Exodus Genealogies
Exodus 6:16-20 And these are the names of the sons of Levi according to their generations; Gershon, and Kohath, and Merari: and the years of the life of Levi were an hundred thirty and seven years. The sons of Gershon; Libni, and Shimi, according to their families. And the sons of Kohath; Amram, and Izhar, and Hebron, and Uzziel: and the years of the life of Kohath were an hundred thirty and three years. And the sons of Merari; Mahali and Mushi: these are the families of Levi according to their generations. And Amram took him Jochebed his father's sister to wife; and she bare him Aaron and Moses: and the years of the life of Amram were an hundred and thirty and seven years.
Exodus 12:40 Now the sojourning of the children of Israel, who dwelt in Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years.

The supposed problem raised by these passages has been brought up as an "excellent [example] to begin with" when dealing with inerrantists. The issue: If Exodus 6 is right, then "the Israelite sojourn in Egypt could have lasted no more than 352 years and probably even considerably less than that." Thus:

Kohath, the grandfather of Moses, had already been born when Jacob took his sons and their families into Egypt, (Gen. 46:11). If we assume that Kohath was only a suckling infant in his mother's arms when he was taken into Egypt and if we further assume that his last act on earth at the age of 133 (Ex. 6:16) was to sire Amram, the father of Moses, then the very latest date of Amram's birth would have been around 134 years into the Israelite sojourn. If we then make similar assumptions about the birth of Moses, i.e., that Amram sired him just before dying at the age of 137 years (Ex. 6:20), this would mean that Moses could have been born no later than 272 years after the Israelite sojourn began. Since Moses was only 80 years old when Jehovah (Yahweh) called him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt (Ex. 7:7), the sojourn could have lasted no longer than 352 years.
But to allow even 352 years for the so-journ would require total abandonment of common sense. For one thing, the custom of listing sons in the order of their births in Jewish genealogies suggests that the Bible writers understood that both Kohath and Amram had younger brothers (Gen. 46:11; Ex. 6:16-18), so Kohath was probably older than an infant when he was taken into Egypt. If he did live to be 133, he undoubtedly fathered Amram, Moses' father, long before he died, because, it is completely unreasonable to assume circumstances of birth anything at all like those theorized above. The aged Abraham fell on his face and laughed when Yahweh told him that he would soon father a son. "Shall a child be born unto him that is a hundred years old?" Abraham asked, (Gen. 17:17). By the same token, we can ask if it is reasonable to believe Kohath and Amram were able to father children when they were well past the age of 130.

The issues was replied to by an inerrantist, who proposed a standard explanation that the Exodus line was not complete and skipped generations in its listing. The Skeptic countered with a reply, and the issue was later picked up and linked with a similar issue, that of the genealogy from Perez to David, which is also "too short" as it stands.

Our own response partially agrees with the first inerrantist -- there's a gap issue here, though we do not think they occurred at the same point (Amram) and that there were two people named Amram, and we do not think that the generations are being skipped in quite the same way.

Now as an expanded response, we need to look at the broader issue of the purpose and nature of ancient genealogies as a whole. Though the inerrantist didn't realize it, history and culture is vastly on his side.

It is helpful here to issue a reminder about provincialism of the sort perpetrated by our Skeptic, who describes research into genealogies as "tedious---and even outright boring."

The Bible was written for people in its own time, using their own conventions of history and reportage. We in modern times can adjust our thinking in hindsight; those of the time of the Bible did not have that option. The message was designed and reported for them -- for an oral culture (in which less than 10% of the population could read) with a different culture, different language, different values, and different perceptions.

Skeptics should not ask why the text does not conform to their perceptions, or to their idea of what the text "should have said" if it was inspired by God. Much less do they have the right to impose their subjective value judgments (tedious, boring, etc.).

That said, we need to reckon with the consideration, What was the purpose of genealogies in the ancient world? How did they function? And in this context: Did they ever have "gaps" in them, and why?

