Times and Seasons

Part 2. From the Flood to Abraham

The second period of dated Bible history commences with the Flood and ends with the death of Terah and Abraham's departure from Haran to take up residence in Canaan. From that point the history of Abraham properly begins and forms the natural starting point of another period. All that is recorded concerning this long span of more than a thousand years is contained within the 9th to 11th chapters of Genesis, necessarily brief and consisting of little more than the genealogies and lines of descent of the immediate descendants of the sons of Noah. One family line of descent, from Noah through Shem to Abraham, gives the age of each father at the birth of the relevant son; the sum of these ages represents the Biblical view of the actual duration of the period.

Right here the same situation exists as in the case of the antediluvian era, dealt with in the previous chapter of this series. The Masoretic text displays a shortening of the period of 650 years, using the same expedient as before, viz., deducting 100 years (50 in one case) from the ages of the patriarchs. The Samaritan text, however, which followed suit in the case of the antediluvian patriarchs, does not agree with the Masoretic here, but shows the same figures, with one exception, as the Septuagint. From this it has been surmised that the alterations to the Masoretic text were made in two stages, the antediluvian first, probably in the early A.D. centuries, and the postdiluvian at a much later date when the desirability of still further postponing the end of the 6,000 years from creation became evident, and that the Samaritan, having become a fixed text by then and outside the "orthodox" Jewish stream, was not altered and so remained conformed in this respect to the Septuagint.

One other point of difference is that both the Masoretic and the Samaritan omit Cainan the son of Arphaxad, whereas the Septuagint includes him. It is fairly certain that this omission was made in the Hebrew texts at a very early date, probably sometime before Christ, for Josephus also omits Cainan, although otherwise he agrees generally with the Septuagint. (For a full discussion of the arguments for the inclusion or exclusion of Cainan see B.S.M. for Jan/Feb.1975. Ed.*) The Apocryphal "Book of Jubilees", about 150 B.C. includes Cainan with an account of the sin for which he was condemned, this latter logically leading to his being "blotted from the book" when the Hebrew texts were rationalised in the early centuries. "Jubilees" is believed to stem from a variant Hebrew text midway between those which eventually led to the Masoretic and the Septuagint. A subsidiary testimony is offered by the fact that the chronology of the Gospel of Nicodemus, (2nd‑4th cent. A.D.), in its estimate of the time between the Flood and the Tower of Babel, also includes the period of Cainan's life.

The following table compares the relevant figures from the Masoretic, Alexandrian Septuagint, Samaritan, and Josephus.

  Age at Birth of Son   Total Length Of Life
  Mas. Sam. LXX Jos.   Mas.* Sam. LXX Jos.
Shem (from Flood) 2 2 2 12 600 600 600
Arphaxad 35 135 135 135   438 438 565*
Cainan 130   460
Salah 30 130 130 130   433 433 460
Eber 34 134 134 134   464 404 504*
Peleg 30 130 130 130   239 239 239
Reu 32 132 132 130   239 239 239
Serug 30 130 130 132   230 230 330
Nahor 29 79 79* 120   148 148 208*
Terah 130 70 130 70   205 145 205 205
To death Terah 75 75 75 75          
Total 427 1017 1207 1068          
  * Sixtine LXX has 179   * Sixtine LXX has 535, 404, 304

It will be noticed that there are two discrepancies apart from the Masoretic omission of 100 years in six instances. One is the case of Terah who is said by the Samaritan and Josephus to have been 70 instead of 130 years old at the birth of Abraham. This is due in both cases to careless reading of Gen.11.26 "Terah lived seventy years and begat Abram, Nahor and Haran" with failure to notice that the three names are not in order of birth but of their prominence in the history of after events. Gen.11.32 & 12.4,with Acts 7.4, make it clear that Abraham was seventy‑five when he left the city of Haran upon the death of his father Terah at 205 years, so that he was born when Terah was 130. A confirmation of this is the fact that both Abraham and Nahor married daughters of their elder brother Haran, the one who died early before the departure from Ur, and that Haran's son Lot was the companion and colleague of Abraham in his later journeyings. The position is set out in Gen.11.27‑29, where it is shown that Nahor married Milcah and Abraham married Sarai, both daughters of Haran, The otherwise unknown name "Iscah" in vs.29 should be read "Sarai". Josephus says (Ant.1.6 also ch.6.5), as does Jewish tradition, that Sarai was the daughter of Nahor, but only in recent times has it been discovered how the name came to be rendered Iscah in the Hebrew text; this incidentally is one of the many indications that this part of Genesis originally existed in Sumerian or Akkadian cuneiform before Moses included it in his "Five Books". The cuneiform signs for "Sarai" and "Iscah" are almost identical and a scribe copying the tablet might easily mistake one for the other; alternatively a translator rendering the cuneiform record into the early Hebrew script, which might have been any time between Joseph and Joshua, could easily have misread the name. Cuneiform characters were often roughly or badly executed on the clay tablets as modern decipherers have often found to their cost.

The other discrepancy is in the age of Nahor at Terah's birth and this is more far‑reaching. There are four versions; Mas at 29, Alexandrian LXX and Sam. At 79, the Sixtine LXX at 179, and Josephus at 120. The easy way out is to assume that the LXX 79 is correct and that the Masoretic, unable to deduct 100 as with the other patriarchs, deducted 50. This, however, does not explain where Josephus got his 120 or the Sixtine LXX its 179. And in the LXX all the other patriarchs show consistent figures between 130 and 135; this one seems to be a strange anomaly.

