Ancient Near Eastern Genealogies

ANE genealogies (2)

1) Gen 5:1: In contrast to most lay readers of Scripture, biblical scholars experience great fascination with the historical aspects of genealogies.[1]

Names in the Ancient Near East (ANE) often made statements about a god. These include Ashurbanipal, Ramesses, and Nebuchadnezzar. Hebrew divine designations include “iah, “el,” and “Jeho.” Consequently, something as mundane as people’s names informs us of their language and religious beliefs.[2]

Biblical Hebrew emerged during 1400–1200 BC.[3] Therefore, names which indicate a belief in Israel’s God were likely translated from earlier sources.[4]

Genesis 5 begins by saying, “This is the book of the generations of Adam.”

This introductory formula denotes our entry into a new major segment of this book of the Pentateuch.[5] By citing a document (sepher), Moses implied that he incorporated preexisting material into this chapter.[6]

The phrase, “The book of the generations of…” occurs thirteen times in Genesis alone (eg. Gen 6:9; Gen 10:1; Gen 11:10, 27).[7] Since the word “generations of” (toledot) derives from the verb which connotes “fathering offspring,” the word conveys a family or clan history.[8] Long sections of narrative intersperse with these genealogies.[9]

In this chapter, Moses reached back in time to the age of Adam, once again surveying the era of Gen 4 but from the vantage point of the line of Seth.[10]

Both this genealogy and that of Cain trace one line of descent until the last named generation, which lists three sons (Gen 4:17–22; Gen 5:32).

This repeated format draws our attention to the contrasts between the two records. Cain’s cursed line prominently features two murderers (Gen 4:8, 23–24). The line of Seth links the two founders of humanity: Adam and Noah (Gen 4:1–2; Gen 10:1).[11]

Some scholars cite the similarities between names in the genealogies of Gen 4 and Gen 5 to assert that these passages denote the same people. However, enough differences exist between them to reject that theory.[12]

For example, Moses listed Enoch as the seventh in the line of Adam through Seth and as second through Cain (Gen 5:19; Gen 4:17). Others cite Mahalalel via Seth vs. Mehujael from Cain (Gen 5:13; Gen 4:18). This type of repetition and of similar sounding names commonly occurred throughout the ANE.[13]

Genesis contains two distinct genealogy formats. A segmented genealogy traces an individual’s descendants through several of his children (Gen 10:1),[14] while a linear genealogy follows one straight line of descent. The latter type often bridged the gaps between major events, such as the creation of humanity and the flood.[15]

As commonly occurs with linear genealogies, those falling outside the main line of descent receive little mention, if any at all.[16]

Genealogies in the ANE suggested continuity and relationship in order to increase a person’s power and prestige.[17]

By recounting the generations from Adam to Noah, Moses identified Noah as the legitimate seed who built a godly culture (Gen 3:15).[18]

Indeed, the concept of a seed resembling the parent closely aligns with a royal line of descent throughout Genesis.[19] Eventually, Seth’s line would produce Abraham (Gen 11:1, 27).[20]

Unlike the number seven, which signifies divine completeness, the number ten symbolizes fullness on a lesser level.[21]

Throughout the ANE, genealogies tend to limit the number of generations to ten, just as we see in Gen 5 and in Gen 11. This also occurs in other biblical texts (Cf. 1 Chron 6:3–14 to Ezra 7:1–5).[22] Ezra 7:3 skips six of the generations listed in 1 Chron 6:7–10.[23]

While “son” (ben) typically refers to a direct descendant, the Hebrew language also allows for it to mean a grandson (Gen 31:17–18, 26–28) or the distant offspring of a founding father.[24]

For example, the “sons of Levi” answered Moses’s summons. However, many generations had been born and died since Levi’s lifetime (Exod 32:26). After all, his descendants had been in Egypt for 430 years (Exod 12:40–41).

By limiting the Gen 5 and Gen 11 accounts to ten generations of important people or to those who lived at critical times, Moses presented the flood as the important dividing line in what scholars call primeval history (Gen 1–11).[25]

Knowing that these genealogies contain broken lines of descent which include only the most significant ancestors enables us to recognize that the periods of time from Adam to Noah and from Noah to Abraham almost certainly differ in length.[26]

Even the Epic of Gilgamesh—which existed hundreds of years before Abraham’s lifetime—recognized the flood as having occurred in the distant past.[27]

Gilgamesh hinted at this by nicknaming the man who had survived the flood “the Faraway” and expressing shock that he looked like a normal man.[28]

By ca. 2000 BC, people understood that the world was already ancient. Therefore, they used existing records to develop early histories of their people.[29] Gen 5:1 confirms this by calling this “the document of the genealogy.”[30]

In keeping with the ten generations mentioned in this chapter, Gen 5 contains ten paragraphs. Although some variation may occur for important historical figures,[31] the typical format appears as follows: Person A lived x years and fathered Person B; Person A lived y years after that and had other sons and daughters; Person A lived x plus y years and then he died.[32]

The text does not indicate whether these people experienced the life spans typical for all people in that era or whether the descendants of Seth lived for unnaturally long periods of time.[33]

An intriguing parallel to Gen 5 exists in the form of the Sumerian King List.[34] The prism begins by stating, “When kingship was lowered from heaven, kingship was [first] in Eridu.”[35]

Most likely, a scribe composed this record after the Sumerian Empire put an end to Akkadian rule over Sumer (ca. 2100–2000 BC). King Utuhegal wished to prove that Sumer had always been united as one empire, even though the rulers lived in different cities.[36] Thus, the Sumerian King List consisted of propaganda.

