When I was younger, I often skipped over genealogies in my Bible studies. Not only were long lists of names boring, but long lists of names Hebrew-in-origin were even more boring. I usually ended up skimming the lists to see if they mentioned my name (they never did) and then went on immediately to the next passage.
As I’ve grown more mature in my faith and perception of the Bible, I’ve come to appreciate genealogies and the vast amounts of information they contain. As it turns out, they can actually tell us a lot about who wrote them and what was happening at the time they were written. They also serve as useful tools in connecting various passages and ideas in the Bible.
As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m a big proponent of making sure we understand how the Bible was written if we’re going to use it to justify our actions towards others, and genealogies are a key to unlocking many other biblical truths.
I originally intended to cover a few genealogies in this article, but scrapped the idea after spending most of the last six weeks on just the early genealogies found in Genesis 4–5. It turns out there’s a lot more to unpack than meets the eye, and I’ve been fascinated with what I’ve found in my research and readings. As usual, I do take stances on several issues throughout this post, but I would encourage you to spend your own time wrestling with these ideas before coming to your own conclusions.
Introduction to Genesis 4:17–5:32
The genealogies scattered throughout the Bible serve a variety of purposes. In the Old Testament, we find that they often serve as a way to note the passage of time or connect people groups and nations with their surrounding neighbors. As a result, it doesn’t take the Bible long to begin outlining the bloodlines of its earliest civilizations. In the fourth and fifth chapters of Genesis, we find two genealogies — one for Cain, who had recently been excommunicated from his family and relocated to the land of Nod, and one for Seth, Adam’s heir who would continue the lineage that would eventually lead to Jesus.
Before we jump in, it would be advantageous to address an idea I’ll reference a few times throughout the article — that the two genealogies were likely written by different authors.
If you aren’t familiar with the supplementary or documentary hypotheses, they’re similar theories that speculate that the Pentateuch (or the first five books of the Bible) was written by three of four distinct individuals or groups of people at different times with different agendas. While the theories seem to constantly evolve, there’s a certain degree of confidence based on the differing writing styles and language used throughout the texts.
In the supplementary hypothesis, there are three distinct writers, usually denoted by their first letters — the Deuteronomist (D), Jahwist (J), and Priestly (P) source (in chronological order of contribution)¹. The Deuteronomist is theorized to have played a significant role in the authorship of Deuteronomy and a few other Old Testament books, while the Jahwist and Priestly sources cover most of the Pentateuch. The three are considered the major contributors, but it’s also important to note that later redactors likely altered the texts as well, often in an attempt to harmonize the D, J, and P versions².
In the fourth chapter of Genesis, Cain’s genealogy is commonly attributed to the Jahwist, who places a heavy emphasis on Yahweh (Jahwe, in German) in their writing. This will become obvious when you read the analysis on Cain’s descendants below.
Seth’s genealogy in chapter five, likely added later to the book, is commonly attributed to the Priestly source. Per its name, the Priestly source generally places a heavier emphasis on priestly matters and the holiness of God. Scholars believe the Priestly source edits and makes additional contributions to the body of work already written and compiled by the Deuteronomist and Jahwist sources. This will play a key role later in the analysis of Seth’s genealogy.
Cain’s Genealogy and the Flood
The obvious question after reading Cain’s genealogy in Genesis 4 is — why even include it in the first place? After all, the entire human race aside from Noah (descended from Seth) and his family are destroyed by the great flood three chapters later in Genesis 7. Listing Cain’s descendants with zero literary narrative before their destruction seems completely fruitless within the context of the surrounding chapters.
There are a few theories that attempt to address this concern, but the one I find the most convincing is that the flood narrative was simply a later addition to the book of Genesis³. There are a lot of implications to a claim like this, and while it doesn’t necessarily disprove the historicity of the flood narrative (I believe it does), that isn’t the subject of this article.
If you aren’t convinced, there are some other in-text clues that seem to support this idea. For instance, note the use of the present tense when the author of the genealogy describes living people with certain traits (residing in tents, playing the lyre, etc.) as having descended from specific ancestors of Cain. Again, this cannot be true if Cain’s lineage was destroyed in a large flood event.
Cain’s Ancestors — The Kenites
Another idea that supports the notion of a misplaced or fictitious flood narrative revolves around a people group that first makes an appearance eleven chapters later in Genesis 15 — the Kenites. Historically, scholars believe the Kenites were a clan of people living near or among the Hebrews, who at times had significant influences on their culture and development⁴. Scholars believe they played such a pivotal role in the origins of the Israelites that the passage about Cain and his genealogy were written later as an etiology for the tribe⁵.
This would explain why the author of the genealogy makes the claims in Genesis 4:20–22 about living people with certain traits having inherited them from specific ancestors of Cain. At the time, the author was likely familiar with the neighboring Kenite tribes and made sure to include occupations they were known for (living in tents, music, and metal working) in the genealogy to reinforce the idea that they were related⁵.