The answer to the last, key question is, Yes, they did have gaps -- and there were reasons for this.

First: What is the purpose of genealogies in the ancient world? Ancient genealogies could serve a wide variety of purposes -- they were not merely amusing diversions of the sort people take today when they go digging through old records. Genealogies were used to verify lineage, and in the case of kings or priests, confirm their right to their position.

Genealogies were also used to explain behavior -- if one's ancestor was a rat, that helps explain why the descendant is a rat. Genealogies served functions that were social, biological, and political -- and here's a clue for the "contradictory" genealogies of Jesus: "In any given society, genealogies may function in more than one of the three spheres...it would be possible for a society to have a number of apparently conflicting genealogies, each of which could be considered accurate in terms of its function." [I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood, 213]

Second, now: Did they ever have "gaps" and why? Genealogies did have gaps, and the reason for this is stated above: This was predominantly an oral culture. In an oral culture, things had to be memorized. Memory was made easiest by making things as short as possible while still retaining their purpose.

A Biblical example of this is Matthew's intentional breaking of Jesus' lineage into 3 blocks of 14. But let's make something clear, lest the skeptics pitch a fit: Such fluidity in genealogical records is not exclusive of the Bible. "By viture of its form a linear genealogy can have only one function: it can be used to link the person or group using the genealogy with an earlier ancestor or group. The actual number of names in the genealogy and the order of those names play no role in this function, and for this reason names are frequently lost from linear geneaologies, and the order of the names will sometimes change." [I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood, 213]

The removal of names and the telescoping of lists is known in other oral cultures -- and it is also known that certain numerical patterns were preferred. R. R. Wilson [ibid., 196n] notes the example of the Luapula people of Rhodesia, who kept a royal genealogy of nine generations; but the genealogies of common people for the same space were telescoped to between four and seven generations. Elsewhere [Genealogy and History in the Biblical World, 33n] he cites the examples of the Bemba, Tallensi, Tiv, Yoruba, and Cyrenician Bedouin. All of these cultures used telescoped genealogies.

And in an oral culture, why not? If Uncle Joe wasn't much to behold, why keep him once his kid was secure in the line? Why make us remember more? An oral culture had to make such listings as easy as possible to remember. The royal line required more detail; the common lines less.

Another example: West Semitic tribes show a "penchant for a ten-generation pattern" in their genealogies. We can see this expressed Biblically in the genealogy of Perez up to David. Ten generations would not cover the gap from Perez to David, no -- and it isn't supposed to. The number is at ten because that was a pattern preferred for memorial purposes. One suspects that it had a lot to do with having ten fingers -- but that's beside the point. Objections about ten names not making the stretch are utterly irrelevant.

So within the cultural context, there is no reason not to suppose, and every reason to argue, that Exodus 6 offers a telescoped genealogy, and it is the burden of the critic to explain why it is not telescoped. Even internally, this seems quite clear: In this regard it is helpful to have a look at the other ancestry lists in the OT and see how they are formulated.

The first recognized lists are in Genesis 5 and 10-11, where we have an enormous list of "begats" (yalad) between names. The same structure is also used in Ruth 4. The last significant use of a series of "begats" occurs in the book of 1 Chronicles, where we have a ton of them.

The significance of this? Exodus 6:16-20 does not use this established formula. There are no "begats" here -- what we have is this:

And these are the names of the sons of Levi according to their generations; Gershon, and Kohath, and Merari: and the years of the life of Levi were an hundred thirty and seven years.

The word "sons" (ben -- here and in v. 18) does mean a son in a very simple sense, and does mean that in this verse, but the word has broader connotations -- such as nation, branch, or people. Let's look at another place where that phrase is used:

Gen. 25:13-16 And these are the names of the sons of Ishmael, by their names, according to their generations: the firstborn of Ishmael, Nebajoth; and Kedar, and Adbeel, and Mibsam, And Mishma, and Dumah, and Massa, Hadar, and Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah: These are the sons of Ishmael, and these are their names, by their towns, and by their castles; twelve princes according to their nations.

