Biblical Genealogies and the Law of Inheritance:
The Biblical Genealogies
by Gerald R. Thompson*
If you were to take a survey of people who regularly read the Bible and ask them: What are the most boring parts of the Bible? What are the least important parts of the Bible? What parts of the Bible have you never heard a sermon on? chances are a good number of them would respond “the biblical genealogies” in each case.
Yet, the genealogies are in fact a treasure trove of information which help us understand several key aspects of biblical truth. In this essay I want to uncover some of these truths, especially as they relate to the laws of nature. However, before I jump into the legal aspects, allow me to establish a framework for our analysis by examining three non-legal aspects of the genealogies.
There are six principal biblical genealogies I want to consider, although my remarks are not limited to these six:
Gen. 5:1-32 – the lineage from Adam and Eve to Noah and his three sons
Gen. 10:1-32 – the Table of Nations, or the lineage of Noah’s sons until the dispersion of the world’s population after the Tower of Babel
Gen. 11:10-32 – the lineage of Shem (Noah’s son) down through Abram and his nephew Lot
1 Chr. 1:1 – 9:44 – the lineage from Adam to Abraham repeated, plus an expanded genealogy (including many siblings) from Abraham onward until the return of the Jewish exiles, including brief genealogies of Ishmael and Esau, but focusing on the twelve tribes of Israel, with particular emphasis on the descendants of David down about 20 generations
Mat. 1:1-17 – an abbreviated lineage from Abraham (Abram) to Jesus (ostensibly via Joseph)
Luk. 3:23-38 – in reverse order, the complete lineage from Adam to Jesus (ostensibly via Mary)
OK, so what can these genealogies teach us?
The Bible As A Historical Record
Many people regard the Bible as merely a religious book, which is unfortunate. While I grant you parts of the Bible relate to spiritual matters, I suggest that none of its human authors ever intended to write a religious book, as such. Most of scripture is simply devoted to recording events as they occurred by people who witnessed them. A few portions were compiled by men who believed the information gathered from others was accurate. For the most part, the authors merely saw themselves as historians.
As for the prophets, they weren’t trying to be spiritual so much as they merely recorded what they believed God had told them. They saw themselves as messengers rather than as religious persons, because their messages often ran contrary to what the religious establishment of their day was saying. And for the most part those prophecies concerned matters that were very tangible and temporal, i.e., the rise and fall of kingdoms, of nations, of households, and of legacies. In other words, who would prosper in the long run, who would not, and who would be around to see it.
The fact those prophecies were often shrouded in symbolic language does not make them spiritual. Sad to say, that is exactly how many people read biblical prophecies today – as mainly spiritual lessons clothed in the language of allegory. But the prophets themselves, I am convinced, regarded their messages as literal to the extent they understood them. Of course, there are some instances when the prophets clearly did not understand their own messages and could only scratch their heads. But these would have been regarded (by the authors) as more mystery, than religion.
None of the biblical authors were trying to be mystical, holy, or to exercise religious authority as we normally think of it (i.e., as those in charge of a religious institution or as directing the spiritual welfare of others). They often had great concern for others, but just wrote what they believed to be true. And truth can be, but is not necessarily, spiritual.
Note that I am not denying the Bible has a substantial religious aspect. Any book (actually, the Bible is a collection of books) which discusses sin and wickedness on the one hand, and holiness and righteousness on the other, pertains to religion. And here, I use the word religion in the sense given to it historically, as “the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it.” Virginia Declaration of Rights, §16 (1776). So what I mean to say, and what I actually already have said, is that the Bible is not merely a religious book.
In other words, the Bible has more in it than just religious stuff. That non-religious stuff is substantial and extensive, and it is also important, i.e., worthy of our attention. Thus, I begin my analysis with the assumption that the biblical genealogies are neither spiritual nor religious. Neither are they symbolic or allegorical. They are simply a record of what happened.
Biblical Genealogies As Fact, Not Myth
One of the most unappreciated aspects of the biblical genealogies is that they help establish the biblical record as fact, not myth. The genealogies are not just a sequence of names – rather, they are interspersed with historical data that link them with real historical events and cement them as a credible witness of the past. And since the genealogical records span the entire time from creation until Christ, they help cement the factual nature of the entire Bible, not merely the genealogies themselves.
