Outside of Dra Abd el Naga in the Egyptian desert.

Understanding Genealogies in the Bible (part 2)

Toledot, or Hebrew genealogies, often operate under slightly different rules than Western genealogies.  Two weeks ago we discussed a bit about how genealogies work in the Bible.  However, we can say more, which is why a part 2 is necessary.


Rules of the Toledot

Unlike what is commonly found in western genealogies, toledot often exclude intermediaries.  These intermediaries were descendants that either did not reproduce or weren’t significant to the overall outcomes.  Let’s take for example the toledot of Moses in Exodus 6:

And these are the names of the sons of Levi according to their generations: Gershon and Kohath and Merari; and the length of Levi’s life was one hundred and thirty-seven years.  The sons of Gershon: Libni and Shimei, according to their families.  The sons of Kohath: Amram and Izhar and Hebron and Uzziel; and the length of Kohath’s life was one hundred and thirty-three years.  And the sons of Merari: Mahli and Mushi.  These are the families of the Levites according to their generations.  And Amram married his father’s sister Jochebed, and she bore him Aaron and Moses; and the length of Amram’s life was one hundred and thirty-seven years.  [Exod 6:16-20]

Exod 1:5 states that 70 men entered Egypt who descended from Jacob.  When the Israelites left Egypt, those 20 years or older were counted to number at least 603,550 according to the weight of the half-shekel redemption offering [Exod 38:26].  If we look at the generations of the toledot of Moses, we see three generations being born in Egypt.  Levi begat Kohath, Kohath begat Amram, and Amram begat Moses.  Many of the toledot from this period in the book of 1 Chronicles are quite short, usually three or four generations.  The text makes it clear that Exodus 6 is naming the “families of Levites” or clans and not specifically the individuals involved per se.


The Unconventional Lifespans

If we took the toledot at face value, this becomes a demography problem.  According to the CIA World Factbook 2016-2017 edition, the country with the highest fertility is Niger with 6.76 children/woman.  So assuming that each person of the seventy original descendants of Jacob had both a wife and children, then it would take between 6 and 7 generations to produce a population of around 500,000.

The other thing one might notice is the unconventional length of the lifespan of the Moses’ ancestors.  Levi lived to 137, Kohath to 133, and Amran to 137 years.  There does not appear to be anything symbolic about these numbers.  These numbers are not numerologically significant factors; such as 7, 12, or 40.

Now, I wouldn’t say that people living to 137 years is out of the question.  Early calendar systems had idiosyncrasies that could account for some extended dating.  Not to mention that the wages of sin could have accelerated death by diminishing potential lifespans.

But I think that a simpler solution is also possible.  In many toledot, the chronicler may not be using the length that the person was alive.  For example, in Exod 6:20, the chronicler says that the “years of the life of Amran were seven and thirty and a hundred.”  The “years of the life of” may refer to living memory, which is the years that others have a living memory of the person.  This would abbreviate the genealogy for the authors while using a definition for life that is part of the repertoire of the ancient Near East.



A Sennacherib Historical Prisms that documented the siege of Jerusalem.

The Bible and its Reliability

The question of the Bible and its reliability is a loaded question.  Is the Bible reliable?  The short answer is yes.  The long answer is nuanced and revolves around many satellite issues of what the term reliable means.


Reliability and the Autographs

For example, is the Bible reliable because the Bible we have today may differ from that of fifteen hundred years ago?  Fortunately, we can easily answer that question.  Enough archaeological remains of Biblical texts exist that seem to point to singular source texts (or autographs).

Much of the autographs can be restored from the Dead Sea Scrolls, Masoretic Text, Samaritan Pentateuch, Septuagint, and the thousands of New Testament manuscripts and fragments.  And even with unresolved variants, what variants do exist do little to change the meaning of the text.  Many of the variants are attributable to spelling mistakes, transposition errors, or accidental deletions caused by, for example, same endings (homoioteleuton).

Although we can point to a Biblical autographic text, the question of reliability is far from answered.  If by reliable we mean that the Bible accurately reflects our understanding of what it means, the answer is a qualified not necessarily.  A lot of traditions and beliefs have been superimposed over the Bible.  These traditions may not necessarily reflect the way the original authors would have read the text.


Reliability and Literary Style

The Biblical authors used many literary devices that might be unfamiliar to the modern reader: retrojection, cyclic parallelism, and gematria.  Such devices were obvious to ancient readers but to us are a missing piece of the context.

For example, many people assume that Moses was a prince (“son of the king”) because his adoptive mother was the daughter of the king (Exod 2:5).  From the archaeological evidence, no reason exists to believe that Moses ever held that title or lived in a palace.  In all likelihood, the title was given to Moses’ adoptive mother retrojectively after her father assumed the throne and probably long after Moses had fled Egypt.  But if we read meanings into the text that are not actually there (eisegesis), can we make the claim that the Bible is unreliable when those meanings don’t pan out?  Unfortunately, this happens far too often.

Now, what if by reliable we mean that miracles happened and God appeared at certain times and places?  Possibly, but this is generally impossible to prove on way or the other.  Miracles and divine manifestations might leave physical after effects.  But how can one distinguish such effects from other physical phenomena?  One could suggest that the improbability of Israelite survival infers divine intervention, and it may.   However, this would only show that events like those described may have occurred, and therefore does not address reliability one way or the other.


Morality, Science, and History

What if we mean that the Bible is reliable for ethical and moral teaching?  Quite likely, since much of the functioning ethical systems of the world do reflect a Biblical origin.  Do not steal and do not murder remain universally good ideas.  Loving your neighbor is also an ethical good.  Some areas are gray; however, it seems some of the grayness often arises out of reading a passage out of context; for example, reading ritual laws as ethical imperatives.

What if we mean that the Bible is reliable scientifically?  Yes and no.  Again, context matters.  Some passages are not meant to be read as factual accounts or use definitions that have changed over time.  Applying a strict scientific idealism to an ancient text is anachronistic.  For example, sometimes a “year” was not exactly 365.25 days, and thus does not reflect an exact solar revolution around the sun.

Even the lower standard of does the Bible line up with “facts” can present a problem.  This is because what constitutes a fact can often be in the eye of the beholder.   For example, how years were counted in the books of Kings changed to reflect the shifting hegemony of Egyptian and Assyrian suzerains.  The Bible might reflect a political reality where a Western reader may expect a scientific reality; this is not a problem with the text as much as the reader’s expectations.


Is the Bible Reliable?

So can we say that the Bible reliable?  I think that this depends largely upon our approach to ancient texts.  We could read the Bible in its context.  We could present the Bible as it represents itself.  And we could treat the text without special prejudice just like we would any other ancient Near Eastern text.  If we approach the Bible in that manner, we can definitely glean historical information from it.  And that historical information has been confirmed by a large amount of secondary sources, e.g. the Sennacherib Historical Prisms (see featured image above) confirming the siege of Jerusalem.  Insofar as taking the Bible from a historical point of view, I have no doubt that the Bible is reliable.