed at the entrance of the Israelites into Egypt. Thus, she would have to be at least 350 years old when she gave birth to Moses if there were no gaps in the Mosaic genealogies! Based on this evidence, we recognize that many generations separate Amram and Jochebed and their children, Aaron, Moses, and Miriam. In Exodus 6:20 and Numbers 26:59, Jochebed is said to “bear” (“begat,” yalad) them while in 1 Chronicles 6:3 and 23:13 describes them as “sons” (ben). Thus, both son (ben) and “begat” (yalad) are used synonymously here to refer to a distant descendent in a genealogy.
In conclusion, we find that the Mosaic genealogies are highly telescoped (perhaps 20 to 40% complete). Only the critical names—those corresponding to his tribe (Levi), division (Kohath), and clan (Amram)—are given, and the remaining names between Amram and Moses are ignored. Both the term “son” (ben) and “begat” (yalad) are applied interchangeably to the relationship between Amram and Moses, yet at least 8 generations separate the two men (i.e. ben and yalad are being used to mean ancestor rather than the immediate son). This genealogy is highly telescoped yet the genealogy itself does not tell us if it is complete or where the gaps are. Only by cross-referencing other Scripture verses or looking at historical sources were we able to determine whether or not it was telescoped.
The Genesis Genealogies
That many or even most Biblical genealogies are telescoped is not very controversial. However, the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 differ in at least one respect. We see the repeated formula, “When X had lived Y years, he became the father of (i.e. ‘begat’, yalad) Z” (NIV), rather than simply “X was the father of Y” or “X the son of Y” as we see elsewhere in the Bible. So, some argue that our conclusions about other Biblical genealogies may not apply to Genesis 5 and 11. Those holding Ussher’s chronology estimate that Adam and Eve were created around 6,000 years ago on the assumption that the Genesis genealogies are complete (see Genesis Genealogies on page 20). Nothing in the text, however, requires that these genealogies be complete. Biblical scholars who hold that the genealogies are telescoped would place the creation of Adam and Eve at around 10 to 30,000 years ago but perhaps as late as 60,000 years ago. Some have tried to push the genealogies so far back that they suggest that Adam and Eve might have been Neanderthals (or Homo erectus or australopithecines); however, this can not be supported and is rejected by the vast majority of Biblical scholars. But who’s right? What should we conclude about these genealogies?
In the example of the Mosaic genealogies (above), it was possible to be very firm in our conclusions due to the abundance of Biblical and historical details surrounding these events. The opposite is true for the Genesis genealogies. From the time of Abraham on there is wide spread consensus regarding dates and chronology. However, for the time period before Abraham, which is covered by the Genesis genealogies, there is very little Biblical or historical information on which to build solid chronological details. Without such supporting information, we need to tread lightly and not be dogmatic in our conclusions. While we can’t be conclusive in regards to the nature of the Genesis genealogies, there are a number of points that can be made.
- Examining Biblical genealogies show that ancient genealogies are generally telescoped rather than complete. Ancient readers, unlike modern readers, were concerned with ancestry rather than number of generations and so would generally not assume that a given genealogy was complete. Therefore, the burden of proof lies on those who hold that the Genesis genealogies are complete rather than the reverse.
- Many, perhaps most, of the early church fathers held to a recent date for the creation of Adam, and hence held that the genealogies were complete (or nearly complete). However, their basis for this conclusion had little to do with the genealogies themselves. There was a wide spread belief that all of human history (from Adam to the return of Christ) would last exactly 6,000 years and could be used as a basis for predicting Christ’s return. This interpretation is no longer accepted today, yet it had a strong influence on how the early church fathers interpreted the Genesis genealogies. Similarly, the dependence of the early church fathers on Greek and Latin translations of the Old Testament, rather than the original Hebrew, also led to a faulty understanding of these genealogies. (For more details see The Genesis Genealogies and the Early Church Fathers on page 12.)
- Henry Morris argues, “The record [of Genesis 5] is perfectly natural and straightforward and is obviously intended to give both the necessary genealogical data to denote the promised lineage and also the only reliable chronological framework we have for the antediluvian period of history” (emphasis mine). As we have observed, Biblical genealogies are certainly not “obvious” or “straightforward” in the way that Morris and others argue. At the heart of Morris’ argument is the presumption that the Genealogies should be interpreted through the lens of modern Western culture rather than based on careful exegetical analysis of Biblical and other ancient genealogies. This is an easy trap to fall into, because we are so immersed in our own culture and a proper grasp of Biblical genealogies requires a lot of patience and investigation.
