Questions about the Genealogies of Genesis: Symbolism and Purpose

(Evan) #1

Hello all! I’ve been reading on this forum for a few weeks now and I have decided it was time I got involved. I am a YEC who is trying to better understand the EC position on Genesis. I thought I would start with a few questions I have about the Genesis Genealogies:

  1. What purpose did God have for inspiring the author(s) to include the patriarchs’ ages with the genealogies? I understand that ECs believe the ages are symbolic, but symbolic of what? There a few that make sense symbolically (Enoch’s 365 could be symbolic of the length of a year, and Lamech’s 777 could be symbolic of a perfect life), but what is Adam’s lifespan of 930 years symbolic of? What about Methuselah’s 969? Noah’s 950? etc. If the ages are meant to be symbolic, then surely God would have given us a way to decipher the symbolism behind them?

  2. Going off that, why include the ages at all? If Genesis not meant to be viewed as history, why include any chronological data? The only purpose I can think of for including the age of the patriarchs at the age of a son and the age of death is to established a chronological chain of events, But ECs don’t believe Genesis is meant to be viewed in this way. The chronological data seems to be there simply to deceive us well-meaning YECs into making our ~6,000-year timeline.

  3. Assuming for a moment the ages are symbolic, why can they not also be historical? There are several instances in Scripture in which numbers were both symbolic and historical. For example, Jesus spent 40 days in the desert. The 40 is symbolic of the 40 years Israel spent wandering after the Exodus, but it is also historical, because Jesus really did spend 40 days in the desert. So my question is, does the symbolic nature of a number have to negate its historicity?

  4. This is a question for ECs who believe Adam and Eve were real people, but simply part of the initial population of homo sapiens called by God 300,000 years ago (or whenever it was). “Genesis Adam” is said to have lived 930 years, but how long did “historical Adam” live? Presumably something like 60 or 70 years? So, if “historical Adam” only lived 60 years, would it be lying for God to inspire the author of Genesis to tell us that "Genesis Adam lived 930 years? (I not accusing anyone here of making God a liar, I think this is a legitimate question).

  5. I know some ECs on this forum believe there are gaps in the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11, and I was wondering if they could provide any evidence from Scripture itself to support this claim. Please know that I am aware of the argument that yalad can mean any descendant, not just father-son, and I am aware of the gaps in the genealogies of Matthew and Luke. The thing is, we are aware of these gaps because we can look back at Genesis, Kings, and Chronicles and find exactly where the gaps are. We can even fill in most of the gaps (all except the one between Salmon and Boaz). What I want to know is, is there any passage of scripture we can look at that indicates that there are gaps in the genealogies of Genesis, in the same manner that that passages in Kings and Chronicles indicate gaps in the genealogies of Matthew and Luke? To my knowledge there is not.

I know this is a lot of questions for one thread, but I did my best to have them bounce off each other. I’ve read some people on this forum claim that Genesis and the Bible is not about chronology, but to me that sounds unwarranted. Genesis alone is filled with chronological data that has allowed many Biblical scholars to construct highly detailed timelines of Biblical events. My overall question is this: If God did not intend for us to take Genesis as history, why is there so much chronological data for us to work with? That data seems completely pointless unless we were meant to use it.

I appreciate and look forward to any answers you can provide for me, thank you.

(Laura) #2

Welcome to the forums! I’ve found them a great place to learn and ask questions, and I hope you will as well.

I don’t think I have any amazing answers here, though as far as the ages in Genesis go, I could point you to this article on BioLogos, though you may already have come across it if you’ve been reading here for a bit:

Also, though it’s not a question, I found this statement interesting:

I guess it depends what you mean by “use” it. I think it helps to keep in mind that while the Bible is for us, its books were initially written to very different people in very different times. What would have been the primary “use” of that information for them?

(Christy Hemphill) #3

Welcome, to the forum, Evan! So glad you decided to jump in the fray.

(Christy Hemphill) #4

I’m not sure we can claim this for certain. Lots of things in Revelation and Daniel are symbolic and there weren’t a lot of keys provided us.

