Relevant Verses: Ezra 8, Nehemiah 11, 12
Leading question: Since several books in the Bible, including Ezra and Nehemiah, include long lists of names, how do we make sense of such lists in an age that seems to avoid lists as deadly dull?
This particular lesson suggests several points of contact with the church in our day, including some tantalizing hints on the right way to trigger a helpful lay “rebellion.” But it also includes matters which seem to have no relevance for us, in particular, the long lists of names.
Question: If long lists are not exciting, not interesting, and apparently not helpful, why are they included in Scripture?
Comment: The lists of names in Scripture, especially the genealogies, serve a variety of purposes. At the end of this lesson is an excerpt from Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers (2016) which addresses (both in survey form and in some detail) the role of “lists” in Scripture. Though tangential to the content of Ezra and Nehemiah, that discussion is quite relevant to the issue of the “lists” in those two books.
Question: What might be the specific reason why the list of names in Ezra 2 is repeated in Nehemiah 7?
Comment: The last sentence in Nehemiah 7 reads: “And all Israel settled in their towns.” The official study guide includes this suggestive comment: “In many ways, the whole return and rebuilding was amazing. A people who many years before had their city devastated, their temple destroyed, and their land ravaged had now returned to that same land and that same city and were rebuilding everything, even the temple. It must have seemed miraculous to them and to those around them, as well. It was all, however, according to the will and the promises of God.”
Question: Given the astonishing fact that all these people were “settled in their towns,” which of the two leaders was more crucial to this miracle: Nehemiah, the man of action, or Ezra, the learned scribe?
Question: Ezra 8 describes the scene when Ezra and his contingent of returnees were getting ready to leave for Jerusalem. Ezra was horrified that there were no Levites in the group. Can we surmise why the religious leaders were not there? Were they lazy, wicked, oblivious? Does Scripture offer any suggested reasons?
Question: Nehemiah 11:1-2 tells how the people (not the leaders?) took the initiative to cast lots to determine who would move into Jerusalem. Are there religious implications for us in this event? Should “church” determine where we choose to live?
Question: At least twice in the Ezra-Nehemiah narrative, the people, not the leaders, took the initiative in key activities: 1) Nehemiah 8:1 states that “the people told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law” so that they could hear God’s words read to them: 2) Nehemiah 11:1, 2, referring to the people living outside Jerusalem, declares: “Now the leaders of the people lived in Jerusalem; and the rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of ten to live in the holy city Jerusalem, while nine-tenths remained in the other towns. 2 And the people blessed all those who willingly offered to live in Jerusalem.”
Are these two examples pointers toward a healthy lay “rebellion” that could be instructive for the church today?
Question: In the “holy party” described in Nehemiah 12 – the dedication of the wall with great rejoicing – “they” brought in the Levites to help out. Then Nehemiah brought the leaders to join the procession. Two features stand out: 1) the recruitment of the Levites and rulers – by hook or by crook – 2) the great rejoicing: “The joy of Jerusalem was heard far away” (Neh.12:43). After all that joy, the assignment of duties as described in Nehemiah 12:44 – 47 seemed to have flowed easily and without resistance. Could “joy” help us achieve all of our religious duties?
Excerpt from Inspiration
Alden Thompson, Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers (2016), 267-274 (Chapter 19, “Numbers, Genealogies, Dates: Amram’s Brothers Were Really Prolific”). In the published book, the chapter begins with four pages of biblical genealogies: Genesis 15:13-16; 1 Chronicles 2:1-20; 1 Chronicles 6:1-3; Numbers 26:57-59; 1 Chronicles 7:23-27; Numbers 1:45, 46; Numbers 3:43; Numbers 3:27, 28; Matthew 1:1-17.
Deadly Dull But Dangerous
You took one look at the key texts and almost skipped this chapter, right? That’s why my original plan for this book did not include it. Boring, technical, volatile – those are all words that could describe what we are about to discuss.
But if you were brave enough to get this far, we should be able to move ahead rather boldly. First, let’s note two general problems. Then we can move more directly into the evidence.
1. The difference between casual and analytical reading. Casual readers may not realize some of the more complex problems lurking behind the scenes. As a result, seemingly obvious conclusions can break down when the evidence in Scripture is analyzed more closely.
Given the great variety of people in the church, however, I believe we must make room for both casual and analytical reading. To that end, it would be helpful if we could avoid reinforcing casual observations with dire warnings and heavy dogmatic arguments. Yet that is precisely the danger when believers fear the slippery slope, the camel’s nose, and the falling dominoes.