If the author of Genesis 5 and 11 was attempting to give a precise genealogical framework as Morris argues, there should have been a summation of the years following the genealogy, but this doesn't occur. (Contrast this to the numbering of the Israelites in Numbers 1, where the individual numbers are summed in verse 46.) Nowhere in Genesis 5, 11, or anywhere else in the entire Bible are these numbers even suggested to be for the purpose of establishing the time frame between Adam and Abraham.
- If the presence of personal biographical information, specifically the age at fatherhood, is not for the purpose of establishing a chronological framework (as discussed in the previous point), what then is the purpose of this information? Again, we have to develop our understanding based on a systematic study of Biblical genealogies. A study on the inclusion of the age at death in genealogies reveals a distinct trend: it is only included if it is exceptional, specifically if it is 100 years or more. This trend is not surprising, since old age is a sign of blessedness. Inclusion of age at fatherhood seems to follow the same trend, i.e. it is included if it is truly exceptional. (A note of caution must be made here. The age at fatherhood is consistent with the trend, but there are so few examples that we cannot be conclusive.) Both the age at fatherhood and the age at death are certainly exceptional for all the individuals included in the Genesis genealogies.
- Comparing the genealogy of Genesis 11 with Jesus’ genealogy in Luke 3, we find that Luke contains the name Cainan between Shelah and Arphaxad (as noted earlier in this paper). The inerrancy of scripture, therefore, demands that there is at least one name missing in Genesis 11, and so at least one of the two Genesis genealogies is telescoped. Despite this direct Biblical evidence, some still hold to the belief that Genesis genealogies are complete, and hence that the inclusion of the name Cainan in Luke 3:36 is incorrect. One scenario would be that Luke based his genealogies on late copies of the Septuagint containing Cainan and so mistakenly added it to his genealogy. This scenario obviously contradicts Biblical inerrancy and so must be rejected. Henry Morris argues for an alternative scenario, where the name Cainan is mistakenly added by those copying Luke’s gospel rather than by Luke himself, thus avoiding problems with Biblical inerrancy. He argues that those first copying Luke’s gospel added the name Cainan because they were either influenced by their familiarity with the Septuagint or miscopied it from Luke 3:37. There is, however, no Biblical, historical, or manuscript evidence to support this claim, and therefore we should take Luke to be correct and the Genesis genealogies as telescoped.
- The Mosaic genealogies share a large number of similarities with the Genesis genealogies, yet they contain a large gap between Amram and Moses. Points of similarity include: a) the genealogy bridging a large span of time between important Biblical figures; b) using “begat” (yalad) to connect generations; and c) inclusion of personal details, such as age at death. So none of these features of the Genesis genealogy can be used to argue for the genealogies being complete.
- Both Genesis 5 and 11 use the verb “begat” to connect one generation to the next. In Exodus 6:20 and Numbers 26:59, this same verb connects Amram and his wife Jochebed to Moses even though there are many generations in between them. These verses demonstrate that “begat” can be genuinely used in precisely the way suggested for the Genesis genealogies.
Understanding the Genesis genealogies requires a systematic understanding of the nature, style, and purpose of genealogies in the Bible. Even a cursory study of Biblical genealogies shows that Biblical genealogies are very different from their modern counterparts. Looking closer, we find that Biblical genealogies are commonly telescoped by leaving out less important names and that it is usually impossible to tell if a genealogy is complete simply by looking at it. While genealogies are typically skimmed over or ignored by most people, the Genesis genealogies have generated controversy because of their supposed connection to the age of the universe and the creation of man. The interpretation that the Genesis genealogies are telescoped and that Adam and Eve were created a few tens of thousands of years ago is no less a literal interpretation of scripture than Ussher’s interpretation. Many prominent conservative theologians (see below) support this position.
Prominent Conservative Theologians Who Hold That The Genesis Genealogies Are Telescoped:
- William Henry Green, “Primeval Creation,” Bibliotheca Sacra, April 1890, pp. 285-303.
- B. B. Warfield, “On the Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race,” reprinted in Biblical and Theological Studies (P & R, 1968), pp. 238-261.
- Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. II, pp. 40-41.
- James Oliver Buswell, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, Part II, Chapter IV.
- R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, pp. 147-52.
- Francis Schaeffer, Genesis in Space and Time.
- NIV = New International Version of the Holy Bible.
- Vine’s = W. E. Vine, M. F. Unger, W. White, Jr., Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville.
