Where the world comes to study the Bible

6. Coming to Grips with Genealogies (Genesis 5:1-32)

Related Media


My parents were privileged to spend a year teaching in Taiwan. While they were in Taipei, they met a young Chinese man who wanted to learn to speak and read English more fluently. My father agreed to meet with ‘Johnny’ once a week. My father assured Johnny that there would be no charge for the English lessons and informed him that the text for their studies would be the gospel of Matthew. Incidentally, Johnny was saved in chapter 16.

One of the tapes which my folks sent us from Taiwan at Christmas time contained a recording of Johnny reading Matthew in English. If you can imagine it, he was reading the genealogy of Matthew chapter 1. What an introduction to the English language and to the Bible!

The genealogies have never been the best read portions of the Word of God. Ray Stedman tells the story of an old Scots minister who was reading from the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel.

He started reading, ‘Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac beget Jacob, and Jacob begat Judah,’ and he looked on ahead and saw the list to follow and said, ‘and they kept on begetting one another all the way down this page and halfway into the next.’68

If we are honest, that is what most of us do with the genealogies of the Bible—we skip them. In my teaching through the book of Genesis, I must admit I seriously considered doing the same thing, merely passing by Genesis chapter 5. Leupold, in one of the classic commentaries on the book of Genesis has this word of advice to preachers: “Not every man would venture to use this chapter as a text.”69

And believe me, not all have. There is a verse of Scripture which will not let us pass by Genesis 5 without a serious study of this genealogy: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (II Timothy 3:16).

And so we must deal with this chapter in Genesis in order to discern its profit and benefit to us. In the few years that I have preached the Bible I have learned that the inadequacy is not the text of Scripture we preach, but in the teacher who presents it.

Understanding Genealogies

The fifth chapter of Genesis is only one of many genealogies contained in Scripture. Learning from this chapter will encourage us and instruct us as we approach the other numerous genealogies of the Bible. And, conversely, the other genealogies give us considerable insight as we approach this particular account. Let us, then, give our attention to the purpose of genealogies in general, before we turn our attention to our text.

The genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 are not at all unique in the ancient times. The Egyptians had king lists and so did the Sumerians. The Hittites had royal offering lists, the historical and chronological value of which is beyond doubt.70 These ancient Near Eastern genealogies are very instructive in determining the correct interpretation of the biblical records.

For one thing, we learn that genealogies were not intended to be used as a chronology.71 At first glance, the one who reads Genesis chapter 5 would think that one only need add up the numbers contained here in order to establish the age of civilization upon the earth. Ussher, for example, arrived at the date of 4004 B.C. for the events of Genesis chapter 1.

The naming of individuals did not necessarily imply that a continuous sequence was to be assumed. Often names were omitted and genealogical lists were selective.72

“The expression ‘A begat B’ does not always imply direct parentage.”73 Matthew 1:8 states that ‘Joram begat Uzziah,’ but from the Old Testament (II Kings 8:25; 11:2, 14:1,21) we learn that Joram was the father of Ahaziah, who fathered Joash, father of Amaziah father of Uzziah. Thus ‘begat’ can mean ‘begat the line culminating in.’74 As Kitchen states, “Terms like ‘son’ and ‘father’ can mean not only ‘(grand)son’ and ‘(grand)father,’ but also ‘descendant’ and ‘ancestor’ respectively.”75

The arrangement of the genealogies into a neat and clean pattern also suggests something other than a chronological indicator. Matthew’s genealogy of Christ, for example (Matthew 1:1-17) is arranged into three successions of 14 generations each. And this genealogy is known to be selective.

The numbers in the genealogies of the Ancient Near East were usually of secondary importance.76 The primary purpose was to establish one’s family identity, one’s roots. Nowhere in Genesis 5, the Bible, or elsewhere were the numbers ever totaled to establish any kind of chronology. Sometimes the numbers of one account differ from those of another.77 While there are many explanations for this, one is that these numbers were given only as an approximation. Exact figures did not serve the purpose of the genealogy. While we dare not say that the numbers are not literal, we simply point out the way such numbers were used in the Ancient Near East.78

Let us then carefully consider the words of the great scholar, Dr. B. B. Warfield, when he writes:

