Another One Bites the Dust: A Theology of the Seth-Noah Genealogy
For many Christians, biblical genealogies convey information but little theology. Consequently, believers can tend to read (or to skim over) them out of a sense of duty rather than to peruse them out of a desire to grow in their understanding of God’s Story. In the brief essay below, I examine the theology of the Seth-Noah genealogy of Genesis 5. While most scholars see Moses shifting from his focus on the spread of sin (Gen 3–4) to an emphasis on signs of grace (Gen 5), I argue that Moses is continuing to highlight the spread of sin and God’s curse even as he traces out the lineage of “the woman’s seed.”
Another One Bites the Dust
There are evidences of God’s grace in Genesis 5, as we shall note below. However, these signs of grace are seen more clearly when viewed against the backdrop of the spread of sin and the curse motif, which continues to loom large even in this segment of the primeval narrative.
Signs of Grace in Genesis 5
The dreadful taunt of Lamech closes Cain’s line, and Moses transports the reader back in time to the birth of Seth, which marks a renewed hope in God’s redemptive promise (4:25).1 After noting Seth’s birth, the birth of Seth’s son Enosh, and the revival of Yahwehism (4:26), the narrator parallels Cain’s genealogy with a genealogical list beginning with Adam and tracing his lineage through Seth to Noah (5:1–32). Yet in spite of clear parallels,2 this genealogy differs from the Cainite genealogy in several important ways.
First, as already noted, the Genesis 5 genealogy begins with Adam—Cain’s does not.3 This fact not only reminds the reader that Cain has been banished from the primordial family but may also suggest that Adam preserved the true religion and passed it down through Seth and his seed.4
Second, the genealogy of Genesis 5 provides chronological information regarding the age of the father at the time he fathered the specified descendant, the number of years he lived after begetting that offspring, and the total length of his earthly life.5 The unusually long life spans attributed to the antediluvians in this genealogy have led a number of scholars to see the theological motif of divine blessing and human vitality.6 Hence, while two murderers bracket Cain’s genealogy, emphasizing the motif of premature death, extreme longevity characterizes the Adam-Seth genealogy throughout, emphasizing the theme of fullness of life.
Third, while the Cain genealogy features two individuals who inflict death (Cain/Lamech), the Adam-Seth genealogy features an individual who escapes death, namely, Enoch (5:22–24).
Finally, the Cain genealogy concludes with an unbeliever (Lamech) whose offspring (Jabal, Jubal, Tubal-cain) merely advance human culture (4:20–22). But the Adam-Seth genealogy concludes with a believer (another Lamech!) whose offspring (Noah) preserves the human race from extinction (5:29; 6:8ff.).
These positive features of the Adam-Seth genealogy in contrast with the negative features of the Cainite genealogy have caused a number of scholars to see either a discontinuation of or a disconnect with the spread of sin theme that has heretofore characterized the primeval narrative since the Fall.7
Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis 5
A more careful reading of Genesis 5, however, indicates that Moses has not set aside the motif of sin’s spread. Indeed, there are several reasons for viewing the spread of sin as one of the primary themes of this narrative.
To begin with, the above-mentioned contrasts between the Cain genealogy and the Adam-Seth genealogy assume an intentionally structured antithetical parallelism, thereby linking this chapter with the preceding narrative. Even a critic such as Walter Brueggemann is forced to admit, “This account follows Genesis 2–4 in the present tradition. Thus, longevity cannot now be attributed to the ‘absence of sin.’”8
Second, the narrative begins by noting that God’s conferral of the imago Dei on Seth is mediated through Seth’s father Adam (5:1–2), in whose likeness Seth was born (5:3). The fact that the divine image is now conferred on humanity through Adam suggests that the image is no longer untainted by sin.9
In the third place, the deafening refrain, “and he died,” which reverberates throughout this entire passage (5:5, 8, 11, 14, 17, 20, 27, 31) reminds the reader of God’s curse on Adam (2:17; 3:19). The fact that Moses chooses the Adam-Seth genealogy rather than the Cain genealogy to scatter these “tombstones”10 underlines the reality that even those among whom true religion may be found do not escape the gravity of the curse.11
Of course, there is one exception—”Enoch walked with God, and then he disappeared because God took him away” (5:24, NET).12 Nevertheless, this exception to the rule provides a fourth argument since it only serves to reinforce the rule. In other words, Enoch’s extraordinary exemption from death’s sting literarily functions to accord death pride of place in the narrative’s plot.13
Fifthly, every protracted lifespan falls short of the millennial mark, which, as Gordon Wenham notes, “is a mere day in the light of God’s eternity.”14 So even in his “primeval-prime,” man can only attain to a brief moment in the divine reckoning!
