According to the story in Genesis, there were around 2,300 years from the creation of Adam in the Garden of Eden to the exodus of the Israelites in Egypt. Along the way, there were 23 generations, a flood, several famines, and generation after generation of lost stories. Many readers skim over these sections for the narrative portions of the book, but if we look carefully at these “begats” we can not only seeing biblical man becoming more like us, but there is also plenty of room for surprise. Did you know that Abraham could have met Noah? Or that Eber, for whom the Hebrew tribe is named, outlived his great-great-great-great grandson?
Come, take a look! There will be graphs!
(This post is part of a continuing series of commentaries on Genesis, starting at the very beginning, but they get better as we go on. This one covers an earlier part of Genesis than where I currently am in the narrative with Jacob and Esau. You may be interested in some of my other “charts” posts including a pricing guide for shekels in the bible or my massive family tree of everyone in the Torah.)
Before we begin, an exercise for the reader. Quickly turn your favorite bible to Genesis 5:6. It’s not an important passage and probably reads like this:
When Seth had lived 105 years, he became the father of Enosh.
Your bible, whether you are Jewish or Christian, probably says that Seth had Enosh when he was 105 years old. However some bibles, those that are based on a Greek translation, say that he was 205 years old. If you have the higher number, your bible isn’t wrong, but it’s not based on the Masoretic text version of the chronology. All of my graphs assume that version because it’s the version that I read and also what nearly all of you do, but just keep an asterisk in the back of your mind that some bibles are slightly different.
From Adam to Noah
The genealogies that connect Adam to Noah are given in Genesis 5, immediately after the story of Caine and Abel. There are ten generations from Adam to Noah and each of the stanzas look a bit like this one:
When Seth had lived 105 years, he became the father of Enosh. After he became the father of Enosh, Seth lived 807 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Seth lived a total of 912 years, and then he died.
Each stanza covers one generation, relates when the first son if born, and how long the person after. In each of these cases, the key line to Abraham comes through the first-born, which is also always a son. At this point in the story, humans– at least these humans– live a very long time, around 900 years. That gives them plenty of time to populate the world, though obviously none of them survive the flood anyway.
Putting them together, the timeline looks like this:
As you would expect, only Noah and Shem’s line continues past the end of the graph, the flood. It’s a little difficult to see, but Lamech died five years before the flood, while Methuselah died in the same year. Everyone save Enoch and Lamech lived around 925 years.
Enoch is the stand-out in this list, an important figure in Christian and Jewish theology. The trick was that Enoch didn’t die, he was subsumed bodily into heaven at a paltry 365 years of age:
When Enoch had lived 65 years, he became the father of Methuselah. After he became the father of Methuselah, Enoch walked faithfully with God 300 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Enoch lived a total of 365 years. Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.
These four lines have been written about again and again, but strangely not in the Hebrew bible itself. Outside of a brief mention in 1 Chronicles, Enoch is never mentioned again. His importance increased by the time of the common era, leading Enoch to be mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament, to have a Book of Enoch accepted as part of the bible canon for 50 million African Christians, and to have several later works of pseudopigrapha ascribed to him. He’s the subject of countless legends and stories. Rather than try to cover all that here, I’ll come back to him in another post shortly.
My other key question as I look at this list is with Methuselah. He died the same year of the flood– does that mean he died before the flood? Was he the last good person, other than Noah’s family, to die which permitted God to strike down the world? Some of those bibles with different dates I mentioned earlier even have him surviving the flood, though it is not explained how. Of course, the bible text itself doesn’t give us answers to those questions.
In contrast, Methuselah stands out because he has the longest lifespan of any figure mentioned in the bible: 969 years. But more significant than his long life is the fact that he died in the year of the flood! Did he did in the flood or before it? Did God patiently wait for him to pass before destroying the world? And if he were righteous enough to prevent the destruction for his sake, why didn’t he just get invited on the ark? Some ancient bibles, though not translations we use today, even have Methuselah miraculously (and inexplicably) survive the flood and die some years later. Of course, the bible gives us no answers to those questions.
From Noah to Joseph
After the flood, Genesis continues with two separate genealogies: the “table of nations” in Genesis 10 which describes the dispersion of Noah’s descendants into tribes, and then Genesis 11 which digs down the into the ten more generations until we get to Abraham. These verses are arranged almost identically to the ones in Genesis 5:
When Shelah had lived 30 years, he became the father of Eber. And after he became the father of Eber, Shelah lived 403 years and had other sons and daughters.
The largest change in this second chronology is how man’s lifespan begins to change. It’s not immediate, but pretty much every generation after Noah lived a shorter time than their predecessor:
Fortunately, this is one bible fact that is explained, at least in part. Just prior to the flood, God saw the wickedness of the world and set a new limit on how long people could live, 120 years:
Then the Lord said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.”
God doesn’t execute this change immediately. Instead, each succeeding generation seems to be a bit shorter up to the end of the Torah. Aaron, for example, lived to be 123. I may make another post about this in the future, if I can remember how to do a bit of mat I’ve long since forgotten.
The decrease in ages also led to some interesting– and perhaps quite sad– effects. Eber, for example, outlived his great-great-great-great grandchildren, and could even have met Jacob. Noah was still alive when Abraham was in his 50s. There’s an opportunity here for biblical legends, but also sadness. How lonely it must have been for those cursed to live a long life when even their grandchildren were passing away decades earlier!
Uncertainty About Abraham
Generation after generation, Genesis carefully records the years when individuals were born– until Abraham. The exact wording is like this:
After Terah had lived 70 years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran.
That doesn’t say that Abram/Abraham was born when Terah was 70 years old, but says that he was born “after” 70 years. It could have been 70, if Abraham was the first-born, but the bible also never tells us that he is. There’s a similar ambiguity in Genesis 5 about when Shem was born, but then Genesis comes out and clarifies a few verses later. Here, no such luck.
In my charts, I make the assumption that Abram was born where Terah was 70 years old. It’s the cleanest way to read the passage, in my opinion, and is probably only off by a year or two at most. There is a second school of thought that some biblical commentators use (such as this list here) which place Abraham birth as much later. The logic for this calculation is that Genesis gives us Abraham’s age when he left Harran for Canaan (75) and Terah’s age when he died (205). The supposition then is that Abraham stayed in Harran until his father died before moving on, thus making him being born when Terah was 130 years old instead of 70. In that case, Abraham could never have met Noah. It’s plausible, but the text doesn’t say and I’ll take the simpler view that he was born around when 11:26 says he was.
Another odd thing about Abraham is all of the first-borns that he is descended from, but it’s not 100% consistent. Abraham is descended from Adam’s third son, Noah’s second, and himself may not have been the firstborn of Terah. It’s an odd little note and I don’t think it means anything, but something I noticed along the way.
The Final Timeline
And here is the final timeline showing both before and after the flood:
It’s sort of beautiful, isn’t it? Or is that just my love of graphs coming through?
I hope you enjoyed this diversion. Coming up next next (or soon) will be a look at the life of Enoch, as seen through the Book of Enoch. And there’s plenty more Jacob and Esau coming up!
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