Abraham’s Genealogy and a Lesson in Foreshadowing

Abraham’s Genealogy and a Lesson in Foreshadowing

Photo of Sarah with Isaac
“Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” (Gen 21:7 NRS)

In the series of character studies on Abraham, I’ve been taking my cues so far from Hebrews Chapter 11 and the stories that it relates about Abraham as an example of great faith. We’ve learned a lot about him and there are still more stories to go. So I want to go back now to the beginning and see how this story developed.

In some ways, Abraham represents a transition from really ancient times, when in the Bible you regularly see people living lifespans of hundreds of years, to getting closer to lifespans we are accustomed to.

If you go back to the first man, Adam, we have this.

When Adam had lived one hundred thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth. The days of Adam after he became the father of Seth were eight hundred years; and he had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred thirty years; and he died.

(Gen 5:3-5 NRS)

Before this, Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel, and Cain ended up murdering his brother, Abel. So now they have another son when Adam is one hundred thirty years old.

Don’t roll your eyes at me

Now if you’re rolling your eyes at me and saying, “Come on. We all know this is a fairy tale. It never really happened,” stop! It doesn’t matter whether it “really happened” for what I’m doing. I’m not looking at history. I’m looking at this story. So even if you don’t believe it really happened (and I will admit I have serious doubts myself) that doesn’t change the story. I’m looking to see what it would have meant to the people for whom it was originally written. Every nation in ancient times has some kind of origin story, and most of them we agree didn’t really happen. But we still study them to learn something about the people. What does this tell us about the people and how they saw themselves?

So even if you don’t believe this is real history there are still plenty of reasons to study it. In this case, I’m looking ahead to the story of Abraham and Sarah. There’s a pattern developing, and it’s going to be important when we get to Abraham and Sarah.

So when Adam is one hundred thirty years old, he has a son named Seth. Today, we couldn’t even imagine most of us living to one hundred thirty years old, much less, if we make it, then having a son. It would have been the same for the original audience of this document. It goes on to say,

The days of Adam after he became the father of Seth were eight hundred years; and he had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred thirty years; and he died.

(Gen 5:4-5 NRS)

So Adam, the first man in this saga, lived nine hundred thirty years. Here’s some interesting trivia. Who was the oldest person in the Bible?

When Methuselah had lived one hundred eighty-seven years, he became the father of Lamech. Methuselah lived after the birth of Lamech seven hundred eighty-two years, and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty-nine years; and he died.

(Gen 5:25-27 NRS)

So the answer to that question, it was Methuselah. He lived nine hundred sixty-nine years and had his first son at one hundred eighty-seven.

By the time we get to Noah and the flood, he was six hundred years old when the flood happened. He lived a little bit longer after the flood, so he was somewhere in his six hundreds when he died. We’ve gone from 900-something to 600-something. And then we get to the descendants of Noah: Shem, Ham and Japheth.

Abraham’s story begins

The stories of Abraham are bookended by genealogical frameworks. So the genealogy of Shem is officially the beginning of Abraham’s story.

When Shem was one hundred years old, he became the father of Arpachshad two years after the flood; and Shem lived after the birth of Arpachshad five hundred years, and had other sons and daughters.

(Gen 11:10-11 NRS)

So his total lifespan is six hundred years. His father lives into his 600’s, so this is still in the same ballpark. He has a son named Arpachshad when he is one hundred. Remember, Abraham was a hundred when he had Isaac.

When Arpachshad had lived thirty-five years, he became the father of Shelah; and Arpachshad lived after the birth of Shelah four hundred three years, and had other sons and daughters.

(Gen 11:12-13 NRS)

Okay, Arpachshad is thirty-five years old when he has his first son. This is much closer to our normal, and importantly, closer to the normal of the first audience of the book of Genesis. There’s also a dramatic shift in lifespan. We’ve gone from his father living six hundred years to four hundred three years for Arpachshad. He was the father of Shelah.