Take for instance, the Matthew genealogy. Listed there among all the fathers and sons are the names of four wives: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and “the wife of Uriah” (i.e., Bathsheba). Each of these women played a crucial role in the early history of the nation of Israel, and a substantial amount of scripture is devoted to each of them.
Tamar’s story is recounted in Gen. 38:6-30 and is part of the larger narrative of Judah’s life. It is a fascinating story of a woman who started out as Judah’s daughter-in-law, but ended up as his concubine and the mother of Judah’s twin sons. Rahab, of course, was the harlot of Jericho who helped the Israeli spies and was spared when the walls of Jericho fell. Her story comprises the better part of two chapters, Josh. 2 & 6. Ruth the Moabite widow, has an entire book devoted to her story of faithfulness to her mother-in-law Naomi and her redemption by Boaz. Bathsheba was the woman with whom David committed adultery and who became the mother of Solomon. Her account is told in 2 Sam. 11 & 12, and 1Ki. 1 & 2.
Thus, when reading the Matthew genealogy we know who these women were. They were historical people who really existed are not merely mythological figures or spiritual archetypes. They lived in the real world, endured real suffering and experienced real triumphs. Their inclusion in the genealogy is a testament to the authenticity of the genealogy as a whole.
Of course, many of the men named in the Matthew genealogy are known historical figures as well, and their individual stories are additional evidence that these were real people and not mythical figures. Yet, I find the inclusion of the women particularly helpful in taking the genealogy out of the realm of the abstract and placing it squarely in the domain of historical fact.
But that isn’t all. The genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11, taken together, provide useful timeline information from Adam down to Abram. In those accounts we are provided with how long each person lived, and how old they were when their principal heir was born. We will consider the usefulness of that information next, but at this point I merely want to point out the fact such data exists helps to establish the genealogies as factual and not merely mythical or allegorical.
Especially given that the first eleven chapters of Genesis are viewed by many Christians as non-historical, the type of data we find in Gen. 5 and 11 provides an additional basis (that is, in addition to the other historical facts presented in Genesis) for considering the genealogies as historical fact. This, in turn, further supports the understanding that all the events described in the first eleven chapters of Genesis are historical fact and not mere myth or allegory.
Which is crucial, given that so many of our most fundamental legal principles, including equality, religious freedom, private property, economic liberty, family relationships and mankind’s dominion over the creation (to name but a few) all spring from a literal/historical reading of Genesis 1 thru 11. Not to mention that our whole understanding of the fall, man’s sinful nature and the absolute necessity of redemption all rest on a shaky foundation if the events of Genesis 3 are not factually and literally true.
By this I mean either we are all of us – every single person – a physical descendant of Adam and the inheritor of a pre-disposition to sin as a matter of absolute fact, or the whole story only has as much weight as we choose to give it. If fact, then it doesn’t matter what any of us believe, we are all objectively sinful. If not fact, then the whole thing becomes subjective and a lot less like a universal truth. Establishing the Genesis account as a fact is crucial if it is to be understood as truth.
Scientific Dating Is Imprecise
The chronological data contained in the genealogies of Gen. 5 & 11 help us establish a reliable time line for the earliest 2,000 years of human history which we would otherwise be unable to construct. Today, it is common to look to science as the means of establishing dates in the past, such as by using various techniques to date rocks, artifacts, and bones, etc. What many people do not realize is the extent to which these techniques are inherently flawed, biased or based on assumptions which are unprovable.
Not to digress too far, but radioactive dating (for example) uses the rate of radioactive decay to date objects. It sounds straightforward – downright mathematical – but before you can calculate the amount of decay in something, you first have to know: 1) how much of the radioactive element was in the environment to begin with; 2) when the rock, bone or other artifact was created, whether it was made from radioactive materials (and how old they were) or exposed to radioactivity later on (and if so, when and for how long); and 3) what the rate of decay for various radioactive isotopes has been at all times in the past.
The hard truth of the matter is that scientists do not actually know any of these things, and they cannot travel back into the past to observe or measure any of them. They can tell us with a great amount of certainty the prevalence of radioactive materials in the world today, how much is present in any specific rock or layer of rock, bone or artifact today, and what the rate of decay of various radioactive isotopes is at present. But none of that actually answers questions about the radioactivity of objects arising 5,000 years in the past.
Did that animal bone acquire radiation from food consumed by the animal when it was alive, or was the bone exposed to radiation after some man carved it, moved it to another region or habitat, and then buried it with other radioactive objects? Who migrated 500 miles – the animal, or the man, or were both carried away by Noah’s flood to a place far away when the sedimentary rock layers later hardened around their carcasses?
