Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Genesis and genealogies

5 This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. 2 Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created. 3 When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.
This is significant because it demonstrates that the image of God is transmitted through procreation. If we didn't have this statement, along with Gen 9:6, the reader might be left to wonder if the image of God was unique to Adam and Eve. But this shows the reader that the image of God is shared by all of Adam's posterity.
21 When Enoch had lived 65 years, he fathered Methuselah. 22 Enoch walked with God after he fathered Methuselah 300 years and had other sons and daughters. 23 Thus all the days of Enoch were 365 years. 24 Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.
This doesn't explicitly say that Enoch eluded death. However, that seems to be implicit in the studied contrast between the usual obituary notice ("Thus all the days of X were Y years, and he died") and the absence of that refrain in Enoch's case. 
If so, this is highly significant. It means that hope of immortality wasn't necessarily or essentially tied to physical access to the tree of life. Of course, Enoch's case is quite exceptional. But exceptional in a typological sense. Faith is the route to immortality. 
I) The function of genealogies
The Biblical genealogies became very significant and controversial in church history for two reasons. One, because these were used to date the origin of the world. In addition, many modern readers find the ages of the prediluvians incredible. 
It's important to keep in mind that using the genealogies to construct a timeline for world history is not their original design. That doesn't mean there's anything inherently wrong with using the genealogies to extract general chronological information. After all, Biblical archeologists often ransack the Bible for information in their historical reconstructions. 
But before we turn to that application, we need to consider their original function. Genealogies function as bridging devices to transition between one historical episode and another. They also place individual episodes within a larger narrative framework or continuous storyline. Finally, the genealogies track the progressive fulfillment of the seed of promise motif (Gen 3:15). 
II) Open or closed? 
Are the genealogies of Genesis open or closed? By "open," are they selective? Do they skip over some descendants? 
By comparing different genealogies in Scripture, William Henry Green concluded that the genealogies were open. Green's basic analysis has been supplemented by subsequent analysis. For instance, scholars have pointed out a 10-generation pattern. In addition, Gen 5 & 11 both terminate in 3 sons. The combination of 10+3 is improbably symmetrical if the genealogies are closed. Scholars have also documented the emphatic 7th position in genealogical lists. As one scholar noted:
Biblical genealogists, as is argued here, oftentime display a defi­nite prediliction for placing in the seventh-position personalities of importance to them…Minimal alterations were made in inherited lists of ancestors in order to place individuals deemed worthy of attention in the seventh, and, to a much lesser extent, fifth position of a genealogical tree. 

At the outset, the following cautionary statements should be made: 1- This method of attracting attention to specific individuals is but one of others available to Biblical writers3; 2- It should be emphasized that this procedure, which might almost be regarded in terms of a 'convention', was neither universally applied, nor slavishly followed; 3- The origin and development of this 'convention' could but be guessed at, since we have no comparative material from Israel's neighbors to control our speculations. It is not unlikely, however, that this procedure was promoted within intellectual circles, most probably among individuals who shared a desire to instruct. When organizing their lists, such individuals often had a didactic purpose in mind. The context in which their lists were placed, however, to a great extent determined a framework in which to work. Thus a certain equilibrium was achieved between the genealogist's eagerness to teach worthy lessons and the disciplining exigencies of a narrative. With their freedom somewhat constrained, genealogists, therefore, concentrated their didactic effort on one, or at most, two positions in a genealogical tree.In view of the prediliction that Semites in general, and Hebrews in particular, had for the number 'seven' and its multiples, the favo­ring of the 'seventh-position' should prove understandable (Sasson 1978).

I think there's compelling evidence that Genesis uses open rather than closed genealogies. They are selective and schematic rather than continuous and complete. For that reason alone, I don't think the genealogies supply exact intervals. To that extent, Usher's chronology flounders on faulty assumptions.

However, that, by itself, is not a fatal concession for young-earth creationism. Indeed, many young-earth creationists grant the fact that the genealogies are open rather than closed. I'll have more to say on this issue in a moment.