I for one think Genesis was definitely meant to be a history for the Israelites. But since it’s their history, it plays by their rules which are different than our modern rules. I think sometimes there is a disconnect between YECs and ECs because when ECs say that Genesis is not a literal objective historical recording of events and facts, YECs here “it’s just a myth, it’s fiction, it’s pure symbolism.” Well, there is more space on the continuum between those two assessments and I would guess most ECs are not claiming Genesis does not record history. Just that it doesn’t record history the way some YECs insist history must be recorded, based on modern Western presuppositions. I agree with you that the numbers were recorded because they had some meaning that was grounded in historical fact. I seriously doubt they represent counts of the number of years the named people lived though, because we have other of examples of ANE literature using complex numerology to express things. But just because they might not be “facts” doesn’t mean we should assume they are arbitrary or meaningless. The article Elle linked above takes a nice stab at it.

Of course not, as you pointed out. We could add to your list the twelve disciples to symbollically represent the twelve tribes of Israel, and three days in the tomb to symbolically align with the three days in the belly of the fish. But are we literally supposed to count how many times we forgive our brother until we get to 77 times and then we are no longer obligated. Or does 77 (or 70 times 7, or 7 times 7, depending on your translation :wink: ) simply symbolize perfect unlimited grace toward others? Do you think the 144,000 of Revelation is a literal head count? Some people have pointed out it is the square of 12 times the cube of 10 and probably symbolizes the perfection of redeemed humanity.

(Evan) #5

Yes, the books were written to a different people, but they are written for everyone, in every time, place, and culture. Therefore I believe whatever a passage of scripture meant to the Israelites is what it should mean to us. (whether or not it still applies to us is another question). So what they saw in the Bible as history, we should see as history, what they saw in the Bible as prophecy, we should see as prophecy, etc, etc.

In most contexts I’ve seen, listing a series of persons with the ages when they had a son and when they died is usually meant to be used as a means of establishing a chronological chain of events. If we are not meant to use the data in the genealogies in this manner, can you think of another use God would have for providing it?

(Evan) #6

Its been a while since I’ve read through Revelation, but isn’t it supposed to be symbolic of the End Times when Jesus returns? While we may not fully understanding what is going to happen, we do know what the symbolism is pointing to. In the case of the symbolism in the ages of the genealogies, I have yet to see a satisfactory explanation what the ages are symbolizing.

For each of these examples, we are aware of the symbolism behind them (7 is a number of perfection, 12 is the number of Israel, etc) God provided the Scripture to understand the symbolism behind the numbers. But, with we have no such knowledge of the apparent symbolism behind the ages of the genealogies. 7, 12, and 40 are symbolic numbers for Israel, but what is special about 930 or 969? What do those numbers symbolize, if anything?

(Christy Hemphill) #7

Why do you think that because the symbolism of the genealogies might be lost to us, they therefore can’t be symbolic. Isn’t that prioritizing our particular time in history and cultural vantage point more than is merited?

(Evan) #8

Assuming the symbolism was there in the first place I do not think God would allow the cipher be to lost. The ages in the genealogies are there for a reason, and if we were meant to view them symbolically, God would have provided a means to decipher that symbolism, as He has done in other parts of Scripture.
If no cipher can be found, I see that as evidence that the symbolism was never there to begin with, or that if there is symbolism, we do not need to know it and it has no bearing on the ages given (i.e. we can still take the ages at face value, Adam lived 930, Seth lived 912, etc).

Is there a reason that God would allow the knowledge to understand the apparent symbolism of the ages in the genealogies to be lost, knowing that without it some Christians would (according to ECs) improperly interpret the Bible to support the idea that the Earth is ~6,000 years old?


Evan did you read the BioLogos article that Elle mentioned. Jim Stump mentions 30 of the ages are combinations of 60 and/or 7. 60 being the number used in Babylonian mathematics and 7 being the Biblically symbolic number. The numbers are not symbolic they are numerology and this had meaning for the original audience.

(Phil) #10

Evan, good questions, and I do not pretend to know the answers, I would like to ask, do you see any particular meaning to the long ages and the particular numbers? I see that Noah’s three sons were born after Noah was 500 years old. What is going on there? Makes Abraham a spring chick when he had his first kid. Were 200 year olds adults or were they pre-adolescents?
Can we be content with not knowing?


Perhaps some evolutionary creationists think the lifespans bear symbolic value, but not all of us. They obviously don’t, since as you say, there is no symbolic value for the large majority of the numerals provided in the genealogies within the primeval history of Genesis (ch. 1-11). There is, however, an established historical link with the genealogies of the primeval history and the ancient near eastern background of which the story of the primeval history was composed.

