Taking Genesis for What it Says

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Genesis can be interpreted in a variety of ways, but what happens when we let the Bible speak for itself?

I was reading Genesis 11 the other day, and I noticed an interesting, and concerning, note in my Bible.

Genesis 11 basically consists of two parts. The first nine verses tell us of the Tower of Babel. The last thirteen consist of a genealogy that leads into the first discussion of Abram (who will later be called Abraham). Of particular note is that this genealogy starts with Shem and ends, as already mentioned, with Abraham. In Genesis 5, we have a genealogy from Adam to Noah. Both of these genealogies tell the age of the father when his son was born, so they allow us to calculate the time from Adam to Noah and from Shem to Abraham. Considering that the Flood account tells us the time of the Flood relative to Noah’s age (Genesis 7:6) and Shem’s son Arpachshad is specifically noted to have been born two years after the Flood, both genealogies can be tied together, allowing us to calculate how many years ago was the Creation Week relative to Abraham’s age. These two genealogies are key in concluding that the Earth is around 6,000 years old.

By the way, in case you want to see what that number is, if we look at the genealogy in Genesis 5, there are 1056 years between the creation of Adam and the birth of Noah. Noah was 600 years old when the Flood began (Genesis 7:6) and he was 601 when he disembarked from the Ark (Genesis 8:13). According to Genesis 11, Arpachshad was born two years after the Flood and there are 290 years between the births of Arpachshad and Abraham. If we add all of that up, we get 1056+601+2+290=1949 years. Thus, there are 1949 years between creation and the birth of Abraham. Thus, the age of the Earth can be calculated in relation to the origin of the nation of Israel.

It is because of the significance of the genealogy in Genesis 11 that I took note of the footnote in my Bible. Here is the relevant part of the footnote:

As is common in ancient genealogies, it is apparent that this genealogy contains gaps. If it were precisely sequential, the events of chs. 9-11 would cover less than three centuries, all of Abraham’s ancestors would have been still living when he was born, and Shem would outlive Abraham by fourteen years. The purpose of this genealogy is to record the advances of the messianic line.[1]

Hopefully, the danger of this reasoning is apparent. If there are unspecified gaps in the genealogy of Genesis 11, then there is an unknown amount of time between the Flood and Abraham. If there are enough gaps, then the Earth could very well be more than 6,000 years old. How old exactly? Well, the editors of my Bible do not seem to take a position on that, but it is apparent that they are open to interpretations other than the strict 6,000 year old Earth interpretation. Allow enough leeway, and you can theoretically include millions of years in the genealogies of Genesis 11 and 5. In other words, claiming that there are gaps without specific reasons why there are gaps opens the door for long age creationism.

In light of how “there are gaps somewhere” can lead to error, I want to focus on the reasoning used to conclude that there are probably gaps in the Genesis 11 genealogy and criticize that.

To begin, notice the opening thought: “As is common in ancient genealogies.” Frankly, I do not care what ancient genealogies are like, I want to know what the Word of God is like. We cannot judge the Bible by the writings of men. That is the whole idea behind letting scripture interpret scripture: scripture is its own standard of truth, not the writings of men. Thus, what happens in ancient genealogies is irrelevant to what the Bible says.

Having said that, we know for sure that some genealogies in the Bible are truncated. Here is a specific example. In the genealogy of Jesus given in Matthew 1, three Kings of Israel are missing. The genealogy in Matthew mentions Jehoshaphat, Joram, Uzziah, and Jotham as part of the link between David and Jesus. If we turn to II Chronicles 21-26, we will note that there are three kings between Joram and Uzziah: Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah. After Amaziah, Chronicles picks up with Uzziah and continues in the same way as the Matthew genealogy. Why these three kings were specifically missing from Matthew’s genealogy is unknown. It may be to make the genealogy fit a neat “fourteen, fourteen, fourteen” pattern. Matthew specifically says that “all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations” (Matthew 1:17).

Now that we have a specific Biblical example of gaps in a genealogy, we can then compare it to the Genesis 11 genealogy. Several important observations can immediately be noted. First, there is only a three generation gap in a series of 42 generations (42 generations mentioned in Matthew from Abraham to Jesus). That is an increase of 7%. A 7% difference in the age of the Earth would change it from 6000 years to 6420 years. That is hardly a difference to write home about. In other words, in one example of gaps in a genealogy in the Bible, the difference is rather trivial: it would still be impossible to squeeze millions, or even thousands, of extra years in the Genesis genealogies.

Second, how do we know about the genealogy gaps in Matthew 1? Because of scripture, specifically by comparing it to II Chronicles. We can fill in the missing gaps from scripture itself. If we are to stipulate that there are genealogies missing in Genesis 11, where are these missing generations to be found elsewhere in the Bible? To my knowledge, there are only two other places in the Bible where the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 are repeated, and those are in I Chronicles 1 and Luke 3. The genealogy from Adam to Abraham given in Genesis 5 and 11 match what is given in I Chronicles 1:1 and 1:24 perfectly: there are no gaps. As for Luke 3:34-38, there is only one additional person: Luke includes Cainan between Arpachshad and Shelah, while Cainan is missing from both Genesis 11 and I Chronicles 1. Thus, if we let scripture interpret scripture, there is only one (possible) gap in Genesis 11, and that is Cainan. Even then, two of the three genealogies lack Cainan, which opens the possibility that they are correct and Luke contains an extra individual. In fact, there is an idea that Cainan between Arpachshad and Shelah is a copyist error. The name Cainan also appears between Mahalalel and Enosh in all three genealogies. It has been suggested that when Luke’s genealogy was copied, the name Cainan was accidently inserted a second time, putting him between Arpachshad and Shelah, where he does not belong. Backing this up is the observation that some of the oldest copies of Luke do not include Cainan between Arpachshad and Shelah.[2] Thus, it appears that modern translations of Luke’s genealogy have an error, not the Genesis 11 genealogy.

