Can We Trust the Genealogies in Genesis?

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Are the genealogies in Genesis trustworthy enough to build an accurate chronology?

My question concerns the chronology of the genealogies in Genesis. Recently I was rebuffed by someone concerning them. This person claimed that you can’t use the genealogies to create a timeline because they are inherently inaccurate. Their reasoning is that unless each son mentioned was born on the father’s birthday of the year mentioned, there were months, weeks, and days of time missing between each ‘begat’. In other words, if Seth begat Enos at 105 yrs of age, he most likely was not exactly 105 yrs old, but more likely 105 yrs, several months, several weeks, and several days old. Therefore when you begin adding up the years given in the genealogies, you are constantly missing these extra months of time. Therefore, the genealogies cannot be used for timeframes for anything.
I thought this sounded like good reasoning. I had no answer. I’ve searched the website, and I’ve not come to any conclusions. Are the genealogies even used for timelines like Ussher’s?
Thank you.
—K.C., U.S.

Thank you for contacting Answers in Genesis. What was being discussed between you and this person is the difference between an “absolute” and a “standard” chronology. It is true that an “absolute” chronology cannot be ascertained, and there would be slight variation within the chronologies, but nothing too significant as measured by tens of years—and especially nothing remotely close to the 14 or so billions of years that atheists and old-earth creationists advocate with regards to the age of the universe!

Popular chronologists such as Archbishop James Ussher and Dr. Floyd Jones considered such things in their chronologies. For example, in The Chronology of the Old Testament (2nd printing, 1993, p. 21) Dr. Jones says:

Object Lessons

I was travelling through hill country with my daughter and her 3 sons, and made mention of the shale layers exposed by the excavations for the right of way. I noted how much erosion had occurred in the few decades since those layers had been exposed, giving evidence for recent deposition, and a global flood. The boys are new Christians, and I’m thankful that I can reinforce their faith with such evidence. They are in 2nd grade (twins), and 4th grade, and I have shown them many creationist resources over the past year. They have the ICR videos of Marty's Adventures, and already understand that creation according to Genesis (& the whole Bible), is a far better way to understand the world around us. I also give them Answers for Kids from my Answers magazine. They love dinosaurs, and already understand that dinosaurs and man were created on the Sixth Day, and that Noah had representatives of all the dinosaur kinds on the Ark. Thank you for providing such great resources.

—T.K., U.S.

A Better Understanding

I would like to thank Ken Ham and the Answers in Genesis ministry for all the work that they are doing, and I believe it is fantastic that some people are actually standing up for Christianity in an ever-increasing secular world. You have opened my eyes to the lie that is evolution and as a result of the literal interpretation of Genesis, to a better understanding of suffering in the world.

I hope our Christian leaders . . . start to do the same, in order for us to answer our critics and proclaim the Gospel. Once again I would like to thank you and I pray to the Lord that you are successful in your work. God bless you all.

—S.M., Scotland

It will be noted that a goal is that of a “standard” chronology, not an “absolute” chronology. As Scripture normally records only entire years for a given event and not the days and months, summing the years may yield an inaccurate total because the partial years were not included. After twelve years of examining numerous arguments, date placements, regnal data, ancient inscriptions, royal annals, eclipse calculations, etc., this researcher has concluded that any such assignment is not realistic of any chronology of prolonged duration. Even the serious notion of an absolute chronology stretches credulity and borders on the ludicrous.

This is why scholars such as Jones and Ussher used “standard” chronologies. And like any serious chronology researcher, they would recognize that slight errors may accrue in a few thousand years. However, there are correction factors as well that can be taken into account. In the preface of Ussher's The Annals of the World, page 8, he states:

Grant this one thing (and this is a most reasonable assumption), that the holy writers had this very purpose in mind when recording the years of the world in their various places with such diligence. They sought to reveal to us the history of the world that otherwise no one could know. This, I say, being granted, we affirm that the Holy Spirit has anticipated this doubt. He has started and ended each of the periods on which a chronological reckoning of time depends, and added the very month and day. For example, the Israelites left Egypt on the fifteenth day of the first month. (Numbers 33:3) In the 480th year after their exodus, in the second month on the second day, Solomon began to build the temple. (1 Kings 6:1) The months and days given for the start and end of the period show that eleven months and fourteen days are to be taken away. The period is not 480 whole years, but only 479 years and 16 days (2 Chronicles 3:2).

Likewise the time periods from Abraham to the Exodus and from the reign of Solomon to the destruction of Jerusalem are fixed to the very day. On page 74 Ussher notes under the year 791:

SK—There was an eclipse of the sun of about ten digits that year on the 24th day of June, on the Feast of Pentecost. (Twelve digits indicated a total eclipse, eleven digits would mean that eleven twelfths of the sun’s disk was covered. Editor.) Another eclipse occurred of almost twelve digits, twenty years later, on November 8th, 771 BC, during the Feast of Tabernacles. A third eclipse of over eleven digits happened the next year on May 5th, 770 BC during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. It was to these events that the following prophecy of Amos referred, as he stated: (Amos 8:8–10)

[T]he sun shall set at noonday and I will bring darkness upon the earth in a clear day. I will turn your festivals into mourning and all your solemn songs into lamentations.

Suppose for the period before Abraham there was an error of one or more years. Thus, it would shift the dates accordingly for all events and festivals for Israel. Then, the eclipse would not happen on the Feast of Pentecost, June 24, 791 BC, but would miss it by one or more days. Hence, we conclude that the mathematical expectation for the sum of the years from Adam to Abraham is correct.

There is much more to this than these brief details.You can see that Ussher’s research involved a great deal of careful scholarship. When you read Ussher’s work it will become easier to understand how he did things.

At AiG, we often appeal to Dr. Jones’s and Archbishop Ussher’s works and view them as an authority on the subject of standard chronologies, but we would never see their works approaching the level of Scripture. However, their meticulous work should not be overlooked either.

When you get the opportunity to share some of these thoughts with this person, you may want to encourage him to get Ussher’s extensive work: The Annals of the World (now in paperback) and/or Dr. Jones’s The Chronology of the Old Testament (or the discounted hardback set of these two), so they can understand this issue better, as well as other minor criticisms such as calendar changes and so on.

With kindness in Christ,

Bodie Hodge and Larry Pierce

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