The parallel indicates that Exodus 6 is not merely listing descendants in a row -- it is listing family groups which started with the sons of Levi. Genesis 46:11 says that those three names are of the three sons of Levi in the same way Onan and Er were sons of Judah -- and the "gap" we seek is between Kohath and Amram, not between Amram and another Amram. 6:18 is speaking of "sons of Kohath" in terms of them being builders of the family name of Kohathites.

This would also fit the normal pattern of telescoped genealogies: Wilson [Genealogy and History, 33] notes that names are usually dropped out of the middle of such lineages, since the later people are still alive, while the oldest people say the most about the origins of the lineage and "serve as points of lineage unity."

Numbers 26:58 may be offered as a contrast:

These are the families of the Levites: the family of the Libnites, the family of the Hebronites, the family of the Mahlites, the family of the Mushites, the family of the Korathites. And Kohath begat Amram.

The word "begat" is the same Hebrew word as used in the long ancestry lists -- although it is only used here, in this list. Doesn't this show that there is no gap between Kohath and Amram? Not at all, as we have seen; even the long "begat" lists could contain gaps.

But now as it applies to Exodus 6, a Skeptic says:

Furthermore, we have the fact that Exodus 6:20 states that Amram, the father of Aaron and Moses, "took him Jochebed his father's sister to wife; and she bare him Aaron and Moses." Now if Amram's wife Jochebed was his father's sister and if this Amram who married Jochebed was the same Amram who was Kohath's son, then Jochebed would have been Levi's daughter, because Kohath was Levi's son. Is there anything in the Bible to indicate that Jochebed, the mother of Aaron and Moses, was indeed Levi's daughter? In relating the circumstances of Moses' birth, Exodus 2:1-10 says that his mother was "a daughter of Levi," (v:1). Mr. Moffitt will argue that she was a daughter of Levi only in the sense that she was a descendant of Levi, and he could probably get away with this were it not for Numbers 26:57: "And the name of Amram's wife was Jochebed, the daughter of Levi, who was born to Levi in Egypt: and she bare unto Amram Aaron and Moses, and Miriam their sister," (ASV).

They analyze this passage thusly, avoiding the very conclusion that upends their argument:

Inerrancy believers have desperately tried to deny the clear conclusion this passage leads to, even to the point of tampering with the text. The NIV renders it like this: "The name of Amram's wife was Jochebed, a descendant of Levi, who was born to the Levites in Egypt...." Most versions, however, faithfully represent the Hebrew meaning as it was translated in the ASV quoted above.

The Skeptic is shuffling the deck illicitly here. The Exodus 2 verse defines the Numbers 26 verse -- not the other way around. The Exodus 2 phrase (and the very Hebrew word "daughter", which, like the word for "son," also can carry a broader meaning of "branch" or "company") shows that the word is used to cover gaps in the record.

Nevertheless, Bible fundamentalists still adamantly insist that Jochebed wasn't literally Levi's daughter, that she had been "born to Levi" only in the sense that any Levite woman of Jochebed's time had been born to Levi. Those who so argue have never been able to explain why the passage states that Jochebed had been born to Levi in Egypt. Why specify that it was in Egypt that she had been born to Levi?

That we are told Jochebed was "born to Levi in Egypt" doesn't mean anything in favor of this case. It is a geographic location -- after the migration, all descendants of Levi (the man, and the tribal family) were born "in Egypt". The Skeptic is perhaps trying to make some illicit connection here, supposing that "in Egypt" is specially highlighted in order to somehow make it out that Jochebed was born directly to Levi the original migrator after his trip into Egypt. But the pressure applied by the phrase "in Egypt" (which appears any number of times in the Pentateuch in places where it could have just as easily been done without, from a modern, Western reader's perspective) isn't strong enough to consider this a problem.

