A condensed study of the Biblical patriarchs warrants the following plan: origin and uses of the word "patriarch," the pre-Abrahamic patriarchs, the structure of the genealogies, the problem of their long lives, and the similar lists in ancient Mesopotamia.
Origin of "Patriarch." In the Septuagint (LXX) version, πατριάρχης, from which patriarch is derived, first appears in Chronicles, where it is used for translating several Hebrew expressions. Some of its significations are: the heads of Israelite families (2 Chr 19.8; 26.12); in many Greek manuscripts, the priestly and Levitical family chiefs (1 Chr 24.31); the chiefs over the tribes of Israel (1 Chr 27.22); the captains of companies of 100 men (2 Chr 23.20; cf. 2 Kings 11.19). It has a more restricted use in the apocryphal 4 Maccabees 16.25, where it apparently refers to the 12 sons of Jacob. The same book, however, speaks of "our patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob"(7.19). The word also appears in the New Testament where it refers to the 12 sons of Jacob (Acts 7.8–9); to David (Acts 2.29); to Abraham (Heb 7.4).
In present-day exegesis "patriarch" properly refers to abraham, isaac, and jacob, although two other acceptations are acknowledged: the eponymous ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel, Joseph and his brothers; and the ten antediluvian and ten postdiluvian celebrities listed by the Pentateuchal priestly writers in Genesis 5.1–32 and 11.10–26, respectively. In the last case, one would not speak of "patriarchal times," which comprise only the period of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In this article the term patriarchs is used only in the last acceptation signifying the pre-Abrahamic patriarchs.
Pre-Abrahamic Patriarchs. The list of antediluvian patriarchs from Adam to Noah is attributed to the Priestly Writers. The yahwist too handed down parallel but incomplete lists (Gn 4.17–22, 25–26) containing only six generations after Cain and only one after Seth. The Priestly genealogy proceeds from Adam through Seth, while the Yahwist proceeds from Adam through Cain in its major genealogy. Notwithstanding the variants, it can be established that the same names appear in both lists.
Structure of the Genealogies. The two Priestly lists of Genesis 5.1–32 and 11.10–26 are almost identical in form. Stereotyped formulas, typical of this tradition, are used for each patriarch in both lists and include the name
of the patriarch, his age when he begot his first son, and the number of years he lived after the birth of that son. The lists are only slightly divergent; chapter 5 totals the duration of the lifetime of each patriarch, while chapter 11 does not.
The fact that each genealogy contains ten generations is not mere coincidence. It reveals the author's desire for symmetry in the periods that preceded and followed the deluge. This is all the more apparent when one considers the divergence between the Masoretic Text and the LXX. In the Masoretic Text, one finds ten patriarchs in each period provided that Noah figures in both periods. The LXX adds Cainan from Gn 5.9–14 to the second list in Gn 11.12–13, thus eliminating the necessity of counting Noah twice. The Greek interpolater of the addition sacrificed accuracy for perfect symmetry. His preference for literary perfection and his grasp of the original author's intentions are thus apparent.
Extraordinary Ages. The didactic rather than historical nature of the lists is further confirmed by the amazingly long lives of the patriarchs. All procreated at, and lived to, an age that today, despite our highly superior medical knowledge, would be preposterous. Among the antediluvian patriarchs, according to the Masoretic Text, the shortest life span was 365 years and the earliest procreation age, 65 years. Most of them exceeded 900 years or were not far removed from that age at death except Enoch, 365 years, and Lamech, 777 years, both figures being symbols of perfection in Hebrew numerology. On the average, the postdiluvian patriarchs had a shorter life. Their ages range downward from 950 for Noah, and 600 for Shem, to 148 for Nahor.
Literal Interpretation. The historicity of the genealogies used to be a trying problem for scholars. One of the attempts at a solution was to ignore the problem and accept the strict historical character of the passages and the figures. Modern scholars unhesitatingly reject this position because it pays no attention to historical or literary criticism. Its advocates would be accused of Biblical fundamentalism today, since they considered that anything contained in the Bible must be interpreted literally and is of necessity historically accurate. They also referred to the legends of other cultures that assert the great longevity of their early ancestors and concluded that the common accord implies a one-time reality. There is no scientific evidence, however, to corroborate this stand. On the contrary, the findings of science show that the life span of primitive man was shorter than ours today. Many favored a modified position but still inflexibly adhered to the historical accuracy of the figures. The year, they conjectured, lasted only one month or more—an erroneous assumption, since, in the Bible, the word "year" always means a span of 12 months and is clearly distinguished from shorter periods.
Didactic Literary Device. The solution admitted by most modern scholars takes the figures as didactic literary artifices without strict historical intent. The genealogies and the ages of the patriarchs reflect ancient traditions and a system of computation for which a completely satisfactory explanation has not yet been found. Modern interpretation stresses the texts' etiological character as a function of religious teaching. Why is man's life span so limited' A long, fruitful life was considered an incomparable blessing, the reward of faithful service to God. The gradual shortening of man's life span was in keeping with the progress of evil in the world. In Noah's day, evil was so rampant that God said to Noah, "The end of all creatures of flesh is in my mind; … I will destroy them" (Gn 6.13). As a result, God punished man by the Deluge and reduced his life expectancy by hunderds of years (cf. Noah's, Shem's, Arphaxad's, and Peleg's ages). This chastisement showed God's hatred of sin and gave a reason for the evil of man's short lifetime. The extraordinary ages of the patriarchs, therefore, have religious implications and are to be taken as didactic symbols.
