The genealogies found in the book of Genesis have long been viewed as a tool that can be used to arrive at a date of creation and the beginning of humanity and the earth. With this article, Andrew E. Steinmann offers an alternate lens through which the genealogies should be viewed. The view proposed by Steinmann is that the genealogies should not be understood as giving a strict father to son line of offspring, but rather as a method of highlighting the messianic promise from God as the family of Abram is drawn out of humanity.
PROBLEMS PRESENTED BY THE GENESIS 5 AND 11 GENEALOGIES VIS-À-VIS CHRONOLOGY
Before arguing for his own view, Steinmann begins by surveying some of the difficulties that have made a strict chronological reading of the genealogies problematic.
The first problem is “ages of the patriarchs compared with narrated events.” Steinmann observes that due to the great length of lifespan of some of the early patriarchs, there is overlap between these individuals and narrated events that are not immediately apparent from a casual reading of the text. These include: 1)Methuselah’s death being the same year as the flood (does the text leave room for Methuselah dying in the flood?); 2)Abram has six ancestors still alive at the time of his birth, including Shem, who not only built and survived on the ark, but was already 98 years old at the time of the flood (cf. Gen. 11.10). Furthermore, these men would still be alive at the time of the birth of Abrams son Isaac.
The second problem is the “strategic placement of certain individuals in the line from Adam to Abram.” This problem addresses the issue of godly and important men occupying places of significance in the genealogy, namely the importance behind the numbers of seven and ten. Enoch is seventh from Adam, Noah is tenth from Adam, Eber is fourteenth from Adam (double seven), and Abram is twentieth from Adam (double ten). Essentially the debate comes down to wether this placement is a coincidence, or if it was an intentional literary device used by the author. Steinmann views the placement as strategic highlighting of certain individuals, and that the author would have been content to leave names and generations out of the genealogy “in order to place certain individuals in positions of honor.”
The third problem is “the birth of Shem’s son.” Adding up the ages given to us in the Genesis account of the flood leaves a discrepancy in what Shem’s age should be. The problem looks like this: Noah was 500 years old at the birth of his sons (5.32), Noah was 600 years old at the time of the flood (7.6), and Shem was 100 years old when he fathered Arpachshad two years after the flood (11.10). Depending on which account your looking at, it is unclear how old Shem should be at the flood and the birth of his son. There is a two year discrepancy. Working with Gen. 5.32, Shem should be 100 years old at the time of the flood. But when we start with Gen. 11.10, Shem should be 98 years old at the time of the flood.
The fourth problem is “the birth of Terah’s son.” While the problem with Noah and Shem leaves us with two years to deal with, the narrative of Terah and Abram presents a much more difficult issue. Here is the issue: Terah was 70 years old at the birth of his sons (11.26), Terah died in Haran at the age of 205 (11.32), Abram left Haran when he was 75 years old (12.4). Steinmann argues that the text implies Abram left Haran just after the death of his father. If this is true, then Terah should be 130 years old when Abram was born (205 – 75 = 130), not 70.
ATTEMPTS TO AMELIORATE THE PROBLEMS IN THE GENEALOGICAL NUMBERS
Steinmann then gives a brief look at various attempts to deal with these problems. Perhaps the oldest attempts can be found in the Septuagint. Some of the ages given in the genealogies were changed (for example, Lamech’s age is changed from 182 to 188). There are also translational attempts to address the difficulties. For example, Genesis 11.32 was translated to say “and the days of Terah in Haran were 205 years, and Terah died in Haran.”
Modern examples of trying to deal with these problems include things like appealing to partial years in the instance of Shem and Arpachshad, by placing Shem’s birth at the end of Noah’s 500th year, and Arpachshad’s birth at the very end of the year in which Shem was 100. This would give us about two years to work with.
READING THE GENEALOGIES AS OTHER THAN A CONTINUOUS CHRONOLOGY
Here, Steinmann begins to lay out is proposed solution to the problems, and begins to argue in favor of not taking the genealogies as strictly chronological.
THE MEANING OF “FATHERED” IN THE GENEALOGIES
Steinmann takes a moment to examine the Hebrew grammar behind the word typically translated as “fathered” or “became the father of.”
[NOTE: I have not taken any sort of Hebrew course, so I am completely in the dark concerning this subject matter. I will merely share what Steinmann is arguing.]
Steinmann points out that this Hebrew word can be used with either the H stem, or the G stem. In Genesis 5 and 11, the H stem is the form that is consistently used. The G stem is the form that “would signify having a child.” But when the H stem is used in the verb, the meaning is to convey “the causative counterpart of the G stem.” In other words, the word is meant to signify causing the birth of a child. The significance of this distinction is as follows: “in the G stem with a masculine subject, the direct object must be the son of the subject. However, since the verb is causative in the H stem, the subject and direct object may be more distantly related – perhaps grandfather/grandson or great-grandfather/great-grandson and so forth.”
WHY THE AGE OF THE PROGENITOR IS NOT THE DATE OF BIRTH OF THE SUCCESSOR
Working with the understanding of the Hebrew word as being causative and not a direct fathering, Steinmann now argues that there is not enough information to determine when a successor is born. When looking at the genealogies, we see only three facts that can be learned: “1. The age of the progenitor when he caused the (eventual) birth of his successor. 2. The number of years that the progenitor lived after causing the birth of his successor (Gen. 5 only). 3. The age at which the progenitor died.” Given these facts, it cannot be determined when the successor was born or even if the progenitor was still alive when the successor was born.
Steinmann draws two conclusions from this. “1. The purpose of the Genesis 5 and 11 genealogies is not to tell us, even secondarily, about the age of the earth or the date of Creation, and adding up the ages of the patriarchs listed there to determine chronology is not a valid exercise. 2. The purpose of the numbers in Genesis 5 and 11 must be to tell us something other than when persons listed in the genealogy were born.”
A SOLUTION: READING THE GENESIS 5 AND 11 GENEALOGIES AS A CHAIN OF MESSIANIC BLESSINGS
Now Steinmann arrives at his proposed interpretation of the genealogies. What he proposes is that the genealogies should be read in light of one of the greater overarching narrative themes of Genesis. Namely, the progression of the messianic promise from God as it is passed on from person to person. “I submit that this is the purpose of the Genesis 5 and 11 genealogies, and it is signaled not only by the chain of generations that are traced between [Adam and Abram], but also by the mention of the age at which each listed patriarch is said to have caused the orthodox of his successor as well as the subsequent blessing of long life.”
Steinmann also proposes that the age given at the causation of the successor is when God blessed that man with the promise that he would be an ancestor to the Messiah. The acceptance of that promise by faith is the event that “caused” the eventual birth of the successor.
I am appreciative of this proposal by Steinmann. I myself have believed for some time that there are gaps in the genealogies (I have written about that here). Steinmann takes this understanding and finds what could be a possible reason, or motivation, for the author of Genesis to write the genealogies in such a way. The promise of a coming Messiah that will undo the effects of the fall is thread that is wound through Genesis from beginning to end, and it only makes sense to view the genealogies through this lens.
 Andrew E. Steinmann, “Genesis Genealogies and Messianic Promise,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 176, (July-Sept. 2019). 343-359.