Friday, May 7, 2010

Hebrew Genealogies

One of the most important rules of Biblical hermeneutics is that the modern reader must not place on the ancient text modern or cultural standards that didn't apply in the time of the writing. The writers of the gospels, when retelling an account of a dialogue or teaching of Jesus, frequently disagree in the exact wording attributed to Him. In our day and culture, this would be considered misquoting, and could even be grounds for a lawsuit. But the standards of Jesus' day were different, and in 'quoting' someone else the goal was to be faithful to their meaning, not to their exact wording.

Those today who use the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 to attempt to date the people and events of pre-Abrahamic history (including Noah's flood) are guilty of the same sort of thing--placing an inappropriate modern expectation on an ancient account.

Today, when we compile a genealogy, the goal is completeness; we attempt to fill in a name to account for every generation from whenever that list begins right down to our generation. And so the temptation, when reading the genealogies presented in Scripture, is to expect that their goal was the same. But it was not. Moreover, because we tend to get glassy-eyed when we come to those portions of Scripture devoted to genealogies, we don't bother to study them, to compare them, or to try to understand them.

If we did take the time to study them, we would find that the genealogies presented in the Bible are not and were never intended to be complete, exhaustive lists of ancestry. Instead, they were meant to establish lineage by highlighting key figures linking one individual with another. The genealogies found in Scripture are commonly--if not invariably--telescoped, a process in which some names are included and others are omitted for brevity's sake or as unnecessary for establishing the particular claim being made (whether that claim has primarily familial, religious, or political purpose).

Key to understanding this telescoping of the genealogies is the recognition that the Hebrew words generally translated 'father,' 'son,' and 'begat' (or 'became the father of') and their Greek New Testament counterparts have much broader meaning than the precise ones the English words have. The Hebrew ab covers not only father but also grandfather or ancestor; ben means not only son but grandson or descendent; yalad does not mean precisely 'gave birth to,' but rather 'became the ancestor of' or 'gave rise to the line of.'

Interestingly, we accept (at least subconsciously) the concept of telescoping even in English, as when we read the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1:1,
The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
This is a typical Hebrew genealogy. It takes the identical form as that of genealogies throughout Scripture. It is not meant to convey the number of generations between Abraham and Jesus, but merely to establish ancestry. In this case, it is so obvious even to the modern reader that we are not even tempted to apply to it our own expectations of genealogies. But when we turn to a longer Hebrew genealogy, we may be tempted to treat it as an exhaustive list.

We must avoid this temptation. In almost every case (or perhaps all cases) where there is enough other biblical evidence to assess the completeness of a genealogy recorded in Scripture, we discover that telescoping has occurred. In addition, no clues are ever given as to whether or not a particular genealogy is complete (in modern terms) or telescoped. And the amount of telescoping can be quite significant in terms of generations omitted. Nonetheless, comparison among genealogies and assessing other historical evidence from Scripture leads to the conclusion (by conservative Bible scholars) that biblical genealogies are generally not less than 10% complete.*

There really is no longer any debate among serious Bible scholars about the fact that most Biblical genealogies are telescoped. Nonetheless, proponents of a young Earth (and of a global flood 4,800 years ago) insist that the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 are special, that they really are intended to be exhaustive. In part, this is naivete or ignorance about what I have discussed above. Henry Morris, for example, writes
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.
Morris here presumes that these genealogies are complete; he does not provide any reason for believing it. As we have seen, understanding Biblical genealogies makes it anything but "natural," "straightforward," or "obvious" that Morris' interpretation is correct. Indeed, comparison of the Genesis 11 genealogy with the one in Luke 3 demonstrates that the former is telescoped, since it omits (at least) the name Cainan (between Shelad and Arphaxad).

One thing sets the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 apart from most, the addition (to the normal formula) of information about the age at fatherhood and the age at death of the people listed. Neither this nor anything else in the text necessitates understanding these genealogies as complete. As in other places in Scripture, the inclusion of these ages is done only because they are exceptional, and because the Hebrew culture recognized both old age and old fatherhood as signs of blessedness. The four different genealogies of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam (Ex. 6:16-20, Num. 26:57-59, I Chron. 6:1-3, and 23:6, 12-13) likewise include personal details like age at death, yet these genealogies can be shown to be only 20 to 40 percent complete (highly telescoped).

The claims of Morris and others notwithstanding, Scripture does not enable us to date the creation, the flood of Noah's day, or any other pre-Abrahamic events. Evidence from the creation itself (God's other revelation to us) does allow us to set some limits on these events. And a date of 4,800 years ago for the flood (that claimed by those who alledgedly discovered the ark) is way outside those limits.

In the next post in this fun series, I'll revisit the misconception that the flood of Noah's day should be understood as global in its scope.


* Bible scholars that recognize that Hebrew genealogies are telescoped place the date for the creation of Adam at between 30,000 and 60,000 years ago, a date that matches well with the relevant evidence from archaeology, anthropology, genetics, and other fields.

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Arthur said...
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