There are two sets of genealogies in Genesis found in Genesis 5 and Genesis 10 (inbetween that is the flood narrative, which spreads from chapers 6-9). Over a thousand years before Genesis was written, the Sumerian civilization in Mesopotamia wrote what is known as the Sumerian King List, one of the most famous documents of Sumerian civilization which was likely known across the ancient near east, including Israel. In the Sumerian King List, we’re first told of the first genealogies from the first human onwards for many generations. The List gives the age of each person when they die, and tells us who they begat. Then, the List tells us something like “these were the generations before the flood”. Then the List talks about a worldwide flood, and then continues with more generations “after the flood”. That’s basically the same thing with Genesis 5-10. First we’re told of the generations before the flood, the flood happens, and then the generations after the flood. The way the generations are recorded are incredibly similar. The Book of Genesis is an ancient near eastern document that was written to ancient near eastern Israelite’s of the first half of the 1st millennium BC. The only way to understand these ancient texts is to know their ancient historical context, and we realize that the story of the genealogies and the flood of Genesis matches common and widespread near eastern tales and compositions.

As I understand it, the author of Genesis reworked these pre-existing tales in order to portray his motifs and archetypes of God, humanity, the world, etc. The entire thing is an allegorical account for us.

Going off that, my answers to your questions are 1) It’s included because ancient compositions of the sort that Genesis 1-11 is (primeval history) usually included these kinds of things in them, these were elements of the stories that the Israelite’s told and retold from generation to generation, 2) The same answer is relevant for here, 3) They could hypothetically be historical, but to me it’s all allegorical, 4) I think Adam and Eve are just archetypes for the rest of humanity (for example, the Herbew name adam means ‘mankind’), 5) I do not believe there are gaps. I used to, but then I found this claim untenable since it contradicts the narrative and the rest of the Bible. So it seems to me that it’s simply an allegorical account and no more than that

(Evan) #12

I see no meaning in the numbers beyond them being a historical record of how long each person lived and when they had a son. I’ve seen nothing in Scripture to tell me to interpret it any other way.

Here you are talking about the decline in lifespan, which is different than the meaning of the ages themselves. The genealogies make it clear that the way that humans aged changed over its history. 500 years for Noah would make him about middle-aged, since the average lifespan at his time was about 900 years. In Abraham’s time the average lifespan was about 170, so 100 years at the birth of Isaac would also be around middle-aged. By the time we get to the Exodus, we get to lifespans are in line with what we see today. Moses, Aaron and Joshua lived 120, 123, and 110 years respectively, Caleb was in his late 80s or 90s when he died, and the elders died in their late 70s. After this the only person with an unusually high lifespan is Jehoiada, the high priest who lived to be 130, well above the average lifespans given for the kings of Israel and Judah.
Were 200 year olds considered pre-adolescents before the flood? Most certainly not, since the youngest age given for a father was 65. 200 was probably the equivalent of a young adult today, but there there’s really no way to know exactly how the aging process worked since we were not there to observe it (and, having the short lifespans we have today, would not live to see it through :smile:)

Had God left the ages out of the genealogies and made it completely impossible for us to even guess on the subject, I might agree, but I think this question is made moot by the fact that God has included the ages in Scripture, so it seems to me that we are supposed to gain some sort of knowledge from them. I believe it is chronological/historical knowledge, while some ECs believe it is symbolic knowledge (though symbolic of what I haven’t heard yet).

(Evan) #13

Yes I read it when it was published in Oct, and I skimmed it again to refresh myself. The way that Stump breaks down the ages into groups of 60 and 7 doesn’t really add any new meaning to the ages. It simply shows that the numbers can be broken down into groups of 60s and 7s, but what do those groups of 60s and 7s mean? i.e. If someone has more 60s in their age did they have a better and more fulfilling life? If there were more 7s, was their life more perfect? He adds in this numerology, but does really explain what the numerology means (unless I missed it, in which case please correct me).

Stump also kind of shoots himself in the foot when he admits that:

Now perhaps it might be claimed that you can come up with most any number if you let the combinations get complex enough. See the footnote to see how a number ending with a 3 (an “unapproved” number in Genesis 5) like 963 can be expressed. Doesn’t this prove that numerology is contrived and capable of showing whatever you want it to show? Maybe. Such practices are often vague and ambiguous under the light of rational investigation.

