This is Part 5 of 20 in a series about the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. In it we will explore the context of the book, specifically its relationship to the Egyptian culture of its day.
Click here to read the entire series.
Up to this point in our study of the works of Moses, we have learned about two of the ancient Sagas which he received from history and wrote down in the fifteenth century BC under the guidance of the Spirit. The first Saga was the Creation Song, which argued against the Egyptian cosmology in several key ways (most notably that there was a beginning to all things, and that the stars, sun, trees, and other things of nature were inanimate objects rather than gods). The second Saga was the Generations of Creation, telling us what happened to the "first family" God created and placed in the Garden of Eden. In this Saga we see the family rebel against God, and be exiled into the wild barbaric Earth. One of their sons commits fratricide and is exiled even further, forced to join local nomadic tribes.
Today we move into the Third Saga, a separate tale received by Moses and recorded. This section is called the "Generations of Adam," or the "Generations of the Sons of Adam." It details the genealogy of what happened after Adam's lineage.
Genesis 5:1-31 can be summed up in this sentence:
"When [Name 1] had lived X years, he fathered [Name 2]. [Name 1] lived afterward for Y years and had other sons and daughers. Thus all the days of [Name 1] were X+Y, and he died."
That's pretty much it. Over and over again.
Now for the ancient Hebrews, genealogy was exceptionally important. They were a collectivist society, and knowing from whom you were descended was very important. We, being an individualist society, care little for such genealogies. So it is hard for us to imagine why they would spend the time, year after year, repeating genealogies to their children for memory and safe-keeping.
I have little interest in genealogy of any sort (mine or others), so we will not go into that. Instead, there are two things of interest in these first 31 verses: (1) How did everyone live so long?, and (2) Is this list exhaustive or partial?
(1) Genesis Life-Spans
The life-spans in Genesis are a mystery to many readers. We have people living nearly a millennia and fathering children long after the oldest person on record has ever known to have lived. Skeptics point to this as a sign of mythology and legend in Genesis. They point out that Sumerian lists of ancient kings also showed similar millennial-long lifespans (though Christians would reply that this is actually evidence supporting the long life-spans of Genesis rather than denying it). So what explanations are there?
In my research, there are five explanations I have read about the life-spans in Genesis, two of which I reject and three of which seem plausible:
 Because the water cycle had not yet started and the earth instead had a canopy of misty water feeding it, this somehow changed the way in which the body reacts.
Though this is a very common answer, I think we can wholeheartedly throw this one out as a potential answer. First of all, as I discussed earlier in this series, it is a misreading of the text to say that there was no rain on the Earth. Genesis 2 does not say that. It switches from the Hebrew word 'erets to the local geography term of sadeh, or field. Furthermore the term eden, as we discussed, implies a flat steppe or plain -- again, a local region. It is true that (as proponents of this argument say) we have no Biblical pre-flood mention of rain; but then again, we have no Biblical pre-flood mention of using the bathroom either...that is poor evidence that it did not exist! Also please note that we have no Biblical mention of anything being watered by a mist except the Garden of Eden itself. So it is interpretation--not fact--which says that this "misty watering" was a global phenomenon.
Even if it was a global phenomenon, I have yet to hear a plausible physics or chemistry explanation how a water canopy would make our bodies cease to age, even if it did exist.
 The word "year" in the first sagas of Genesis had a different meaning than it does today.
This one, first proposed by St. Augustine (in which he argued that each year was a month) also should be rejected, in my opinion. There is simply no internal argument for making this assumption from the text, and it seems difficult to believe that the word meaning for "year" would change when moving from Genesis 5 into Genesis 6. Further, when God sets the maximum lifespan to 120 in Genesis 6:3, it certainly implies that lives have been longer before, does it not? (FYI--Modern doctors generally agree that modern man can only live to be about 120 years old.)