These genealogies must be esteemed trustworthy for the purposes for which they are recorded; but they cannot safely be pressed into use for other purposes for which they were not intended, and for which they are not adapted. In particular, it is clear that the genealogical purposes for which the genealogies were given, did not require a complete record of all the generations through which the descent of the persons to whom they are assigned runs; but only an adequate indication of the particular line through which the descent in question comes. Accordingly it is found on examination that the genealogies of Scripture are freely compressed for all sorts of purposes; and that it can seldom be confidently affirmed that they contain a complete record of the whole series of generations, while it is often obvious that a very large number are omitted. There is no reason inherent in the nature of the scriptural genealogies why a genealogy of ten recorded links, as each of those in Genesis v. and xi. is, may not represent an actual descent of a hundred or a thousand or ten thousand links. The point established by the table is not that these are all the links which intervened between the beginning and the closing names, but that this is the line of descent through which one traces back to or down to the other.79

The Meaning of Genesis 5

If we cannot learn the age of the earth from the genealogy of Genesis chapter 5, what are we to gain from its study? The more I have considered this passage the clearer it becomes that it must be interpreted in the light of its context. A significant part of that context is the genealogy of Cain in chapter 4. The meaning and application of the genealogy of chapter 5, then, is gained by a comparison and contrast of chapter 4.

Normally, we are told that chapter 4 gives us the genealogy of Cain while in chapter 5 Moses describes the godly line of Seth. In one sense this is true. Surely chapter 4 depicts an ungodly descent while chapter 5 records the history of the line through whom the Savior will come.

Technically, however, chapter 5 is not the account of the lineage of Seth, but of Adam.

This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day when God created man, He made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female, and He blessed them and named them Man in the day when they were created. When Adam had lived an hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth (Genesis 5:1-3).

I have puzzled over the seeming repetition of these introductory verses. Why would Moses tell us what we already know? Notice that these verses are not attached to the genealogy of chapter 4, but of that in chapter 5. Cain’s genealogy comes to a dead end. It begins with ungodly Cain, ends with wicked Lamech, and is ‘washed out’ by the flood.

Moses begins chapter 5 with the terminology of chapters 1 and 2 (e.g., ‘created,’ ‘in the likeness of God,’ ‘male and female,’ ‘blessed them’) in order to indicate to the reader that God’s purposes and program for man begun in the first chapters are to be carried out through Adam’s seed, but not through the line of Cain; rather through Seth. The whole of chapter 5 is a description of the ever-narrowing line through which Messiah will come.

The contrast spiritually between the two lines is obvious. It can easily be illustrated by the two ‘Lamechs’ of chapters 4 and 5. Lamech (the son of Methushael, 4:18) of Cain’s lineage was the initiator of polygamy (4:19). Worse than this he was a murderer who boasted of his crime (4:23) and made light of God’s words to Cain (4:24).

The Lamech of chapter 5 (the son of Methuselah and the father of Noah) was a godly man. The naming of his son revealed his understanding of the fall of man and the curse of God upon the ground (cf. 5:29). It also indicated his faith that God would deliver man from the curse through the seed of Eve. I believe Lamech understood that this deliverance would specifically come through the son God had given him.

In the account of Cain’s descendants no numbers were employed, while the line of Seth has a definite numerical pattern. Figures in chapter 5 typically supplied: (1) the age of the individual at the birth of the son named; (2) the years lived after the birth of the son;80 and (3) the age of the man at his death. Essentially the life of the person falls into two parts, B.C., and A.D.: Before the child and after the delivery of the child. This division is not without significance.

The length of the lives of the men in chapter 5 is unusually long, but every effort to explain this fact in some way other than taking the numbers literally has proven futile. Conditions were undoubtedly different prior to the flood.

Moses surely intended the length of the lives of these men to impress us. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why they were so prominently included. The long length of life would facilitate the population of the earth. My wife and I have had six children in our 17 years of marriage. Imagine what could be done in 900 years?

Furthermore Moses would reveal by this that man was originally intended to live many years, even after the fall. Surely the promise of a millennial kingdom in which men would live to a ripe old age (cf. Isaiah 65:20) is buttressed by this chapter. Length of life was nothing new, but simply something regained.

The main contrast between the lines of Cain and Seth is that of the emphasis of each. Cain’s line is credited with what might be called ‘worldly progress’ and achievements. Cain built the first city (4:17). From his descendants came the technological and cultural contributions. Metal workers, ranchers, and musicians were of this line.

Now what is it that is emphasized about the line of Seth? No mention is made of any great contributions or achievements. Two things marked out the men of chapter 5. First of all, they were men of faith (cf. Enoch, 5:18, 21-24; Lamech, 5:28-31). These men looked back and grasped the fact that sin was the root of their troubles and travail. They looked forward to a redemption that God was to provide through their offspring.

That brings us to the second contribution of these men of chapter 5—they produced godly seed through whom the purposes and program of God would continue. Now we are not told that every child of theirs was godly. But we do know that these were godly men and that through them and their children a line was continued which culminated in Noah. While the rest of mankind would be destroyed in the flood, through Noah, the human race (and more than this, the seed of Eve) would be preserved. The hope of men rested in the preservation of a godly seed.