While some argue the Kenites are not the implied ancestors of Cain⁶, we also have other contextual clues that lead us to conclude the biblical authors assumed a connection:
- The word ‘Kenite’ is a Hebrew derivation of the same word as the name ‘Cain’, both sharing a root in the Hebrew word qyn⁵
- In Numbers 24:21–22, the oracle Balaam references the same Hebrew name ‘Cain’ found in Genesis when speaking to a Kenite⁵
- In Jeremiah 35:7–10, the prophet makes several references to a permanent lifestyle of living in tents and being sojourners (punishments of Cain’s) when speaking to the Rechabites, a tribe of the Kenites⁷
The Kenite Hypothesis
If you‘re already familiar with the Kenites, it’s probably because Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, was a Kenite (Judges 4:11). In Exodus, we learn that Moses flees Egypt to live with Jethro after killing a fellow Egyptian. It’s during this time that God reveals himself in a burning bush and gives the orders to deliver the Israelites from Egypt.
This particular passage supports a prominent theory regarding early Israelite religious practices known as the Kenite hypothesis. It speculates that the Israelites originally worshipped a Canaanite god named ‘El’, which eventually transitioned to and was absorbed by a Midianite god named ‘Yahweh’ after the Israelites began interacting and integrating with the neighboring Kenite tribes.
We can see the parallels between this theory and biblical passages early on in the Pentateuch. For instance, in much of Genesis (aside from passages attributed to the Jahwist), the primary Hebrew word used for God is ‘El’ or ‘Elohim’ (which English versions translate to ‘God’). The name ‘Israel’ even invokes the name ‘El’ in its etymology. After Moses’ time with Jethro and the exodus from Egypt, we notice a shift to ‘Yahweh’ as a common name used to reference God (which English versions translate to ‘LORD’).
Additionally, Moses is actually informed by God in Exodus 6 that his ancestors did not know him by the name ‘Yahweh’, but rather ‘El’:
God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am Yahweh. To Abraham and Isaac and Jacob I appeared as El Shaddai; I did not make myself known to them by my name Yahweh.”
On a semi-related note, a slight continuity error presents itself when you contrast the above passage with Genesis 4:26, where we learn that Seth and his descendants had already begun referring to him by the name ‘Yahweh’:
To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time people began to call upon the name of the Yahweh.
This is a symptom of the multiple authors mentioned above. Genesis 4 was originally written by the Jahwist (note all references to God are transcribed as ‘LORD’), while Exodus 6 was likely written or edited by a later redactor in an attempt to harmonize the transition from ‘El’ to ‘Yahweh’ in the Old Testament². We can see this in Genesis 4:25–26a, which were not likely in the original Jahwist source and later inserted to provide a more seamless transition into the Priestly source’s genealogy for Seth in Genesis 5 (which switches back to ‘El’ references for God).
Moving on, it’s worth noting that the Kenite hypothesis is not completely bulletproof. As referenced earlier, some critics still aren’t convinced ‘Kenite’ is a derivation from the Hebrew name ‘Cain’, while others aren’t convinced the geographies of the various tribes would have allowed the interactions required for the theory to work⁸. Given the current lack of material evidence, the theory can unfortunately only remain speculation at this point. Regardless, it proves to be a thought-provoking exercise in piecing together some of the disjointed narratives found within the Old Testament — and more specifically, why Cain and his descendants seem to play such a prominent role in Israel’s history.
Seth’s Plagiarized Genealogy
Aside from ages and a slightly longer list, nothing too unusual sticks out after moving on to Seth’s genealogy in chapter five (if you can look past the 900 year-old humans). The Jahwist had just wrapped up Cain’s genealogy in chapter four, and the Priestly source is eager to detail the lineage of Adam leading up to Noah, who would eventually become the ancestor of Abraham, David, and Jesus.
However, plotting the two genealogies side-by-side begins to present some peculiarities. Take a look at the following graphical representation:
At first glance, it seems as if the two are just reshuffled versions of each other. This notion becomes even more obvious when you translate the names back to their Hebrew counterparts:
Furthermore, similar to ‘Adam’, the name ‘Enosh’ (the first descendant of Seth) is defined in Hebrew as “man”¹⁰. This presents an even more striking similarity when you compare Adam through Lamech (via Cain) and Enosh through Lamech (via Seth):
With the exception of two swapped names, the genealogies are almost identical.
Scholars are fairly confident (based on the aforementioned supplementary hypothesis) that Cain’s genealogy, written by the Jahwist, pre-dates the Priestly source’s genealogy for Seth. However, there’s a bit of uncertainty around whether the Priestly source reworked the Jahwist’s genealogy or if they both borrowed from the same tradition. While interesting, I don’t find this particular detail to be important in the interpretation of these findings.
The prominent theory as to why these genealogies are so similar postulates that Cain’s genealogy is the original bloodline. At some point, either the Priestly source or a later redactor reconfigured it under Seth to produce a pure bloodline that wasn’t subject to Cain’s curse from having killed his brother, Abel. Because a lot of this editing likely happened during the Israelites’ captivity in Babylon, it may have been done in an effort to preserve the sanctity of their own origins or to strengthen the image of their ancestral heroes such as Abraham, Noah, and David.