If one works at it hard enough, they can find a numerology pattern in almost anything.

(Christy Hemphill) #14

I totally agree with your first sentence, but I don’t see how the second sentence follows. I work in Bible translation. The people I work with live in high, rugged mountains where there is no flat land. Many of them have no real concept of lakes, let alone the ocean. Boats are something they haven’t ever seen or used. They have never been swimming. So all the Bible passages that deal with seas and shipwrecks and waves and the peril of storms clearly don’t mean the same thing they meant to the original audience who had these things as a part of their world. Other translators I know have run into other problems with unknown concepts. One friend who worked with a Polynesian people had lots of trouble with many passages because the group had no concept of bricks or permanent buildings. An Amazonian tribe had no concept of animal herding or agriculture. Surely the Bible is just as much for these isolated people groups as it is for Americans, but that doesn’t mean they will have the cultural and life experiences that allow them to understand it exactly the way the original audience understood it.

I think it’s just our own ethnocentricity and sense of cultural superiority that makes us think we are entitled to understand everything the Israelites (or Corinthians or Ephesians) understood because obviously God owes that to us. Says who? And what about all the people groups around the world who are far less equipped to relate to the original audiences’ contexts? Is the Bible’s message somehow less adequate for them? I believe that the power of God’s word lies in the Holy Spirit’s ability to use it to bring conviction and righteousness to an infinitely diverse human race, using their life experiences and communicating truth in spite of the limitations of each group’s cultural concepts. It just seems silly to me to think that we all will automatically understand everything the same simply because it is God’s word. Clearly we won’t and can’t. In the history of missions and the church that has thankfully not been necessary at all. God’s word is living and active, but not every sentence is equally accessible to everyone everywhere.

(John Dalton) #15

What should we make of the very specific instructions for constructing various ceremonial buildings and devices starting in Exodus 25? They don’t seem to have any specific meaning for us in this age, yet they seem fairly weighty in their presentation and even position. Also, do we understand all the meanings of the various specific instructions, and can we assume they did not have meaning for the Israelites?

(Jon) #16

If you look in the rest of the Bible, how do other passages in the Bible interpret the long lives in the genealogies in Genesis? The people in those genealogies are mentioned several times in other passages of the Bible, so it’s a good idea to be guided by how those other passages treat the lifespans of these individuals.

(Laura) #17

Hmmmm… did he provide a means to decipher the symbolism in Revelation? I think there’s still plenty of symbolism in the Bible that can leave us scratching our heads, even if we think we have some ideas about it.

There are many different interpretations of the Bible out there, and they can’t all be right (different views on things that many would agree are more important than the age of the earth, such as baptism, the eucharist, gender roles, predestination, end times, etc. etc.) Why didn’t God inspire people to write his word so clearly that it would never be misunderstood? I don’t know, and there’s a part of me that thinks that would have saved a lot of grief, but perhaps that simply isn’t possible in human language. Maybe God knew that a cut-and-dried textbook was not what we needed, or as Christy said, he left us the Holy Spirit to lead us to truth through the Bible.

(Phil) #18

I am reminded of the quote from Newbigin that someone shared here, saying something to the effect that God works through cultures in different ways. Perhaps that means story and allegory are necessary to convey the gospel as strict literalism loses its meaning (and gains unintended meaning) across time and cultural differences


I agree. Human culture doesn’t stand still. And maybe the redactors of the Bible left all the contradictory stories and unresolved issues in there because they didn’t have all the answers at the time. Besides, maybe they wanted us to think!

(Jay Johnson) #20

On No. 1, @Elle provided you a link to an article that discussed the symbolism of numbers in Genesis. Did you even look at it? Here are a few excerpts that answer most of your questions:

"There are 30 age numbers we can get from Genesis chapter 5—three numbers for each of ten patriarchs: the age when a son was born, the number of years the patriarch lived after the son was born, and the total number of years the patriarch lived. … The first thing more careful observation reveals about these 30 numbers is that all of them end with the digits 0, 2, 5, 7, or 9. You might not think that is too remarkable until you realize that it eliminates half of the possible numbers. It is like seeing a list of 30 numbers that are all even. We wouldn’t think that was a random distribution of numbers. In fact, the odds of getting all thirty numbers to end with just these “approved” digits in a random distribution of ages are about one in a hundred million. That should make us suspicious that Genesis 5 is merely giving a historical report. Something else must be going on here.