2. The danger of building proofs on the basis of casual reading. When casual reading is combined with the fear of the slippery slope, great weight can be attached to lesser matters. If these lesser matters then become part of a larger argument “proving” the validity of Scripture, faith is at risk when the analytical overtakes the casual.
The evidence in Scripture suggests that we should be cautious about placing too much weight on numbers and genealogies and on the dates linked with them. Ideally, we should be able to see numbers and genealogies as interesting, even fascinating – but not crucial. Otherwise fear could lead us away from sound conclusions. And the absence of sound conclusions could turn our fears into self-fulfilling prophecies.
To introduce the evidence, let’s pick up the story behind our playful chapter title, “Amram’s Brothers Were Really Prolific.” It can illustrate how the difference between casual and analytical reading can get us into difficulty.
If I were to ask typical church members how many people left Egypt at the time of the Exodus, they would likely answer, “Millions.” And we could consider that answer to be biblical. Exodus 12:37 says that 600,000 men, besides women and children went out from Egypt. Numbers 1:46 gives 603,550 as the number of men 20 years old and above. Similar figures are found in Exodus 38:26 and Numbers 2:32; 11:21; 26:51. Adding the women and children yields a figure close to two million (cf. PP, p. 334) or, stated more generally, “millions” (cf. PP, p. 410).
But if we read Numbers 3:43 analytically, we are startled to learn that the number of first-born males from one-month old and upward is given as 22,273. The implications are intriguing. If we accept both figures as being correct (603,550 adult males over twenty; 22,273 first-born males one-month old and upward), we would need to distribute all the males into 22,273 families. The results, translated into family size, are as follows:
27 adult males per family [603,550 divided by 22,273]
27 adult females per family
13 juvenile males per family [est. 300,000 males under 20]
13 juvenile females per family
80 average number of children per family
Now let’s push the averages. How many children did Amram and Jochabed have? We know of two sons, Aaron and Moses (Ex. 6:20), and one daughter, Miriam (Ex. 15:20). If there were only three children, the next family would need 157 to make up the shortfall in the average.
But we can make the picture even more vivid, and this is where our chapter title comes in. In Numbers 3:27 (see key texts) we read that Amram and his three brothers (Izhar, Hebron, Uzziel) had 8,600 male descendants (one month old and upward) at the time of the Exodus, an average of 2,150 per family. Adding in the women yields an average of 4,300 children per family. Prolific would be an understatement. But if Amram had only two sons, each of the other three brothers would have had to father some 700 more sons, plus daughters.
Either something is dreadfully wrong with the numbers or Amram was not Moses’ father but his great, great, great, great grandfather (the number of generations would just be a guess). Indeed, both numbers and genealogies are involved in the problem. And there is other subtle evidence in Scripture to suggest that the group leaving Egypt was smaller than two million.
But immediately we are confronted by three different slippery slopes. Let’s identify them right here so that we can control any potential panic before moving on:
- Confidence in Scripture. If we cannot trust the biblical record here, can we trust it elsewhere?
- The Miraculous. If we reduce the number of people who left Egypt, are we undermining the miraculous in Scripture?
- Confidence in Ellen White. If Ellen White cites the figure of 2 million and we conclude that there were significantly fewer involved, can we trust her as an inspired writer?
We address the issue of Ellen White specifically in Appendix E, though it is helpful to recognize that the same “problems” appear in Scripture. The basic question in both instances is whether or not trustworthiness requires absolute perfection. If Scripture is viewed as a philosophical treatise, a scientific document, or a transcript of matters purely divine, then perhaps one could speak of the one fatal flaw. But if Scripture is more like a family letter or a letter from a dear friend and if we determine the trustworthiness of Scripture in much the same way as we do a trustworthy person, then absolute perfection is not required; it could even be counterproductive. “The Bible is not given to us in grand superhuman language,” wrote Ellen White. “Jesus, in order to reach man where he is, took humanity. The Bible must be given in the language of men. Everything that is human is imperfect” (1SM, p. 20). Some of the people who are most precious to me are actually more precious because of supposed flaws and imperfections that have become part of a new beauty. In a perfect world I suspect it won’t be that way anymore. But in our twisted world God has so blessed us that we can turn the ordinary and the troublesome into sources of beauty and blessing.