When Shelah had lived thirty years, he became the father of Eber;

(Gen 11:14 NRS)

Shelah is thirty when he has his first son. Again we’re in territory that’s closer to the experience of the original audience. I’m going to skip ahead to verses 20-21.

When Reu had lived thirty-two years, he became the father of Serug; and Reu lived after the birth of Serug two hundred seven years, and had other sons and daughters. 

(Gen 11:20-21 NRS)

Again, we’re still in this normal range of having the first son somewhere around thirty years old. The lifespan, though, is going down. Shelah in verse 15 lived four hundred three years. Now Serug lived two hundred thirty-nine years. This is a few generations later, and you see there is a definite downward trend in terms of average lifespan. I’m going to skip ahead to Nahor.

When Nahor had lived twenty-nine years, he became the father of Terah; and Nahor lived after the birth of Terah one hundred nineteen years, and had other sons and daughters. 

(Gen 11:24-25 NRS)

We’re getting close to the birth of Abraham, and there is a significant drop off from over two hundred years. Nahor had his first son at twenty-nine, but lived after that one hundred nineteen years. So he lived to be one hundred forty-eight. That’s still a long time by our standards, but it is a far cry from the nine hundred sixty-nine years of Methuselah, and the six hundred years of Noah and Shem. When we get to Arpachshad, it’s four hundred some years, on down to Reu, who lives two hundred some years. And now Nahor, Abraham’s grandfather, is down to one hundred forty-eight years. Next is Terah, who was Abram’s father.

When Terah had lived seventy years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran.

(Gen 11:26 NRS)

Does that mean they were triplets? Maybe. Maybe it just means that by the time he was seventy, he had three sons named Abram, Nahor and Haran. So when Terah was seventy, Abram had been born. They’re still living pretty long lifespans, into their hundreds, but again you see the downward trend.

Abram and Sarai

Abram's Counsel to Sarai by Tissot
You believe the angel, don’t you?

When we get into the story of Abram and Sarai (later renamed Abraham and Sarah), he was eighty-six when he had his first son, Ishmael. But his wife, Sarai, still had not had a son. She was ninety-one when she had her first son, Isaac, and Abraham was one hundred. On average, men are having their first son around thirty years old. The author is showing that this is late for Abram and Sarai to be having children.

Since Eve, the author did not talk about the mothers in detail until now. This was a patriarchal society. The lineages were traced through the father. But it was important in this story that Abraham and Sarah have a son. It was so important that even when Abraham was one hundred, God came in and said, “It’s not too late.”

He went on to live to one hundred seventy-five. Sarah was one hundred twenty-seven years old when she died. When you first hear that, you might think that it was not impossible at that point, since people were living well into their hundreds on average. They were still in middle-age. The man still might be able to rise to the occasion. The woman still might be of fertile, childbearing age for that time. That would not have been normal, but maybe it would have been possible.

For writers: Know your audience’s expectations

The original audience probably would have wondered the same thing. The author wants to establish that Abraham and Sarah were both “too old” to procreate when Isaac was born. The author will make that clear at the right time. But at first, he wants to keep that question open.

As writers, we can learn something from this. The author knows his audience’s expectations. They have heard stories of people in ancient times living for hundreds of years. Before we even meet Abram and Sarai, the author is hinting at the answer, but not giving it away. He has established the average lifespan and average age when the first child is born has been going down steadily from Adam to Abraham.

When the moment of truth comes in the story, the author says when Sarah became pregnant and gave birth to Isaac, it was impossible not only for her but for Abraham. They had stopped having sex some years earlier. That part of their marriage life was a thing of the past. She had passed menopause, and Abraham was no longer able to rise to the occasion. To an audience that has heard of ancient lifespans being a few hundred years, he has hinted just enough in the genealogy to prepare them for this. She was ninety, he was ninety-nine, and even with the average lifespan back then, they were too old.