So scientists make assumptions – educated guesses, perhaps, but guesses nonetheless – about all of these things. A common assumption is that the historical rate of radioactive decay of various isotopes is relatively constant, when this cannot be verified. The end result is a very precise mathematical calculation based on several assumptions of the scientist, any one or all of which could be wrong, and therefore the result can be very imprecise.
Let me suggest that in considering possible evidence for when things occurred in the past, historical accounts (written by observers at the time) is every bit as competent and credible, perhaps even more so, than guesses by people removed from the events by thousands of years. A consensus of scientists neither constitutes, nor contradicts, an eye-witness. If it’s competent testimony about the past you are looking for, I’ll take people who were there over rocks every time.
But scientists will argue that is how we must proceed to look back in time before there were any human observers. To which I say, that to postulate there even was a time when there were no human observers is itself an unprovable assumption. One that is widely held, no doubt. But if there is one thing the biblical genealogies does for us, it is to give us a historical and intellectual basis for asserting that human observers were around from the beginning of time. In other words, there never was a time when there were no human observers – unless you count the first five days of creation.
But you raise an objection – wasn’t Genesis written by Moses and didn’t he live about 2,500 years after creation? Actually, the Bible never says Genesis was written by Moses. It was most likely written by those who lived at the time, which records were handed down to and compiled by Moses. Ironically, you would never know Moses lived 2,500 years after creation but for the fact of the biblical genealogies. No scientific calculation would ever yield that result. (Aside: If you want to know who wrote Genesis, consider the repeated statement, these are the generations of so-and-so as a possible indication of authorship.)
The Genealogies Provide A Reliable Timeline
It is solely because of the data contained in the Genesis genealogies that we are able to construct any kind of useful time line for human history. Granted, the dates of birth and death are not as precise as we would like – there are no months and days, only years, for dates preceding the advent of the Jewish calendar. And most dates indicating a month and day after the advent of the Jewish calendar relate to events other than dates of birth or death.
Actually, scripture does indicate the month and day of the great flood, namely, “in the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month.” Gen. 7:11. But that doesn’t tell us when Noah was born, or how long that was after creation. It’s like saying someone was born on January 1, year 1, and then they got married in their twenty-sixth year, on the second month and seventeenth day. For any of such information to be useful for fixing dates, we first need to have reference to a calendar external to that person’s life. And that’s where the biblical genealogies come in – they are the first, and best, calendar of the earliest years of human history.
I assume the lifespans given are accurate plus or minus one year, so that the law of averages will make the overall numbers fairly accurate. Even if we assume, as a worst case scenario, each lifespan could be off by as much as a full year (more or less), when you realize there are only 77 generations from Adam to Christ (as indicated in Luke’s genealogy), it means that the time line between them (based on genealogical data) is about 4,000 years plus or minus only 77 years. Not 100,000 years, or even 10,000 years. Thus, the range for error is very small, and for purposes of mapping out history, almost negligible.
This makes dating certain events (within a few dozen years) fairly easy. Thus, for example, Noah’s flood occurred around 1656 after creation (A.E.), or 2344 B.C. (that is, give or take 10-15 years). The dispersion following the Tower of Babel came a mere 150 or so years later. Abraham was born around 1950 A.E., or 2050 BC. The Exodus occurred about 1460 BC, and David was king in 1,000 BC (again, give or take a few years).
We can tell, within a few dozen years, when all of the O.T. divine covenants were inaugurated (Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic). We can chart, with some certainty, the progress of various nations and key interactions between them, such as the Exodus, the deportation to Babylon, the rebuilding of the temple, etc. In short, the biblical genealogies make it possible for us to see the overall plan of history, to understand its patterns, and (ultimately) to see where it is going.
One of the highlights of biblical chronology is to see which of the patriarchs were alive at the same time. For example, Adam was still alive when Noah’s father (Lamech) was born eight generations later. Methusaleh – the world’s oldest man at 969 years and Noah’s grandfather – died in the year of the flood. Methusaleh and Adam were both alive for an overlap of about 243 years.
How easy do you suppose it could have been for Adam to communicate information – documents, possibly – to Methusaleh, who then passed them on to Noah, who was about 600 years old at the flood? It’s not like that information would need to be handed down from father to son over many generations and thereby subject to corruption. Also remember that prior to Babel, all of mankind lived in the same general region and was not spread around the globe as people are today.
