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Genesis 5:1-32

The second chapter of Genesis begins with the first verse of our chapter 5, “These are the generations of…” being, as we said, the section divider in Genesis. Remember, the toledot or “generations” of Adam will be, as throughout Genesis, an account of the named individual’s descendants, not of the individual himself. The chapter about the generations of Adam will be about Adam’s descendants.

“Seed,” “descendants,” and “lineage” are a central theme, perhaps the central theme of the book of Genesis, as the chapter title, “These are the generations of” indicates. The book is concerned with the progress of the seed of the woman, first mentioned in 3:15, and as we proceed through the book the identity of the seed is progressively identified: who the seed is and who it is not. It is not Cain, it is Seth; it is not Japheth or Ham, it is Shem; it is not Ishmael, it is Isaac; it is not Esau, it is Jacob, and so on. Genesis is, in this way, a messianic history. We are already, as it were, on our way to the birth of Jesus Christ! Given this fact, two features of its genealogies are particularly important to recognize.

The first is that the “natural” seed, the son the ancient near eastern reader would expect to be the seed, almost never proves to be the chosen descendant. The law of primogeniture — that the eldest is the one who carries the family identity forward — so sacred a principle in the ancient world, is regularly violated. This is one of the first demonstrations of the fact that salvation is by grace, by a discriminating divine election, and not by nature or custom or personal identity. Cain was Adam’s firstborn, but he was rejected and Seth chosen instead. Cain was not the seed. Ishmael was Abraham’s firstborn but Isaac was the child of the promise. Ishmael was not the seed. Esau was Isaac’s firstborn but his younger brother Jacob bore the family seed into the future, and so on.

Second, and perhaps for this reason, the genealogy of the rejected seed is consistently given first in the book of Genesis. We’re going to get a lot of genealogies along the way. But we get Cain’s genealogy in the second half of our chapter 4 before we are given the genealogy of the chosen seed. We will get Japheth and Ham’s genealogy before that of Shem, Ishmael’s genealogy before Isaac’s, Esau’s genealogy before Jacob’s, and so on. We do get the rejected son’s genealogy — the Bible is not uninterested in that part of humanity that lies outside the stream of redemptive history; they too are God’s image bearers and, as we have already seen, are objects of his kindness and care — but those genealogies are cul de sacs, dead ends, and do not take us anywhere. [Wenham, 97]

Now, before we begin, a word about the genealogy that we are about to read. It is nowadays, as you may know, a matter of contention among evangelicals, that is among those who believe the Bible to be the Word of God, as to what this genealogy might teach us about the age of the earth, about the difference between human life before and after the flood, and about what literary conventions might have been employed in the Bible that are consistent with its being the infallible Word of God. It would take all my time this morning to canvas the various opinions about this genealogy and the arguments for and against each of them. Moreover, were I to do so, I would leave most of you confused and all of you unedified. So let me say just a few things briefly and then we’ll move on.

First, biblical genealogies are often stylized as this one certainly seems to be. There is a recurring pattern of words identifying each father and son, as you will see. But from time to time the pattern is deviated from. Those deviations highlight the most important figures in the succession, especially in this case Enoch and Noah. [Sarna, 41]

There are ten generations between Adam and Noah, just as there are ten generations listed in the genealogy of Shem in 11:10-26. That is, the book gives us ten generations before the flood and ten after. Ten is a number symbolizing completeness in the Bible. Think of the ten plagues or the Ten Commandments. In other words, we seem to be given here a summary, whether or not we are intended to believe that the genealogy includes every generation that lived between Adam and Noah. You know how important the number seven is in the Bible, also a number symbolic of completeness or finality. Enoch was the seventh from Adam, a fact that did not escape Jude, who mentions that fact in his NT letter. It was a familiar way of calling attention to the importance of Enoch in this longer list of individuals.

Finally, what are we to make of the immensely long life-spans of the fathers and sons mentioned in chapter 5? Did Adam live virtually into the lifetime of Noah? A great deal of fascinating research has gone into the study of that question, but no answer has emerged that is entirely convincing. We know that numbers often have a symbolic value in the Bible; we know that very large numbers are at least sometimes not to be taken literally, though Bible-believing scholars may disagree as to the reason why. We also know that the numbers of the Sumerian King List for royal figures who lived before the flood are fantastically larger than for the kings that lived after the flood. The biblical numbers are much, much smaller by the way. One Sumerian list includes eight antediluvian kings who reigned a total of 241,000 years! In another list ten kings reigned a total of 432,000 years. We have in our chapter 5 a total of 1,656 years from beginning to end. In one of the Mesopotamian lists there are likewise ten names prior to the flood, the last also being the hero of the flood. [Sarna, 40-41] It is hard for a Christian to resist the conclusion that the pagan sources retain an echo of the real history. What we have here is undoubtedly history; the question is precisely what specifics we are being taught about that history. We can to this point only give a partial answer to that question. As one scholar puts it, if there is some meaning conveyed by the structure of the genealogy or by the numbers of years given in it, we haven’t discovered its secret. [Sarna, 41] Nor do we know, if the numbers are to be taken literally, precisely what that means for the history of mankind.