What a lesson this would be to the Israelites. When they reached the land of Canaan they would encounter a people vastly different from the Egyptians. While the Egyptians despised the Israelites and would not consider intermarriage, the Canaanites would invite it (cf. Genesis 46:34; Deuteronomy 7:1ff; Numbers 25:1ff). To intermarry with the Canaanites would be to turn from the God of Israel. To intermix with the Canaanites would mean to pollute the godly line through which Messiah was to come.

God had promised to bless the faith and obedience of the Israelites. He would give them rain, crops and cattle (Deuteronomy 28). It could well be that the nation would put their trust, not in the living God, but in the technology of the Canaanites. Horses and chariots may have been the latest technological advance in warfare, but God had forbidden Israel to accumulate such arms. They must trust in Him (cf. Exodus 15:4; Deuteronomy 17:14ff; Joshua 11:6). Alliances with pagan nations may have been the way of the world, but it was not God’s way (II Kings 18,19).

We may be surprised that such an emphasis upon death occurs in the genealogy of chapter 5, while it is not mentioned in the fourth chapter. Would it not have been more fitting to have emphasized death in conjunction with the ungodly line of Cain?

The first thing we must recognize is the significance of death in the context of the book of Genesis. God had told Adam that they would surely die in the day they ate of the forbidden fruit (2:17). Satan boldly denied this and assured Eve that this was not so (3:4). Chapter 5 is a grim reminder that the wages of sin is death and that God keeps His Word, in judgment and in salvation.

But why not stress the relationship between sinfulness and death? Why not emphasize death in chapter 4? Let me suggest an explanation. In chapter 4 it would seem that death was not a popular subject. I believe that Cain found comfort in the fact that he had fathered a son in whose name he also founded a city. In addition, his offspring were responsible for great cultural and technological contributions.81 These ‘monuments’ to Cain may have given him some kind of comfort.

The sad reality was vastly different, however. As the writer in Proverbs has said, “The memory of the righteous is blessed, but the name of the wicked will rot” (Proverbs 10:7).

The greatest tragedy was not that the men of chapter 4 died, for so did those of chapter 5. The tragedy is that the offspring of Cain did not survive the judgment of God, but that Noah, the seed of Seth, did. All men will die, but some will be raised to everlasting torment while the people of faith will spend eternity in the presence of God (cf. John 5:28,29; Revelation 20). Outward appearances would indicate that the children of this world ‘have it made,’ but the ultimate reality is vastly different.

Death did come to the godly seed of Seth. This is repeated eight times in chapter 5. But Enoch is a type of all those who truly walk with God. Death will not swallow them up. They will be ushered into the eternal presence of God, in whose fellowship they will dwell forever. Death can be looked squarely in the face by the true believer, for its sting has been removed by the work of God in the death of Christ Jesus, the ‘seed of the woman’ (Genesis 3:15).


I cannot leave these verses without pointing out their relevance to men today. The most important factor in all the world, according to Moses, which determines men’s destiny is not the contributions which he makes to culture or civilization (important as this may be). Whether or not you have made a reputation for yourself is of little eternal consequence. The critical element for every man named in these chapters was this: was His name to be found in God’s book?

Moses began chapter 5 with these words: “This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day when God created man, He made him in the likeness of God” (Genesis 5:1).

I am reminded of these words of the last book of the Bible,

And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of Life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:12-15).

What determined ancient men’s destiny was whether or not his name was in the book of the generations of Cain or of Seth. And what determined the names of those who are listed in chapter 5 was their recognition of personal sin and their faith in God to provide the salvation He promised.

And so it is today, my friend. The ultimate question is this, in whose genealogy are you to be found? Are you still in Adam or are you in Christ (cf. Romans 5)? If you acknowledge that you are a sinner, deserving of God’s eternal punishment and you are trusting in the righteousness of Christ and His death on your behalf, you are in Christ. Your name is in the book of life. If you have not done this, you are in Adam. While your works may have impressed men, they will not meet the standard of God for eternal life. In which book is your name to be found?

Secondly, I am reminded in this chapter that the measure of a man, in God’s eyes, is to be evidenced in his children. This is why elders are to be evaluated in part, by their effectiveness as parents (cf. I Timothy 3; Titus 1).

How this should change our priorities and values. Cain built for his son, but Seth built into his son. Cain sacrificed his sons to success. Seth found success in his sons. How often we need to be reminded of the words of the Psalmist.

Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; Unless the Lord guards the city, The watchman keeps awake in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, to retire late, to eat the bread of painful labors; For He gives to His beloved even in his sleep. Behold, children are a gift of the Lord, The fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth. How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them; They shall not be ashamed, When they speak with their enemies in the gate (Psalm 127).

The Psalmist is reminding the workaholics that striving for success often sacrifices that which is of the highest value. And he tells us that children, which are God’s great gift to men, are not given in striving but in sleep, not in rising early and retiring late, but in resting in the faithfulness of God.

What a commentary Genesis 5 is on the difficult words of Paul in the book of I Timothy:

Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression. But she shall be saved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint (I Timothy 2:11-15, verse 15 my translation82).

The women who abide by Paul’s teaching may protest, “But how can I find fulfillment under such prohibitions, and how can I make any significant contribution to the church?” Paul says, in effect, “The most important work of all is for a godly woman to raise godly children.”

And lest we apply this only to women, let me suggest that it is equally true for the men as well, even if this is not the primary intent of Paul here. Fathers, are you sacrificing your children for success in the business world, or for success in Christian ministry? There is no more important calling than that of raising godly children. If we fail here, we have failed of our highest calling.

There are those, I know, who do not, or who cannot, have children. Let me assure you that we are not in the same shoes as the Israelites of old. The godly line was preserved, and the Messiah has come through the seed of women. But it is vital to the purpose of God that a righteous remnant continue through the years to carry on the work of God for man and through man. We must, therefore, continue to beget spiritual children and to nurture them in the truths of God’s Word. Let us all take this task seriously.

68 Ray Stedman, The Beginnings (Waco: Word Books, 1978), p. 47.

69 H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), I, p. 248.

70 K. A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1966 ), pp. 35-36.

71 “0n a more careful scrutiny of the data on which these calculations rest, however, they are found not to supply a satisfactory basis for the constitution of a definite chronological scheme. These data consist largely, and at the crucial points solely, of genealogical tables; and nothing can be clearer than that it is precarious in the highest degree to draw chronological inferences from genealogical tables.” “The Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race,” B. B. Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1968, p. 240.

72 “Such a mixture of continuous and selective genealogy is in no way abnormal. Besides the obvious example of Matthew 1:1-17, the Abydos King List in Egypt silently omits three entire groups of kings (Ninth to early Eleventh, Thirteenth to Seventeenth Dynasties and the Amarna pharaohs) at three separate points in an otherwise continuous series; other sources enable us to know this.” Kitchen, p. 38.

73 Ibid.

74 Ibid., pp. 38,39.

75 Ibid., p. 39.

76 Cf. J. N. Oswalt, “Chronology of the Old Testament,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, revised edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1979), I, p. 674.

77 In Genesis 5 there are considerable variations between the Massoretic Text (the Hebrew text of the Old Testament), the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), and the Samantan Pentateuch. To compare these figures one should consult the chart in ISBE, I, p. 676, contained in the article on the chronology of the Old Testament.

78 ‘‘The same observation applies to a second class of data: random chronological statements, e.g., the statement in Gen. 15:13 concerning the duration of the Egyptian sojourn, or that in I K. 6:1 covering the time elapsed between the Exodus and the building of Solomon’s temple. While there is no warrant for disregarding such statements, neither is it necessary to assume that they are precise chronological computations. In the premonarchial society especially, long term chronological records are highly unlikely because of their lack of importance. Rather, approximations arrived at in various ways can be expected, and the use of round numbers, particularly, would suggest some degree of approximation. It is the significance of these numbers for the biblical writers that the interpreter must understand before he attempts to build an absolute chronology upon them.” ISBE, I, p. 674.

79 Warfield, pp. 240-241.

80 This is not to say that other sons and daughters were not born to the men of chapter 5. They may or may not have had faith in God, and they may or may not have been born prior to the son specified as being born at a certain age in the life of his father.

81 I do not wish to be understood to say, as some seem to,* that the godly should forsake all efforts to improve the quality of life by enriching it with moral, social, cultural and technological contributions. These contributions I understand as a part of God’s command to man to ‘subdue the earth’ (Genesis 1:28, etc.). The point here is that ancient man’s comfort and consolation should not abide in these achievements, but in the promise of God’s salvation, and God’s faithfulness to accomplish it. *Cf. W. H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis, A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1946), p. 63.

82 Verse 15 is my translation, which best reflects the Greek. The word ‘women’ supplied by the NASV here is literally ‘she’ (singular). The ‘they’ of the NASV is plural and thus should refer to its antecedent ‘children,’ which is also plural.

Report Inappropriate Ad