How Old Is Adam? Telescoping in the Genesis Genealogies

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., last accessed November 4, 2013.


4 comments on “How Old Is Adam? Telescoping in the Genesis Genealogies

  1. Steve, I understand the logic and even plausibility of telescoping generations. However,because of the immense detail of the genealogies, which were specifically written to show the genealogy of Noah, i am having a hard time accepting the uselessness of such specific information. and part of the reason is this, when doing the math throughout all of the genealogies, the entire patronage of Noah was spared the destruction and judgment of the flood. Methusalah, Noah’s grandfather died the year of the flood, while Lamech, his father died 5 years prior. It’s as if God is saying that the godly line of Noah (which included enoch of course) was not meant to suffer the judgment of Noah’s generation. the math seems too perfect to simply allow for the skipping of numerous, if not hundreds of generations to eventually get to Noah. It seems that the genealogy of Noah is written not just to tie him to Adam “eventually”, but to actually indicate the godly line that God Himself was preserving to save the human race.

    • You make a good point, Sean, because God decided to destroy the earth when the only righteous family left was Noah’s. That suggests that the last righteous family prior to Noah mus have died very recently before the narrative picks up in Genesis 6. But Methusalah had other sons and daughters after the birth of Lamech, and Lamech had other sons and daughters after the birth of Noah. These, presumably righteous, sons and daughters would have to die before the flood, too, and it is possible that one or more of these nondescript children died in the year of the flood. If Moses engaged in telescoping, he would have made sure the numbers did not imply Lamech or Methusalah lived beyond the flood. Having the numbers come out the way they did is either accurate, comprehensive recording of the genealogy, or it is skillful handling of the data. While you very well may be right, I am not sure I can rule out the latter.

    • Sean, good thoughts. I think those who believe in telescoping would argue that the neat arrangement of the deaths of Lamech and especially Methusalah support their view. they would argue the elimination of generations was arranged to produce those results. Not that i agree with that, but that is how they would respond.

  2. Timothy says:

    Interesting article. I find the way the Hebrews wrote Genealogies incredibly fascinating. It’s also worthy of mentioning the parallels between the genealogy given in Gen. 4 (Cain’s line) and the genealogy in Gen. 5 (Adam’s line through Seth the “appointed” seed). Both genealogies contain an Enoch and a Lamech. Each Lamech comes towards the end of the genealogy, and each Lamech or the only people that are given a verbatim quote. With Seth’s Lamech it’s a comment regarding the birth of his son, Noah. With Cain’s Lamech, it’s a “song” to his two wives about how he killed a man and will suffer the same fate as Cain did. Seth’s Enoch, walked with God, and got translated to heaven. Cain’s Enoch had an earthly dwelling place named after him, (the first city). Both which involve dedication and consecration.

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