Poor old moses

The Gospel Coalition recently carried a post from Joe Carter, titled, “Debatable: Genesis, Genealogies, and the Age of the Earth”. This was not a live debate, but a mock debate where the positions of two long dead men are summarized and weighed against the other. The thorny issue at the core of the debate was whether poor old Moses really knew what he was talking about.

Now that’s not what Carter would say. He would put it more like this: do the genealogies of Genesis provide a chronology for estimating the age of the Earth? Carter offers Bishop James Ussher in defense of the young Earth view (that the world is about 6000 years old) and Dr. William Henry Green is given in defense of the view that undermines the young Earth position.

Joe Carter gives the win to Green:

Dr. Green’s article cast considerable doubt on the supposition that the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11 were ever intended to be a direct chronology, much less one from which the age of the earth could be deduced.

While it doesn’t settle the debate, Green’s argument undercuts a key piece of evidence used by the Young Earth side. Like Ussher, if we want to determine the age of our planet, we may need to look at evidence outside the Biblical text.

However, the logic of Green’s argument, as presented by Carter, is misleading.  Let’s look at his points one by one.

1. “Comparison to other Biblical genealogies”. Since other genealogies in other books of the Bible are selective, omit unimportant names, and serve the literary purposes of various authors, “there is no reason to assume that [Genesis 5 and 11] is different that other genealogies [sic].” That might be true. But there is also no reason to assume that Genesis 5 and 11 are the same as other genealogies in this way, that they are intended by Moses to serve the same literary purpose as, say, Matthew 1:1-17… or that they should be taken as loosely. Saying “there is no reason to assume” Moses’ genealogies are for a different literary purpose than Matthew’s genealogy not only begs the question, it flies in the face of the obvious difference in style between the genealogies of the two authors. Matthew’s gives no ages of any sort, and is highly stylized. Moses gives ages of every man at the birth of his listed progeny and at his own death.  That looks to me like at least one “reason to assume” Moses’ purpose might be different than Matthew’s.

2. “Making unwarranted assumptions”. (You mean like the above?) Since numbers are included in the Genesis 5 and 11 genealogies that “have no possible relation to such a purpose” as summing up the ages included for the purpose of a direct chronology, Green suggests that therefore we are not warranted in using genealogies for that purpose.  Breaking that down, here’s Green’s point: in Moses’ genealogies, the age of each man at his death could possibly be used to construct some kind of chronology of the total sum of the life-spans listed. HOWEVER, Moses also includes the age of each man at the birth of his listed son, which Green assumes is totally irrelevant to the purposes of building a chronology from the sum. Therefore we have no warrant in trying to sum up one number but not the other in trying to estimate a total chronology. However, Calvin at least thought this text, beginning in Gen 5:1, does provide just such a warrant:

In this chapter Moses briefly recites the length of time which had intervened between the creation of the world and the deluge…

(Calvin’s Commentary, “Genesis 5:1”.)

And why would Calvin see a warrant for such a claim here? Two reasons, both to do with the design of Moses in how he wrote the genealogy: 1) He gives the age of each father at the birth of his son so that the whole “catalogue” (Calvin’s word) can provide an accurate total sum without inflation. 2) He gives the age of each dad at his death in order to give the reader an idea of the number of people in the lineage of “the Church” still living at any time. Because that’s Moses’ dual purpose here: to show how long the Church survived between Creation and the Flood, and to show how God’s gracious intervention at the Flood preserved the Church from being drowned out and extinguished by the overflow of the corrupting population. More on this point in a bit…

3. “It doesn’t match parallel texts”. Taking Exodus 6:16-26 and comparing this to Genesis 5 and 11, Green points out a couple of things: 1) the life spans in Exodus cannot be strung together to estimate the entire period; 2) this seems to imply that the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11, written by the same author, should not be taken for a chronology either, but for some other purpose and design. But again Green overlooks a basic difference between the two genealogies: the ones in Genesis 5 and 11 DO list the ages of each man at the birth of his son, whereas the one in Exodus 6 does not. Again, that very difference provides a prima facie warrant for inferring a different purpose between the genealogies of Genesis and Exodus. So why would Moses leave out the ages of each father at the birth of his son in the Exodus 6 genealogy? Because the genealogy is about none other than (da, da da!) Moses and Aaron themselves! In other words, in the latter genealogy, there was no need for Moses to provide the precise data that would allow the reader to accurately sum up the total time elapsed between Levi and themselves. Furthermore, the book of Exodus does elsewhere provide an accurate record of how much time elapsed between the events of Levi’s lifetime and the events of Moses’ lifetime: 430 years (Ex 12:40).  So it’s not a parallel text after all. But it shows the author is still interested in providing an accurate chronology.

4. “Different texts used different numbers”. Here Green’s point is drawn from the observation that the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint, also called the LXX), the Samaritan copy of the first five books of the Old Testament, and the Hebrew Old Testament manuscripts, all provide different numbers in Genesis 5 and 11, resulting in a total maximum difference of 880 years between the events of the Flood and the birth of Abraham. His point from this observation is that clearly the editors of the LXX and the Samaritan Pentateuch didn’t think the Genesis 5 and 11 genealogies were meant as an accurate chronology, and therefore, neither should we! I have two things to say about this odd argument: 1) An addition of 880 years to the Genesis 11 genealogy is not going to affect anyone’s argument that the Bible’s record gives a chronology favouring a “Young Earth”. Darwinists, for example, need billions of years to make room for naturalistic evolution “from molecules to man”. 880 years is a drop in the proverbial bucket. 2) What the editors of manuscripts translated centuries later thought these genealogies were for is not of great consequence in any case. Especially when the author’s own purposes are not hard to deduce from the text itself. Moreover, it is probably no coincidence that mystical schools of interpretation flourished in Judaism following the editing and canonization of the Tanakh in the 5th century—the same period as the origin of the Samaritan Pentateuch, and only a century or two earlier than the composition of the LXX.  It’s probably fair to say that no Evangelical Bible scholar would put a lot of stock in mystical or allegorical schools of biblical interpretation. Neither should we.