Sixthly, Lamech’s lament at the close of the narrative (5:29) suggests a keen awareness of the growing burden of sin’s curse from which humanity desperately needs relief.
Finally, the narrative concludes with Noah, the “Rest-Giver,” whose calling is to provide deliverance from the curse (5:29).15
Grace Much More Abounds Where Sin Abounds
These observations lead to the conclusion that the Genesis 5 genealogy plays an integral part in advancing the spread of sin motif commenced in the previous chapter. Far from an interruption of or respite from sin’s doleful encroachment on human life, the Adam-Seth genealogy reminds the reader that God meant business when he warned Adam not to disobey, and his death-threat was not empty—a point not missed by the apostle Paul (Rom 5:12–14).
The entry above is excerpted and adapted from my recently published monograph Where Sin Abounds (a theological commentary on Genesis). Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. www.wipfandstock.com
- Eve names the child Seth (שת) from the verb שת, which God uses in Genesis 3:15 where he declares, “I will set [אשית] enmity between [the Serpent] and the woman” (author’s translation). Then Eve gives her reason for the child’s name: “For Elohim has set for me [שת לי אלהים] another seed [זרע אחר] in place of Abel whom Cain killed” (Gen 4:25, author’s translation and emphasis). Here, Eve appears to allude to the promise of the special זרע in Genesis 3:15. Dempster agrees and remarks, “Immediately after the genealogy, Eve has another ‘seed’ that replaces his slain brother, Abel (Gen. 4:25, 26). In the context, this reference to the replacement of the seed instantly resonates with Genesis 3:15 and represents an implicit hope that Eve has for this child to relieve the earth from the curse imposed on it. Dominion and Dynasty, 71. Eve’s use of the perfect “has appointed” may be interpreted and translated as the precative perfect or “perfect of prayer”: “May God appoint for me another seed in place of Abel!” IBHS 30.5.4c-d. [↩]
- Both genealogies are primarily vertical or linear (i.e., connecting an individual to an ancestor) and become horizontal or segmented at the end (i.e., listing several siblings or relatives of a particular ancestor). There is also a similarity between the names of Cain’s ancestors and those of Seth. Finally, in each genealogy the narrator gives special treatment to the seventh from Adam. [↩]
- For this reason, the author prefers to view the Genesis 5 narrative as the “Adam-Seth genealogy” rather than the more common “Sethite genealogy.” [↩]
- That true religion was revived and passed down through Seth’s lineage is clearly indicated in the text (see 4:26; 5:22–24, 28–28). Moreover, the narrator has already highlighted believing responses in Adam (3:20) and Eve (4:25). [↩]
- The consistent pattern is “When X lived ___ years, he fathered Y. X lived after he fathered Y ___ years and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of X were ___ , and he died.” Only this genealogy and that in Genesis 11 provide these seemingly unbroken chronological links. For a survey of different approaches to interpreting the chronological information provided in these genealogies and defense of a traditional approach, see Shaw, “The Genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 and Their Significance for Chronology.” [↩]
- Victor Hamilton writes, “The genealogy of this chapter and the transmission of the divine image may be one way in which the writer is stressing his point about the operations of divine grace.” Genesis 1–17, 256. Kenneth Mathews argues that one of the theological functions of the genealogy is “to show the perpetuation of the imago Dei and blessing (1:26–28).” Genesis 1–11:26, 305. Commenting on the chronological data for the antediluvians in the Genesis 5 genealogy, B. B. Warfield asserts, “All these items cooperate to make a vivid impression upon us of the vigor and grandeur of humanity in those old days of the world’s prime.” “Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race,” 244. [↩]
- Some conservative scholars, focusing on the amazing longevity of the Sethites, emphasize the theme of God’s blessing and grace. C. F. Keil, for instance, writes, “In the genealogy of the Cainites no ages are given, since this family, as being cursed by God, had no future history. On the other hand, the family of Sethites, which acknowledged God, began from the time of Enos to call upon the name of the Lord, and was therefore preserved and sustained by God, in order that under the training of mercy and judgment the human race might eventually attain to the great purpose of its creation.” The Pentateuch, 1:120–21. Likewise, H. C. Leupold agrees with Luther that the Sethites “were the very greatest heroes who ever came upon earth barring Christ and John the Baptist” and supports this reading by noting that “in point of longevity their strength and natural vigor far excelled that of later generations,” concluding that “they represented a less decayed stage of human life.” Leupold adds, as a contributing factor to their longevity, his conviction that “here is a race of godly men who lived temperately and sanely.” Leupold acknowledges that the deaths of these patriarchs points to “God’s justice and wrath against sin,” but he believes the message of Genesis 5 is “where sin prevails, grace does the more prevail,” Exposition of Genesis, 230–36. Thus, these commentators appear to see a discontinuation of the spread of sin theme as the reader transitions from Genesis 4 to 5. On the other hand, critical scholars posit a disconnection between these chapters. They see “J” (Yahwist) as the author or final redactor behind the Cainite genealogy, whose purpose is to emphasize the theme of sin or crime. The author or final redactor of the Genesis 5 genealogy is “P” (Priestly writer), whose purpose is to emphasize the fulfillment of the creation mandate and divine blessing. See Skinner, Genesis, 129; von Rad, OT Theology, 1:154–56. [↩]
- Genesis, 68. [↩]
- This point is noted by Brueggemann when he observes, “Verse 3 contains an odd ambiguous statement about Seth, the father of humankind. It is not said he is the image of God, but in the image of Adam, who is the image of God. Thus, he is one step removed. This might mean he continues to be the image of God, for the image of God is granted not only to the first human but to all humans. But such an assertion is hedged, for the image of Adam is something less, and marred (cf. Gen. 3). Thus, the text may realistically recognize that Seth and his heirs are a strange, unresolved mixture of the regal image of God and the threatened image of Adam.” Genesis, 68. John Currid agrees and writes, “Seth receives the likeness of God as it has been passed through his father Adam. It is a nature that is twisted, frail, mortal and miserable. The imputation of Adam’s nature to his descendants is thus recorded.” A Study Commentary on Genesis, 1:162. [↩]
- This is John Davis’s catchy term for the death notices. Paradise to Prison, 106. [↩]
- John Murray remarks, “Death. How eloquently this is advertised in Genesis 5! Notwithstanding the longevity of man, he cannot escape the fulfillment of the divine threat, and must prove that the wages of sin is death.” “The Fall of Man,” 2:72. David Clines comments, “No reader of Genesis 5, to take one example, fails to be impressed by the recurrent phrase ‘And he died,’ which baldly and emphatically concludes the entry for each of these antediluvians. The whole movement of the regular form of these notices is towards death…. Their function must be to emphasize a finality about each of these lives, as if to say: through possessed of an excess of vitality by ordinary human standards, these men also die. Thus the thrust of the Genesis 5 genealogy is toward death, even though human life continues.” The Theme of the Pentateuch, 72. Summarizing the primary themes of both the Cain genealogy and the Adam-Seth genealogy, John Walton writes, “We see the blessing in generation after generation as people are fruitful and multiplying. But the counter-theme resounds in each generation, ‘and then he died.’ Likewise as people multiply, the sin problem multiplies. The advances in civilization may enhance the ability to procure food, but they do nothing to stem the tide of death and sin. Instead of the blessing resulting in subduing and ruling . . . , it is the curse that is spreading.” Genesis, 284. [↩]
- The last half of the verse might be literally translated, “and non-[earthly]-existence of him [ואיננו] because God removed him [כי לקח אתו אלהים].” That the narrator intended to convey Enoch’s supernatural exemption from death is supported contextually by the absence of the typical phrase, “and he died,” together with the verb לקח, which is elsewhere used of God’s miraculous removal of Elijah from earth into heaven (2 Kgs 2:3, 5, 9). As Hebrews unambiguously asserts, “By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death [τοῦ μὴ ἰδεῖν θάνατον]” (Heb 11:5 BGT)” (Heb 11:5a). [↩]
- Derek Kidner notes how Enoch’s translation “conspicuously breaks the rhythm” of the “reign of death” refrain and views it as “the standing pledge of death’s defeat.” Genesis, 80. [↩]
- Genesis 1–15, 146. Wenham is probably alluding to the apostle Peter’s comment, “With the Lord . . . a thousand years [are] as one day” (2 Pet 3:8). [↩]
- “Linked to the consequences of Gen. 2–4,” reasons Brueggemann, “it is the task of Noah to end the banishment of the man and woman (3:24) and of Cain (4:16). He is to invert the sorry situation and cause a homecoming. . . . This anticipation of the work of Noah, placed in the mouth of Lamech, is a gospel announcement. . . . In a way more intentional than most of these, our verse places Noah at the turn from death to life. . . . The comfort promised by Noah (v. 29) is to reverse the destiny of living with the consequences of sin” (70). Of course, Noah’s deliverance from the curse is only provisional and functions at a typical level pointing to the Greater Noah, Jesus, who will lead his spiritual family through the deluge of divine judgment unto the ultimate new heavens and new earth (Matt 24:37–42; Luke 17:26–37; 1 Pet 3:18–22; 2 Pet 3:5–13). [↩]