We conclude this series on gaps in Scripture’s genealogical records by analyzing the passages in Genesis that are most critical to calculations of a 6,000-year-old universe by biblical date-setters such as Bishop James Ussher. Widespread evangelical adherence to Ussher’s calculations has helped erect an artificial bulwark between the Bible and science, but we show that the flexibility and ambiguity of biblical Hebrew makes it impossible to calculate an accurate creation timeline using the Bible’s genealogies.
The first 4 parts of this series have focused on the Hebrew word yālad in the stories of Noah, Abraham, and Moses. These narratives show that, although yālad is usually translated “begat” (KJV) or “became the father of” (NIV, NASB), the word does not necessarily imply a parent-child relationship; it can also refer to a more general familial connection.
Now in this final part, we apply this knowledge to Genesis 5, 10, and 11, which contain genealogies fundamental to all calculations of a creation date. We will also discuss a final example of yālad from the Exodus account, which suggests this word had a cultural/sociological significance that may have transcended biological reproduction.
As discussed earlier, biblical date-setters generally seem to acknowledge that yālad as used in Genesis 5:32 and 11:26 does not mean that Noah’s sons (Shem, Ham, and Japheth) or Terah’s offspring (Abraham, Nahor, and Haran) were triplets. Rather, these scholars agree that, in these two cases, yālad might be more correctly paraphrased as “so-and-so began a family line, which included...” Yet despite this example of yālad’s flexibility, they insist that yālad always and literally means “became the father of” in the Genesis 5, 10, and 11 genealogies.
Shelah and Eber as Typical Examples
Consider, as an example, Shelah and Eber as mentioned in Genesis 11:14–15. Timeline scholars insist that Genesis 11:14 literally means: “Shelah lived thirty years, and became the father of [yālad] Eber” (NASB). In other words, although they recognize the broad, loose meaning of yālad in the story of Noah and Terah, they assume it provides great precision in two sketchy verses about Shelah’s genealogy.
This makes no sense. The understanding about yālad gleaned from the stories of Noah’s sons (part 3) and Abraham (part 4) proves that Eber was not necessarily Shelah’s oldest son, born when Shelah was 30. Eber may just be the only son mentioned because, as a forefather of the Jewish race, he is considered Shelah’s most important offspring. (In fact, many—probably most—of the patriarchs who preserved the Davidic messianic line, including David himself, were not oldest sons.1)
Since Genesis 11:15 states that Shelah “had [yālad] other sons [bēn] and daughters [bat],” it seems verse 14 ought to be translated: “Shelah lived thirty years, and began a family line, which included Eber.” This does not mean Eber was not Shelah’s firstborn son, born when Shelah was 30; it only means that the biblical Hebrew does not require this interpretation.
Moreover, Eber need not have even been Shelah’s son! The example of Moses (part 2) shows that yālad does not necessarily imply a parent-child relationship; it can also mean “was the ancestor of.” Even Shelah’s other bēn and bat mentioned in Genesis 11:15 need not be actual sons and daughters; they might be male and female descendants.
In summary, the only certainty revealed in Genesis 11:14 is that Eber is Shelah’s progeny. We do not know how many generations intervene between the two—and unless a narrative informs us, we can never know.
The Fundamental Ambiguity of Biblical Hebrew
The ambiguity with Shelah and Eber naturally also applies to the other patriarchs listed in Genesis 5, 10, and 11, opening the possibility of many genealogical gaps. This is due to the fundamental ambiguity of biblical Hebrew.
Modern languages tend to be exacting about the terms “father” and “son” and “ancestor” and “descendant.” However, the Hebrew words ׳āb [“father”] and bēn [“son” or “child”] and bat [“daughter”] often mean “ancestor” and “descendant.” For example, Genesis 46:15 states that Jacob had “thirty-three” bēn (“sons”) and bat (“daughters”) through Leah, but Genesis 46:9–14 makes it clear that most of these bēn and bat are, in fact, grandchildren—and two are great-grandchildren. Furthermore, though Genesis 46:18 identifies “sixteen” bēn through Zilpah, verses 16–17 make it clear that most of these bēn are grandsons and great-grandsons.