III) The Longevity  of the Prediluvians
i) Many readers balk at the longevity of the prediluvians. They disbelieve, or find it hard to believe, that human beings could live that long. However, it's important to keep in mind that from a theological standpoint, the longevity of the prediluvians is not an isolated or anomalous phenomenon. According to Gen 2, unfallen man, although he was mortal, was created with the potential for immortality. Eating from the tree of life would either confer immortality or at least rejuvenate him. Likewise, Scripture teaches the resurrection of the body.  
So, according to Scripture, it is possible, in principle, for a human body to live forever. Indeed, that's more than a hypothetical possibility. That will actually be realized. 
Of course, unbelievers will deny this. However, Christians shouldn't balk at the ages of the prediluvians. How can you believe the saints will live forever if you don't even believe someone can live for 900 years? 
ii) One commentator raises the following objection: "Paleoanthropologists have not yet uncovered any ancient skeletal remains that even remotely approach such advanced ages" (Youngblood 1999). However, I have two problems with his objection:
a) Youngblood doesn't bother to explain how paleoanthropologists would be able to determine the age of prediluvians from skeletal remains. If, say, they aged very slowly, could you tell that from skeletal remains? 
Don't we generally determine age of death from skeletal remains by comparison with normal lifespans? So what would be the frame of reference in the case of prediluvians? By definition, they fall far outside normal standards of comparison. 
b) Strictly speaking, Gen 5 doesn't say prediluvians in general lived that long. It's possible that those lifespans were confined to the line of Seth. If so, what are the odds that skeletal remains would even survive the ravages of time, much less be fortuitously discovered, by archeologists, given such a small initial sample group?
One might object that restricting the extraordinary longevity to the prediluvian line of Seth is arbitrary. However, there's something "arbitrary" about God singling out the line of Seth in the first place. But God selecting one individual or kin-group while excluding another is a major theme in the Pentateuch.
iii) Another problem with trying to cut the prediluvians down to size is that we have a steady decrease in longevity from the prediluvians through the patriarchs to the Mosaic era and beyond. For whatever reason, it starts high, then drastically lowers over time. Don't we need to interpret the ages consistent with that overall trend? Otherwise, we're depressing the pattern. 
iv) Another "solution" is to say the names stand for dynasties rather than individuals. But there are problems with that:
a) It fails to distinguish between linear genealogies, which trace through one descendant per generation, and segmented genealogies, that include more than one descendent per generation. Moreover, even segmented genealogies name each individual descendent.
b) It doesn't work for Enoch, where it's clearly describing a unique individual experience.
IV) Are the figures artificial? 
i) Some scholars argue that the figures are artificial. For instance, in his commentary on Genesis, Umberto Cassuto noted that the ages of the prediluvians in Gen 5 were divisible by 5, sometimes with the addition of 7. If true, that's striking. However, I have some reservations about his analysis:
a) This assumes the numbers in the Massoretic Text were transmitted with absolute accuracy for centuries on end. But numbers are highly susceptible to mistranscription, and once a numerical error creeps into the text, it's difficult to detect and correct. This is a problem with all those "Bible code" books that presume to discover subtle numerical patterns hidden in the text. There's no margin for error in their calculations. The transmission of the text must be exact.  
b) Unlike some numbers, such as 7 or 12, no special numerological significance attaches to the number 5 in Biblical usage. So it's not obvious to me why the narrator would be using multiples of 5 for symbolic reasons. 
c) If those aren't the actual ages of the prediluvians, why did the narrator assign those ages to the prediluvians? Cassuto's analysis fails to explain why each prediluvian is assigned that particular age, rather than some other age. 
d) Assuming that the ages are multiples of 5, sometimes with the addition of 7, does that mean these are artificial figures? Or does it mean these are round figures? Rounding the ages to make them divisible by 5 doesn't make them imaginary. That might be a mnenomic device. The occasional addition of 7 indicates the narrator was constrained by objective data, not just making it up whole cloth. Otherwise, why not make them all neatly divisible by 5? If he has to add 7 in some cases, that indicates the figures are not artificial. 
One might argue that 5 plus 7 equals 12, which is a figure with numerological significance in Scripture. However, the alternation between ages that use 7 and ages that don't seems random. 
e) If the ages symbolic, shouldn't that be a consistent numerological pattern in the genealogies of Genesis? What about other genealogies in Genesis? 
ii) An even more ingenious explanation was proposed by Barnouin, who correlates the ages of some prediluvians with the synodic periods of the seven "planets." However, I have reservations about his analysis:
a) As with Cassuto's analysis, this assumes the absolute accuracy of our extant Hebrew manuscripts.
b) There are 10 prediluvians in the Gen 5 genealogy, but Barnouin only finds astronomical correlations for a handful. That randomness suggests to me that his correlations are coincidental rather than intentional.
c) Why think the original audience for Genesis would even recognize these patterns? And even assuming they were detectable, why would they be significant to the original audience?
The approaches of Cassuto and Barnouin both seem to be rather ad hoc. 
V) From gaps to geological ages
In his classic, seminal essay, Green was very optimistic about the value of his analysis in harmonizing Scripture with geology. For instance:
And it is to be observed that the Scriptures furnish no collateral information whatever respecting the period covered by the genealogies now in question.  The creation, the Flood, the call of Abraham, are great facts, which stand out distinctly in primeval sacred history.  A few incidents respecting our first parents and their sons Cain and Abel are recorded.  Then there is an almost total blank until the Flood, with nothing whatever to fill the gap, and nothing to suggest the length of time intervening but what is found in the genealogy stretching between these two points.  And the case is substantially the same from the Flood to Abraham.  So far as the biblical records go, we are left not only without adequate data, but without any data whatever, which can be brought into comparison with these genealogies for the sake of testing their continuity and completeness. 

