In my last article I presented the old earth creationist (OEC) interpretation of the days of Genesis 1. In this article I will present their interpretation of the Genesis genealogies.
The genealogies of Genesis, if read with strict, literal precision, suggest that Adam lived about 6,000 years ago. But scientific data suggest mankind began much longer ago than that, perhaps 60,000 years ago or more. To believe the inerrancy of the Bible, is it necessary to reject the scientific claim that man is more than 6,000-10,000 years old? Old earth creationists say, no. They point to a technique used in ancient genealogical reckoning called telescoping. Telescoping is when names are omitted from a genealogy.
That telescoping occurs in the Bible is not disputed. There are numerous examples of it in Scripture, but here is one from 2 Chronicles 22-26. Jehoram was the father of Ahaziah (22:1), Ahaziah is the father of Joash (22:11), Joash is the father of Amaziah (24:27), and Amaziah is the father of Uzziah (26:1). But Matthew 1:8 simply reads, “Jehoram the father of Uzziah.” The omission of three generations of kings in Matthew 1:8 is an example of telescoping. When you read Matthew’s genealogy, it is worthy of notice that there is no hint in the text to indicate such an omission is taking place. In fact, when Matthew emphasizes that there are exactly 14 generations from Abraham to David, from David to the exile, and from the exile to the Messiah, it suggests to modern readers that there can be no omissions or Matthew’s use of the number 14 is disingenuous. Evangelical scholars struggle mightily to vindicate Matthew and preserve biblical inerrancy.
No such scrambling is necessary. Matthew simply did not operate by the same rules we use today. Our requirement of technical precision was not shared by the biblical authors. Matthew is not alerting the reader to the precision of inclusion of every generation and using that as proof that Jesus is Messiah. He is simply structuring his genealogy in a way that permits the use of the number 14 throughout. That telescoping was used to produce this number is something an ancient reader would have assumed.
When we approach the Genesis text, we find that the number of names in the lists is also important. As John Millam notes, “the genealogy of Genesis 4:17-18 contains 7 names. The genealogies in Genesis 5:3-32; 11:10-26; and Ruth 4:18-22 all have 10 names each. The genealogy of the nations (Genesis 10:2-29; 1 Chronicles 1:5-23) contains 70 names” (Genesis Genealogies). The symmetry of these numbers strongly suggests telescoping.
But there is a significant difference between the Genesis genealogies and others where telescoping is obvious. The Genesis genealogies include the age of the patriarch when he became a father. This seems to exclude the possibility of telescoping. If Genesis 5:6 says “when Seth had lived 105 years, he became the father of Enosh,” it seems there is no option but to believe Enosh was born when Seth was 105 years old.
This is where it is important to remember that the purpose of genealogies is not to give precise and complete lineages, but to establish ancestry. The goal of the genealogy here would be to establish that Enosh is a direct descendant of Seth. The Hebrew word for “father” can also mean grandfather or ancestor. Similarly, the word for “son” can mean grandson or descendant.
So how can Enosh be born later than Seth’s 105th year of life without the Bible being incorrect? The concept of telescoping focuses on the most important parts of a genealogy. If the complete record said, for example, John was 30 years old when he became the father of Bill, who was the father of James who was the father of Henry, telescoping would permit a recorder to shorten the record by eliminating some of the generations without altering the rest of the text. If the only names the recorder wants to focus on are John and Henry, then all the other names would simply be deleted, leaving us with, “John was 30 years old when he became the father of Henry.” The recorder would not feel free to alter the age of John; in fact, he might have no idea how old John was when Henry was born, if he was even alive at that time.
It also would not be necessary to omit the age of John because one’s age when he becomes a father was significant to ancient peoples. Old age was a sign of blessedness, and it is possible that becoming a father at an old age also signified blessedness, especially since it suggests long life. Millam notes that, “both the age at fatherhood and the age at death are certainly exceptional for all the individuals included in the Genesis genealogies” (Genesis Genealogies).
If telescoping is taking place between Seth and Enosh, then the text is saying that Seth is the ancestor of Enosh and Seth was 105 when he became a father. Moses is not trying to deceive anyone. He just is not trying to say what we assume he is saying. That is how OEC can read the Genesis genealogies and still argue for Adam being much older than 6,000 years.
Are they right? How old is Adam? We do not really know. But the point is, if scientific discoveries suggest man is 30,000-60,000 years old, there is no reason for that to cause stress in the biblical community. The Bible does not rule this out as a possibility. The lack of precision in the biblical accounts means science can get more specific without denying Scripture’s inerrancy, and conservative Christians have no reason to oppose science as if it were the enemy of the truth.
David G. Hagopian, ed. The Genesis Debate. Mission Viejo: Crux Press, 2001.
John Millam, The Genesis Genealogies, online article, Reasons to Believe, Jan 1, 2003. http://www.reasons.org/articles/the-genesis-genealogies, last accessed November 4, 2013.