Some of the bēn listed in Genesis 10 are actually nations, so it’s possible the word applies to descendants many generations removed. One might argue that these bēn refer to a real person who was the founder of each nation, but this does not seem to be the case for Mizraim, described in Genesis 10:6 as a bēn of Ham. In fact, “Mizraim” has been understood to mean the “two Egypts,”2 a reference to the nation of Egypt following a unification that would have occurred afterthe Tower of Babel. Mizraim is not a person at all, but two nations that developed, then merged to form one nation—an event that would have taken a long time to achieve.
The ambiguity of the biblical Hebrew words that indicate familial designations should come as no surprise. Biblical Hebrew does not have separate words for “grandfather,” “grandmother,” “grandson,” or “granddaughter”—let alone modern terms like “third cousin twice removed.” Furthermore, the stories of Moses and Abraham illustrate the custom in the ancient near East of intermarriage with close relatives. It has been suggested that this practice was at least in part to protect property in an unstable environment (consider the biblical requirement of a man to marry his brother’s widow, for example). In any case, one result of frequent intermarriage is that relatives have multiple relationships with one another; in such a culture, a fluid terminology for family relationships would be very convenient.
Problems with Genesis 5 and 11 Genealogy Calculations
By contrast, if we assume the timeline scholars are correct—that Genesis 5 and 11 contain complete lists of patriarchs and that yāladin these chapters implies a literal father-son relationship—we are forced into some awkward situations. Using Ussher’s chronology as an example, this assumption requires that:
- Eight of Noah’s ancestors were alive when his “father” Lamech was born—including Lamech’s “great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather” Adam!
- Most of these ancestors were still alive at the birth of Noah.
- Methuselah and Lamech were among the “corrupt” people (Genesis 6:11, NASB) swept away in the Flood.
- Ten post-Flood patriarchs were alive when Terah began his family at age 70—including his “great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather” Noah.
- Most of Terah’s ancestors were still alive at the birth of Abraham (if it is assumed he was born when Terah was 130).
With an omnipotent God in control, it is possible to imagine this genealogy is correct. Yet it seems strange that such a distinguished extended family is not mentioned in the stories of Noah or Abraham.
One explanation for the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11 is based on the symbolism of numbers, which was important to the ancients. The number 10, for example, symbolizes completeness (e.g., the Ten Commandments). It seems noteworthy that Genesis lists 10 patriarchs from Adam to Noah and 10 from Noah to Terah.3 Both eras represent a complete period in the interaction between God and man. Considering the biblical writers’ ancient Near Eastern mindset, it has been suggested that Genesis 5 and 11 are symbolically complete lists, rather than comprehensive lists.
Moreover, two groups of 10 generations might be considered a structured genealogy that shows each group is equal in relative importance. An example of such structured genealogy is in Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1, summarized in verse 17 (NASB): “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to [the time of] the Messiah, fourteen generations.” It was necessary to omit names to generate three groups of 14 patriarchs—and 14 just happens to be the numerical value of David’s name.
Yālad in the Exodus
Not only does yālad imply an ancestor-descendant relationship rather than a parent-child, the use of yālad in Numbers 1:18 suggests the word has a cultural-sociological significance that may transcend biological reproduction. This verse records that in a census taken shortly after the Israelites fled Egypt, the people were assembled and yālad mishpachah (“clan or family”). In this case, the Septuagint (LXX) translates yālad in Greek as ἐπαξονέω, meaning “to register, to enroll on tablets.” Modern English Bibles have chosen words like “registered by ancestry” (NASB), “declared their pedigrees” (JPS), and “recited their ancestry” (NKJV). Yet if the LXX is considered as clarifying the ambiguity of the biblical Hebrew (because it is a document written in Greek by Jews who understood the subtleties of both languages), the LXX literally reads “they were registering [them] according to their origin...”4 Note the subject of the verb: the unnamed registrars were “yālad-ing” the Israelites into their family groups. A translation of this verse following the pattern of biblical date-setters would read: “the registrars became the fathers of the people…”—a ridiculous statement. Thus, in this verse, yālad seems more related to creating a genealogical record than to physical birth, and its purpose is recording a child’s ancestry—not his/her date or time of birth.
