Are the Biblical Genealogies Helpful in Establishing the Age of Man?
by Jonathan Mclatchie
In 1650, James Ussher, the archbishop of Ireland, produced a detailed Biblical timeline, going all the way back to the creation of man and the Universe. Based largely on the genealogies given in Genesis 5 and 11, this chronology famously placed the creation of Adam and Eve in the year 4,004 B.C. Indeed, such a view is espoused by many Bible-believing Christians, even today. But just how sound is this view? Are Christians really committed to the view that the creation of man happened no more than 6,000 years ago? It is my personal view that using the Biblical records in this manner is ultimately misguided, and misunderstands the nature of ancient genealogies. One crucial assumption, which is employed in Ussher’s calculation, is the notion that the relevant genealogies are complete: That is to say, they contain no gaps or missing names. But are these genealogies actually complete as Ussher supposed? Here, I attempt to show that such an assumption is unfounded.
Much of the misunderstanding surrounding these genealogies results because we are reading them in modern English and in the context of modern western culture. The genealogies were written in ancient Hebrew and represent ancient Jewish culture. For one thing, the Hebrew word for “son” (ben) can mean “son”, “grandson”, “great grandson” or “descendent”. And, likewise, “father” (Hebrew ab) can
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mean "father", "grandfather", "great-grandfather" or "ancestor". For example, in Genesis 28:13, God says to Jacob, “I am the LORD the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac”. But Abraham wasn’t the father of Jacob. Isaac was the father of Jacob. Abraham was the father of Isaac, thus making Abraham the grandfather of Jacob. That being said, however, the verb used in Genesis 5 and 11 is the Hebrew “yalad” and is translated “became the father of” in the NIV and “begat” in the KJV. So, it does not even use the word “father” (ab), but rather “yalad” (which is similarly flexible in its meaning). This verb can mean giving birth to someone who is ancestral to the next person named (with many generations skipped). One example of this is the genealogy of Moses in Exodus 6. These genealogies report that Amram and his wife Jochebed “begat” (Hebrew yalad) Moses (two times) and refers to him as “son” (Hebrew ben). Thus, on at least two occasions, it uses the very same verb as used in Genesis 5 and 11. But what is important to notice here is that Amram and Jochebed lived at the time when the Jews entered Egypt while Moses was 80 years old during the exodus some 430 years later…
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