Are the biblical genealogies reliable?
Biblical genealogies must be understood in the context of the ancient Near East. Typically, genealogies expressed more than family descent. They reflected political and socio-religious realities among people groups. For example, “Salma fathered Bethlehem” (1 Chron. 2:51) describes the founder of the village Bethlehem. The genealogies were fluid, showing differences due to changing political and social realities.
The adoption by Jacob of Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, created a new way of interpreting the 12-tribe configuration (Gen. 48:5). “Joseph” appears in the blessing of Jacob (Gen. 49:22-26), but the blessing of Moses counts 12 tribes by deleting Simeon and dividing the house of Joseph into Ephraim and Manasseh (Deut. 33:17). Thus, as we see from this example, the contents of genealogies were selective and not intended to be exhaustive and precise.
Shortening genealogies by omitting names was commonplace. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus exhibits a pattern in which three sets of 14 generations are achieved (Matt. 1:17). The number 14 was desirable because of the importance attributed to the symbolic meaning of seven (“complete, perfect”). Thus “Joram fathered Uzziah” (Matt. 1:8) omits three generations (2 Chron. 21:4–26:33) so as to accomplish the desired number (see Ezra 7:1-5 with 1 Chron. 6).
From this example, we discover another unexpected feature of biblical genealogies. Genetic terms, such as “son of” and “father,” were flexible in meaning, sometimes indicating a “descendant” and “grandfather" or "forefather.” The word “daughter,” for example, could mean a subordinate village affiliated with a nearby city and thus be translated “surrounding settlements” (Judg. 1:27, NIV).
One technique in the ancient world for legitimizing a new king was the concoction of a fictional ancestry. Moreover, scholars often assume that persons named in genealogies are metaphors for tribes and actually have no familial connection. The charge of fiction has been leveled against the genealogies of the 12 tribes of Israel as descended from the one person Jacob (see Gen. 46:8-27; Num. 1:20-43; 1 Chron. 2:1-2).
The argument that the term “sons of Jacob” reflects only an evolving social reality, and not a reliable domestic one, is an unnecessary assumption that contradicts the plain meaning of the biblical witness. The biblical account of the patriarchs reveals a family story primarily and a national one secondarily. Also, since genealogies impacted domestic, legal, and religious matters of importance, reliable genealogical records and censuses were fastidiously maintained (Numb. 1:45; Ruth 4:10; 1 Chron. 4:33; 9:1; Neh. 7:5; see Numb. 27:1-11 and Ezra 2:62).
A special problem is the long life spans in Genesis 5:1-32. In that passage, for example, Adam is said to have lived to be 930 years old.
The Sumerian King List presents a list of the reigns of kings and includes a reference to a great flood. The King List claims fantastic numbers, the longest reign at 72,000 years. After the flood, the regal years diminish. Despite its fantastic numbers, however, the King List includes historical individuals, not just legendary ones. Both Genesis and the Sumerian King List remember a time in the ancient past when people lived for long periods. The life spans before Noah’s flood were longer and afterward gradually decreased. The long lives of the patriarchs, such as Adam and Noah, shrink to moderate figures when compared to the Sumerian King List. A significant difference is that Adam’s genealogy is not for political purposes but instead shows that the descending ages of humanity were due to a moral factor when God judged a corrupt humanity (Gen. 6:1-8).
Although the years are reliable, this genealogy cannot be used to reconstruct the age of the earth. Genesis does not present genealogies for establishing absolute chronology (see 1 Kings 6:1). Also, Genesis 5 does not possess a complete list. Genesis 5 and 11 exhibit 10-name genealogies that consist of stereotypical patterns. The two genealogies also are linear, meaning that they include only one descendant per generation (segmented genealogies have more; see Gen. 10:1-32). Since genealogies may telescope generations (as above), and since Genesis 5 is highly stylized, it is likely an “open” (selective) genealogy that spans many generations.
This post is an excerpt from the Apologetics Study Bible by Holman Bible Publishers. It is used with permission. You can purchase this resource in its entirety here.