As a quick note, saying that there is a copyist error does not mean that there is an error in the Bible. This is an error made by a human who copied the Bible, it is not an original error of the Bible. Note that older copies of Luke do not have Cainan between Arpachshad and Shelah. That is what the Word of God originally said. Later copies contained the error, so it was a human introduced error, not a Biblical error.

If we let scripture interpret scripture, there is no reason to think that the genealogy of Genesis 11 contains gaps. This same genealogy in other parts of the Bible actually confirm the Genesis record. Now, some may claim that, “Of course these genealogies are all the same: the author of I Chronicles and Luke simply copied what was given in Genesis 11.” They may be the case, but that still does not demonstrate that there is a gap in Genesis 11. If we let scripture interpret scripture, we still need to find a passage of scripture, not a general trend of ancient civilizations, to support that gap.

To their credit, the editors of my Bible do not simply rest on “the ancient’s did it, so the authors of the Bible did the same thing” argument to claim that there are gaps in the genealogy of Genesis 11. They back up that claim with some evidence. Specifically,

If it [the genealogy] were precisely sequential, the events of chs. 9-11 would cover less than three centuries, all of Abraham’s ancestors would have been still living when he was born, and Shem would outlive Abraham by fourteen years.

Let me address the last two “problems” with the Genesis 11 genealogy first. It is true that, if taken at face value, the genealogy would show that all of his ancestors, from Shem to Terah, were alive when Abraham was born. It is also true that Abraham would have died fourteen years before Shem died. Now, why is that significant? In truth, it is not. If that is what the Bible tells us the genealogy was like, then that is what the genealogy was like. It may seem strange to us. How many of us have great-grandfathers who are alive when they are born, much less their great-great-great-great-grandfathers? It just doesn’t seem right.

However, that is the problem. It doesn’t seem right to us. We live in a world where people rarely live to be a hundred years old, so there is little overlap between generations. You may see instances of four generations living at a time, but that is stretching it. However, that is our experience. Does our experience dictate the truth of the Bible? Absolutely not. Instead, if we take the Biblical account at face value, we would note that the men listed in the Genesis 5 genealogy had very long lives: most of them lived well over nine-hundred years. The genealogy in Genesis 11 then represents a progressive reduction in the longevity of men. Shem lived 600 years while Nahor (Abraham’s grandfather and the last man listed in the genealogy whose whole age is given) lived 148 years. Such a pattern of decline would naturally allow a lot of overlap between generations (hence, all of Abraham’s ancestors were still alive at his birth) and the earliest generations would live the longest (hence Shem outlived Abraham). If we understand the Bible in light of what the Bible says, and not try to interpret it according to our experience, then it makes sense.

Finally, the editors of my Bible note that everything that happened in Genesis 9 through 11 would have taken place in less than 300 years. These events would include disembarking from the Ark; Noah growing a vinyard, getting drunk on the wine, being mocked by Ham, and Noah cursing Cannan; the founding and building of several cities; and the construction and abandonment of the Tower of Babel. Sure, that is a lot to happen in just 300 years. Do you know what else would be a lot to happen in 300 years? The rise of a nation, two wars to separate itself from its parent nation, the rise of industrialization, two world wars, the rise of a superpower, the crumbling of its main rival, and the exportation of its culture all throughout the world. In other words, the entire history of the United States of America, which is less than 300 years. The events of Genesis 9-11 taking place in 300 years doesn’t seem so unusual in that light, does it?

Now, some may object and claim that, things happened slower back then: they didn’t have the same technology as we have, or there wasn’t enough people to do all of those things. As for the first argument, Noah and his family came from an advanced civilization. They came from a time when there were cities, music writing, shepherding, and metal working. Look at the Ark itself: a huge ship that survived a year-long flood. It took a lot of knowledge and skill to build that thing. These were not primitives stumbling off of a boat but people who knew how to create and build using raw materials from the earth. As for the latter argument, every one of the men mentioned in the Genesis 11 genealogy are said to have “had other sons and daughters” after the notable son was mentioned. If men were living into their hundreds and having several children, it would not take long for the population to explode. In both cases, there is amble evidence that the events of Genesis 9-11 very well could fit into a three hundred year time span.

Note the running theme throughout this critique. If we let the Bible interpret the Bible, there is no reason to question the authenticity of historical accounts in the Bible. It is only when we try to figure out the Bible using our own reasoning that we run into error.

[1]The Bible this comes from is The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version, R. C. Sproul Editor, published by Reformation Trust in Orlando, Florida.

[2]Paul F. Taylor (2010) “An Extra Cainan?” in Demolishing Supposed Bible Contradictions: Exploring Forty Alleged Contradictions, Ken Ham Ed. Master Books, Green Forest, Arkansas, pg. 113-114