Bible as Literature: Seth’s Genealogy and Longevity Narratives (Genesis 5)

Genesis 5 extends the genealogy of Adam’s line through Seth and serves as a counterpart to Genesis 4, which offers Adam’s genealogy through Cain. As I pointed out in my last post, the two genealogies serve as an antithesis to each other, contrasting the corrupt bringers of civilization versus the righteous worshippers of God.

A major difference in this narrative is that it includes the ages of Adam’s line through Seth, whereas Cain’s genealogy did not include their lifespan, a detail that can be easily overlooked. The ages of the characters extend from 300+ years to 900+ years. It’s easy to laugh at such a tale given that with all our modern medicine and technology our average life expectancy is only 78.8 years and the oldest recorded age in modern times is 127 (although this remains unverified). I, however, think it is important to understand why they might have written such a tale.

Some understand these stories as literal events (i.e. there really was a time when people lived to be 900 years old). I don’t believe we’re supposed to understand these stories literally. Instead these stories fit into the tradition of longevity myths, which exist in other cultures of the ancient world. It is important to understand the social reality of an Ancient Israelite. They lived in a world where people often died young, many didn’t survive beyond childhood, and still other children didn’t even make it beyond birth at astronomically higher rates than we experience now thanks to modern technology and science. This is why I suspect such stories are ubiquitous across ancient cultures. These stories are attempts to look back at a mythical Golden Age when people and their offspring lived longer lives. Notice how this is the complete opposite of their historical reality.

Stories are a way of making sense of an often confusing and frustrating present. As I suggested in my earlier post, the Eden Narrative is a tale about losing Utopia to explain the order of things; it is a storytellers attempt to address why present life is so difficult by looking at what came before. Some might dismiss the usefulness of such tales by pointing out that these sort of storytellers are spreading lies in order to experience some sort of emotional comfort and by turning to a better, more satisfying imaginary past it prevents them from working to improve their unsatisfactory present. This may be true, but it ignores that the value of reading such tales for us is the underlying psychological truth it reveals.

People often do romanticize the past as a way of coping with the present. So at the very least it tells us something about a psychological facet of human beings and thus ourselves, and what literature at its best is supposed to do is get us to reflect about ourselves. We all have moments where we romanticize the past. Sure, we might not be telling ourselves that we once had great grandparents that lived to be 800 years old, but in a more prosaic way we often think of the past better than it was and I suspect that very often this is in response to some unsatisfying aspect of our present.

There seems to be an overlap between Cain’s genealogy and Seth’s genealogy (in the names Enoch, Methusael/Methusaleh, Lamech, even Irad and Jared seem similar to me), which suggests that possibly at one point there was just one genealogy which gotten combined and confused over time and became separate traditions. We are told a curious incident in which Enoch is taken away by God. Nothing more is mentioned of this incident after, but it seems to hint at additional oral tales that once circulated about Enoch that didn’t make it into the Bible; it also led to later tales to be written about Enoch in apocryphal books such as the Book of Enoch. Another interesting break in the genealogy is when Lamech says of his son, Noah:

“This same shall comfort us concerning our work and toil of our hands, because of the ground which the Lord hath cursed.” -5:29, KJV

“This one will provide us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands, out of the very soil which the Lord placed under a curse.” – 5:29, JPS

This is a generalized statement that Lamech makes about the birth of children. He seems to be saying that even though the ground has been cursed and life is now hard, alluding backwards to Genesis 3, it is the birth of children which brings us comfort. Likewise, I would suggest it is no coincidence that the statement is made about Noah whose story will be featured in the next chapter. This statement hints Noah and his sons will be the comfort to his father (and forefathers, also not a coincidence this line is being added to a genealogy) in so far as he will continue the existence of humanity and all its hard work and toil after most of it is destroyed in the Great Flood. Lastly, we need to note it is Lamech who is speaking these lines. In Cain’s genealogy, it is his descendant named Lamech who also speaks; this other Lamech does so concerning his victory in murdering another human being. Cain’s Lamech brags about his own prowess and ability. Seth’s Lamech puts his hopes in his children, not himself, and looks to be comforted, not avenged. These lines serve as antithetical visions of the world that further contrasts the two genealogical lines.

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3 thoughts on “Bible as Literature: Seth’s Genealogy and Longevity Narratives (Genesis 5)

  1. I enjoyed reading this post. Many of the points you made are similar to those discussed in an article I read earlier today on the benefits of the arts and humanities and why myths/stories are created.

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