Text Comment

v.1       The reference to a book is the first evidence that Moses may have incorporated previously written sources into his narrative. The Hebrew word, here translated “book,” specifically refers to a written record. [Sarna, 41]

v.3       Man participates in the creative activity of God by the transference of the divine image to each succeeding generation. In other words, God’s creation continued by means of human reproduction. The fact that this is mentioned in regard to Seth but not Cain suggests that the real and ultimate future of the divine image will come from Seth’s line, not Cain’s. It is the godly line that will fulfill God’s purpose in the creation of mankind. [Waltke, 110, 113]

As God named Adam, so Adam named Seth. In this way too Adam is imitating God himself. That Adam named his son is a feature of the genealogy not repeated until the end, in v. 28 where we read that Lamech named Noah. This mention of fathers giving names serves as a literary framework or inclusio, tying the entire section together.

v.5       The recurring refrain “and he died” reminds us that even the chosen line, the line of the seed, still stands under the curse pronounced on Adam after his sin. The reign of death is universal. Here begins the melancholy routine of human life: birth, lifetime, and then death.

v.24     The reference to Enoch, as we said, deviates from the pattern of the genealogy and by so doing draws attention to his righteousness. [Waltke, 114] Enoch was notable for this even among this line of godly fathers and sons. To “walk with God” suggests a life of intimate fellowship with God. It serves as a reminder that “intimacy with God” was as much the essence of true godliness in the OT as it is in the NT. And the unusual conclusion of his life teaches us that the last word for those who walk with God will be life, not death. [114-115] Enoch lived a shorter life, but then he didn’t die like all the others! The Hebrew phrase, “God took him” is used again in 2 Kings 2 to describe Elijah’s translation to heaven. Hebrews 11:5 confirms this interpretation. It is worth pointing out that in one Sumerian list of antediluvian kings and another of antediluvian sages, the seventh man in the list seems to be a distorted memory of Enoch — a king or sage who was especially intimate with the gods and noteworthy for his wisdom and in the latter case ascended to heaven. [Wenham, 128] That would be a fact humanity would remember, don’t you think?

v.28     We won’t get the rest of Noah’s genealogical information until 9:28. The account of the flood is an interpolation within the life of Noah. It is important, however, to notice that Noah was the only father in the genealogy of Adam who had no daughters. This is important because of what happens next. The believing line was corrupted through its daughters and Noah had none. His family remained uncorrupted at least in part by that means.

What is clear and a matter of emphasis in the text is that these two genealogies, that of Cain and that of Seth, are more than merely a list of descendants. They represent two trajectories of human life, one ordered by unbelief and rebellion against God and the other ordered by faith and the knowledge of God. Indeed, it is interesting and important that, while Cain was Adam’s first son, Cain’s genealogy begins with him, not with his father, and Adam’s genealogy passes over Cain to begin with Seth. Cain is given his own genealogy, God cares about his line, but in the history of salvation, in the line of faith and divine election, Cain is irrelevant. Cain was the progenitor of another line, a line that eventually came to nothing at the flood.

The text indicates that the genealogy of chapter 5 is a succession of believers in several ways. The last sentence of our chapter 4 separates the two lists and suggests in a none too subtle way that those about to be named were among those who called upon the Lord. Seth himself was the son of Eve’s faith in God, as we read in 4:25, and both he and his son we read in v. 26 were among those who called on the name of the Lord. Then, of course, luminaries in the list of Adam’s descendants, Enoch and Noah, are identified explicitly as righteous men.

What is more, there is an absolute distinction drawn between these two successions of human life. The self-loving Cain is the counter-poise to the God-loving Seth. The line of Cain descends into human alienation and ever increasing violence. Cain, the murderer of one man, sired Lamech the mass-murderer. The line of Adam through Seth links the founder of the human race with its re-founder, Noah. [Waltke, 112] Enoch, the seventh in the line of Adam, is utterly unlike Lamech, the seventh in Cain’s life. He walked with God, while Lamech boasted of his violence. The Lamech in Adam’s line acknowledges the judgment of the Lord, yearns for deliverance from it, and looks to God’s gift of his son, Noah, a dramatic contrast to the other Lamech’s arrogance and stupidity.

