William Henry Green's 1890 Bibliotecha Sacra essay on “Primeval Chronology” has been a touchstone of evangelical biblical scholarship for over a century, its arguments regularly cited or alluded to by scholars dealing with the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11. In response to skeptical challenges to the historicity of Genesis, Green attempted to show how the Bible could be reconciled to chronologies from other ancient sources that indicate a much longer human history than the Bible does.
Green argued that there are gaps in the genealogies, and therefore room in the white space between names to add thousands of years to the Bible's chronology. The genealogies omit “unimportant names,” and hence are not complete. Because the writer of Genesis didn't intend to provide a detailed, precise chronology, the discrepancy between the chronology derived from Genesis and other ancient chronologies doesn't refute inerrancy. Since the “Scriptures furnish no data for a chronological computation prior to the life of Abraham,” the Bible cannot be accused of teaching chronological error.
In a recent article in the Westminster Theological Journal, Rev. Jeremy Sexton challenges Green's arguments. (Full disclosure: Jeremy is a friend.)
Green argued, partly from the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1, that biblical genealogies are not necessarily complete, but are “abbreviated by the omission of unimportant names.” The Hebrew verb yalad (beget) doesn't prove otherwise. Though often used to mean “beget (a son),” it can be used when more remote ancestors are in view. In Deuteronomy 4:25, for instance, uses yalad explicitly to describe the begetting of sons and grandsons.
Sexton concedes both of these points: Some genealogies do indeed have gaps and leave out names; and yalad can be used to indicate a relation between an ancestor and a remote descendant. Neither of these concessions, however, touch on the question of chronology. A genealogical gap isn't the same as a chronological one, and the possibility that yalad can be used to describe the birth of more remote ancestors doesn't mean that the verb means this in Genesis 5 and 11.
Regarding the first point, Green assumes that a gap in genealogy implies a gap in chronology: “Green assumes, without explicit argument, that chronological gaps are a corollary of genealogical gaps. He states that if the author of Genesis had intended to provide a gapless chronology, then ‘he must of course have aimed to make his list complete. The omission of even a single name would create an error.'” Sexton rightly argues that this is a non sequitur: “an unbroken chronology does not logically or semantically require an unbroken genealogy. As long as Seth was born when Adam was 130, and Enosh was born when Seth was 105, and Kenan was born when Enosh was 90 (whether Kenan was Enosh’s son, grandson, great-grandson, or great-great-grandson), and so on, the chronology would remain intact.” Gaps at one level do not necessarily imply gaps at another level.
Even Green, Sexton argues, conceded that yalad refers to “the birthing process” or “the actual delivery” of descendants. Genesis 5 and 11 both record the age of an ancestor at the time of the birth of the descendant, and even on Green's interpretation, this means that “A descendant was ‘brought to birth' at the specified age of each patriarch in Gen 5 and 11.”
Green avoids the chronological implications by inserting unnamed descendants between the named father and the the named descendant. Thus, Genesis 5:9 means, on Green's interpretation, “When Enosh had lived 90 years, he had [the son from whom sprang] Kenan.” Green doesn't think we know the biological father of Kenan, nor how much time passed between Enosh and Kenan. Kenan “could have been born thousands of years later.” In Green's own words, “When it is said, for example, that ‘Enosh lived ninety years and begat Kenan,' the well-established usage of the word ‘begat' makes this statement equally true and equally accordant with analogy, whether Kenan was an immediate or a remote descendant of Enosh; whether Kenan was himself born, when Enosh was ninety years of age or one was born from whom Kenan sprang.”
This is “counterintuitive.” Besides, Sexton says, “whether Kenan was an immediate or a remote descendant of Enosh, the text says that when Enosh was 90, he had Kenan, not Kenan’s ancestor.” Grammatically, this is the obvious reading, since direct objects recipients of a verb's action. Enosh acts - begetting - and the object of that begetting is Kenan (not someone else). Sexton observes that no standard Hebrew lexicon hints that yalad can describe “the birth of an unstated object instead of its grammatical object. . . . Nowhere does yalad (or either of its Greek counterparts, tikto and gennao ) take a remote descendant as its object while describing the birth o f the remote descendant’s anonymous ancestor.”
Green's theory doesn't explain why the author of Genesis included ages and numbers at all. The author didn't need to include numbers. No other genealogy from the ancient world provides such chronological indications. Why did he do it? The author of Genesis perhaps had many reasons to include ages - to show declining lifespans after the flood, perhaps to indicate the distance between primeval human life and his present. But these other intentions do not cancel out an intention to record a chronology. We may speculate concerning other motives, but recondite intentions shouldn't undermine what is on the surface of the text.
Sexton concludes, “If we suppose that the genealogies in Gen 5 and 11 do not communicate chronology, then the possibility of a chronogenealogy becomes difficult to imagine, for ‘no mode of speech could be contrived to give successive dates to Bible generations if those tables in Genesis be denied as such'” (quoting Smith Bartlett Goodenow's 1894 response to Green).
(Sexton, “Who Was Born When Enosh Was 90? A Semantic Reevaluation of William Henry Green's Chronological Gaps,” WTJ 77 : 193-218.)