Most scholars agree that the Pentateuch was written not earlier than the time of Moses, nor later than the time of Ezra. In either case, it was written to a people for whom ancestry established perpetual land-ownership rights. The Israelites were more interested in recording genealogical lines than birthdays. The Israelites assembled in Numbers 1 were, in effect, made part of their families for inheritance purposes when their ancestry was recorded—and some may have been born as a result of inappropriate relationships because of Israelite slavery. The fact that the author of Numbers used the verb yālad to describe the recording of ancestry by unnamed registrars conveys a subtlety of the word that seems overlooked by biblical date-setters.
It is our belief that this principle applies to the use of yālad in the stories of Moses, Noah’s sons, and Abraham. First Chronicles 6:3 and 23:13 record that Moses is a Kohathite of the Amram branch—not the son of Amram. Genesis 5:32 records that Shem, Ham, and Japheth are in the line of Noah, and Genesis 11:26 records the progeny of Terah; that the offspring may or may not be sons is incidental to the use of yālad as the initial recording of important progeny. The primary purpose of yālad is to enter these men into the genealogical record—not to record their birth. This is why, although the wording in most English translations implies that triplets were born to the father at such-and-such age, that is not the intent of the biblical Hebrew. Instead, the most comprehensive translation of yālad in these verses might be: “…began a family line, which included…whose lineage is recorded herein.”
Though there may be scholarly disagreement with our analysis of yālad in Numbers 1:18, this much is clear: yālad does not mean “became the father of” in this verse. At best, the meaning is obscure. This resurrects the hermeneutical problem noted in parts 3 and 4 of this series, which is ignored by biblical date-setters. If yālad is assumed to have a rigid meaning in Genesis 5, 10, and 11, how can such a rigid word have an obscure meaning in even one verse?
The Futile Task of Biblical Date-Setters
It seems apparent from the above discussion that the primary purpose of yālad is to record family lines, not birth dates. Lists that include yālad might be in order of importance rather than age, thus some names might be omitted. Sarah, for example, is not listed in Terah’s genealogy, even though there seems little doubt from the narrative that she is Terah’s daughter or granddaughter.5
The bottom line is that scholars should be cautious when attempting to calculate a creation timeline based on the assumption that yālad implies a parent-child relationship in genealogy passages (such as Genesis 5, 10, and 11). Their calculations might be in error unless there is a clear indication of a parent-child relationship, such use of the word hārâ (“conceived”) and/or a birth narrative that confirms the date of birth. Additionally, it must be taken into account that Hebrew words like ׳āb (“father”), bēn (“son” or “child”), bat (“daughter”), and ׳āḥôt (“sister”) often mean “ancestor,” “descendant,” and “female relative.”
In all cases, the biblical narrative is the key. (For example, the narrative confirms that Shem, Ham, and Japheth and Abraham, Nahor, and Haran were not triplets.) It requires scholars to acknowledge that the meaning of yālad need not literally mean “begot” or “became the father of.”
Biblical date-setters make a logical error, which serves as an example of an “argument from ignorance”: that something that has not been proven false is presumed to be true. They assume that yālad implies a parent-child relationship and records a precise date of birth unless the narrative proves otherwise. But the wide range of meanings for yālad makes this argument invalid. It is logically unsupportable to assume the word literally means “begot” or “became the father of” unless there is a confirming narrative. Without a confirming narrative, the word might have a much more general genealogical implication.
Furthermore, the ambiguities identified in the stories of Moses, Noah’s sons, and Abraham seem to make an important and critical point. Since the imprecision of biblical Hebrew creates ambiguities about patriarchs about whom so much is known, how can anyone logically infer precise information about patriarchs for whom so little is known?
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.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5