When you realize that Noah was alive for the first 56 years of Abraham’s life, and that they could quite possibly have talked directly with each other (even though the nations had scattered by that point), it is conceivable that information going all the way back to creation could have landed in Abraham’s hands in only three transfers – Adam to Methusaleh, Methusaleh to Noah, and Noah to Abraham. Just like that, information about the first 2,000 years of human history as recorded by the people who were there, could have landed in the care of Abraham to pass down to his descendants. Of course, you have to assume the earliest men were not merely glorified apes who grunted and pointed as their best means of communication. Ugh! Mwanawana goo goo!
If we were to take the Genesis genealogies as merely myth or allegory, it would be the same as not having them at all from a chronological standpoint, and we would know none of these things.
At this point I must urge a caution, that history, chronology and the dating of events are not things that lend themselves to extreme mathematical precision or symmetry. I have seen many instances of how people have tried to calculate the exact number of days between biblical events, organize those numbers into mathematical patterns or formulae, and inevitably extrapolate those computations to predict when future events will occur. That is not why the genealogical data is given to us.
Is the data useful for history, chronology and dating? Yes. But it is not full of wondrous secrets waiting to be unlocked by careful mastery and manipulation using number theory. The genealogical data is historical fact, not a mathematical code. The Bible tells us that God keeps some things hidden until He decides to reveal them. Deut. 29:29; 1 Cor. 2:7; Col. 1:26, 2:3. What that means is that if God has hidden secret truths in the numbers of the Bible, nothing you do can ever unlock or discover those secrets until God is ready to reveal them. I mean reveal them by His word. So don’t waste your time playing with the numbers. You are not ever going to crack God’s code (if there is one) or hack His system. The things God hides cannot be found.
But the general timing, sequence and flow of history is not one of those secret things. These are things which can be known – not based on science, but on eye-witness testimony – and put to good use to enhance our understanding of the world if we are open to it.
Anthropology is generally regarded as the study of humanity, including a descriptive study of human societies – especially race, culture and ethnicity. What I want to do here is briefly consider how these aspects of anthropology are informed by the genealogies of Gen. 10 & 11. I’m not trying to be scholarly here, nor am I playing scientist. I’m just trying to show in a non-technical way how the genealogies inform some basic aspects of our understanding of humanity so as to illustrate the wealth of information the genealogies provide.
The starting point of conventional wisdom is that mankind originated at least 100,000 years ago, people gradually evolved from lower ancestral forms of life, and multiple family lines developed more or less concurrently. In other words, popular science completely rejects a history of mankind that is only 6,000 years, the separate (or special) creation of man distinct from the origin of other animals, and the idea that the whole human race is the product of only two original people.
However, there is a slight mathematical problem, wonderfully described in Evolution and the Population Problem, Institute for Creation Research, by Henry Morris, Ph.D., March, 1975. See https://www.icr.org/article/67/. Compare this with data regarding the current world population at https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/.
The problem is this: if humanity originated the way conventional wisdom posits it, at current or relatively recent population growth rates (between 1% and 2%; currently at about 1.13% per year), there would be a current world population several orders of magnitude greater than what we actually have. Thus, either mankind originated significantly less than 100,000 years ago, or the historic population growth rate was just a tiny fraction of what it is today.
Morris takes the former approach: “an initial population of only two people, increasing at 2% per year, would become 3.5 billion people in only 1075 years. … [A]n average population growth rate of only (1/2)% would generate the present world population in only 4000 years.” Worldometers takes the opposite approach, positing that human population grew at a rate of only 0.05% for most of world history until A.D. 1800. In other words, that people reproduced at only 0.04% of the current growth rate for 99,000 years. Which is more plausible? Do you see how your answer depends more on your assumptions than it does on the math?
Now start from a biblical perspective, as informed by the genealogies. Namely, that the entire world population started with only two individuals about 6,000 years ago; that all but 8 persons were wiped out about 4,360 years ago in a worldwide flood, and that everyone alive today is a descendant of those eight survivors. I will not rehearse here the math and science involved, but suffice it to say the biblical record is sufficient to explain the origin of the human race and the present population of the world from a very few individuals only a few thousand years ago.
