Generations, centuries, millennia

Moses’s family tree, in a print from the studio of Dutch poet and engraver Jan Luyken from 1683. It seems to show the Israelites, newly escaped from Egypt, beginning to set up the Tent of Meeting on Mount Sinai while Aaron, Moses’ older brother and the high priest, directs a scribe introducing the genealogy and its source verses from the Hebrew Bible. The print is owned by the Philip Medhurst Collection in Kidderminster, England. Image credit: Philip  De Vere, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When we think of “Bible stories,” we generally mean the narrative passages. In this blog, as in my novels, I assume some related kernel of truth to those narratives – even if the relation is quite distant. But what if it is the non-narrative sections, like the long genealogical lists (the ones that often begin, “These are the generations . . .”), that contain the biggest factual nuggets?

A 17th century Irish archbishop named James Ussher thought they did. He added up the ages of all the generations in those lists, factored in what was known at the time about the Egyptian and Jewish calendars, and calculated the birthday of the world as being on 22 October, 4004 B.C.E. Given that Ussher published his theory before the science of geology was born, this is an impressively rationalistic approach to the Bible for someone of his time. But as a novelist who wants 21st century research to enrich my own Exodus retelling, I needed to find a take on the genealogical lists that spoke to the lived experience of my twin main characters. So I went on an Ussher-lite biblical counting quest of my own.

At every Passover seder since I was a kid, I’ve read the biblical verse in the haggaduh stating unequivocally that the Jews were “enslaved and mistreated four hundred years’” (Genesis 15:13). But if you continue reading in Genesis, it says later that only two generations lived in Egypt before Moses was born (Gen. 46:11). Even given the long lives attributed to those Israelites – Moses’s grandfather Kehath supposedly lived 133 years – God’s math seems to have been off in terms of how many centuries the Jews were slaves in Egypt. So – once again, assuming that there is some truth to the biblical tale of Israelite enslavement by Pharaoh in the first place – how long did the oppression last?

The Israelites hadn’t suffered under Pharaoh’s yoke for four hundred years; it was more like seventy.

The answer to this question was crucial to me as a novelist, since my protagonists’ feelings about being slaves to Pharaoh would be deeply impacted by listening to family stories about an idyllic past in Canaan. Such stories would have withered in the decades after the last generation to have known the original tellers had died, just as I am completely ignorant about the village in Poland where my great-grandmother was born. My research had informed me that the Israelites in Egypt probably lived in multigenerational homes; was it possible that my twins’ grandmother, a member of Moses’s age cohort, had had relatives raised in the land of Abraham?

Because the documentary evidence is so scant, I followed the Hebrew Bible’s scrupulous delineation of Moses’ ancestry in Exodus 6 and decided that, for my purposes, there would be Semitic slaves in Egypt who had a living connection with freedom in the Promised Land. The Israelites hadn’t suffered under Pharaoh’s yoke for four hundred years; it was more like 70, given what we know of average lifespans in ancient Egypt. And they probably hadn’t even been slaves for all of that time. Joseph, who was from Moses’s great-grandfather’s generation, had been viceroy of Egypt when the Israelites first arrived (Gen. 41:41).

Incidentally, the historicity of the Joseph story in Genesis has been seen in a generally favorable light since the end of the 19th century, when Bible scholars found out that a dynasty of Semitic pharaohs called the Hyksos once ruled from the Nile Delta. Some Christians today still identify Joseph with the Egyptian viceroy Imhotep, whose foresight saved Egypt from a seven-year famine. But it’s much more likely that Israelites living in Egypt a millennium later took Imhotep’s story and conflated it with Joseph’s.

The Family History Library Building in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has devoted considerable resources to establishing family trees all over the world for almost a century. Image credit: Brandon Baird, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Getting back to the Exodus story, Moses’ genealogy is part of the endless series of “begats” inserted willy-nilly into the narrative of the Hebrew Bible. My last post was about how these types of internal inconsistencies led scholars to the hypothesis that the Hebrew Bible had multiple authors, a theory pretty much universally accepted nowadays. So that leads to another question: Which of those multiple authors wrote the most boring parts of the Bible, the “begats” – and why were they included in the version we still read today?

(Okay, the genealogies might compete for the title of Best Sleep Aid with the measurements of every piece of furniture and every curtain in the Tent of Meeting on Mount Sinai, starting in Ex. 25 and continuing for more than 10 chapters; or the technicalities of different types of sacrifices in Leviticus 1-9. Up to you.)