In the first manuscript reproduced in Selected Messages, book 1, I sense Ellen White struggling to communicate a message like that about the Bible. She yearns for her readers to have such an experience with God, that the Bible as a letter from God, will be both precious and safe to read. “I take the Bible just as it is, as the Inspired Word,” she writes. And again: “Men should let God take care of His own Book, His living oracles, as He has done for ages” (1SM, p. 17). Or, “Brethren cling to your Bible, as it reads, and stop your criticisms in regard to its validity, and obey the Word, and not one of you will be lost.” In conclusion she expresses gratitude that God has given us a Bible for the poor as well as the learned. Particularly interesting is her comment about the individual possessing “large talents of mental power.” Such a one, she notes, “will find in the oracles of God treasures of truth, beautiful and valuable,” but also “difficulties and secrets and wonders” that will yield “the highest satisfaction to study during a long lifetime, and yet there is an infinity beyond” (1SM, p. 18). In all this I find no evidence that the believer should be in dread of that fatal flaw. No, God and His book have proven their worth. The believer is at peace with both.
In that very connection we must remind ourselves that the all-or-nothing position is not a biblical one, even if it has been proclaimed by great men and spiritual giants. John Wesley, for example, wrote in his journal of August 24, 1776: “Nay, if there be any mistakes in the Bible, there may as well be a thousand. If there be one falsehood in that book it did not come from the God of truth” (Wesley/Curnock, vol. VI, p. 117). With all due respect to Wesley, the all-or-nothing argument is quite misleading and can be deadly. It does reflect a powerful psychological tendency, to be sure, one often reinforced by devout believers in their zeal to defend Scripture. But it is not a response dictated by Scripture itself.
Interestingly enough, our daily interaction with people and events typically reflects a much more practical approach. Imagine, for example, two normally trustworthy students rushing excitedly into class and exclaiming that they just saw an accident at the corner of College Avenue and Fourth Street. One reports three people were injured, the other just two. Would I be justified in concluding that there was no accident at all? On the contrary, one obvious conclusion would be that there had indeed been an accident! Only the details are uncertain. Yet for some strange reason, when it comes to Scripture, the received view is that one “error” would nullify the whole.
That is precisely the danger of a theoretical approach to inspiration. A practical approach using the incarnational model allows for the mysterious blending of the human and divine. Then the Bible is no longer held captive to the fear of the fatal flaw, but is accepted on the same basis as a trustworthy account from a reliable friend.
If, however, one is inclined to accept the all-or-nothing stance toward Scripture, then the first two slippery slopes (confidence in Scripture and belief in the miraculous) can funnel into a single grand slide that drops the believer into the abyss of agnosticism and atheism. For without confidence in Scripture how can one believe the biblical accounts of divine intervention into human history? For that very reason, rationalists do not simply question how many people went out in the Exodus, they question if there even was such an event. (See Appendix F.)
Taking a more practical approach to the matter allows us to recognize that asking how many is not the same as asking whether. Anyone who has been a summer camp counselor for just one unit of eight juniors knows that it would take a miracle to lead them through the wilderness! A smaller number of Israelites would still require a whole series of miraculous interventions: the path through the sea, water from the rock, and manna, for starters. So even if asking how many ends up reducing the estimate of the number of Israelites leaving Egypt, the miraculous element remains very much alive. And if at the same time we thereby address some of our minor rational difficulties (minor because the credibility of the account does not rest on our ability to resolve them all), the biblical story becomes more powerful and effective.
So let us look more closely at the minor rational difficulties that arise if we adopt the figure of two million as the number of Israelites leaving Egypt: How could that many people make it through the Red Sea in a hurry? How could that many people camp around Mt. Sinai? How could that many people march around Jericho, a ten-acre site? How could Palestine absorb such a large a population all at once? Today modern Israel has a population of some eight million. How would two million intruders fare in biblical times? Without questioning the whether of the Exodus at all, Scripture itself contains suggestions that help us address the question of how many.
My first exposure to this problem and the suggested solutions came from Dr. Siegfried Horn, Professor of Old Testament in the Seventh-day Adventist seminary at Andrews University in the mid-sixties. I have wished that a printed explanation had been more readily available to the church, as it could have tempered our dogmatism in a number of instances.
Both numbers and genealogies are involved with the problem. And we address both below. Dr. Horn, however, while helping us with the problem of large numbers in the Old Testament, was very cautious on the matter of genealogies. Whenever asked, he would pick up his Bible and turn to one of two texts: “Avoid foolish questions, and genealogies” (Titus 3:9, KJV), or “Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith” (1 Tim. 1:4, KJV). I can still hear his charming accent (Dutch/German) as he would point to the text with a sheepish grin and say, “I do dat!”
Horn’s first step in dealing with the problem of the number of people involved in the Exodus was to recognize some counterbalancing evidence from Scripture itself. Exodus 1:15, for example, states that there were two mid-wives serving the Hebrew people at the time Moses was born, Shiphrah and Puah. How large a population could two mid-wives serve? Eighty years later would one have expected a population of 2,000,000? Not likely.