This list of rulers notes that nine kings ruled before the great flood.[37]

Their reigns ranged from 18,600 to 43,200 years. Eight of these kings ruled from five cities over a period of 241,000 years. “[Then] the flood swept over [the earth].”[38]

Some versions of this document cite ten generations before the flood.[39]

The list continued after the deluge, citing thirty-nine kings with considerably shorter reigns. In fact, the longest post-flood rule endured for a relatively short 1560 years.[40]

This same pattern of progressively shorter lives occurs after the flood in Genesis,[41] ranging from 600 to 110 years (Gen 11:10–11; Gen 50:26).[42]

Some significant differences exist between these two genealogies. While the Sumerian King List cites the first royalty, Genesis names the first man (Gen 2:7).[43]

In addition, the former calls several of the kings who lived after the flood priests and/or gods. It says:

Mes-kiag-gasher, the son of the (sun) god Utu, became high priest as well as king, and ruled 324 years…; the god Lugal-banda, a shepherd, ruled 1,200 years; the god Dumu-zi a…fisherman…ruled 100 years; the divine Gilgamesh, his father was a…high priest of Kullab, ruled 126 years.”[44]

While some of the men named in Genesis, such as Adam, could be considered priests (Gen 2:15), none of them were gods. Furthermore, the king list notes the length of rule; the book of the generations of Adam cites the length of life.[45]

In addition, some kings reigned approximately fifty times longer than the early descendants of Adam lived.[46]

The genealogy in Genesis 5 presents us with several difficult issues.

First, we have to deal with these patriarchs not becoming fathers until at least sixty-five years of age, as well as with their extremely long lives.[47]

While Adam’s life-span of 930 years has more credibility than one of nearly 43,000 years, we cannot logically explain it with ease.[48]

Complicating the matter, the most reliable Hebrew text (Masoretic), the Samaritan version, and the Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX) frequently disagree concerning the ages of these patriarchs. In the case of the LXX, it appears that translators modified it to counter Egyptian dates for the origin of humanity.[49]

Not only does the amount of time which passed seem less important than the notion of completing the charge to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen 1:28),[50] these dates of descent do not correspond to the archaeological record.[51]

As a result, the intended meaning may be that “Person A fathered the line culminating in Person B,” rather than “A fathered B.”[52]

The key may lie in understanding the purpose of a linear genealogy: to establish generational legitimacy. Since some names may have been omitted,[53] totaling the ages of these men to establish a date for the creation of Adam at 4004 BC produces enormous problems.[54]

Sumerians utilized a number system which combines base ten and base six.[55]

The Sumerian King List contains indications that the first king of Uruk reigned for “7 x 60 plus 7 days.”[56] Consequently, Kenneth A. Kitchen surmises that the length of the reigns before the flood in that document had been multiplied by 60 to represent heroically long rule.[57]

However, this does not apply to Genesis, for the Hebrew civilization seems to have always used base ten. Furthermore, people would have fathered children when they were six or seven years old.[58]

The scholar M. Barnouin views the ages of these patriarchs in terms of the length of time it takes for a planet to reappear in the same place in the sky, called synodic periods. Babylonians discovered this concept.

Based upon Barnouin’s theory, Enoch’s lifespan of 365 years would represent perfection, since there are 365 days in a year (Gen 5:23).[59]

Lamech lived for 777 years, equivalent to the synodic periods of Jupiter plus Saturn (Gen 5:31). The 962 years of Jared’s lifetime equal the synodic periods of Venus plus Saturn (Gen 5:20). [60]

By adding the number of years when each of these descendants of Seth fathered their first child and dividing by the number sixty, the sum of the remainders is a perfect 365. The same result occurs for their lengths of life. Since the cycles of these men’s years match the cycles of the heavenly orbs, Moses may have intended to symbolize that their lives were meaningful and complete.[61]

In sum, it remains unclear whether the ages of these historical figures in Adam’s genealogy are symbolic or literal. Moses’s purpose may have been to suggest that human history extends to an extremely distant past.[62]

When discussing the Sumerian King List in relation to Gen 5, Kitchen wrote, “BE WARNED! We are entering a zone of speculation….”[63]

As a result, most Old Testament scholars present only some general observations on the transmission of the image of God from generation to generation and on the fulfillment of the mandate to fill the earth (Gen 1:26–28).[64]

The long lives of the descendants of Seth may depict that they were unusually godly people (Deut 5:16, 33–6:2). On the other hand, this genealogy many indicate that the penalty of death gradually took its hold upon humanity (Gen 2:16–17; Gen 3:19).[65]

By recording precise numbers, this genealogical record conveys that Moses discussed real people. At the same time, the vast spans of their longevity indicate that they lived in an environment very different and remote from ours.[66]

While God’s blessing remained upon them in terms of their fruitfulness, Moses reminds us that the scourge remained by repeating the refrain, “and then he died.”[67]

Image via Wikimedia Commons


a) Read Gen 5:1. What characteristics of ANE genealogies make it unlikely that God created Adam in 4004 BC? Why were these types of ancestral records important? What do you think Moses was implying by referring to the creation and blessing of humanity at the beginning of Seth’s genealogy rather than before recounting the descendants of Cain?





