This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.

Question

I have been both fascinated and troubled by your recent work on the early chapters of Genesis. Troubled because it is so different from everything I have been taught for my 35 years of life! I almost feel like the rug has been pulled out from under me. I have been listening to your defenders class on the subject and confess I have not been fully satisfied by some of your answers/solutions to some of the “issues” in these early chapters.

One such area that has bothered me is regarding the genealogies in Genesis. I have heard in the past that "begot" or "fathered" doesn't have to imply that the person is the direct actual son, so the speak. People use that to argue that humans could have been around for much longer than a few thousand years. However, even given that fact, it is troubling to me that the genealogy in Genesis 5 seems to give exact ages at which another person was born (e.g. "When Seth had lived 105 years, he fathered Enosh..."). It is Seth's age when Enosh was born that troubles me, not whether or not Enosh is the son, grandson, or great-grandson of Seth.

From what I remember from your class you seemed to wave the genealogies off saying it just wasn't meant to be taken literally. But why? I guess I have not felt convinced that the original readers would have read the genealogies as an exaggeration. It seems to me that they were meant to be taken literally because of how specific they are. At least that’s how it appears to me when I read them.

I have another question, that I realize does not have an answer, but I am curious if you have wrestled with this, because it is certainly troubling to me. If human beings have been around for say, 100,000 years (that is probably modest??), why would God wait until the last few thousand years to give a special revelation to humanity? Why would He allow humans to live and die for over 90,000+ years before he would call a nation to Himself and send a savior? I understand that of course God can save anyone at any time...but it just doesn't make sense to me that He would wait that long to give a special revelation to people. Obviously I cannot know all of God’s reasons for why He does what He does so maybe this isn't a question that I should be wrestling with. Yet here I am! It has really been troubling me! Thank you so much for you time and thoughts.

Rebecca

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Dr. William Lane Craig's Response

Dr. William Lane Craig

I share your fascination and perplexity about my recent work on the historical Adam, Rebecca! It is unsettling.

I am surprised, though, by your statement that I seemed “to wave the genealogies off,” when, to the contrary, the genealogies of Genesis 1-11 were crucial to my argument that the stories of Genesis 1-11 are not pure myth but have a historical interest.

I had argued that the narratives of Genesis 1-11 share enough of the family resemblances of myths to qualify as Hebrew myths. That is not, however, the whole story.  For Genesis 1-11’s  interest in history comes most clearly to expression in the genealogies that order the narratives chronologically.

The narratives of Genesis are interspersed with genealogical notices that include the principal characters of the narratives. These are introduced by a standard formula, “these are the generations [tôledôt, literally, begettings], of,” which punctuate the narratives throughout the book (2.4; 5.1; 6.9; 10.1; 11.10, 27; 25.12, 19; 36.1, 9; 37.2). By ordering the principal characters in lines of descent the tôledôt formulae turn the primaeval narratives into a primaeval history. We do not have in Genesis 1-11 a cluster of unordered prehistoric stories but a chronological account beginning at the moment of creation and carrying through to the call of Abraham. The genealogies meld seamlessly into the historical period of the patriarchs, where the historical interest is obvious and not in dispute. Just as Abraham is presented as a historical person, so his ancestors are presented as historical persons.

As Old Testament scholar John Walton points out, there is no evidence that ancient genealogies included individuals who were not believed to have existed.[1] Indeed, with respect to many of the kings in the ancient Mesopotamian king lists we are confident that they did exist.[2] “Consequently there would be no precedent for thinking of the biblical genealogies differently. By putting Adam in ancestor lists, the authors of Scripture are treating him as a historical person.”[3]

Still, ancient genealogies were not the work of disinterested historians but could serve non-historical ends. For example, the genealogy which constitutes the Table of Nations in Genesis 10, despite its notices “sons of” and “begot,” is not about blood relations but lists peoples based on political, linguistic, geographical, and similar factors--and the author of Genesis knew it. It is a showcase example of the way in which genealogies can serve domestic, political, and religious purposes.