Then he led us to Deuteronomy 7 and Moses’ words of counsel to Israel as Moses approached the end of his own ministry. There on the borders of Canaan, Moses counseled Israel and warned of the dangers that would face them as they entered Canaan. He ticked off a list of “seven nations greater and mightier than yourselves” (Deut. 7:1). He described Israel as the “fewest of all peoples” (verse 7). Finally, Moses promised that “the Lord your God will clear away these nations before you little by little; you may not make an end of them at once, lest the wild beasts grow too numerous for you” (verse 22). It doesn’t sound as though Moses was describing a throng of 2 million people.
Our modest rational problems can be resolved more easily if we project a smaller number of people based on (1) the 22,273 first born males, (2) the inference from Exodus 1 that two midwives served all Israel just 80 years earlier, and (3) the implications of the statement that Israel was the “fewest of all peoples.”
When I have used this illustration in class, many of the students really struggle to find ways to make both figures fit, the 600,000 adult males and the 22,273 first-born. They don’t want to admit that either one could be wrong.
So why did the Lord allow such differences? In my view, He wants us to know that the number of people involved in the Exodus is not that crucial. God led a motley crowd out of Egypt, performed miracle after miracle in the wilderness, and finally brought them to Canaan. That is the punch line of the story. And that is what counts.
When I take time in class to go over the genealogies or the number of people involved in the Exodus, I actually tell my students that we are going to take whatever time we need to convince them that we don’t need to take that much time about such things! Put another way: The conclusion that the numbers are not all that important is so important that we will take two precious days of class time just to convince them.
We turn now to some more specific information on numbers, genealogies, and dates. We will look at additional evidence supporting the possibility that the numbers cited in the Old Testament have been distorted. When we look at genealogies, we will consider the possibility that Amram and Jochabed were Moses’ ancestors, but not his parents. As we note below, genealogies show line of descent not necessarily direct descent. Thus one genealogical list in Scripture lists Moses in the fourth generation from Jacob, another puts Bezalel in the seventh, and yet another has Joshua in the twelfth. Yet all three men were contemporaries. Interestingly enough, the story of Moses’ birth does not mention Amram, Jochabed, or Miriam by name. The story simply begins: “Now a man from the house of Levi went and took to wife a daughter of Levi” (Ex. 2:1). Finally, if the number of generations between Amram and Moses is uncertain, we may need to take a fresh look at the date for the Exodus.
The Problem of Large Numbers in the Old Testament
One key variable in the discussion of Old Testament numbers is the ambiguity in the meaning of the word ’aleph, the usual word for thousand. It can be translated in each of the following ways: (1) ox – “Our oxen will draw heavy loads” (Ps. 144:14, NIV); (2) clan – “Though you are small among the clans of Judah” (Micah 5:2, NIV); (3) captain – “Thou hast taught them to be captains” (Jer. 13:21, KJV); cf. Matthew’s quotation of Micah 5:2 “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah” (Matt. 2:6, RSV); and (4) thousand – “Though thou be little among the thousands of Judah” (Micah 5:2, KJV).
The implications of this ambiguity could be significant if one were recording (or reading about) the various elements going out to battle. The same word could mean 1,000 men, one chieftain, or one fighting unit. One would have to look at the record and ask: Were there 100,000 who went out to fight? or 100 units? or 100 chieftains? The variations in the handling of Micah 5:2 illustrate the ambiguity. KJV opted for thousands, the NIV went with clans, and Matthew, giving the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew, chose rulers.
We cannot prove the point, of course, but the remarkable ambiguity possible with the Hebrew word for thousand may very well lie behind some of huge numbers in the Old Testament that seem much too large to us. We may still have monumental miracles without insisting on quite so many people. The evidence from Scripture itself suggests that we should allow for that kind of flexibility in the biblical text.
It seems to me that a careful study of the use of numbers in Scripture suggests that we should be willing to allow the inspired writers some latitude. In other words, if we study the matter carefully, we can discover when and where we should not require precision from the inspired writers.
Sometimes even very small numbers do not mesh. In the synoptic gospels, for example, as we have noted, it is not clear whether the cock crowed once or twice before Peter denied his Lord the third time (see Chapter 16). Dewey Beegle argues that it shouldn’t make that much difference: “What essential difference is there if the other Gospel writers, Matthew and Luke, follow the general tradition of the cock’s crowing just once? (whereas Mark says the cock crowed twice). All three Gospels contain the historical features necessary to convey the truth of the matter: the prediction of denial and Peter’s boast, the fulfillment of the prediction, and Peter’s remorse on remembering the words of Jesus” (Beegle, p. 193; cited in Lindsell, p. 174).