If you want more information on this matter, I gratefully acknowledge and recommend for your perusal: ABO Blood and Human Origins, Institute for Creation Research, by Daniel Criswell, Ph.D., February, 2008. See https://www.icr.org/article/abo-blood-human-origins/. Criswell concludes: “Whether the origin of blood type O was in Adam and Eve at Creation or whether it arose as a mutational event that took place shortly before or after the Flood, it strongly supports that all humans today are descendants of two individuals or a small group of people that eventually populated the globe.”
Thus, the biblical account of biological anthropology can be reasonably corroborated by math and science and ought to be trusted.
Similarly, standard evolutionary thinking regards nations and cultures as things which developed slowly over time – assuming, in essence, that all nations and cultures have been invented or instituted by men. One of the consequences of this mode of thinking is that nations and cultures can be either retained or disposed of according to the unfettered discretion of the people.
In recent years, this has manifested in two distinct ways: 1) multiculturalism, or the promotion of multiple cultural traditions within a nation; and 2) globalization, or the process of international integration across national borders. The first assumes that all cultures and traditions are inherently equal in value and beneficial to mankind. The second assumes that whatever mankind constructed in the past can be deconstructed in the future, leading to a disdain and disregard for nations and national borders.
However, the biblical genealogies inform us of the Tower of Babel experience, which occurred in the vicinity of 150 years ± 50 years after the global flood ended. There were at that time 70 family groups comprising around 1,000 people (all descended from the eight flood survivors). The fallout from the Tower of Babel is that those 1,000 people were scattered around the earth – not randomly, but “according to their genealogies, by their nations.” [Gen 10:32]. Furthermore, each family group was isolated from the others by reason of a language barrier. See, Gen. 11:7-9.
Thus, the biblical record – specifically the Table of Nations genealogy – thoroughly explains the origin of nations among men. The development of distinct national and/or ethnic cultures was a direct result of families being separated from each other by language barriers which took many generations to overcome.
The main upshot of which is this: the existence of nations is neither the idea nor the creation of any man or group of men. Nor are nations the product of a diverse evolutionary development of the human species. Rather, nations are the special and deliberate creation of God. Cultures, on the other hand, are the creation of men, the value and benefit of which largely depend on the extent to which they conform to the will of God (meaning, cultural traditions are not all equal).
One can reasonably infer from this that God did not intend for men to ever undo what God had done. (Go ahead – try and name anything God has created that mankind has the right to destroy.) This strongly suggests there is a “sanctity” of nations, and it is not the lawful business of mankind to unify the nations under a single government or economy. It is no wonder that evolutionary thinking denigrates the thing God has created (nations) and worships the thing man has created (cultures).
At this point I remind you that in accordance with a biblical worldview, governments are instituted (or created) by men, but nations are created by God. We must be careful to observe the distinction between nations and governments – they are not the same. For further information on this topic, I expound on it at length in the essay, The Right to Alter or Abolish the Government. See,
Ditto for the analysis of how languages developed. The evolutionary model assumes geographic dispersal caused diversity of languages. In other words, dispersal came first, and the development of separate languages came afterwards over the course of many years. The biblical record, as contained in Genesis, is just the reverse. Yes, of course these two things are linked to each other. But in Gen. 11:9 we are told that God confused the languages of all the people alive at the time of Babel (ostensibly in a single day, not over many years), and then the people were dispersed as a direct result. People had to disperse, because they could not communicate with each other.
This is repeatedly confirmed by the Table of Nations genealogy. See Gen. 10:5, 20, and 31. Again, the assignment of languages was not random, but was based on family groups. This allowed each family group to propagate and become the progenitors of separate nations. For more information, see The Mystery of Human Language, Institute for Creation Research, by Henry Morris, Ph.D., 2001. See https://www.icr.org/article/mystery-human-language/. Also, Human Languages Fit a Young Earth Model, Institute for Creation Research, by Brian Thomas, M.S., 2011. See https://www.icr.org/article/human-languages-fit-young-earth-model/.
These three things – the Bible as fact, chronology and anthropology – serve as a backdrop or context which enables us to then press on to the legal consequences of the biblical genealogies. In other words, now knowing that the biblical genealogies inform us as to how and why human societies were formed, they further help us understand certain key aspects of God’s laws which He has revealed to those societies. Of those, I now want to consider five, namely, the Law of Inheritance, All About Adam and Eve (Legally), Applicability of the Divine Covenants, Who Jesus Is, and the Virgin Birth.