Textual Discrepancies. There are notable discrepancies in the numbers of the lists in the Masoretic Text, the Samaritan Pentateuch (the original Hebrew text of the first five books of the Bible handed down by the Samaritans and quite different in places from the Masoretic Text; it dates, in its first form, from c. 300 b.c.), and theLXX. The freedom with which the figures were altered indicates that they were known to be symbolic and could be modified to bring out more clearly the religious lesson. A comparison shows that the Samaritan Pentateuch agrees with the Masoretic Text down to the fifth patriarch Mahalaleel but keeps to a decreasing amount of years for the following names, in contrast to the Masoretic Text, which has the sixth and eighth patriarchs living longer than Adam. A corresponding lessening of the ages at which the patriarchs first generated a son leads to a discrepancy of 349 years less than the period between Adam and the Flood in the Samaritan Pentateuch.
The LXX adds 100 years to the first five names and to the seventh for the procreation age and thus lengthens the antediluvian period by 606 years and 955 years more than the Masoretic Text and Samaritan versions. All three agree on the perfect age of Enoch, 365 years, but neither of the other two agrees with the Masoretic Text on the perfect 777 years of Lamech. The LXX agrees with the Masoretic Text on the age of the longest-lived patriarch, Methuselah, both as to generating age and age at death, 187 and 969.
These variants are interesting but not very enlightening. The reason that procreation was delayed so long in all three, but especially in the LXX, is most puzzling. It may merely have been to underline the extraordinary characteristics of the men of old, who were closer to God and His original act of creation and who, therefore, could not have been like the ordinary men of the ancient writers' experience.
The case of Enoch is significant. He is described by a Hebrew idiom meaning that he was an extremely holy man. "Enoch walked with God; and he was seen no more because God took him" (Gn 5.24). One would expect him to have lived much longer than the other patriarchs, but his lifetime was only 365 years. However, this figure is a perfect number, the exact duration of the solar year. His mysterious disappearance without the mention of his death is also indicative of his unique position. Later Judaism did not miss these significant details; it made him a messianic figure comparable to Elijah, who was also "taken up by God," and attributed to him apocryphal books that inspired at least one New Testament writer, Jude 14–15 (see enoch).
Mesopotamian Genealogies. The Babylonians had similar lists of antediluvian kings. Two cuneiform texts, W.B. 444 and W.B. 62 (The Weld-Blundell Collection, Oxford Editions of Cuneiform Inscriptions, v. 2, p. 8f and plate VI), and the Greek text of berossus, a Chaldaean priest of the time of Alexander the Great, are well known. Only eight names (given in J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating tothe Old Testament 265) are contained in W.B. 444, whereas W.B. 62 and the text of Berossus, like the Genesis genealogy of the antediluvian patriarchs, contain ten names. The names in the two cuneiform lists are nearly identical, though they do not appear in the same order; those of the Greek text can be identified with the kings in the cuneiform texts. The last name in W.B. 444 is Ubar Tutu of Shuruppak, the father of the Deluge hero, Utnapishtim (in Akkadian), but the other two lists end with the hero himself, Ziusudra (in Sumerian), Xisouthros (in Greek). The life span of the antediluvian kings is very much longer than that of the biblical patriarchs. Again the figures vary from one list to another and thus reveal the authors' indifference to historical chronology. A look at the list of W.B. 444 will exemplify the grossly exaggerated ages of the Mesopotamian kings: A-lulim of Eridu, 28,800 years; Alalgar of Eridu, 36,000 years; En-men-lu-Anna of Badtibira, 43,200 years, etc., with a total of 241,000 years for the eight kings before the Flood. In this list, the 241,000 years from the monarchy's institution, identified with Creation, to the death of the last antediluvian king contrasts with the 456,000 years of W.B. 62 and the 432,000 years of the Berossus text (the two last include the hero of the Flood plus another previous king). The figures, therefore, were subjected to alterations from one text to another.
Many critics have studied the resemblances and the differences between these lists and the Genesis genealogies. The differences are more striking. The Babylonian lists speak of kings and intend to show the unbroken succession of monarchs from the Creation onward; their perspective is decidedly national. The Biblical genealogies consider the patriarchs as the ancestors of all the races and nations; their perspective is universal and manifests God's supremacy over all of mankind. The chronological computations are very dissimilar, and it is unlikely that the Biblical system is based on the Babylonian. Efforts to identify the patriarchs' names with those of the antediluvian kings have been futile, save for that of Noah, which may possibly have the same meaning as Utnapishtim and its Sumerian equivalent Ziusudra. There may also be some relationship between Enoch's 365 years, as a solar year symbol, and the seventh king of W.B. 62 and the text of Berossus, the king of Sippar, the city of the sun. It appears, therefore, that the Priestly traditions concerning the antediluvian and postdiluvian patriarchs are only remotely non-Israelite traditions.
Bibliography: j. chaine, Le Livre de la Genèse (Paris 1951). j. schildenberger, Vom Geheimnis des Gotteswortes (Heidelberg 1950) 261–303. h. cazelles, Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. l. pirot et al. (Paris 1928–) 1:745–54; 7:81–82. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartmans (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 855–56, 1342, 1760, 1920–26.