In linear genealogies, telescoping and fluidity are common features. Gaps in the ancient Sumerian, Assyrian, and Babylonian king lists are common. So do the genealogies of Genesis 1-11 permit long gaps? When the tôledôt of Adam in 5.1-32 is conjoined with the tôledôt of Shem in 11.10-26 there is a succession of descendants from Adam to Abraham which seems to permit no missing generations because of the form used throughout “when X had lived n years, he became the father of Y; and when Y had lived m years, he became the father of Z.” By stipulating the father’s age at the time of his progeny’s birth, gaps seem to be excluded.

The completeness of the Genesis genealogies was, however, disputed by W. H. Green in a seminal article.[4] In support of his contention that the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 need not be taken to be complete, Green adduces five lines of evidence:

(i) In numerous other biblical genealogies there is incontrovertible evidence of abridgment.

(ii) The author nowhere sums up the ages of the persons listed nor deduces any chronological statement concerning the time that elapsed from the creation or from the deluge, as is done from the descent into Egypt to the Exodus (Exodus 12. 40) or from the Exodus to the building of the temple (I Kings 6. 1).

(iii) The closest parallel to the timespan of the primaeval history is the time of Israel’s enslavement in Egypt, which is bridged only by a genealogy extending from Levi to Moses and Aaron (Exodus 6. 16-26), a genealogy which cannot have recorded all the links in that line of descent and could not, therefore, have been intended to be used as a basis of chronological computation.

(iv) Insofar as the records and monuments of ancient Egypt show that the interval between the Flood and the call of Abraham must have been greater than that yielded by the genealogy in Genesis 11, they count against the assumption that this genealogy was intended to supply the elements for a chronological computation.

(v) The symmetrical structure of the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11 favors the belief that they do not register all the names in these respective lines of descent.

All of these points are well-taken. Contemporary commentators are especially struck by the artificial symmetry of ten antediluvian ancestors from Adam through Noah followed by ten postdiluvian ancestors from Shem though Abraham. A similar ten-name genealogy appears in Ruth 4.18-22, and in various Sumerian, Assyrian, and Babylonian king lists. Nahum Sarna comments, “The conclusion is unmistakable: we have here a deliberate, symmetrical schematization of history, featuring neatly balanced, significant segments of time as a way of expressing the fundamental biblical teaching that history is meaningful.”[5] Also striking is the author’s failure to sum up the ages of the persons listed, suggesting an indifference to the overall time span. One may contrast in this regard the Sumerian King List, which provides totals and sub-totals of ante-diluvian and post-diluvian reigns.[6]

Moreover, the lifespans of the antediluvian patriarchs seem unlikely to be intended to be literally construed. In the Sumerian king list the antediluvian kings also have fantastically long reigns, as long as 43,200 years for an individual reign, with the lengths of the reigns diminishing after the Flood. In Genesis the Flood similarly interrupts the genealogies in 5.32 and 9.28, and fantastically long lifespans are ascribed to the antediluvians, even if less extravagant than the reigns of the Mesopotamian kings, and diminished lifespans following the Flood. The author of Genesis would himself have been aware of how fantastic these ancestral lifespans are, which gives reason to think that the genealogies are not intended to be straightforward history. There is no consensus among Old Testament scholars concerning the reason for or meaning of the fantastic lifespans attributed to the antediluvians.

One could insert small gaps into the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 by interpreting “father” to mean something like “grandfather” (cf. Genesis 46.12, 25; 46.16-18): when X had lived n years, he became the grandfather of Y; and when Y had lived m years, he became the grandfather of Z.” But such gaps are limited because the progenitor must still be a certain age when the descendant is born. Moreover, a few notices in the genealogies connect successors closely, e.g., Lamech’s commenting on the meaning of Noah’s name. The suggestion that “X fathered Y” may mean “X fathered the line culminating in Y” is implausible, since the genealogies imply that X is still alive when the line culminates in Y.