Now, I happen to think that Beegle is essentially correct. Harold Lindsell, however, the defender of inerrancy who cites Beegle for the purpose of challenging him, does not agree: “It is the same old story: never mind the details that are in error; what the writers intended to say comes through despite the errancy of the divergent accounts. How do we respond to this challenge?” (Lindsell, p. 174). Lindsell then produces his harmonization that yields three crowings of the cock and six denials.
Ironically, while Lindsell refuses to allow that kind of flexibility in the inspired writers, he himself reveals a kind of carelessness with details which too often has discredited the scholarship of conservative Christians. On pages 36 and 37 of The Battle for the Bible, Lindsell reveals a vague awareness of the problem involving the Hebrew word for “thousand.” He argues that “a copyist’s mistake is something entirely different from an error in Scripture.” Then he adds: “Furthermore, it has always been acknowledged that Hebrew numbers are a problem because the differences between the Hebrew words for a hundred and a thousand are so slight that a much-handled manuscript could be misread.”
If Lindsell intended to refer to the problem with the word “thousand” as discussed above, he should have said simply that the translation of the Hebrew word for thousand is ambiguous, not that the words for hundred and thousand are similar in form. In Hebrew the words for hundred (meah) and thousand (̕aleph) are not any more similar in form than the English words. Hebrew reads in the opposite direction from Greek and English, but one doesn’t need to know any Hebrew to recognize that “hundred” (מאה/meah) does not at all resemble “thousand” (אלף/̕aleph). There is only one common letter and it is not in the same position. None of the other letters would ever be confused with each other because of slight similarities.
Now perhaps I should not be so hard on Lindsell, but I happen to think that his poorly remembered argument is more misleading than whether the cock crowed once or twice in the story of Peter’s denial. But on second thought, maybe Lindsell’s slip is closer to Paul’s lapse in memory when he said initially that he hadn’t baptized any of the Corinthians – then proceeded to remember several (1 Cor. 1:14-16). Or maybe it is like the author of Hebrews who quotes Psalm 8, but can’t remember the reference, so simply says, “It has been testified somewhere. . .” (Heb. 2:6). Or maybe it is like Matthew (or was it Jesus himself?) who refers to the murder of Zechariah the son of Barachiah (Matt. 23:35) when he intended to refer to Zechariah the son of Jehoiada (2 Chron. 24:20). Or maybe it is like Matthew’s reference to Jeremiah when he intended to refer to Zechariah (Matt. 27:9, 10 citing loosely Zech. 11:12, 13).
Is the slippery slope so dangerous that we cannot allow the Bible writers to share the common foibles of humanity? I must admit, that if I really believed in inerrancy, I would be frightened by the kind of material discussed in this chapter. That, of course, was why I avoided writing it at first. Many Adventists consciously or unconsciously accept inerrancy as do some sixty percent of all Americans.
Unfortunately, the topic will always be volatile. I hope that burying this chapter toward the end of the book might help. If only we would be willing to let the Bible writers do it the way they have done it and not insist that they stand on their heads nor we on ours, trying to force our concept of inspiration in ways that simply cannot fit the evidence!
Once we get over our need to harmonize all the details, fear disappears and we can turn to the all-important task of listening to the essential message of Scripture, seeking to understand His will so that His truth can live in us.
If you have caught the implications of what we have discussed thus far, you may have thought of a very practical question: If we conclude that Amram and Jochabed were not Moses’s parents, but his ancestors much further back, how will we tell the Bible story? What should we say to the children in Sabbath School and to our own children at home about the parents of the little boy rescued from the river? I suspect Amram and Jochabed are with us to stay, given the fact that the casual conclusion is so readily available from Scripture. But at some point our children and our church members will need to become aware of the intriguing situation with the numbers, lest they be afraid when they actually have nothing to fear.
We have already suggested that the ancients did not use genealogies in the same way that we do. The following analysis (informed in part by Geraty’s 1974 article) notes some of the more significant features of the genealogies in Scripture.
1. Genealogies are often included in Scripture for purposes transcending both history and chronology. Let’s consider some possible interpretations of some biblical genealogies.
Genesis 5 and 11: Illustrating the Impact of the Flood – The lists of names for the first 20 patriarchs include the patriarch’s age at the birth of his first son and his age at death. Those ages seem to suggest that they could be used for purposes of dating. And since these lists provide the only actual figures which might tell us how much time elapsed between creation and the flood, and between the flood and Abraham, it is not surprising to find Christians using the figures to compute time and establish dates.
