Ussher and the genealogy problem

Archbishop Ussher, from the portrait in Synod Hall, ArmaghIn 1650 James Ussher published a multi-volume work entitled (in Latin) Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origin of the world. Surveying all the historical evidence then known, he dated the Israelite Exodus out of Egypt to 1491 BC and then totted up the ages at which the patriarchs in the genealogies begot their descendants to calculate back to the Flood and thence to Creation. He famously concluded that the Earth was created in 4004 BC.

In Ussher’s day a chronology which dated the Flood to 2348 BC and the Creation to 4004 BC was not unreasonable. The city-states and great dynastic successions that ruled Mesopotamia long before the Assyrians had not yet been discovered. Similarly, almost nothing was known about the history of ancient Egypt, which, we now know, was ruled by kings from around 3000 BC. The preceding Stone Age and the geological periods before the earliest traces of man were not even conceived of. Ussher did not have to defy what was known about the world when assuming that the genealogies which linked Adam to Abraham were complete. Today, to maintain that the world was created in 4004 BC is to bury one’s head in archaeological and geological sand.

Ussher is often cited as standing on the opposite side from modern scientists, who invoke carbon and other dating methods to justify much longer spans of time. In this view the bishop represents religious fundamentalism and the scientists post-medieval European enlightenment. The truth is that his interest in quantifying time was itself characteristic of post-medieval European enlightenment. In computing the date of the Creation at 23 October 4004 BC, Ussher, a contemporary of Isaac Newton and the founders of the Royal Society, was addressing a question of historical science. He sought to quantify the age of the Earth much as others sought to measure its physical quantities, consulting in the process all the extra-biblical evidence available to a scholar. He was pursuing a peculiarly modern agenda.

The Israelites themselves, by contrast, were no more interested in the precise age of the Earth than in giving a precise value to the hours of the day. Neither they nor any other ancient people had a system of absolute dating, except insofar as they occasionally dated events by reference to the Exodus. Our system of dividing time into BC and AD goes back no further than the 6th century and was not widely used until the Renaissance. If an Egyptian, Babylonian or Israelite wanted to date an event, he dated it in relation to the reign of whichever king was on the throne rather than a fixed point such as the Flood or Creation. Priests kept lists of their country’s kings. Some lists recorded lengths of reign and went back to the very first dynasties, but the priests were not historians in any modern sense and their lists had no chronological function. Most omitted the names of certain kings for one reason or another, and none, so far as we know, indicated when two or more dynasties reigned at the same time. The same is true of the genealogies: they could omit generations without hint of a hiatus.

It is no good, therefore, trying to understand ancient genealogies with the assumptions of a modern mind. When Genesis states that at such-and-such an age ‘X begot Y’, it may seem that we are dealing with a seamless genealogy from father to son, but it isn’t necessarily so. The word ‘begot’ in Hebrew, yalad, indicates mere descent, the fact that the descendant, no matter how far down the line, was in the loins of his ancestor. ‘Father’ could mean simply ‘ancestor’ rather than one’s immediate parent, and ‘child’ could mean simply ‘descendant’. Without external evidence to the contrary, Hebrew genealogies cannot be assumed to be complete. For example, one of the Exodus genealogies states that Kohath was the son of Levi, Amram the son of Kohath, and Moses the son of Amram. It also gives the age of these fathers when they died. But in I Chronicles 7:23-27 Ephraim, one generation after Levi, and Joshua, one generation after Moses, are listed not three but ten generations apart. When we read in Genesis that

Peleg lived thirty years, and begot Reu; and Peleg lived after he begot Reu two hundred and nine years, and begot [other] sons and daughters

all that we can legitimately conclude is that at the age of 30 Peleg became the ancestor of Reu, thereafter living a further 209 years. It is immaterial that the text specifies Peleg’s age when he ‘begot’ Reu. The genealogy at this point could be complete, or the detail of the age could be merely a leftover from a time when the genealogy was complete, in the same way as the obsolete place-names in Genesis were relics of the original tradition. In the first centuries after the Flood the recording of the patriarchs’ ages at paternity might well have had the supplementary function of placing them in absolute time. As generations accumulated, continuing to remember every generation would have become increasingly impractical; the generations would have had to be pared back.

The practice of including the age of paternity in genealogies occurs in no other Hebrew genealogy of the post-Flood period. It may be unique even outside the Old Testament. In tribal societies genealogies function not as chronologies, but as continually updated traditions which maintain the historical identity of the tribe. David Henige observes:

It has long been recognised that, in most societies where kinship is the primary means of social and political control, genealogies are likely to be foreshortened.  Such genealogies tend to remain approximately the same length over time, but their components change constantly; relevance and utility are the guiding principles. The classic African example of the process of this ‘structural amnesia’ is that of the Tiv [tribe]. After the Tiv genealogies were recorded in the early colonial period, the British naturally expected the details to remain constant, with additions as time passed. The Tiv, however, claimed, as time passed, that the earlier genealogies were incorrect; indeed, from their own perspective they were.