So how should we understand the genealogies of Genesis 1-11? On the basis of comparative studies of Sumerian literature the eminent Assyriologist Thorkild Jacobsen proposed that we recognize a unique genre of literature which he dubbed “mytho-history.” A good example of the mytho-historical genre more familiar to Western readers would seem to be Homer’s account of the Trojan war in the Illiad. According to classicist G. S. Kirk, “Much of the Iliad is obviously historicizing in content. . . . even those least confident in the existence of a ‘Trojan War’ concede that some attack took place and that some Achaeans were among the attackers.  . . . the story is based on some kind of memory of the past and . . . its progress is described in largely realistic terms.”[7] The prime exception is the role of the gods in the story. But Kirk believes that far from being “a mythopoeic jungle,” many of the Illiad and Odyssey’s personifications of physical phenomena and psychological impulses “are more likely to be part of a longstanding and archaistic literary convention than to represent the state of Homer’s assumptions on causation.”[8] Greek myths thus provide an example of “mythical history.”[9]

While the genealogies of Genesis 1-11 evince an interest in history on the part of the author and his audience, it is important to keep in mind that it is a mytho-history that is being narrated. Chronological calculations become inappropriate for such a genre. Kenneth Kitchen observes that in the Ancient Near East people were already aware that the world was extremely old.[10] The Mesopotamian king lists indicate that kings had reigned in Sumer for 241,200 years prior to the Flood, which was followed by another 26,997 years of royal reigns. According to the Babylonian priest Berossus kings had reigned in Babylon for 432,000 years prior to the Flood.[11]

By contrast the biblical genealogies famously total to a scant 1,656 years from Adam until the Flood, with another 367 years from the Flood to the call of Abraham. These genealogies lead to difficulties if taken literally; for example, Noah is still alive when Abraham is born and Shem outlives Abraham by 35 years. Genesis presents a mythological history of the world that is extremely short by ancient standards, bound tightly by father-son genealogical notices that seem to contemplate no gaps of tens of thousands of years between them. We should not imagine that the genealogies contemplate the enormous leaps that would be necessary to bring them into harmony with what we know of the history of mankind; but neither should we think them to comprise purely fictitious characters. We can avoid these polar opposites by taking the brief history they relate to be a mytho-history which is not been meant to be taken literally.

As for your final concern, as I explained in my debate with Christopher Hitchens, because of the world population explosion, the number of people living prior to the time of Christ, even back to several hundred thousand years, becomes increasingly trivial in comparison to the number of people alive today. So there is no problem with God’s waiting for “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4.4) at which to send His Son to redeem mankind. Christ died not only for those who were to come after him, but also for those who lived before—including Neanderthals and Denisovans, if they also, indeed, belong to the human family. 

Notes

[1] John H. Walton, “Response from the Archetypal View,” in Matthew Barrett and Ardel B. Caneday, eds., Four Views on the Historical Adam, Counterpoints (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2013), p. 69.

[2] Jacobsen writes, “Our conclusion concerning the historical value of the King List must thus be that while the arrangement, the succession of the various dynasties, can be considered a later construction of no significance, we possess in the actual material of that document a historical source of high value, from which only some exaggerated reigns occurring with the earliest rulers should be segregated” (Thorkild Jacobsen, The Sumerian King List, Assyriological Studies 11 [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939], p. 167).

[3] John H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2015), p. 102.

[4] William Henry Green, “Primeval Chronology,” Bibliotheca Sacra 47 (1890): 285-303.

[5] Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), p. 40.

[6] Jacobsen, The Sumerian King List, col. i.35; col. ii, 43.

[7] G. S. Kirk, Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures, Sather Classical Lectures 40 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. 32. Even the Odyssey, Kirk notes, is largely set in the purportedly historical world. Cf. G. S. Kirk, “On Defining Myths,” p. 55.

[8] Kirk, Myth, p. 240.

[9]Ibid., p. 254.

[10] Kenneth Kitchen, On the Historical Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003), p. 439.

[11] Stanley Mayer Burstein, ed., The Babyloniaca of Berossus, Sources from the Ancient Near East 1/5 (Malibu, Calif.:  Undena Publication, 1978), p. 48. To gain some perspective, this figure would place the first Babylonian kings in the middle of the Pleistocene Epoch of the Paleolithic Age just before the emergence of modern Homo sapiens!

This Q&A and other resources are available on Dr. William Lane Craig's website.