It turns out that the lists of ancestors might have been the most functionally essential aspects of Israel’s oral history. They would have established inheritance and property rights according to kinship relationships within clans, as well as a person’s claim to the priesthood – along with its attendant free income from the sacrifices of other tribes, what we would call “public funding” today (Numbers 18:29).  Anthony John Maas, who made enormous contributions to the 1913 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia, wrote that “The Hebrews shared the predilection for genealogies which prevailed among all the Semitic races. Among the Arabs, for instance, no biography is complete without a long list of the hero’s ancestors.”

But even if we politely overlook the distasteful reference to “Semitic races,” whatever that means, there’s a lot more evidence that societies the world over have preserved their histories by memorizing genealogical lists.

Aboriginal woman in Australia, traditionally dressed
An Australian aboriginal woman, traditionally garbed. Storytellers in these societies retain multi-millennial memories of sea levels along the coasts that dovetail with scientific evidence. Image credit: Steve Evans from Citizen of the World, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A group of not-particularly-Semitic religious folk, the Mormons, have been indulging in a “predilection for genealogies” for almost a century. The Genealogical Society of Utah went to the Pacific Islands beginning in the 1930s to record oral genealogies there and preserve them in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Their work expanded to such countries as Indonesia and Malaysia, and continued onward to Africa in the 21st century where up to 13 generations of oral history have been reported by about 300 “informants.”

Australian linguists believe that aboriginal oral histories may be accurate to 13,000 years ago, so it’s possible that the ancestor lists in the Hebrew Bible are more historical than the rest of the narrative. But many scholars today have a lower opinion of them, saying they are “purely fabrications” that were “retrojected back into antiquity” by a relatively late biblical author in order to make a political point that is lost on us 21st century readers.

Whether the genealogies are an authoritative record of ancestry or fake as a photoshopped Mars landing, it seems clear that they were of vital importance to the lives of Israelites living in pharaonic Egypt. In fact, it’s entirely possible that the “Semitic races” actually learned to keep track of bloodlines from the Egyptians themselves, whose “kinglists” stretch back to the Third Dynasty, or about 2,650 BCE.

Ultimately, I think of the Exodus stories as neither truth nor fiction. They are like biopics, fictionalized history that attempts to understand the motives behind past events, or memoirs of tribal groups as varied as a book of collected family remembrances. Grandpa said his father told him it had been 400 years of slavery, but Mom knew it had to be just three generations, while Great-Uncle was sure it went on much longer than that . . .

And it’s the scribes – the writers – who have the final word.

I think they faked this landing,” a composite photo. Image credit: Steve Jurvetson on Flickr.

5 thoughts on “Generations, centuries, millennia”

  1. Pingback: How to Escape from Pharaoh

  2. Enjoyed that. Very speculative of course, and various bother interpretations are possible. For example, who is to say that the aborigines did not have their own form of geological science when viewing coastlines that may reveal earlier seabed sediments etc., and then created a narrative retrospectively around this. I choose to comment on this vignette, being somewhat aware of Australian prehistory. But that said, I do find your central reconstructions from the Hebrew bible interesting and thought provoking. Keep it up! … as if you needed any encouragement 🙂 Cheers!

    1. Thanks so much for the kind words, and the suggestion about possibly very advanced ideas that were lost for millennia and have only recently been found. I don’t know much at all about Australian prehistory, but as a writer, the human capacity for culturally-transmitted memory without the technology of writing holds an almost sordid fascination for me. The stories of the Hebrew Bible are among the first narratives ever to be committed to . . . well, whatever medium they were originally committed to. My intention with this blog and the novels is to grapple with them so they are not completely lost to the zeroes and ones we all “write” with nowadays.

    2. Bonnie J. Gordon

      Thanks so much! I’m glad you found it interesting. You’re right that I’m speculating, and yet the potential benefits of being able to trace one’s lineage to Aaron would be highly motivating. I can’t find the piece now, but I remember hearing on the radio (probably NPR) about a culture that has people write and sing their marriage proposals to each other while incorporating the family tree of the proposer. The singer must memorize incredibly long songs, lasting for hours – and this still happens today. So although the Australian natives are the best-documented long-term storytellers, there are certainly others who would qualify.

  3. I’m not sure how to relate the following concept to Moses and biblical genealogy passed down over biblical time, but returning to the inspiration of Australian aborigines, they have an ancient to modern practice in some of their rock art. These are the so-called “radiographic” paintings that show (comparable to the notional anatomy of pre-renaissance Europe), the layout of body organs in various animal species. This may be one way in which knowledge was transferred across generations across vast periods of time: perhaps even a teaching tool for children, quite apart from its recognized role as an art form. I am no expert in this, but just commenting.

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