The Chronology of Oral Tradition: The Quest for a Chimera, 1974

Were it not for such pragmatism, genealogies would have become continually longer and more unwieldy. In practice, they were repeatedly abridged, and the length remained fairly constant at around ten generations, the same length as those preserved in Genesis 5 and 11, which, of course, once written down, lost the flexibility of open-ended oral genealogies. What the persistence of the age of paternity does evidence in these latter genealogies is the tradition’s authenticity, of its going back to a time when mankind could place generations chronologically in relation to an absolute beginning, whether the Creation, as with the Genesis 5 genealogy, or the Flood, as with the Genesis 11 genealogy. Long after the chronological elements had ceased to function, the formula ‘X lived thirty years, and begot Y; and X lived after he begot Y z years, and begot other sons and daughters’ persisted in deference to that primeval tradition.

Apart from the almost incredible longevity of the patriarchs, the Genesis 11 genealogy is also remarkable for the way the ages decrease over time, and do so in jumps rather than gradually:
Noah 950
Shem 600
Arphaxad 438
Shelah 433
Eber 464
Peleg 239
Reu 239
Serug 230
Nahor 148
Terah 205

After both Shem (who, even at 600, seems to have died prematurely) and Eber there is a sudden drop, followed by a plateau where there is no significant falling trend, and a smaller drop occurs after Serug (assuming that Nahor also died prematurely). These abrupt decreases in longevity suggest that it is precisely here that we have temporal gaps.

Thus there appear to be four genealogies involved, one from Adam down to Shem, another from Arphaxad to Eber, a third from Peleg to Serug, and a fourth from Nahor onwards. That there should have been a gap after Shem is readily understandable, since, for all people groups, the most significant forefather after the Deluge would have been the first. Thereafter, the period down to the time when they began to settle in new lands beyond Africa was almost a complete blank. Eber, as well as being the name of an individual, was the name of a land next to Assyria (Numbers 24:24), so-named because, after Shem, its inhabitants regarded Eber as their forefather. The first people to settle the area with any degree of permanence would not have arrived until after the Palaeolithic, many generations after Shem. Arphaxad was probably Eber’s grand- father, and in Genesis 10:22 we find his name associated with other eponymous settlers of Mesopotamia. Peleg, according to 10:25, was the forefather in whose days the earth was divided, a reference to the confusion of language. As an inhabitant of the country, he would have seen at first hand the effect of that event upon Mesopotamia and neighbouring regions. Since this was when there were towns and cities (10:10), at the end of the Uruk period, this would have been many generations after Eber. Finally, working back from the Exodus, we can date Terah to c. 2000 BC, corresponding to the beginning of the Ur III dynasty. Evidently there was a substantial gap in the sequence from Peleg to Terah, probably after Serug.

Ethnically, Abraham and his descendants defined themselves as Hebrews, descendants of Eber. Eber was the head of the group that first put down roots in the country (in a loose sense, their way of life may have been trans-humant, even nomadic). Lands and colonies were frequently named after the forefathers who settled the lands or founded the colonies, as the Table of Nations exemplifies, and tribal identity was closely connected with these forefathers. It was these first generations that defined the tribe. The maintenance of a continuous subsequent genealogy would have been unnecessary. Hundreds, even thousands, of years later, one could have had a sufficient sense of one’s own kinship within the tribe simply by knowing the first three founding generations, in this case, Arphaxad, Shelah and Eber, and one’s own father and grand- father, Terah and Nahor. (Similarly, the Israelites defined their ethnic identity by reference to their founding forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob/Israel. They became ‘the children of Israel’, a subgroup of ‘the children of Eber’.) The Hebrews also included the three generations beginning with Peleg in their genealogy because the confusion of language was such an exceptional event, and indeed language or dialect had much to do with ethnic identity (Genesis 10:5).

For a long time the genealogies had a purely oral existence. Their purpose was to define, in relation to one’s immediate family, to one’s tribe and to the whole human race, who a person was. With their insertion into a written narrative they served two additional purposes. The first was to provide a bridge, across a span of time not otherwise described, between the early history of all mankind and the story of the Israelite nation that was yet to unfold. The second was to sketch, in general terms, the route by which the tradition about the primeval world had been handed down – not, obviously, over billions of years, but over a period short enough for the events to be collectively remembered. The genealogies served to authenticate the narrative.