- HGKSB = Hebrew Greek Key Study Bible by S. Zodhiates, World Bible Publishers, Inc, 1984.
- Word references in parenthesis are keyed to The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Thomas Nelson Publishers.
For Further Reference:
- NIV Study Bible, Zondervan Bible Publishers, Grand Rapids, MI, 1985, “Introduction to 1 Chronicles: Genealogies” and footnotes on Genesis 4:17-18, 5:5, 11:10-26; 1 Chronicles 6:4-15, 7:20-29; Daniel 5:1; Matthew 1:5, 8, 11, 12, 17; Acts 7:6.
- Norman Geisler and Norman Howe, When Critics Ask, Victor Books, Wheaton, IL 1992, p. 38-39.
- Hugh Ross, Fingerprint of God, 2nd Ed., Promise Publishing Co., Orange, CA, 1989, p. 159.
- Hugh Ross, Creation and Time, NavPress, Colorado Springs, CO, 1994, p 26-27.
- Hugh Ross, Genesis Question, NavPress, Colorado Springs, CO, 1999, p. 54-55, 107-110.
Those holding to the view that the Genesis genealogies must be complete (or very nearly complete) may be tempted to look to the early church leaders in order to garner support for their view. In examining the writings of the early church fathers, we must be careful to avoid the pitfall of trying to recruit them to support our personal views but instead we should focus on simply trying to understand what they taught and why. An excellent starting point in this regard is Robert Bradshaw’s extensive survey of the writings of the early church fathers (up to the death of Augustine in 430 AD) on how they interpreted various issues in Genesis 1-11.
Bradshaw notes that during the formative years of the church, there was an almost universal belief that human history (from Adam to the return of Christ) would encompass exactly 6,000 years. This was based on the idea that God’s plan for human history paralleled God’s creation of the world. That is, human history would span six “days” just as creation took place in six “days.” While the early church leaders held differing views of the length of the “days” of creation, the “days” of human history were believed to be 1,000 years each (based on Psalms 90:4; 2 Peter 3:8). Some further divided this history into three ages of 2,000 years (2 “days”) each: an age of chaos; the age of the Law, and the age of the Messiah. These six “days” were then to be followed by Christ’s triumphal return and the inauguration of the millennial kingdom (Revelations 20). Thus the millennial kingdom (seventh “day”) paralleled God’s rest on the seventh “day” of creation. It is this millennial view of human history that more than any other factor led many in the early church to hold that the Genesis genealogies were complete, because this interpretation required that the genealogies were complete (or nearly complete).
Contemporary audiences will likely find this understanding of human history a bit surprising, since it is no longer held in the church today. One of the primary driving forces for the acceptance of this 6,000 year interpretation of history was eschatological—an attempt to date Christ’s return. (This is despite a scriptural injunction against doing so.) Using the Genesis genealogies (if one assumes that they are truly complete) one could work backward in time from Abraham to the creation of Adam and then from there leap forward 6,000 years to determine when Christ would return and set up his millennial kingdom. Some specific dates given by early church fathers for the creation of Adam include Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215 AD) at 5,592 BC; Julius Africanus (c. 160–240 AD) and Hippolytus of Rome (170-236 AD) at 5,500 BC; and finally Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339 AD) at 5,228 BC. (See Specific Statements Made by Early Church Fathers Concerning the Age of the Earth on page 21.) The three earliest dates would have placed Christ’s return at around the 5th to 6th century AD while Eusebius’ date placed Christ’s return at around the 9th century AD. It is this prediction that Jesus Christ would come back soon (only hundreds, not thousands of years) that fueled apocalyptic expectations, which insured the rapid and widespread acceptance of this interpretation of human history. Bradshaw notes the trend toward later and later estimates for Christ’s return (based on the estimated dates for Adam’s creation) and speculates that this may have been intentional on the part of the church in order cool apocalyptic fervor over the nearness of Christ’s return.
Before moving on, it should be noted that the estimates given for when Adam was created (and correspondingly for when Christ was to return) were actually in error (off by more than 1,000 years) because these early church fathers based their calculation on the Greek Septuagint rather than the original Hebrew. (Their dependence on Greek and Latin translations of the Old Testament will be discussed in more detail below.) The Hebrew text, the Greek Septuagint, and the Samaritan Pentateuch all have different values for the ages used in the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 and correspondingly give different estimates for when Adam was created. The accepted Hebrew text has the correct values for the ages while the Septuagint tends to give larger values and the Samaritan Pentateuch tends to give smaller values (relative to the Hebrew text). (Specific ages are given in Variation in the Age at Fatherhood between Different Translations on page 21.) Later estimates by Archbishop James Ussher and John Lightfoot in 1650 using the ages given in the Hebrew text produced a date for the creation of Adam at 4,004 BC (corresponding to Christ returning around the year 1998 AD). Had the early church used this (corrected) estimation, the interpretation of human history in 6,000 years would have been much less appealing to the early church because Christ’s return would have been viewed as very distant (almost 2,000 years away) rather than just a few hundred years away and in turn this would have lessoned the impetus to force an interpretation of the Genesis genealogies as being complete.