The big problem with Augustine's line of logic is that if you do the math, that means some of these people were having children when they were barely out of diapers (5 or 6 years old). That seems a bit difficult to believe (and gross).
 Textual error.
Slightly more plausible is the potential for a copyist's error. As I have pointed out several times before, though the word of God in its original autograph is inerrant, this does not protect later manuscripts from containing copying errors. Some Christians shrug and argue that this is exactly what has happened here -- somewhere in the nearly millennia-long period between Moses authoring Genesis and the Septuagint scholars translating the Old Testament into Greek, a copying error resulted in a misunderstanding of the numbers. Likewise, some argue that the numbers that Moses used to record this data were from a different numerical system and thus simply do not relate to what we use today.
Though this is a possible solution, I find it unsatisfying in at least one regard: it does not explain God's command in Genesis 6:3, limiting the lifespan of man. This seems to me to clearly imply that the Bible really does mean that man lived much longer than 120 years before Genesis 6.
The next two, to me, seem far more plausible:
 Genetic purity allowed longer lifespans and only in successive years, due to evolutionary copying errors, have we begun to age.
This one seems somewhat more plausible. Scientists researching the aging of the human body are beginning to form a consensus that extreme lifespans are, in fact, possible. It is becoming noted that the destruction of the cell due to aging is actually not a requirement of the laws of physics, but rather are due to environmental and genetic factors. Some (like Dr. Rose from UC-Irvine) argue that a restrictive paleo-diet would eliminate the impurities and free-radical production which damage our cells and cause aging. Others (like Dr. de Grey from SENS Foundation) believe that production of telomerase--which is present early in our life but "turns off" as we age--is a protectant of our DNA and would stop cell death. Scientists at Yeshiva University have been able to block the aging process of mice livers almost completely by eliminating all toxins from the mouse. (In old age, the mice organs were working just as effectively as an animal a quarter of their age.) Indeed, some such experiments have extended laboratory mice lives from two years to as many as five, mostly through excessively low-calorie but high-vitamin diets. (If a similar effect were had in humans, then the average lifespan would jump from 80 to 400, just from this diet-based experiment.)
If any of these theories are true, then one could certainly posit a scenario in which early man, either due to genetics or extreme diet, lived exceptional lifespans such as those recorded in Genesis and in other ancient documents (like the Sumerian king list). Martin Luther argued exactly this, saying that not only man's bodies but also the plants and food that they ate were of a "golden age" quality compared with the "mud" quality of our diets today.
This is probably the most common theory among Christians which I can find today, and certainly one cannot argue against it at all. It is internally consistent, scientifically plausible, and textually sound.
 These generations are not of people, but of families and dynasties.
A less popular--but also very plausible--scenario is that these are not individual lifespans but family dynasties. In other words, Adam's line lasted 930 years and then Seth's line broke off of it and lasted 807, forming Enosh's line after 105 years, etc.
This theory is based upon accepting the more conventional archaeological evidence showing man emerging some 50,000 years ago. Under this concept, these 31 verses of Genesis tell the story of how man got from the Stone Age down to the time of Moses in 1450 BC. So each of these are entire dynasties that are remembered, and either the ages are completely symbolic or reference the family line rather than the life of a single ancestor.
This too is possible, though it seems the word choice is rather odd. It seems that they would say something like, "The generation of Enosh had lived 90 years and fathered the generation of Kenan..." But I cannot rule out the possibility of this.
I will leave it to the reader to choose which of these seem most likely, though it seems to me only explanations 3-5 hold any sort of water, and 4 and 5 are the strongest explanations.
(2) Is the list exhaustive?
Key for those wanting to date the Biblical events of Genesis is an understanding of whether the lists of genealogies are exhaustive. The general opinion of young earth creationists, dating back to Bishop Ussher, is that the list is exhaustive: the Bible lists all of the people who lived from Adam to Noah. This is, clearly, the most direct reading of the text, and no assumptions are needed to validate it.