What we have here, then, are two different populations whose lives are based on two diametrically different principles. The rest of the Bible will proceed on the assumption that all people fall into one or the other of these two groups: that represented by the genealogy of Cain and that represented by the genealogy of Seth. There are in this world sons of God on the one hand and, on the other, sons of this world, or sons of the Devil, or sons of disobedience, however they may be described from time to time.

The first genealogy tells the story of the escalation of wickedness and unbelief and rebellion against God culminating in the vicious self-worship of Lamech. The second genealogy tells the story of faithful men followed by faithful men and culminating in the man who would, literally, by God’s grace, save the human race alive when God’s judgment fell upon it.

It is the transcultural and trans-temporal nature of these two lists, the way they reveal the permanent bifurcation of humanity, its division into believers and unbelievers, that makes this material so important and so instructive. That it comes at the very beginning of the Bible teaches us to understand the human race and human history in these genealogical terms.

The point is not simply that the world is divided into those who love the true God and those who do not, between those who believe in him and those who do not, between those who aspire to obey him and those who do not. The point is also that the principle of generational succession is fundamental to this division. Cain didn’t produce some good sons and some bad, he produced a line of consistently unbelieving men who passed their unbelief and disobedience on to their progeny. And in the same way, Seth produced a line of believing men who passed their faith on to their sons.

Now, to be sure, either line can be interrupted by the injection of the contrary life principle. Indeed, that is what will happen in chapter 6. The faithful line descending from Adam through Seth will lose its faith, leaving the world almost entirely bereft of living faith in God. In the same way, later in Genesis the unbelieving line of Terah, a typical Mesopotamian idolater, will be interrupted with the call of Abraham to faith in God. But no matter these interruptions, the fact of generational succession in either faith or unbelief is identified here at the very beginning of the Bible as a principal feature of human history.

We read, as you remember, in the second of the Ten Commandments that the Lord is a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of them that hate him, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments. The line of generations, the succession of spiritual life or death from one generation to another is a phenomenon encountered everywhere in the Bible.

As we saw in Genesis 1 and 2 the Lord God created the human race in families. The race fell as a family. And now it either rebels against God or worships God as families. Much of the book of Genesis, as you know, will tell the tale of the spiritual ups and downs of one such family, the family of Abraham. And for the rest of the OT the relationship between believing father and son will literally be the life-blood of the people of God.

King David was the product of such a succession of faithful fathers and sons: Boaz begat Obed who begat Jesse who begat David, who himself then begat Solomon. And it is the same when we reach the NT. Paul reminds Timothy that the faith his young assistant has in his heart lived first in his grandmother, Lois, and his mother, Eunice. Indeed, the number of faithful men and women of the biblical history whose lives are reported to us in sufficient detail to determine that they were the sons or daughters of believers is very large. It includes most of the faithful kings of Judah, most of the heroes of faith mentioned in Hebrews 11, and such NT figures as John the Baptist, Mark the evangelist, and the Lord himself. Do you see the point? In terms of God’s appointed means of salvation there never would have been a Noah without a Seth, an Enoch and a Lamech raising their children to love and serve the Lord.

Contrarily, there never would have been the other Lamech without a Cain! Unbelief usually begets unbelief in the biblical history and the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children not simply in the form of punishment but in the form of a continuing rebellion against God in the next generations, deepening the guilt of that family and exposing it to ever greater measures of the wrath of God. The simplest reason why most people do not believe in Jesus Christ today is because their parents didn’t, whose parents likewise didn’t, whose parents likewise didn’t. It is this reality that makes conversion so much more important than we might otherwise understand; for when an unbelieving line is interrupted by some son or daughter coming to faith in Jesus Christ, it is not simply that a single individual has found eternal life in the midst of a long succession of the spiritually dead, but in so many cases a new line of life has begun that may produce — indeed ought to produce generations of believers still to come.

I don’t know much about my great grandfather. He was a farmer and, apparently, not a very successful one, as my grandfather spent much of his adult life paying off his father’s debts. What I mean is that I don’t know much about his Christian life, though I suppose he was an earnest Christian man because he and his wife raised earnest Christian children. But there was no question about my grandfather’s faith, a Presbyterian evangelist in the first half of the 20th century, or my father’s. My father was one of four brothers, two of whom became Presbyterian ministers and two Presbyterian elders. My father and mother raised four children, all of whom embraced the faith of Jesus Christ for themselves. And now I have believing children and they are beginning to raise their children to serve the Lord. It is the way of the world and, more importantly, it is the way of the kingdom of God.