The solution probably lies in variations introduced in the process of copying old worn‑out manuscripts, or in translation from the "Old Hebrew" to the "square Hebrew" of the 1st‑2nd cents B.C., and from that to Greek. Numbers were written as full words in the 1st Cent. Hebrew and Greek texts so that mistakes are unlikely, but it is not known whether the "old Hebrew" used words or numerals so that research is difficult. On the assumption that numerals were used in the "Old Hebrew"—as they certainly were in the original cuneiform from which these records are derived—it is possible that the original figure in the oldest texts was 129. This number would have been denoted by the three letters Kuph (100) Caph (20) Teth (9). But the Old Hebrew letter Caph looks much more like the square Hebrew Ayin (70) than it does the square Caph and some copyists might easily thus change 129 to 179. Thus some Mas. would retain the 129 and others show 179. Other considerations which are too lengthy to be entered into here tend to suggest that the Hebrew texts used by the Masoretic and Josephus had 129, which was subject to the same 100 years deduction as the rest of the patriarchs to give the Masoretic 29, and used by Josephus with the loss of the final 9, perhaps a slip on his part or even a later corruption of his writings, to give his 120. The variant Hebrew texts which had 179 led eventually to the Samaritan and the Alex. and Sixtine texts, with the former two modified to 79 to avoid the incongruity of so late an age of fatherhood when Nahor died at 208. All this is at best a hypothesis, for the available data is too scanty for certitude, and the best that can be said is that in all likelihood Nahor's age at the birth of Terah was either 79 as in the LXX or 129 as might be suggested by translation probabilities.

There is one other consideration which tends to favour the latter view. It has been often remarked that the consistent ages at which the patriarchs' sons were born—always between 130 and 135 years—is too artificial to be real, especially upon the usual assumption that these were all first‑born sons. There is, of course, no reason for insisting that this latter must be the case. Many of the men destined to occupy places in the line of descent from Adam to Christ were not first‑borns—Seth, Abraham, Jacob, Judah, David, and others—and the same could well be the case here. There may be another reason. A little reflection will show that the elder sons of men like these who are depicted as living three or four hundred years, must have departed and set up their own family arrangements and themselves become something like great‑great‑grandfathers while their own father was still "hale and hearty". Thus the sons who would be near enough to the ancestral home to carry on the father's interests after his death would more naturally be those born somewhat later in life. It might well be that a custom existed defining the time of life at which the son then born would become the one considered as carrying on the family line. It is certainly the case that Abraham, born when his father was 130, became the heir in preference to his elder brothers born something like thirty and sixty years before him. In such case the consistency of these "birth" ages may be intentional. The land, the people and the culture in which and amongst whom these patriarchs lived was that to which historians have given the name Sumerian. The Sumerians, from their earliest days skilled in astronomy, measured time by the Sarus, a period of 18 years, (being the span of time during which all eclipses of the sun and moon recur in the same order; incidentally 70 sarii equal 1260 years, the celebrated Scriptural prophetic number). If in fact Terah was born in Nahor's 129th year then all the nine postdiluvian patriarchs from Cainan to Abraham were born during the eighth sarus of their father's lives (126‑144 years). It could have been the practice that the first son born after the end of the seventh saros was considered the heir. If so, this would strengthen the case for 129 against 79.

Be all this as it may, the position is apparently that the Septuagint, Samaritan and Josephus have preserved the original figures for the duration of this postdiluvian patriarchal era. The two latter are deficient in having omitted Cainan and erred in the age of Abraham. That leaves the Septuagint figure of 1,207 years holding the field. (If the hypothesis of 129 years instead of 79 for Nahor outlined above is sustained, this becomes 1,257 years but it is not possible to be dogmatic.) The Masoretic figure of 427 years obtained by reducing the ages by 100 years each is necessarily unacceptable.

General support to this 1,207 years period is given by what is known of ancient history. The earliest city‑states of the Sumerians were founded at least five centuries before Abraham, some authorities claiming several centuries more, and there was certainly a previous historical period of indeterminate length for which no contemporary records have been found but from later allusions must have lasted quite a few centuries. The birth of Egyptian civilisation goes back as far. Plenty of authorities insist that the civilisations of the Euphrates and Nile valleys could not possibly have emerged in even the period denoted by the Septuagint, that they must have required at least two thousand years, but this is not the place to go into that. So far as present day positive knowledge goes, there are five or perhaps six centuries of known history prior to Abraham, and another six or seven behind that back to the date of the Flood as defined by the Septuagint. The Genesis presentation in chapters 10 and 11 is that the peoples listed in those chapters were natural descendants of the three sons of Noah; there is nothing impossible or unreasonable in accepting that those six or seven hidden centuries, about which history is silent and the brief record in Genesis the only available information, was adequate for that purpose.

If, then, the death of Terah and the entry of Abraham into Canaan, which really marks the commencement of detailed Bible history, did occur some 1,200/1,250 years after the Flood, and if the antediluvian world had previously endured for something like 2,250 years, the implication is that God in his wisdom had waited 3,500 years before even a nucleus among mankind were ready for, and capable of, receiving and understanding the magnitude of the future He plans for them. Abraham was called "the father of the faithful"; his sterling faith and loyalty to God are proverbial. With him the developing Plan of God commenced its outworking, leading on to Israel the people of God in the ancient world, then to Christ the world's Saviour, then on to the Christian Church which is to be associated with Christ in his future work of blessing all mankind, finally to that great day when sin and evil is banished and "all that hath breath shall praise the Lord". It all started with Abraham. But it took God 3,500 years to find Abraham.