On the other hand, many other Old Testament scholars argue that this is not true. Some say that the lists of Genesis 4 and 5 are in fact the same, using different spellings of names (Cain=Kenan, Mahujael=Mahalalel, Irad=Jared, Methushael=Methuselah, etc.).
Others point out that the lists in Genesis 4 and 5 are exactly ten generations long; this was common in Near Eastern genealogies at the time, as we have Mesopotamian and Sumerian lists also of ten kings in length. Omitting names from a genealogy seems strange to us now, but that is because we are a journalistic society with easy access to writing; as Gleason Archer points out, in illiterate cultures it is very common to leave names out of genealogical lists in order to make it fit a memorizable pattern. (For example, Matthew 1 appears to leave out a few names in order to fit the structure for memorization that he is creating.) This made it much easier to pass along the saga orally over time. If it took 1,000 generations from Adam to Moses, no one would be able to memorize this list and recite it orally! But by shortening it to the 10 key people who everyone remembers from other common stories, then it makes it easy to trace your ancestry in this way.
Notewothy Near Eastern scholar K.A. Kitchen further supports this theory, pointing out that the word "begat" is misunderstood today: we read "X begat Y" as meaning "X is the biological father of Y"; in ancient cultures, however, this was read as "X is the ancestor of Y." This is common even in modern Arabic tribes today, who frequently fit their genealogies into short, memorable lists and often skip several generations if needed.
Not being an expert, I cannot of course say which view is true. Reading the literature, it seems that both believer and non-believer archaeologists agree that ancient genealogies were almost never exhaustive and often skipped many generations. If this is true of the Genesis genealogies, then of course they are useless for our modern-day desire of dating Genesis events. (Though they still retain the original value as intended, which was to demonstrate that Noah was a descendent from the original Adam of the Garden, not from Cain's line in Genesis 4.)
However, many believers do accept that the list "must" be exhaustive. I can neither prove nor disprove it: the Bible makes no claims either for or against this theory. So while it does not seem to agree with the historians, it may well be true.
As for me, I can easily accept either; but the objective evidence seems overwhelmingly in favor of the "generations were skipped" argument, at least from my eyes. But I in no way deny that this is certainly debatable, and as I always say on this blog: "In essentials, unity; in debatable things, liberty; in all things, love." So feel free to disagree on that one. It need not divide the unity of believers.
Getting to the Point (Gen 5:29-6:8)
Leaving behind these side-issues which so interest us today, let us return to the actual point of this entire passage of Scripture. Why was this Saga handed down around campfires for generations, and why did the Spirit tell Moses to record it in the Bible?
They key almost certainly comes in verses 29-32, with the birth of Noah. As his father Lamech says, Noah is the one who is to bring relief to the people. This Saga exists as a method of showing that Noah is descended from Adam. In fact, when taken with Genesis 4 before it, it almost seems to draw a contrast and be clearly identifying that Noah was from the line of Seth rather than Cain. Why would we care? I think we find out in the next section.
"When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, 'My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.' The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown. The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth...But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. (Gen 6:1-5,8)"
Oh, what a fascinating piece of Scripture this is! "Sons of God" mating with "daughters of men"; great warriors called the Nephilim; evil-doings so bad that God wiped out everything and started fresh. Why? What is behind these events?
Almost every theory on this topic is pure speculation, so let me say first the facts:
1. The "sons of God" (ben elohiym) intermarried with the daughters of men. (6:1-2)
2. The lifespans of men drop immediately to 120 years. (6:3)
3. The offspring of this intermarriage (the Nephilim) were mighty warriors and evil. (6:4-5)
4. God decided to wipe out mankind as a result of this sin. (6:6-7)
5. Noah found God's favor, which will lead us to the next Saga. (6:8)
That's it. Those are the only "facts." Everything else is interpretation, and thus could be wrong. So please take all of what is to follow with a grain of salt: it is my speculation and the speculation of others only. It could all be incorrect.