Another reason for the widespread acceptance of the millennial “day” interpretation of human history was an attempt to resolve a difficulty in Genesis 2:17. This verse reads, “for in the day you eat of it [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] you shall die” (NRSV) yet Genesis 5:5 tells us that Adam lived 930 years. So by arguing that the “day” referred to in Genesis 2:17 was a millennium (using Psalms 90:4 and 2 Peter 3:8), then Adam would have (physically) died just short of the end of the first (millennial) “day” of human history. For example, Justin Martyr (c. 100-c. 160 AD) wrote:
“Now we have understood that the expression used among these words, ‘According to the days of the tree [of life] shall be the days of my people; the works of their toil shall abound, obscurely predicts a thousand years. For as Adam was told that in the day he ate of the tree he would die, we know that he did not complete a thousand years. We have perceived, moreover, that the expression, “The day of the Lord is as a thousand years,’ is connected with this subject.”
Irenaeus (c. 115-202 AD) likewise wrote:
“And there are some again, who relegate the death of Adam to the thousandth year; for since ‘a day of the Lord is as a thousand years,’ he did not overstep the thousand years, but died within them, thus bearing out the sentence of his sin. Whether, therefore, with respect to disobedience, which is death; whether [we consider] that, on account of that, they were delivered over to death, and made debtors to it; whether with respect to [the fact that on] one and the same day on which they ate they also died (for it is one day of the creation); whether [we regard this point] that with respect to this cycle of days, they died on the day in which they did also eat, that is, the day of the preparation, which is termed ‘the pure supper,’ that is, the sixth day of the feast, which the Lord also exhibited when He suffered on that day; or whether [we reflect] that he (Adam) did not overstep the thousand years, but died within their limit…”
Bradshaw gives an extended discussion of these quotes and demonstrates that the thousand years refers to the millennial “days” interpretation of human history, not to the “days” of creation in Genesis 1. This use of millennial “days” to explain Genesis 2:17, which helped support the millennial interpretation of human history, is no longer accepted in the church today.
Another critical factor that shaped the early church’s understanding of the book of Genesis was their reliance upon Greek and Latin translations of the Old Testament, rather than the original Hebrew manuscripts. According to Bradshaw’s research, out of 23 early church fathers studied, only two (Jerome and Theodore of Mopsuestia) were fluent in Hebrew and both lived in the fourth/fifth century AD. This means that for the first three to four centuries, the early church labored under a Greek and Latin influenced understanding of the Genesis genealogies. The Septuagint was the primary Greek translation available to the early Christians and was composed by Jewish theologians at around 250-300 BC. While the Septuagint was generally a reliable translation, the earliest Latin translations (prior to Jerome’s Latin Vulgate) varied considerably in their degree of accuracy. Many in the early church held that these translations were inspired and of higher authority than the Hebrew text and so often failed to question the translated text even when it led to obvious problems. By the time that Jerome came around near the beginning of the 5th century AD and produced a new and authoritative vernacular Latin translation—the Vulgate—using both the Hebrew text and the Septuagint, interpretations based on reading Greek or Latin texts were well entrenched. Bradshaw is clear in noting that modern scholars have a distinct edge over the early church fathers in regard to using the original Hebrew. Today, there exist Hebrew-English Bibles, Hebrew word dictionaries, as well as newer English translations based directly on the Hebrew manuscripts.
