The Genealogies in Genesis: Part I

The latest from @JRM! He wrote a 4-part series delving into the significance behind the genealogies in the Bible.

Here is part one:


Interesting articles. I think it would be interesting to compare with other writings from that time. After all what we read, write and say doesn’t existe in a vacuum but references other works. It would be fascinating to compare this to other genealogies and see in what way they are similar and in what way they are different.

1 Like

I agree though an internal narrative perspective is also important. I am curious to see where the author goes with Genesis 5 and later on how he treats Matthew’s genealogy.

This is copy and pasted from the Accommodation thread where I have been reviewing Spark’s God’s Word in human Words.

Usher and the Mimetic Genealogy of Genesis 5
Sparks points out the genealogy in Genesis 5, with its long life spans (365-969 years), is very much like a Sumerian kings list with even longer life spans (tens of thousands of years!). Bishop Usher used the Genesis genealogy incorrectly assuming it was straightforward history and mistakenly calculated the birth of the earth as 10/22/4004 BCE. At any rate, there are points of contact between the Genesis 5 and Sumerian King’s list:

· Both provide a list of pre-flood heroes with very long life spans.
· The seventh person in each list did not die but went to heaven (Enoch and Enmedur-Anna).

Given these points of contact and since Mesopotamian kings lists often stress the seventh king, many scholars feel that whoever wrote Genesis 5 simply took a Hebrew genealogy and patterned it after an older, Mesopotamian kings list. Supplementary evidence of this is found in the author of Genesis 5 possibly receiving most of this list from whoever authored Genesis 4. In addition, the final digit in the chronological information provided in the lists is 0, 2, 5 or 7 in all cases but one (26 out of 27 times!). These numbers are not strictly historical as this it not likely to arise by chance. Like some Sumerian kings lists they were probably influenced by “astronomical and mathematical figures.”

So Sparks argues the purpose of the list is not a factual genealogical listing. It mirrors Sumerian lists which “were important expressions of power and legitimacy in the Mesopotamian tradition.” This was meant to show the “value and significance of the Hebrew people.” This makes even more sense if we suppose Jewish culture was being threatened (during or after the Babylonian exile). As opposed to bad or second rate history, Genesis 5 is good “mimetic fiction” and “it is a truly masterful act of Israelite resistance to the arrogance of Mesopotamian culture.

So it will be interesting to see what Middleton suggests as while I don’t see much reason to disagree with what Sparks wrote, this interpretation alone seems a bit generic and too simplistic to be the whole story.

@HRankin what is the release schedule like for the other parts? Is there a general time frame?

Thanks for asking! Yes, once a week for the next 3 weeks for a total of 4 pieces!

I waited a bit to reply because I didn’t want to step on @JRM’s toes if he chose to cover the ANE background. Part 2 was released Wed, Aug. 4, which I’ll link here. I’m also looking forward to Part 3 and his thoughts on Matthew’s genealogy.

The main point of Pt. 1 applies to the overall structure of Genesis 1-11,

So the alternation of genealogies and narratives throughout the primeval history communicates both the order and continuity of creation and the disorder and rupture of life after the fall.

This literary/theological interpretation isn’t contradicted by Sparks’ interpretation. Both can be true. Scripture isn’t one-dimensional. Regarding the Sumerian King List, I’ll throw out a few thoughts and links to sources in the next post.

1 Like

I don’t think anyone has unlocked the mystery of the final digits, but the main point is the ages of the pre-flood patriarchs in early Genesis aren’t a random pattern. The figures aren’t historical. What about the people? Are they “historical”?

As Sparks said, the purpose of the Sumerian King List (and it’s successors) wasn’t historical. Their purpose was to express the “power and legitimacy” of the ruling dynasty. Piotr Michalowski in The mortal kings of Ur provides the background to that statement on p35:

Ur-Namma’s son, Shulgi, spent the next two decades rehabilitating his image. The process began with completing the great ziggurat of Ur started by his father and ended in reinventing himself as the brother of Gilgamesh. In the next 30 years of his rule, he was the divine Shulgi, the second known “divine king” in history. As part of remaking his image, Shulgi commissioned the first Sumerian King List

Outside of a handful of names found on inscriptions, the rest of the names prior to Sargon on the list are almost certainly fictitious. Not surprisingly, the SKL becomes more accurate and the length of reigns more realistic as it approaches the “present” reign of Shulgi. The same is true of the length of lives in early Genesis.

Just as importantly, the Ur III list has no mention of the flood or of antediluvian kings. Following Shulgi’s death, the Ur III dynasty fell apart within a few generations, and the city of Isin emerged on top after years of chaos. The rulers of Isin legitimized their own rule by adding their names to Shulgi’s original list, as well as taking over the places in the prelude to Eridu Genesis to extend their lineage even beyond the flood. The outrageously long reigns of these kings is well known, ranging from 10,000 to 28,000 years or so. There’s no question that these names and reigns aren’t historical. The purpose of the Sumerian King List was pure propaganda.

Applying all this to the genealogies in early Genesis, the purpose is certainly to draw connections between the history of Israel and the history of humanity writ large, but the authors of Genesis weren’t legitimizing their power or engaging in propaganda to benefit the empire. ANE mythology depicted the king as the founder of cities, the origin of cultural advances, and the representative of the gods. The genealogies of Gen. 1-11 show ordinary people, not the king, as responsible for those things.

The genealogies, like the rest of the “primal history,” is a polemic against Mesopotamian mythology and culture. A “vaccine” against the allure of empire, if you will.

1 Like

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

This is a place for gracious dialogue about science and faith. Please read our FAQ/Guidelines before posting.