There are really only two common theories to explain these eight verses:
[A]. The "sons of God" are fallen angels, demons who intermarried with men.
This theory is relatively old, showing up in the non-canonical "Book of Enoch," which was written about a century before Jesus. The argument is based upon the usage of the term "sons of God" to refer to angels in Job 1:6 and 2:1, and the translation of one ancient manuscript, the Codex Alexandrinus, which uses the term "angels of God." The theory is that this intercourse gave birth to giants, and thus this sin angered God.
Some say that these were regular men possessed by demons, since Jesus says in the New Testament that angels cannot marry.
[B]. The "sons of God" are the line of Seth, who intermarried with the descendents of Cain despite his banishment.
This theory is the older of the two, having shown up in a Dead Sea Scroll fragment, the writings of most ancient rabbis, and Christians like Augustine of Hippo, Julius Africanus, John Calvin, and Clement.
Both of these properly explain facts 1, 3, and 4 above; but neither explicitly explains fact 2 above. Why does the Bible refer to lifespans dropping down to 120 after this intermarriage, but before the evil starts and He decides to wipe off the face of the Earth? Why not just have the Flood, rather than drop lifespans, see how it goes for a while, and THEN have the Flood?
I wish to add another speculative solution, a variant of both of the above, which I think explains it.
Recall that last week, I proposed two alternate theories to the solution of "Who are the tribe of Nod?" question. I proposed that the tribe of Nod may have been either sub-human, soulless Neanderthals or the fallen angels. I based this speculation on noting that the traditional explanation (that Cain's wife was one of Adam's other daughters) was strange, because Cain is (a) fearful of the people of that region--implying a physical risk, (b) Cain is being banished (so what did the daughters do to get banished?), and (c) the fact that the "people of Nod" have a name implies that they are a tribe, not just a few relatives. I further noted that the word "Nod" meant 'wanderer' or 'nomad', and that God cursed Cain to becoming exactly that. I also noted modern genetic evidence which says that humans interbred with Neanderthals until eventually the Neanderthals were wiped out.
Based on all of this, I proposed that the wife of Cain and the people of Nod were nomadic Neanderthals or fallen angels, and Cain's intermarriage with them would in fact have altered the genetic code of his descendents (as our modern geneticists say actually happened with regard to the Neanderthal-H.Sapian interbreeding).
So, fast forward untold generations (at least 10 but, as we discussed earlier, maybe many more).
Now we have the descendents of Cain being a mixture of homo sapian and Neanderthal DNA (or H.Sapian and fallen-angel DNA), while the line of Seth has remained pure--the same as in the Garden with Adam. Then, these descendents of Seth's line and the descendents of Cain's line start intermarrying. What would the result be?
The genetic codes would intermingle, and the purity of genetics of the "sons of God" from the Garden would be lost.
I propose that this is exactly what happened. The lines of Seth and Cain rejoined, and thus the purity of DNA from the Garden was lost. Now all that was left was the mixed-blood human DNA with half-human DNA (the other half being either Neanderthal or demon)...which I propose is when our genetic purity broke down, modern aging began, and our lifespans shortened to 120 years.
This explains everything above--why the Bible records lifespans dropping as soon as intermarriage occurs, why God became angry, and why God decided to punish man with a Flood. The man-made DNA He had designed was polluted, having intermarried with the people of Nod--who (whether they were Neanderthals or demons) were also likely wilder, more aggressive, more barbaric, and more primative than the pure line of Adam.
This is speculation, of course...and I don't know enough about genetics to say whether it is even plausible. But it does explain all of the evidence above.
Speculation aside, what is the point of this Saga? Why was it handed down to Moses and why did he record it as Scripture? This Saga exists for one primary reason: (1) to show that Noah was a descendent from Seth, not Cain; and (2) to show that the rebellion of man in intermarrying with the Nephilim polluted man's bloodline, resulting in a purge we now call the Flood.