September 30, 2006

Genesis 8-11: Son of a--

Today's reading is Genesis 8-11 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the end of the story of Noah, including the end of the flood, the first covenant, the Noahide laws, and Noah's curse on Canaan. It also covers the Tower of Babel story. But that's not what I'm going to talk about in today's essay. Instead, I'm going to talk about the other major feature of today's reading: genealogies.

Now, before all my readers run off to do something more interesting, like counting exactly how many blades of grass are on their lawns, let me assure you that whenever I have read Genesis in the past, I too skimmed lightly over the "begat" chapters, looking for meatier stories. But in this re-reading, it occurred to me that in the eleven chapters I've read, there have been four sets of genealogical tables. Or, put another way, of the 299 verses I have read up to this point, 97 (nearly a third) deal with genealogy. So even if you and I don't consider the long tables of "begats" to be important, someone did. And so it behoves us to take a few minutes and a few hundred words to try to tease some meaning out of these generally-overlooked passages.

The first thing that is immediately apparent is that there is not one but two writers of the genealogical tables. We know this because for both lineages we have encountered so far, there were two overlapping lists, both dealing with the same people but written in different styles. From Adam to Noah, there is one list in Gen. 4:17-26 and one in Gen. 5:1-32 (the whole chapter). From Noah down to Abram (Abraham), there's Gen. 10:1-32 (the whole chapter) and Gen. 11:10-32.

The writer of the tables in Gen. 5 and 11 seems to be the same person. In both cases, he only concerns himself with one son per father (I assume the eldest) and writes in a very formulaic style. To see what I mean, let's take an example from each.

Gen. 5:6-8, discussing Seth: "6: And Seth lived an hundred and five years, and begat Enos: 7: And Seth lived after he begat Enos eight hundred and seven years, and begat sons and daughters: 8: And all the days of Seth were nine hundred and twelve years: and he died."

Gen. 11:12-13, discussing Arphaxad: "12: And Arphaxad lived five and thirty years, and begat Salah: 13: And Arphaxad lived after he begat Salah four hundred and three years, and begat sons and daughters."

Note the similarities.

Gen. 4 and 10, on the other hand, have very different styles. There, the writer lists multiple sons per child, and is more concerned with the origins of nations and the meanings of names. Furthermore, he occasionally covers the same people as the other genealogist. The first five generations after Noah through his son Shem appear in both lists, for example.

I hear you yawn. "Yes, yes," you say. "You have proved that there are two authors of the genealogical tables. Now can we please move on to something more interesting?" But wait! Let us take just a few more minutes to see what other conclusions we can reach based on these tables.

First, we note, based on the Gen. 5/11 author, that people's lives are getting gradually shorter. From Adam down to Noah, most people are listed at living around nine hundred years. For Noah and four generations of descendants, the age is closer to four hundred. And the next five generations (down to Abraham's grandfather) live a scant two hundred. Though this is still not the 120 year God promised in Gen. 6:3, it's getting closer. Furthermore, the age of childbearing is going down from a high of 187 (Methuselah) to around thirty after Noah.

We also encounter a strange paradox. We find out in this week's passage that the flood ended at the beginning of the year 601 (Gen. 8:13). This raises an interesting question. Most of the people who lived before the flood were supposed to have lived eight- or nine-hundred years. If the flood happened in the year 600 and killed every living person aside from Noah and his immediate family, how did these antideluvians live to a ripe old age of nine-hundred or more? Alas, good readers, I have no answer for you this time.

One more thing: these genealogical tables tell us about the happy worlds of polygamy and incest. We learn in Gen. 4:19 that Lamech, Cain's great-great-great-grandson, was the world's first recorded polygamist, taking two wives, Adah and Zillah, each of whom had two children. Lamech will not be the last, of course. Abraham has children with two different women, as well as Jacob (sisters, no less) and other Biblical figures we will deal with in due time. Unlike modern times, polygamy was apparently not considered abnormal in Biblical times.

We also find out about an incestuous relationship in Gen. 11:29. We find out that Nahor, Abra(ha)m's brother, took Milcah as his wife. Milcah just happens to be his other brother's, Haran's, daughter. Nahor marries his own niece. Today, that sort of thing would get you ostracized at the very least.

I could probably say more about these genealogical tables, but I suspect that counting grass might be looking tempting right about now, so I'll stop here. I promise that next time I'll discuss a story that has an actual plot. Until then, happy reading!

2 comments:

Andrew said...

If the flood happened in the year 600 and killed every living person aside from Noah and his immediate family, how did these antideluvians live to a ripe old age of nine-hundred or more? Alas, good readers, I have no answer for you this time.

In his gloss on the entire Bible, Nicolas of Cusa sits down and does the math (though I might be misremembering--it might be the gloss on the gloss). I am happy to say I have skipped over that bit of commentary.

Anonymous said...

To really understand the Lamech story, you need to know what their names mean. Its about light (Adah) and darkness (Zillah), and how the shepherd (Jabal) came out of light but from the darkness came the blacksmith (Tubal-cain) and pleasure (Naamah).

Jubal essentially means Musician.

Its an old story told in other pre-Bible cultures too.