"One option is attaching some significance to the fact that all of the 30 numbers can be expressed as combinations of the two “sacred” numbers 60 and 7 in terms of years and months. 60 was culturally significant because it was the number that Babylonian mathematics was based on (the influence of this sexagesimal system is still felt today with our 60 minutes per hour and 60 seconds per minute). And 7, of course, has a prominent place in biblical symbolism beginning with the Sabbath. So when we’re told that Methuselah was 187 years when he had his son Lamech (Gen. 5:25), we can see that 187 = 60+60+60+7 years. And then because 60 months = 5 years, when Adam is said to be 130 years at the birth of his son Seth (Gen. 5:3), that can be expressed as (60+60 years) + (60+60 months).

"This could explain why all the reported ages end in 0, 2, 5, 7, or 9. These are what common combinations of 60 years, 5 years (=60 months), and 7 years end with: besides the obvious 0, 5, and 7, numbers ending with 2 come from adding 7 to a number that ends with 5; and 9 comes from adding 7 twice to a number ending with 5.

“For some of the numbers in Genesis 5, the combinations have to get more complicated. Check the footnotes to see how to calculate Seth’s 912 years when he died, or the 782 years Methuselah lived after the birth of Lamech. These and all the others can be generated by combinations of 60, 5, and 7.”

If you ask a question and someone provides a resource, perhaps you should check it out.

Say what? Where in the Scripture is the symbolism behind the number 7 explained? Chapter and verse, please. The symbolism behind numbers was a feature of the culture, just as superstitions about the number 13 are a feature of various cultures (including ours). If you are reading and run across the number 13 prominently used, you don’t need someone to explain its meaning to you, and the author doesn’t feel compelled to explain what everyone already knows, either. The same concept applied to the numbers used symbolically in Scripture. The author didn’t have to explain to the ancient audience the meaning of the numbers, because he assumed they already knew the meaning. Unfortunately, over the course of thousands of years, the symbolic meanings were gradually forgotten. It is the job of scholars to research the past and try to recover these forgotten meanings.

You keep coming around to this argument. Why? It’s like saying, “But God wouldn’t do it that way!” Here’s a good comparison – the textual history of the New Testament. Over the course of many centuries, scribes and copyists made errors and additions that gradually made their way into the text. During the last several hundred years, numerous manuscript discoveries and the hard work of many scholars have allowed us to substantially “recover” the most likely original readings of the Greek New Testament.

Now, why would God do it this way? Why would he allow generations of Christians to read the longer ending of Mark (16:9-20) or the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11) and think it was part of his holy word? Many of the “King James only” crowd used this line of argument, but I somehow doubt it keeps you from reading modern translations.

In short, why wouldn’t God do it that way? Why would he hand everything to us on a silver platter? Does he work that way in your life? Does he grant you knowledge with no effort, no study? As Augustine said, “In every page of these Scriptures, while I pursue my search as a son of Adam in the sweat of my brow, Christ either openly or covertly meets and refreshes me. Where the discovery is laborious my ardor is increased, and the spoil obtained is eagerly devoured, and is hidden in my heart for my nourishment.”

Who said Genesis wasn’t meant to be viewed as history? Gen. 1-11 is history, but it is not historical narrative. There are clues all throughout that section that we are not dealing with a straightforward retelling of history. What it is, in my view, is a prophetic critique of the progress of human culture and sinfulness. Just as Isaiah can use symbols to describe the distant future, “Moses” can use symbols to describe the distant past. In that sense, the symbols are “historical” in that they tell us something truthful and factual about the distant future or past, but they are not historical in the sense that the events literally took place, or that men actually lived to be many hundreds of years old. That is not how symbolism and metaphor work.

I’ll skip No. 4, since I believe “the man” is an archetypal symbol.
On “gaps” in the genealogies, the classic treatment is by William Green in 1890. In “Primeval Chronology”, he shows by comparing Scripture to Scripture that the genealogies cannot be used to construct a chronology (6,000 years).

Edit: Click the link if you really want to learn and are not here just to debate.