There is a distinct possibility, however, that the ages were included primarily to illustrate the stark impact of the flood on human life. Before the flood, several of the great men among the first ten patriarchs lived nearly a thousand years each. But after the flood, life expectancy dropped dramatically. Shem, Noah’s son, lived 600 years, his son lived 438 years, and on down to Terah, who lived 205 years, and his son Abram who lived 175.
Another factor that makes it unwise to put too much weight on those numbers for dating purposes is the fact that all three of the earliest texts of Genesis give different numbers and different totals for the first 20 patriarchs:
Masoretic Text (Hebrew): 1946 years Samaritan Pentateuch (Hebrew): 2247 years Septuagint (Greek): 3412 years
The Masoretic Text (MT) is the official Jewish Bible. It takes its name from the Masoretes, a group of devout Jewish scribes living between 500 and 1000 of the common era, who dedicated their lives to copying the Hebrew Bible with incredible accuracy.
The ages listed in most modern translations of Genesis 5 and 11 reflect the Masoretic textual tradition. Even though the oldest copy of the MT comes from around 1000 CE – during the medieval period Jews burned their old Bibles – the MT is still highly regarded as a reliable text.
In comparison with the MT, the Samaritan Pentateuch (SP) adds some 300 years to the ages of the patriarchs. The SP is simply another independent witness to the Hebrew text. It is the Bible of the Samaritans, which they copied and preserved apart from the MT textual tradition after the Jews and Samaritans parted company some time after the fifth century BCE (cf. 2 Kings 17, Ezra 4). The oldest known SP manuscript is the Nablus Scroll, dating from the early Christian centuries. For the full Pentateuch, it varies from the MT in about 6000 instances, though the variants are mostly minor. In some 1600 places it agrees with the Septuagint over against the MT.
The Septuagint (LXX) is the most intriguing here, for in comparison with the MT it adds 1466 years to the total ages for the patriarchs, most of which comes from the addition of a hundred years to each of the patriarch’s ages after the Flood. Some scholars have suggested that a scribe felt that the patriarchs in the second set were much too young when they had their first sons, so he systematically added a hundred years to the age of each before the birth of a son. The LXX also adds the name of Cainan between Shelah and Arphaxad, a variant reflected in Luke 3:36. Originally produced by Diaspora Jews some 200 years before Christ, the major LXX manuscripts available to us were preserved by Christians.
In addition to the variation between the three major text types for Genesis, another more subtle element from those early chapters is the impression (and it is only an impression), that there is a great gulf fixed between Abraham and the earlier patriarchs. If the years recorded in the Masoretic Text are correct, Abraham’s life overlapped with Shem’s. But then how was it possible that Abraham’s own family could serve other gods (Joshua 24:2)? that Abraham himself could consider child sacrifice an appropriate way to serve God – until God used that very method to teach him otherwise (Genesis 22)? or that he could take another wife without considering it a sin (Gen. 16; cf. PP, p. 145)?
Typically, Christians adopt the faith stance of Hebrews 11 and apply it consciously or unconsciously to the entire Bible. I have sometimes called that approach the “high road” because it emphasizes continuity and faith. By contrast, a “low road” approach, especially in the Old Testament, allows us to recognize how far the people had fallen. Specifically with reference to Abraham, if we assume that there was a firm, clear connection through the patriarchs back to Adam, then we really are at a loss to explain the considerable gap between what Abraham was supposed to have known and what he actually did. If the link with Adam through Noah and Seth was as fragile as it appears, however, then it would make good sense to conclude that Abraham’s shocking acts (child sacrifice, polygamy) simply reflect the status of his conscience and knowledge. That is certainly the impression I get when I read the Genesis account of Abraham’s life. But it is only an impression. It does help me understand Abraham’s experience, however, and at the same time places a very positive light on the God of the Old Testament, a God who turns out to be remarkably patient as he reaches down to a people far removed from Him.
That impression of a long period of time between Abraham and the earlier patriarchs has led some to suggest that the Genesis record simply provides sample ages and that the real purpose was to illustrate the stark impact of the flood on human life. Perhaps the best illustration of a genealogy being a list of sample characters comes from the period between Jacob and the Exodus. As indicated in the key texts and briefly noted above, one list puts Moses in the fourth generation, Bezelel in the seventh, and Joshua in the twelfth.
The biblical figures for the first 20 patriarchs were used by Archbishop Ussher in his Old Testament chronology, published in 1650-54. When I was a youngster playing Bible Seek (now reissued as Bible Scramble), we memorized his dates for creation and the flood: 4004 and 2348 BCE. If Ussher seems too precise with his date of 4004 BCE, his contemporary, John Lightfoot, was even more so: Creation was on September 12; Adam was created at 9 a.m., sinned that same day at noon, and was promised salvation at 3 pm. (Lightfoot/Pitman, vol. VII, pp. 372, 377).