Also for writers: Foreshadowing

The first eleven chapters of Genesis answers questions about the origins of the world, people, and nations. The author, however, draws the added benefit of foreshadowing from the genealogies. When God promises a son to Abraham and Sarah, it is a crucial moment in their story. Abraham is ninety-nine, and Sarah is ninety. If you compare them with Methuselah, you might think they were just teenagers. They have plenty of time to have a son.

But the genealogy showed how, over time, the average age for childbirth and lifespan went down steadily. By the time you get to Nahor, Abraham’s grandfather, people are having their first child around thirty on average. Is it too late for Abraham and Sarah?

The author doesn’t necessarily need the foreshadowing. He states clearly that Sarah had passed menopause, and they were no longer having sex, so yes, it’s too late. But the foreshadowing hinted just enough to raise the question for a second and create a little more tension, before dropping the anvil on their hopes.

Foreshadowing is a good technique, but you have to know how to use it. If it’s too heavy-handed, it usually backfires. The reader sees it coming, so it lessens the impact. The author of Abraham’s story in Geneses used it subtly, and it added another layer of tension.

If you want to learn more about using foreshadowing effectively, this is a good example to study.

  1. Skim chapters 5 through 11 of Genesis. You don’t have to memorize everyone’s names and ages. Just notice how the numbers go down.
  2. Then read chapter 18. Start with verses 1-10 and pause. The angel of the LORD has just made the promise. You know Abraham and Sarah’s ages as compared with the last four generations or so. How does it feel? Do you wonder if it is still possible for them?
  3. Then read Sarah’s reaction in verses 11-12. That’s your answer. Sarah (and we must assume Abraham also) believes that ship has sailed.

Not that it’s a surprise, but did that moment of uncertainty make the impact of her hopelessness stronger for you? It did for me. So there’s an example of an effective use of foreshadowing.

Do you think you could use it in your story? How could you use subtle foreshadowing to heighten the tension at your story’s crucial moment?

What do you mean “too old”?

Abraham Serving the Three Angels by Rembrandt
The angel tells Abraham he and Sarah will have a son. Do you see Sarah eavesdropping?

Then the angel of the LORD steps in one day, visits them in their tent, and says, “By this time next year Sarah will have a son.”

She laughed, and the angel is like, “Why did you laugh?”

She said, “I didn’t laugh.”

“Oh yes, you did laugh.”

Great use of dialog, by the way. You feel her nervousness when she says, “I didn’t laugh.” And then her embarrassment when the angel says, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

But the angel said something to her that turned things around. “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?”

They had heard promises like this before. God had promised Abraham a son of “his own issue,” but God did not say when and did not promise it would be with Sarah. So he ended up sleeping with Hagar, because Sarah said, “I can’t give you a son. Go in to my handmaid. You need to have a son, because God commanded it.”

He did, and he had a son. God promised to bless Ishmael. But this time God promised specifically, not just Abraham’s issue, but you, Sarah, will have a son by this time next year. I know it looks impossible, but is anything too wonderful for the LORD?

They counted God faithful

Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac
“Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?”

The angel of the LORD said in effect, “God made a promise. Do you believe it?”

They did, even though it was “impossible,” and even though anyone would probably wonder why God waited until now to fulfill that promise. Of course, it wouldn’t have mattered whether they believed or not if Abraham couldn’t get it up. God must have given him some heavenly Viagra. (Hey, the Bible talks about this frankly, so why can’t I?)

Shortly after that encounter with the angel, Sarah started menstruating again. This was their chance. If Abraham was able. Around the same time, Abraham’s dead flesh came back to life. Guess what, Sarah? For the first time in several years, they came together again as husband and wife.

God told them they would have a son together “at the appointed time,” which was within one year. They named him Isaac, which means “he laughs,” because they had both laughed when God first said it to them.

They did not believe instantly. They did not believe constantly throughout their lives. They went through periods of doubt, probably wondering if Abraham was insane. But this time the angel promised, they both heard it, and they knew God was serious. They counted him faithful who had promised, and that’s why they are in the faith Hall of Fame of Hebrews Chapter 11.

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