Genesis 5: Abraham's Descendants

By Mary Jane Chaignot

With Cain out of the picture, the text establishes a new beginning for Adam's descendants. It does this through Adam's genealogy. Genealogies are an important aspect of the Genesis account in that they unite all people through one lineage. The genealogy covers ten generations, beginning with Adam and ending with Noah and his children. In a sense, it starts with the beginning of creation and stops with the destruction of the world that God had created. Without looking too far ahead, it will be helpful to know that there are also ten generations between Noah and Abraham. Surely this is no accident.

Indeed, such deliberate planning indicates an orderly unfolding by a thoughtful deity. Yet one must be careful not to think this was meant to be an historical account. This is not a lesson in history; it is theological in nature. It also tangibly fulfills God's initial command to "be fruitful and multiply." Adam's descendants, indeed, were fruitful and multiplied. According to this genealogy, then, all humankind can be traced back to Adam.

There is also a repeating pattern in the genealogy. The age of the father is noted when he had his first son. Then, the text tells us how many more years he lived. Next, there is a statement that he had other sons and daughters. Lastly, the age of his death is listed, which is a combination of the first two numbers. The only variation occurs with the first (Adam) and last (Noah) names. They have an extra line — a technique that provides a framework signifying the beginning and end of the list of names.

The very first verse of this chapter reminds readers that when God created humankind, he made them "in the likeness of God." This is an important affirmation of humanity's status and refutes the idea that everything changed after Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and that thereafter humanity was in a fallen state. The reiteration of the words from creation affirms that humankind continued in the likeness of God. The text adds that God created them male and female and that He "blessed them." There is no reason to think that anything has changed.

This is important because in mentioning Adam's son, Seth, the text states that Adam had a son "in his own likeness, in his own image." The promises God made to Adam followed through to his descendants. Just as God had created Adam, he, in turn, procreated and had a son. (Notice the stark absence of any mention of Cain or Abel.) When Eve gave birth to Seth, she declared, "God has granted me another child in place of Abel." The lineage of humankind would come, not through Adam's firstborn, but through Seth, his third son.

Thereafter, the family genealogy continues. With few exceptions, most of the names are anonymous – listed without fanfare or elaboration. Then suddenly Enoch is mentioned. He was the seventh name on the list and was given special emphasis. Twice, it states that Enoch "walked faithfully with God." This is generally a formulaic statement meaning that he "lived" in an intimate relationship with God. It also states that he was "taken" by God and did not experience death. (Enoch and Elijah are the only two Bible characters to have had this experience.) Scholars know less about the circumstances surrounding Enoch's translation, but it suggests that not even death could separate him from God. The fact that he also lived for 365 years, which is the number of days in a year, has always intrigued scholars. Yet no answers have been forthcoming. It could be a reference to Enoch's solar calendar (if he had one), or it could somehow be connected to a Mesopotamian tradition involving the sun god. In either event, his life was considerably shorter than the others'. Perhaps the fact that he "was no more because God took him away," was included to rule out any notion that he was being punished with a shorter lifespan. Saying that "he was no more" suggests a sudden, unexpected departure. The fact that God "took him" has led to apocryphal writings about his teachings and visions found in books authored in his name.

The last name on the list is that of Noah. In marking the tenth generation, the list is complete. The name itself comes from letters meaning, "to rest," and not the "comfort" that the text describes. The origin of "comfort," then, is probably legendary. In bringing relief from toil, scholars think he alleviated some of the curse upon the land as a result of Adam's eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Exactly how Noah did this is somewhat of a mystery. Some think he invented plowing; others claim he learned to cultivate grapes and, by default, invented wine. Unlike some of the other ancestors, Noah was almost 500 years old when he begat his first son. Also, unlike the previous ancestors, all three of his sons were named. And he is the only one listed who, did not have daughters.

The names of his sons are somewhat obscure. Shem could mean "name, or fame," in the sense of one making a name for himself. Ham might mean "hot, dark-skinned, or servant," and could possibly relate to the inappropriate sexual incident with his father. The meaning of Japheth is unknown.

While the list of names is complete, many questions remain unanswered. Discrepancies among the most ancient documents (the Septuagint, Masoretic Text, and the Samaritan Pentateuch) only heighten the issues. To date, scholars have not determined which is primary. Adding the fathers' ages at the time of their firstborn sons comes to 1656 years in the MT, 1307 in the Sumerian Pentateuch, and 2242 in the LXX. These numbers would correspond to the length of time between Adam and the flood, assuming, of course, that all the generations were listed. The problem is that according to this genealogy, some of Noah's ancestors post-dated the flood. Yet supposedly everyone had perished except Noah and his sons. So, it bears repeating that this genealogy was not meant to be historical.

The other problem is the long life spans. Scholars have always compared this list to the Sumerian King list, which hails from the third millennium BCE. Those kings reigned for an exceedingly long time – one reigned for over 43,000 years. The total for the eight kings was 241,200 years. By comparison, the Hebrew listing looks very modest.

Scholars, however, have yet to come to a consensus on how to understand these numbers. Some argue for a literal reading, claiming that no diseases yet existed to shorten lives. There is nothing to substantiate this, however. Others think they are idealized examples of when the world was still perfect. Efforts to replace the numbers of years with months have also been unsuccessful. Perhaps the best that can be said is that there really are no definitive answers. These genealogies confirmed God's blessings through the ages and God's continued interest in His creation.