Friday, September 2, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 5

Well, I had a lot to do today, definitely feel tired, but I should think about doing some laundry. I guess it's - oh, hi there! Sorry, I didn't see you come in. Sit down, sit down, good friend. I was just about to start reading Genesis 5... let's see.... ah, here it is. Right after Genesis 4, but critically, before Genesis 6. Excellent, excellent.... let's see what it has to say... wait. This is a genealogy.

That's right everyone, we hit our second* biblical genealogy. As such, it's a good time to give an explanation or overview of what genealogies mean to the Israelites, because we will see a lot more genealogies before this endeavor is done. Many more genealogies, indeed. Then I will give some specific insights into this particular genealogy.

As we will learn, genealogies are quite an obsession amongst the Israelite population. There are several reasons for this, some perhaps cultural of the time and some uniquely related to biblical principles. One of the most direct rationales is that people in the ancient world just care a lot about children and contrariwise, care a lot about who their ancestors are. In modern times, this is not as true in the western world, but even today there are large segments of Asian populations that practice ancestor worship, or less directly, "respect of their elders". From some brief discussions I've had with Nigerian friends, I have come to understand that this is true to an extent in Nigerian culture as well. So that is the "respect" aspect.

Another aspect is that many people consider ancestorship to be what determines a given person's traits. For instance, if you have a lot of criminals in your family, then you have bad blood. Particularly before the rise of modern genetics, many people considered social traits or status to be inheritable. So if someone is the son of a thief, they are likely to also be a thief. This philosophy is what popularized eugenics in the 19th to 20th centuries, with the notion being that if we just sterilize or kill everyone who has unwanted social traits, they would be removed from the gene pool altogether. As we will see, the Israelites did not espouse or practice eugenics, but they highly valued their ancestorship, literally to the point of naming their entire nation after a single figure (Israel is an alternate name for Jacob, the grandson of Abraham).

A further point about confirming your genealogy is that it confers a sense of legitimacy and legacy, which is enshrouded in such principles as the hereditary monarchies of Europe, where titles and properties have been passed down from father to son for hundreds of years. Usually these titles are dependent on proving your relation to some distant figure who earned some particular merit in some time or other. Even in America, which rejected any sense of hereditary titles or royalty, we still have a subdued concept of "good families" and "bad families".

Now I will discuss the uniquely biblical aspect, which is the covenant with God. I will only mention this briefly, since it hasn't been mentioned in the text yet, but it is nevertheless anticipated by this genealogy, so it deserves a few sentences. God will later establish a hereditary covenant with Abraham to bless him and his children forever, if they follow some set of rules. This covenant is confirmed and expanded in scope during the time of Moses, most famously captured by the so-called Ten Commandments. To the Israelites, the Commandments were only one side of the proverbial coin. The other side was God's promised blessings of obedience. But the entire coin was given not just to those living at the time, but to their children. See where this is going? The children would have to be descendants of Abraham to receive the blessing. And thus (in addition to everything written above), Israelite genealogies were born. :) The genealogies of every tribe was critical as well because you had to prove membership in a certain tribe in order to have an inheritance (property) in the land of Israel. There were also certain familial lines that were ascribed certain responsibilities and privileges, so again there was value in establishing your ancestorship. I will discuss this more when it comes up, later in the Pentateuch.

That's the general importance of genealogies. Now I will discuss some of the notes of specific interest related to this genealogy.

First, there is a parallel in the names between Cain's genealogy in chapter 4 and Seth's genealogy here in chapter 5. Different people interpret in different ways. The most plausible interpretation I've heard is that it emphasizes the difference in character between the two family lines by giving them similar names and highlighting the behavior (Lamech emphasizes Cain's threat of retribution, Enoch emphasizes obedience and partnership with God). But perhaps an even simpler explanation is that, since the various generations were born around the same time as each counterpart, they were probably named similarly due to cultural patterns of the time, i.e. they are not intentionally similar, but just happen to share names that would rise and fall in popularity over the centuries.

Second, the lifetime of each person on average goes down from generation to generation. There are a few exceptions (the most notable being Methuselah), but that is the general trend, as the age at death descends from Adam's 930 years to Lamech's 777 (some scholars also think 777 signifies perfection or completeness since he is the seventh generation from Adam).... on that note, I should point out that 7 is a very important number in the bible, and the bible uses numbers to signify different concepts. In fact, I should add a section on numerology to my introduction, since numerology really is important to the bible. *notes to self*

Third, it is possible to look at the meanings of the various names and try to derive some information about the lives of these generations. Sometimes the translations are a bit hard due to the obscurity of the words, but I have a good friend who did a study based on the names and came to some interesting conclusions about how the lives of one generation impacted the next, and how that impact was memorialized by the names chosen for their children. I won't go into it myself, but it's something to look into for those who are interested.

Fourth, just a minor note that when you count the years until Methuselah's death and correlate that with the ages of his children, you will see that Methuselah dies exactly in the year of the Flood, which is coming up in the next few chapters. Lamech, the next closest, dies 5 years before the flood.

Fifth, the chapter repeats that Adam was made in the image of God and gives a solid recap of Genesis 2 in the first two verses.

Sixth, note that the name Noah is a reference to the curse, that this burden on the people causes them to seek comfort. I don't have much else to say here, but it just shows that the curse is weighing the people down then, just as it weighs us down today.

Seventh, the mystery of Enoch. This is another subject I will only address in passing, because Enoch is referenced a couple more times later in the bible and because his disappearance, being "taken" by God, is mentioned so briefly and therefore offers so much perplexity to those who try to understand why he was taken and how it relates to us. This foreshadows the life of Elijah, as Elijah will be similarly "taken" as he is swept up into heaven in a burning chariot (I'm not making this up, that's what's going to happen :) ).

So, with that said, what's clear is that being taken to heaven is directly related to "walking with God", a figure of speech that implies relationship, closeness and friendship from one to the other. After walking with God for hundreds of years and growing in stature and wisdom, God takes Enoch from the earth. What's not clear is why God would want to take him, rather than leave him on earth. This is where the speculation begins. In my opinion, God takes him because God has some greater heavenly assignment for him than what he had to do on the earth. Of course, the "normal" pattern for being taken from the earth is death, but for whatever reason there just seem to be some people who overpower death through their relationship with God. What we have to remember is that, while comparatively normal, death is part of the curse. So, while I fully admit that many godly people die, it still seems reasonable to ask, through the process of redemption and atonement, can one overcome death? In a very meaningful sense, that's what Jesus does, and that's what Enoch and later Elijah do as well. So there is certainly a precedent for it, but what's equally clear is that there is no defined process to overcome death (sorry Ray Kurzweil, I don't think your futurism is going to pan out) and that even for those who are close to God, many of them are not taken (for instance, Noah dies, Elisha dies, David dies, Moses dies, etc). Even Abraham, the archetypal friend of God, dies.

So this is a subject I still think about, and scholars continue to posit a wide range of theories to reconcile these events with related biblical doctrines.

Eighth, this is a minor point but the Lamech mentioned in this chapter is *not* the same person as the Lamech mentioned in chapter 4, who is the descendant of Cain. This Lamech is the descendant of Seth, and is a different person entirely. All of the others in the genealogies are similarly named, these two people happen to have the same name, but this is probably just a coincidence.

With that, I will conclude and move on to chapter 6!

*I glossed over Lamech's genealogy, which is in chapter 4. I suppose I should have mentioned it then, but I was busy with other things.

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