This reliance upon Greek and Latin translations did have an impact upon a wide variety of interpretations made by the early church leaders, and some faulty interpretations continued to be passed on even long after the time of the early church leaders. Translations can affect interpretations in several different ways. First, translations may contain genuine mistakes or errors. This is rather rare but the aforementioned differences in the ages at fatherhood and its corresponding impact on the perceptions of the early church fathers illustrates this problem. Secondly, translators may subtly interject their own interpretation into the translation of the passage. As an example, Bradshaw mentions that the Greek Septuagint translated the phrase “sons of God” in Genesis 6:1-4 as “angels,” thus impacting the debate as to whether this passage was referring to fallen angels or descents of Seth. The third and most significant effect of using translations is that it is impossible to exactly translate words and phrases from one language to another. Whereas the first two problems can often be caught by comparing different manuscripts or translations, the subtle differences between languages are often much more difficult to quantify and correct. Hebrew is a Semitic language and so is very different from Greek, Latin, and English. One important difference is that verbs in ancient Hebrew do not express verb tense as in Greek, Latin, and English, which means that translations can subtly introduce assumptions about the duration and time ordering of verbal actions. Hebrew also has a very small vocabulary compared to most modern languages, so that Hebrew words often have many more meanings than their modern counterparts. This is particularly important, when we consider genealogical words, such as “son,” “father,” and “begat,” which have a much more flexible usage in Hebrew than in Greek or Latin.
In examining the writings of the early church fathers, we see that they wrestled with the very same issues that concern us today. Many look to their works as an authoritative guide for Christian belief, while others look to them because they are free from modern biases (such as naturalism and rationalism). While these writings cannot and should not be ignored, we must be guarded in our acceptance of their interpretations. Being free from modern biases does not mean that they were completely objective in their interpretations. Clearly, eschatological concerns (human history in 6,000 years to date Christ’s return) and theological concerns (explaining Genesis 2:17) shaped much of the early church’s understanding of the Genesis genealogies rather than the genealogies themselves. The early church’s dependence upon the Greek and Latin translations rather than the original Hebrew manuscripts exerted an additional influence over the thinking of the early church in regard to the Genesis genealogies. Given these factors, our understanding of the Genesis genealogies should be based primarily on a careful study of the role and function of Biblical genealogies throughout the Bible, rather than focusing upon the writings of the early church fathers.
Abraham to David (14 names)
David to the Exile (14 names)
Exile to Jesus Christ (14 names)
From Adam to Abraham (21 names)
Abraham to David (14 names)
David to the Exile (21 names)
Exile to Jesus Christ (21 names)
Moses, Aaron, and Miriam all play critical roles in the exodus, and their genealogy appears four times in the Bible (Exodus 6:16-20; Numbers 26:57-59; 1 Chronicles 6:1-3; 23:6, 12-13). Joshua, son of Nun, was also a part of the exodus and has his own genealogy (Numbers 13:8, 16; 1 Chronicles 7:20-27). Both sets of genealogies span the same 430-year period (Exodus 12:40-41; Acts 7:6) from the sojourn to Egypt till the exodus from Egypt, yet one lists 4 generations and the other has 12.
|Moses’ Genealogies||Joshua’s Genealogy|
|Amram (and Jochebed)||Beriah|
|Moses, Aaron, and Miriam||Joshua (Hoshea)|
1 Chronicles 6:3-15 and Ezra 7:1-5
The genealogy in 1 Chronicles 6:3-15 lists 22 names extending from Aaron to Seraiah. Ezra’s genealogy (Ezra 7:1-5) overlaps the genealogy in 1 Chronicles 6 but only includes 16 names. The italicized names are the 6 names found in 1 Chronicles 6 but absent in Ezra.
1 Chronicles 6:33-47
This passage contains three genealogies, one for each head temple musician according the Levitical division that they belonged to. All three men (Heman of the Kohathites, Asaph of the Gershomites, and Ethan of the Merarites) were contemporary with one another and served in the time of King David (1 Chronicles 6:31). All of the genealogies start with Levi in the time of the patriarchs and conclude in the time of King David and so span the same approximately 900-year period. It is important to note that very different numbers of generations are shown for the exact same time span, which strongly suggests that at least two of the genealogies were telescoped.
1 Chronicles 6:33-38
1 Chronicles 6:39-43
1 Chronicles 6:44-47
(15 names total)1
(14 names total)1
Genealogy from Adam to Noah (Genesis 5)
Age at Death
Year of Birth
Year of Death
Genealogy from Noah to Abraham (Genesis 11:10-32)
Date of Creation of
|Clement of Alexandria||
c. 150- c. 215
|Hippolytus of Rome||
|Eusebius of Caesarea||
|Augustine of Hippo||
Genealogy from Adam to Noah (Genesis 5)
|Hebrew||Greek Septuagint||Samaritan Pentateuch|
|Methuselah||187||167 or 187||67|
Dr. John Millam
Dr. Millam received his doctorate in theoretical chemistry from Rice University in 1997, and currently serves as a programmer for Semichem in Kansas City.