The stretch of time from Adam’s sons to Abraham is more than 1500 years, but Genesis lists only 18 (or so) generations for the period, the first half in a few whirlwind verses of Chapter 5, the second half in another bare list in Chapter 11. Nor is that the worst of the age problems. Methuselah lives to be 969, and even then doesn’t seem to die of natural causes, but goes down in the flood associated with his grandson Noah. All this fathering of children at a hundred and eighty and guys living to be seven hundred years old is simply a great obstacle in a literalist reading.
Oh me of little faith, eh? I don’t have a problem with the idea that God could do it. After making a universe, stretching out a person’s lifespan doesn’t seem like much of a big deal, frankly. But what is the evidence that he did? That Genesis gives names that could possibly be people-names (though in other places, such as the sons of Canaan in Chapter 10, they are tribal names) seems rather slender. There is nothing personal, human or identifying about this list that would demand they be individuals. And rather than seeing this increased longevity as a test of belief (Ha, ha, ye faithless modern generation, did ye doubt that YWHW could do this?), I see it as a neon sign that something strange is up in this section.
So what if Moses, when he wrote the words down – or more likely, had them written down in one of those Charlemagne, Alfred The Great deals, because ruling a large group of people doesn’t leave much free time for arduous scribing – thought that these inherited names were individuals? I don’t care what Moses thought, I care what God wants me to see.
That the names are dynasties makes much more sense, especially among a people who were much more group-defined than we hyperindividualistic Americans. Plantagenet and Tudor kings, the Bourbons in France, the Ming Dynasty, the Ptolemaic Dynasty, the House of Saud. Pharaoh, a name for nearby rulers, means “Great House.” So is that an individual name or a group name? Both. Neither.
I don’t think you get to be a good fundamentalist if you merely gloss over stuff that doesn’t fit your simple literal picture. The tribal names in Chapter 10, the second creation account, where Cain’s wife came from – I think we non-literalist evangelicals actually face those issues more squarely. From fundamentalists – mostly contortions.
We get something nice back if we look at early Genesis this way. The Genesis chronology extends back farther than the Egyptian, or indeed any other history, even if we count the murky god-Pharaohs of uncertain date. Pretty good for an illiterate people, I think. Tracing back just past Seth, we get the cultural conflict of settled agriculture versus herding – the story of Cain and Abel – at pretty near the point that archaeology says we should find it in that region. Again, pretty darn good for a people who didn’t have archaeology, or even records.