Go to In the Likeness of God


[Related posts include Exegesis and Hermeneutics; Introduction to Genesis 1Made in the Image of God (Gen 1:26 cont.); Stewards of the Earth (Gen 1:26 cont.); Male and Female He Created Them (Gen 1:27); The Blessing of Fruitfulness (Gen 1:28); The Lord Breathes Life (Gen 2:7); A Well-Watered Garden (Gen 2:8–14); Serving and Keeping (Gen 2:15); Forbidden Fruit (Gen 2:16–17); The First Good News (Gen 3:15); A Return to the Ground (Gen 3:19); Eve Acquires a Man (Gen 4:1); A Servant of the Ground and a Shepherd of a Flock (Gen 4:2‒5); Cain Arose against His Brother (Gen 4:8); Cain Dedicated a City (Gen 4:17); Two Wives (Gen 4:18–19); Advancements in Civilization (Gen 4:20–22); Lamech’s Ode to Himself (Gen 4:23–24); Walking with God (Gen 5:21–24); Seeking Relief (Gen 5:28–32); Righteous and Blameless (Gen 6:9–10);  The Holy Mountain of God (Rev 21:18–22:3); Ancient Literature; and  Author and Date of Genesis]

[Click here to go to Chapter 4: The Generations of Adam (Genesis 5:1–27)]


[1]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 248.

[2]Walton, Genesis, 280.

[3]Gene M. Schramm, “Languages: Hebrew,” ABD 4:205–14, 205.

[4]Walton, Genesis, 280.

[5]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 121.

[6]Josef Schreiner, “תּוֹלְדוֹת” (toledot), TDOT, 15:582–8, 584.

[7]Logos 7 word study of תּוֹלֵדוֹת (toledot). In Hebrew, the English phrase consists of a single word in construct form.

[8]Schreiner, “תּוֹלְדוֹת” (toledot), TDOT, 15:582–8, 582–3.

[9]Alexander, From Paradise to the Promised Land, 2nd Ed, 101.

[10]Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview, 189.

[11]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 112.

[12]Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, 442.

[13]Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, 442.

[14]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 248–9.

[15]Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVPBBCOT, Gen 5:1–32.

[16]Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview, 190.

[17]Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVPBBCOT, Gen 5:1–32.

[18]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 109.

[19]Alexander, From Paradise to the Promised Land, 2nd Ed, 105.

[20]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 248.

[21]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 111.

[22]Alexander, From Paradise to the Promised Land, 2nd Ed, 105 n3.

[23]We see the same skipping of generations in Matthew’s gospel. In order to achieve 14 generations from Abraham to David, from David to the exile, and from the exile to Christ, Matthew omitted three of Judah’s kings (Matt 1:8, 17).

[24]H. Haag, “בֵּנ” (ben) TDOT, 2:145–59, 150, 152.

[25]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 111.

[26]Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview, 10–1.

[27]Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview, 11.

[28]E. A. Speiser, trans., “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” in ANET, tablet 11:1–4, 93,

[29]Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, 444.

[30]Schreiner, “תּוֹלְדוֹת” (toledot), TDOT, 15:582–8, 584.

[31]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 110.

[32]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 121.

[33]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 256.

[34]“The Sumerian King List (SKL),” This site has an excellent photo of the best example and descriptions of several versions of this list.

[35]Thorkild Jacobsen, trans., “The Sumerian King List,” in ANET, 265,

[36]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 251.

[37]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 124.

[38]Jacobsen, “The Sumerian King List,” in ANET, 265,

[39]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 124.

[40]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 252–3.

[41]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 124.

[42]This does not include Noah, who died at 950 years of age (Gen 9:29).

[43]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 125.

[44]Jacobsen, “The Sumerian King List,” in ANET, 265,

[45]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 253–4.

[46]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 125.

[47]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 130.

[48]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 256.

[49]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 130.

[50]Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVPBBCOT, Gen 5:1–32.

[51]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 133.

[52]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 254.

[53]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 106.

[54]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 133.

[55]Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVPBBCOT, Gen 5:1–32.

[56]Thorkild Jacobsen, The Sumerian King List (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939), 121, Https://

[57]Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 445.

[58]Walton, Genesis, 281–2.

[59]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 133–4.

[60]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 111–2.

[61]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 111–2.

[62]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 134.

[63]Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, 445.

[64]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 134.

[65]Walton, Genesis, 282.

[66]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 134.

[67]Walton, Genesis, 284.