This would also explain why Genesis speaks so infrequently of Seth. The original texts may have focused on a family consisting of Adam, Eve, Abel, Cain, and his ancestors. Later, a redactor went back and reshuffled the genealogy under Seth to avoid Cain’s curse and then proceeded to add a flood narrative attributed to Seth’s new ancestor, Noah.
The Ages of the Patriarchs
The ages of the patriarchs chronicled are typically the first things that stand out to people after an initial reading of Genesis 5. Growing up, I remember my Sunday school teachers explaining that the earth’s pre-flood atmosphere allowed humans to live longer and other unscientific theories that make little sense retrospectively. As it turns out, the likely answer is actually a lot less mysterious than it seems.
Given its lack of historicity, most scholars today don’t believe the long ages attributed to the patriarchs in Genesis were based on real people, and many don’t even believe the biblical authors thought so, either. Instead, scholars speculate the authors crafted the long ages to combat significant age claims being made by other religions and societies at the time. Take, for instance, the antediluvian rulers on the Sumerian King List, who were purported to have lived and reigned for thousands of years.
Those who do believe the patriarchs existed and lived such long periods of time often run into continuity errors and contradictions when the timeline is analyzed and plotted. For instance, in many translations, the ages of some of the patriarchs would have them living through the flood that only Noah and his family were purported to have survived¹¹. Noah also would have only died when Abraham was 60 years-old, and similarly his son, Shem, would have outlived Abraham and been alive to have met Jacob and Esau¹².
As I mentioned in the introduction, there’s a lot more to these genealogies than meets the eye. I’ve presented a lot of information in this post, so I thought it might be helpful to summarize the events and conclusions I’ve found compelling into a bulleted timeline.
In chronological order…
- The Israelites originate as various tribes scattered throughout Canaan who worship a common deity named ‘El’.
- At some point, they enter Midian and cross paths with the Kenites. They interact and the Israelites eventually combine their own god ‘El’ and the Kenite god ‘Yahweh’ into a single deity — the god found in the Bible today.
- The Israelites become a formal nation, and after having been taking captive in Babylon, begin documenting their origins to explain why they were taken into captivity. This includes the Deuteronomist penning Deuteronomy and all of its laws, claiming the Israelites’ disobedience of these laws as the reason for their captivity.
- The Jahwist begins penning his contributions to the Pentateuch. They were familiar enough with the Kenites that they felt inclined to include a genealogy explaining their origins in Genesis 4.
- Some time later, the Priestly source pens his own version of Adam’s descendants (Seth’s genealogy) in an attempt to preserve God’s holiness through Adam’s bloodline leading up to Israel’s ancestral heroes.
- At some point, the flood narrative is also added to Genesis and attributed to Noah to compete with similar flood narratives borrowed from neighboring religions. The implications to the surrounding passages (notably those of the Jahwist and Cain’s descendants/the Kenites) are missed, leaving us today with various pieces that are not aligned.
- Either the Priestly source or a later redactor write or edit passages in Exodus to include the story of Moses and Jethro as a symbolic representation of the Kenite influence and Israel’s transition to worship of the god ‘Yahweh’.
- Later, a redactor combines the various versions and inserts passages to smooth the transition from one source to another (Genesis 4:25–26a, etc.).
What does all of this mean?
For those who believe in a literal, inerrant, or historical interpretation of the entire Old Testament, these conclusions have not traditionally been accepted with open arms. Despite discontinuities and contradictory accounts when one takes a literal view, it’s interesting to read the theories from people who are willing to go to great lengths to explain some of these issues in a way that preserves the Bible’s inerrancy, when ultimately I’m not sure it matters anyway.
I believe the Bible is a book that was written to reveal God’s nature. To do so, it utilizes both real stories based on real people that actually existed, and also fictional stories to help convey difficult messages or symbolic intent. There are no meaningful contradictions or discontinuities in stories that were never meant to portray real events or people.
However, at the end of the day, our own personal convictions as well as the evidence all around of us of a god that demands we treat others with love should be the basis for everyone’s faith — regardless of your views of the Bible.
¹John Van Seters, The Pentateuch: A Social-Science Commentary (T&T Clark, 1999)
²Richard Elliot Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed (HarperOne, 2003)
³David M. Carr, Changes in Pentateuchal Criticism (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014)
⁴W. G. Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006)
⁵Marlene Mondriaan, Who were the Kenites? (University of Pretoria, 2011)
⁶Archibald Sayce, Kenites (A Dictionary of the Bible, 1899)
⁷Charles Herbermann, Rechab and the Rechabites (Robert Appleton Company, 1913)
⁸Paula McNutt, Reconstructing the Society of Ancient Israel (Westminster John Knox Press, 1999)
⁹S. H. Hooke, Middle Eastern Mythology: From the Assyrians to the Hebrews (Penguin Books, 1963)
¹⁰James Strong, The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Jennings & Graham, 1890)
¹¹Paul Davidson, Some Curious Numerical Facts about the Ages of the Patriarchs (isthatinthebible.wordpress.com, 2017)
¹²Gerhard von Rad, Genesis — a commentary (Westminster Press, 1961)