Beginning in 1701, Ussher’s dates were published in the margins of the King James Version of the Bible. That may explain why the 6000-year figure became so thoroughly ingrained in Christian circles. To borrow a phrase from Ellen White, Ussher’s dates came to be accepted as “facts,” “well-known and universally acknowledged by the Protestant world” (GC, p. xi).
In the nineteenth century, as the relatively new science of archaeology began to unlock the secrets of early civilizations, it became difficult to mesh Ussher’s chronology with what was being discovered about ancient history. His date for the flood is particularly problematic. If, as many Christians have assumed, the flood was universal, it should have obliterated all traces of civilization. But for the centers of the two major ancient civilizations, Babylon and Egypt, recorded history extends uninterrupted back to at least 3100 BCE. For ordinary Christians, however, who had Ussher’s dates printed “in the Bible,” it was easy to conclude that these new scientists were destroying faith.
A more recent example comes from the mid-1970s, when the world of biblical scholarship was treated to rich finds from the ancient city of Ebla, a 70-acre site in northern Syria. According to the archaeologists, Ebla reached its peak about 2500 BCE when it was the administrative center for over a quarter of a million people. Again, continuous occupation at the site rules out the possibility of a flood before that time. And the size of the population served by the city would suggest that a flood would have to have occurred centuries earlier.
Those familiar with modern trends know that the pervasive scholarly view, except among some conservative Christians, is that the flood account in Genesis has its roots in a more localized event. One could argue, of course, as many Christians do, that the primary concern of the flood story is to pass judgment on human sin. For the moral to stand out sharp and clear, one does not necessarily need to argue for a universal flood. A sequence of water disasters would meet the requirements of the text just as well. Genesis 6-9 certainly describes the flood in universalistic terms, but the Bible also describes other events as being world-wide that clearly are not. The descriptions of the four kingdoms in the book of Daniel are described in universalistic terms, though only the third and fourth kingdom are described as ruling “the whole earth” (Dan. 2:39 [third kingdom]; 7:23 [fourth kingdom]). And in the New Testament, Paul declares that his gospel is bearing fruit “throughout the whole world” (Col. 1:6, NIV) and that the gospel has been proclaimed “to every creature under heaven” (Col. 1:23, NIV).
To argue against a flood, however, on philosophical grounds, that is, to assume that a miraculous intervention by God is a priori impossible, is a much more serious departure from the boundaries of traditional Christian faith. As an aside, I would add that I have always been intrigued by the wide distribution of flood stories throughout the cultures of the world. For me, at least, that provides an important echo of the biblical account.
What is particularly interesting about the recorded history in the Ancient Near East, is that, while it provides no support for those who want a more precise fit for Ussher’s chronology, the sudden appearance of recorded civilization in or around the fourth millennium presents a sharp contrast with the typical evolutionary estimates that the history of modern man goes back some 100,000 years. The beginning of recorded history at or around 4000 BCE is just yesterday compared with that 100,000 year estimate. For that reason, a number of Adventist scholars (who generally prefer not to be quoted) are willing to say that the world as we know it is relatively young, in terms of thousands of years rather than millions.
The comparatively recent beginning for recorded history suggests that the impression left by the biblical account, namely, that the world is relatively young, is believable. That does not constitute an argument for Ussher’s chronology, however. And the precise age of the earth and any estimated date for creation still does not speak to the fact of creation. For that reason, I believe it wise to keep the questions of the age of the earth and the fact of creation separate. One does not depend on the other.
Chronicles: Legitimating the Lines of David and Levi – The Chronicler, writing at the end of the Old Testament period, was particularly interested in re-affirming the glories of the temple and the might of the house of David. Accordingly, the genealogies of Chronicles add a note of authenticity to both the Davidic and Levitical lines. Interestingly enough, it is possible, though it cannot be proven, that some of the key religious leaders during the judges and early monarchy may have been adopted into the tribe of Levi and given a Levitical genealogy. Both Eli and Zadok, whose genealogies are rather anomalous, would be candidates for such adoption. In any event, the genealogies in Chronicles are concerned with legitimizing a blood line, not in establishing dates.
Matthew 1: Illustrating the Quality of Jesus’ Ancestry – A study of Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (see key texts) reveals a remarkable perspective on mathematics. Not only does he omit names (Ahaziah, Joash, Amaziah) to arrive at his 14-14-14 scheme, he also must have counted Jehoiachin in both the second and third clusters to arrive at 14 names for each. Furthermore, when compared with other genealogical lists covering the same time period, the other lists consistently include more names: at least seven more for the first group, three more for the second, nine more for the third (see key texts).