If, therefore, any really trustworthy data can be gathered from any source whatever, from any realm of scientific or antiquarian research, which can be brought into comparison with these genealogies for the sake of determining the question, whether they have noted every link in the chain of descent, or whether, as in other manifest instances, links have been omitted, such data should be welcomed and the comparison fearlessly made.  Science would simply perform the office, in this instance, which information gathered from other parts of Scripture is unhesitatingly allowed to do in regard to those genealogies previously examined(Green 1890).

i) A basic problem with Green's analysis is that you can accept his premise, but reject his conclusion. The fact that the genealogies are internally open doesn't mean you can fill the blanks with corresponding geological, prehistorical, or historical epochs. Green doesn't show how they correlate. There's a twofold challenge:

(a) Intercalating additional intervals within human history–within the genealogical gaps; (b) intercalating additional intervals before human history. An obvious problem is that Green is trying to harmonize the genealogies with 19C science. Let's compare the sequence in Genesis with the sequence posited by modern mainstream science:

Big Bang (14 billion years ago) Creation
Solar System (9 billion years ago)         Day 1
Earth (5 billion years ago) Day 2
Precambrian ( 4.5 billion years ago) Day 3
Paleozoic (1.5 billion years ago) Day 4 
Mesozoic (250 millions years ago)         Day 5
Cenozoic (60+ million years ago)         Day 6
Stone age (c. 10,000 BC) Day 7
Copper age (4000-3000 BC)
Bronze Age (3000-1200 BC)         The Fall
Iron Age (1200-600 BC)
Prediluvian civilization

The Flood

The Patriarchal period

How do gaps in the genealogies correlate with cosmic history or earth history according to mainstream science? I don't see that Green has solved the problem he posed for himself. 
ii) In addition, it's not just a matter of making room for modern scientific claims. Not just extra time, or empty intervals of time, but what events fill those intervals. Mainstream science has a detailed narrative of what was happening during those chronological slots. 
Green's solution is too facile to meet the challenge. It requires drastic, unforeseen theological concessions that I doubt he'd be prepared to make. 
Green, W. H. "Primeval Chronology, "BibSac 47 (1890), 285-303. 
Sasson, J. "A Genealogical 'Convention' in Biblical Chronology?" ZAW 90 (1978), 171-85.
Youngblood, R. The Book of Genesis (Wipf & Stock, 2nd ed., 1999), 73.