Don’t misunderstand me. I know very well that successions of faith can be broken in Christian families. That is a painful reality that we are all too familiar with. We will have to confront it next time from the early verses of chapter 6. But what is perfectly clear is that this long line of believing life that is represented in Genesis 5 is not an anomaly; it is a pattern with which we will grow very familiar as the Bible continues and with which we will grow still more familiar as church history moves out of the biblical period and proceeds through the ages up to our own day. Most Christians in the world have always been and are today the children of Christian homes.

There can certainly be times of great advance, when a whole generation of Christians, like dragon’s teeth, spring up from unbelieving soil. It has happened in China and in Africa over this past generation. But those generations are already now producing larger number of Christians by having children and raising them to love and serve the Lord. The kingdom of God, like the kingdom of the evil one, grows geometrically, not arithmetically. My parents were two Christians; then came four more Christians; they became in their children and grand-children sixteen Christians; and now there are, counting up my grandchildren and my grandnieces and grandnephews some forty-seven of us in this extended Christian family. (I know we’re pikers compared to the Kvale’s but I couldn’t count that high!) Now, to be sure, other Christian lines have joined ours to contribute to that rapid numerical growth, but it is impressive is it not, to go from 2 in 1944, when my parents married, to 47 in 2014. God willing all 47 of those will walk with God as Enoch did! It is the way God has ordered human life, the way he preserves the sanctity of the family even as he dispenses his grace, and it is the way he has so wonderfully cultivated salvation in the lives of so many of his children, by placing them in a loving, grace-filled environment from the headwaters of their lives.

I grew up at family devotions praying for the Jack Armes family, then doing pioneer missionary work in the interior of Kenya. Jack’s brother Bill was my pastor for some of the years of my boyhood in St. Louis. When Jack and Dolly Armes arrived at what was to become their place of ministry for forty more years, there were no Christians. When they left many years later, there were thousands of believers. But therein hangs a tale.

Jack Armes was a seventh-generation descendant of Ann Hamilton, who lived from approximately 1750 to 1800. Ann was a devout Christian and known to be so in her Scottish village. The story of Ann’s deathbed has been handed down from generation to generation of her descendants, as, no doubt, the story of Enoch was told by parents to children in the generations that followed. The virtually always cheerful woman who was so ready to die was unaccountably  troubled about something as she lay there and when asked what was wrong didn’t reply for some time. But finally the light dawned and her cheerfulness returned.

“Children,” she said, “I have it. He has given me the promise.” And she quoted — from memory of course, and from the KJV — Isaiah 59:21, which reads in the ESV: “As for me, this is my covenant with them, says the Lord; ‘My Spirit that is upon you, and my words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, nor out of the mouth of your offspring, nor out of the mouth of your children’s offspring,’ says the Lord, from this time forth and forevermore.”

Today, after centuries have passed, it remains a family of Christians, scores and scores of them all over the world. Some were college class-mates of mine, a number through the years have gone into the Christian ministry. That verse from Isaiah 59 hangs in the homes of many of her living descendants.  [Susan Hunt, Heirs of the Covenant, 126-127] What was seven generations of believers in my boyhood is now nine or ten and the 61 grandchildren produced by Jack Armes and his siblings and their spouses, have become many more. That is kingdom multiplication and it has been from the very beginning of human history a principal feature of God’s saving grace.

We have often seen this principle mightily at work in this church through the years and continue to see it at work. Thanks be to God! We will read later in the Bible more about God’s promise to be our God and the God of our children, and we will read of the spiritual responsibilities that come with being a Christian parent. But already in these early chapters of the Bible we are being shown a fundamentally strategic principle of salvation from sin and death: faith in God and walking with God being transmitted from believing parents to their children and then through those children to their children’s children.

We are not here told what we will be told later about how to raise our children for Christ by teaching them the love of God and the way of salvation, by correcting their sinful impulses, and by setting an example for them of Christian goodness and love. There will be a great deal about the spiritual nurture of children in the Bible.

What we are told here is that it is God’s way of preserving and of extending salvation through the world to instill that faith in parents and then for them to transmit their faith to their children. God must do the work in the heart, to be sure, but here in Genesis 5 we learn for the first time the fabulously wonderful truth that he intends to do that through generations of believing families. It is ours both to raise our children to love and serve the Lord in the confidence that this is God’s will and ours to seek to win the lost so that another believing family line might take root from which many branches will someday grow.

“From everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children — with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts.” [Psalm 103:17-18]

Or as G.K. Chesterton once put it: “There are two ways of getting home, and one of them is never to have left.”