5. “The structure appears to define the purpose”. Green’s observation here is that the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 seem to be stylized, there is a pattern of 10 generations in each genealogy, with each list ending in the mention of three brothers, a pattern he also sees in Cain’s genealogy in Genesis 4. When this is compared to Matthew’s genealogy (see above), which gives 3 sets of fourteen generations from Adam to Christ (and which most scholars agree is a somewhat selective genealogy not meant to be an exhaustive or technical ancestry), Green thinks we should deduce that neither should we read Moses’ genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11 for an accurate, technical chronology. It seems obvious to him that stylized genealogies aren’t meant to be taken literally. I have several problems with this argument: 1) Cain’s genealogy in Genesis 4, unlike Genesis 5 and 11, only gives 7 generations, not 10. 2) Cain’s genealogy does not list any ages at all, either of the father at the son’s birth, or of each man at his own death. So it is not comparable with the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11 because of these two points. 3) Both of the genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11 do in fact conclude with the mention of 3 brothers born to their father. But in each case, in Genesis, the purpose is plainly because some or all of them are heavily featured in the narrative that follows. This is not the case in Matthew’s genealogy, where there is no narrative interlude at all, and the whole combination of three sets of 14 generations in Matthew’s genealogy purposefully climaxes in the birth of Christ, showing His place in the grand and orderly scheme of God’s salvific history regarding Israel. So while there is some style and paralleled symmetry in Genesis 5 and 11 (which does not include Genesis 4 and is not comparable in any case to Matthew 1), the repetition of 10 generations twice does not make a pattern. And even if there is symmetry here, the most we can infer is that Moses sees God’s orderly hand in those two fundamentally important intervals, between Creation and the Flood (1656 years) and between Shem and Abraham (390 years) in spite of the rapid reduction in life spans. Finally—and here’s the point I said I would return to—Green seems to think that Moses shows his purpose is not literal and historical by the repetition of the genealogies ending with 3 brothers. However, I would argue just the opposite. Looking at each genealogy in Genesis 5 and 11, one can easily see that because of the long life spans at the beginning, there were at first many of these men alive at one time. But that number rapidly dwindled in the final era before the Flood, due, apparently, to both death and corruption (Gen 6:5-13), as the narrative proceeds to detail. Similarly with Abraham, though the Semitic line was broad at the beginning, providing mutual encouragement to faithfulness, corruption threatens the faithful remnant first through migration and apostasy at Babel in Eber’s time, then as Terah sets out with an even smaller clan, then as Abraham was called to leave that support behind to go to the Land God would show Him. And he goes alone with Lot, whose line ends up corrupted.  By showing that in each case, the Messianic lineage, of the Saviour promised through Eve, hung on so slender a thread, Moses highlights the miraculous, historical and redemptive sovereignty of God against sin, a corrupting population, overwhelming forces and threats on every side. The ancestry of Abraham, and the lineage of Jesus of Nazareth, descended all the way from Adam, is more amazing to the readers of Genesis when understood as a true and accurate, historical chronology of real men and women, real events, dangers, dramas and Divine interventions.

In the end, it seems that Carter might have been biased towards Green’s position. And maybe a little to eager to throw out the Baby with the Flood waters?

(See Joe Carter’s post here.)


    1. Michael, I couldn’t disagree more. You have laid out your opinion on your blog; I have done so on mine here.

      As to your quote from Calvin, earlier in the same section he wrote,

      “…it is too violent a cavil to contend that Moses distributes the work which God perfected at once into six days, for the mere purpose of conveying instruction. Let us rather conclude that God himself took the space of six days, for the purpose of accommodating his works to the capacity of men. We slightingly pass over the infinite glory of God, which here shines forth; whence arises this but from our excessive dullness in considering his greatness? In the meantime, the vanity of our minds carries us away elsewhere. For the correction of this fault, God applied the most suitable remedy when he distributed the creation of the world into successive portions, that he might fix our attention, and compel us, as if he had laid his hand upon us, to pause and to reflect.”

      The controversy Calvin defends against is the belief that God created the Universe in an instant. Kind of the opposite controversy today! Calvin has no problem with God creating the whole grand Universe in 6 days. The issue with astronomy in your quote is about the interplay with theology and the sciences (he calls it the “art” of astronomy!). He is in favour of studying the science. But he hardly places the authority of astronomer over that of the Bible! The context shows that he is responding to the claim from astronomers that the moon is the second greatest “light” according to Genesis but was known then to be smaller than Saturn. He explains that Moses wrote from a human’s perspective, describing things the way it appears from Earth.

      You shouldn’t use partial quotes to suggest something the author never would have intended.

  1. Totally agree. That ages are included in the Genesis 5 & 11 genealogies makes all the difference in using them to create a chronology. Neither Adam nor Noah can be pushed back in time very far without declaring the ages given in Genesis 5 & 11 to be completely meaningless. And once we start declaring parts of Scripture to be fabrications, then where do we stop?

    (Btw, found this blog via your comment on the TGC article you critique above.)

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