What this verse shows us, though (as if the social data doesn't confirm it enough), is that yalad can cross large gaps of ancestry. Here it covers the family from Levi to Jochebed. In the previous verse it covers a gap from Kohath to Amram.

It will assist our case here to show that there are places where the tribal names of Israel are used without modification -- as we suppose "Levi" and "Kohath" to be used here. In most cases there is a modifier like "tribe of..." or "house of..." before the names, but there are a few places where the names are clearly used without modifiers in the way we describe:

Judges 5:14 Out of Ephraim was there a root of them against Amalek; after thee, Benjamin, among thy people; out of Machir came down governors, and out of Zebulun they that handle the pen of the writer.
Judges 10:9 Moreover the children of Ammon passed over Jordan to fight also against Judah, and against Benjamin, and against the house of Ephraim; so that Israel was sore distressed.
Joshua 17:10 Southward it was Ephraim's, and northward it was Manasseh's, and the sea is his border; and they met together in Asher on the north, and in Issachar on the east.
Judges 1:31 Neither did Asher drive out the inhabitants of Accho, nor the inhabitants of Zidon, nor of Ahlab, nor of Achzib, nor of Helbah, nor of Aphik, nor of Rehob:
Judges 1:33 Neither did Naphtali drive out the inhabitants of Bethshemesh, nor the inhabitants of Bethanath; but he dwelt among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land: nevertheless the inhabitants of Bethshemesh and of Bethanath became tributaries unto them.

These passages by their context certainly refer to the tribes and sometimes their lands, not to the individuals. So we argue that the context determines that "Kohath" above is used in a "family" sense.

After this we have a few miscellaneous issues:

As much as the Bible emphasized genealogies, it seems strange, to say the least, that a complete genealogy of two of its most important figures--Aaron and Moses--is to be found nowhere in the sacred text.

That may seem like a problem to a man living in comfort in the 21st century, but for slaves who were kept illiterate and oppressed, keeping precise track of ancestry wasn't likely a major concern. They kept track of what they could, of course, but such are the breaks when you're stuck making bricks for your oppressors.

Nevertheless, as shown above, even if the full genealogy was available, there is no stress or need for a "complete" genealogy for the ancients, just one that establishes what is needed. In the case of Aaron and Moses, merely claiming Levi as an ancestor was enough. Uncle Joe in the middle wasn't needed, nor was anyone else.

Genesis 15:13-16 And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance. And thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.

The Skeptic supposes that this confirms that Exodus only sees four generations of people during that 400 year period. But rhe word for "generation" is dowr and it merely means a set revolution of time. The passage already refers to a set revolution of time: four one hundred year periods. The word can also be used of physical generations, as it can be for any period of time; but here, the context has already defined it for us.

And as Sarna notes in his Genesis commentary [116], this word and its cognates were used to refer to a human life span, which varied from 60-70 years in Assyrian records to 110 years for an ideal span in Egypt. And thus we also have the answer for the "why" of the unusually-structured Exodus 6 genealogy: It is written with this promise in mind. Exodus 6 gives the ages of its members because it is keeping in view the passage of these four time-cycles -- 133 + 137 + 133 = 403. It is a memory device -- not a wooden genealogical list.

Here are two final issues:

"Philo and Josephus sure didn't think there were gaps in that geneaology."

This is an odd objection, since Skeptics do not regard Philo and Josephus are inerrant. Then was Josephus also right about, say, miracles in Jerusalem at the time of its fall and Moses being an Egyptian noble and the Exodus being historical?

I didn't think so. But if that is the card on the table, maybe someone can explain what it is in the Exodus genealogy that led Philo and Josephus to this "logical" conclusion, versus other geneaologies.

"Other Bible genealogies are long, so that memory stuff is bogus."

Scholars like Wilson and other scholars of oral tradition, like Vansina and Lord, disagree. But in any event, that some genealogies were shortened for oral purposes doesn't mean all of them were.