by Doug Ward

  Have you ever added up the numbers in the genealogies of Gen. 5 and 11 to compute the number of years from Adam to the Flood, and from the Flood to Abraham?  I know that I have, at least a couple of times. I can remember my grandmother doing this sum on the back of an envelope when I was boy. She may have even assigned it to me as an exercise in arithmetic.

If you have carried out this computation, you are certainly not alone. Bishop Usher's famous seventeenth-century estimate that Adam was created in 4004 B.C. was partially based upon it. The numbers are just sitting there, waiting to be added up.

But is there any significance to the fact that the biblical text itself does not list the totals? The Bible does periodically give chronological information-e.g., Ex. 12:40 mentions that the Israelites were in Egypt for 430 years, I Kings 6:1 gives a figure of 480 years from the Exodus to the building of Solomon's temple, and Judges 11:26 states that 300 years elapsed between Israel's arrival in the Promised Land and the time of the judge Jephthah-but it is silent about the total time from Creation to the Flood and from the Flood to Abraham.

The answer may be that the genealogies in Gen. 5 and 11 were not intended to give an unabridged record of the time before Abraham. In fact, an examination of other biblical genealogies reveals that these lists often skip generations.


Some Examples of Omissions

  A prime example is the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1.  When Matt. 1:8 mentions ``Joram begat Ozias''(KJV), three generations are omitted:  Ahaziah (2 Kings 8:25), Joash (2 Kings 12:1), and Amaziah (I Kings 14:1).   Later, in verse 11, Jehoiakim is left out (2 Kings 23:34).  Here Matthew's purpose is not to give an exhaustive account of Jesus' ancestry; rather, he is establishing that Jesus was a descendant of David, as the Messiah was prophesied to be.   The numerical equivalents of the Hebrew consonants in David's name add up to  14, and Matthew is emphasizing Jesus' Davidic ancestry by listing his genealogy  in three groups of fourteen notable individuals (Matt. 1:17).

Matthew gives an even more striking abridgment in the opening sentence of his genealogy:  ``The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.''  In [2], Walter Kaiser comments that if Matt.  1:1 were written in the style of Genesis 5, it might read something like,``And Abraham was 100 years old, and he begat David.  And David was 40 years old, and he begat Jesus Christ.'' After all, Matthew 1 is intended to trace the messianic line, and Abraham was 100 when he begat Isaac, through whom this line continued on to David.  Similarly, David was about 40 when Solomon, the next occupant of his throne, was born.

Comparisons of other biblical genealogies reveal further omissions in a number of them, as Green documents in [1].  For instance, a comparison of Ezra 7:1-5 and I Chron. 6:3-14 shows that six names are left out in Ezra 7:3.Another example of apparent omissions occurs in Exodus 6:16-20, where four generations are given from Levi to Moses.  There are several reasons to suspect that this account is condensed:

(a) I Chron. 7:23-27 lists 11 generations (many more than four) between Levi's brother Joseph and Moses' successor Joshua.

  (b)  Numbers 3:19,27 lists the total number of males in the Kohath clans at  8600 one year after the Exodus, including 2750 between the ages of 30and 50 (Num. 4:36).  If there were only two generations from Kohath to the Exodus, then Kohath must have been very prolific indeed!

(c) Kohath was born before the Israelites settled in Egypt (Gen. 46:11), so Kohath was at least 350 years older than Moses. There is room for many more than two generations in these 350 years.

  These examples and others suggest that the Gen. 5 and 11 may themselves contain omissions.  The structure of the lists in Genesis also implies that the names could have been carefully chosen, as in Matthew 1.  Both the Gen.5 and 11 lists include ten names, and each ends with a father having three sons.  Enoch, the key name in the Gen. 5 list, is seventh in the list, paralleling Lamech, the seventh in the list of the generations of Cain's descendants (Gen. 4:17-19). 

But if the numbers in Gen. 5 and 11 are not meant to be added, why are they mentioned in the text?  Green and Kaiser suggest that these numbers may be meant to show the effects of sin on the long lifespans that God apparently originally intended for man.  Abraham's life of 175 years and Moses' life of 120 were significantly shorter than the lifespans of over 900 years recorded by Adam, Methusaleh, and Noah.


What About the “7000-year Plan”?

  Through the centuries, many Christians have held the belief that Christ would return after at most 6000 years of human history.    This tradition can be traced back at least as far as the second century A.D., when it is found, for example, in the apocryphal Epistle of Barnabas.  Early church fathers whose writings express this belief include Irenaeus, Cyprian, Lactantius, and Methodius.   However, a 6000-year time limit on this age is nowhere explicitly stated in Scripture, and if the genealogies in Gen. 5 and 11 are indeed condensed, there may already have been well over 6000 years since the creation of Adam.   This possibility does not, of course, cast doubt upon the Christian expectation of Christ's return, which is clearly taught in the Bible.  It merely places us in the situation of Jesus' first-century disciples, to whom Jesus said, ``It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power'' (Acts 1:7).  Perhaps His return will occur 6000 years after some important historical milestone, but we will not find out which one until that time comes.   



1.  William Henry Green, "Primeval Chronology," Bibliotheca Sacra , April 1890, pp. 285-303. (Reprinted in Classical Evangelical Essays in Old Testament Interpretation, Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., ed., Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1972.)

2.  Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., "Why Don't Biblical Genealogies Always Match Up?" pp. 48-50 in Hard Sayings of the Bible, InterVarsity Press, Downer's  Grove, Illinois, 1996.



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