But the most striking feature of Matthew’s list is his inclusion of four women in Jesus’ genealogy, an unheard-of feature in proper Jewish circles. And all four women are “exceptional”: Tamar, a Canaanite who bore Perez through incest; the Palestinian Rahab, a former prostitute; the Moabitess Ruth, though morally faultless, still (technically) banned from Israel because of her Moabite ancestry (Deut. 23:3); finally, the adulteress Bathsheba, whom Matthew does not name, preferring to refer to her by the more striking phrase, “wife of Uriah.”
What is Matthew trying to tell us? That Jesus came from thoroughly human stock! With incest, prostitution, and adultery in his history and foreign blood coursing through his veins, Jesus came as “God with Us” (= Immanuel, Matt.1:23) to save us from our sins. Never mind the math. The message is a powerful one.
Luke 3: Jesus is One with the Whole Human Race – Attempting to line up Luke’s genealogy of Jesus with Matthew’s is a frustrating task. For the period after the monarchy, not only does Matthew list 13 names to Luke’s 23, but the lists also share only two names: Shealtiel and Zerubbabel. Some have suggested that Matthew traces Joseph’s line while Luke gives us Mary’s. That is only an educated guess. But the really significant contrast between the two lists lies in the fact that Matthew produces a Jewish lineage, linking Jesus with Abraham while Luke traces a full human lineage, moving all the way back to Adam. Matthew’s genealogy was for Jews; Luke’s was for the world, telling us that Jesus was “the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God” (Luke 3:38).
To sum up, of the several genealogies in Scripture, only the ones in Genesis 5 and 11 could possibly be used for purposes of dating. But even there it appears doubtful whether the evidence supports such a usage. And as we fill in the picture now with some other aspects of the use of genealogies, what may appear to us as carelessness of detail should not be surprising if we remember the various reasons why the inspired writers used genealogies in the first place. We might think that genealogies should be precise and complete. But that seems to be our worry, not that of the Bible writers. That point becomes even clearer as we turn to some other aspects of the genealogical lists in Scripture.
2. Genealogies often provide a line of descent or a line of authority, not a direct list of father-son relationships. Though not from a genealogical list, one of the most obvious uses of the phrase “son of” to jump over hundreds of years in time is the popular title for Jesus, “Son of David” (see, for example, Matt. 9:27).
That same usage appears in the genealogies where “son of” or “father of” can simply refer to lineage, not next of kin. Judged by ancient rules, then, we have no right to criticize either Moses or Matthew for leaving names out.
Another intriguing example is that of Belshazzar, King of Babylon (Dan. 5). In the early days of the so-called higher criticism of Scripture, critics loved to cite Belshazzar as proof that the author of Daniel did not know his history. Since Belshazzar was unknown in the official court records of Babylon, the more radical scholars took Belshazzar to be an imaginary character invented by Daniel, Nabonidus consistently appeared as the last king of Babylon. The archaeologists changed all that. Raymond Dougherty published the definitive work, Nabonidus and Belshazzar, in 1929, demonstrating on the basis of new discoveries that Belshazzar was indeed king and the son of Nabonidus.
The text of Daniel 5:2, however, refers to Nebuchadnezzar, not Nabonidus, as Belshazzar’s father. Was Daniel right? Dougherty suggested that Belshazzar’s mother may have been the daughter of the great king, making Belshazzar Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson. (See article, “Belshazzar,” in SDABD.)
But “son of” and “father of” had an even broader usage in ancient times, referring to a line of authority, not necessarily a blood line. Applied in our day, that would mean that any president of the United States could be described as a “son of” George Washington. The most notable example of that happening in Biblical times involved Jehu, king of Israel, who was known in Assyrian records as “Jehu, son of Omri.” Both Jehu and Omri were kings of Israel, but there was no blood tie between them. Omri had established his reputation so firmly that for 150 years after his death, the Assyrians continued to refer to Israel as the “house of Omri.” So even though Jehu had actually wiped out the family of Omri, usurping the throne for the purpose of setting up his own dynasty, the Assyrians still referred to him as “son of Omri.”
3. Genealogies rather than historical records may have provided the source for certain problematic numbers in Scripture. In some cases an author or a scribe may have wanted to indicate a time period but only had access to a genealogical list. One could arrive at a time period by taking the number of names on a list and multiplying it by an average number of years per generation. Two possible examples come to mind, Genesis 15:13-16 (four generations times 100 years per generation yields 400 years) and 1 Kings 6:1 (12 generations times 40 years per generation yields 480 years), both of which are connected with attempts to date the Exodus from Egypt.