Genesis 5: Of Persons and Priests

When I was younger I used to skip chapters like Genesis 5 that were comprised only of genealogies of “patriarchs,” a bunch of men who lived to ridiculously old ages and had many children but only one worth noting. Someone coined a term for these chapters, the “begats” of the Bible, because so-and-so begat so-and-so, and so on and so forth. These chapters were really repetitive, listing a guy’s name, the age he was when he had his first child, the fact that he had many more children, and the age he died. They were full of unfamiliar names, like Mahalel and Methuselah. And more than anything I had a lot of trouble determining what the importance of these lists was. I guess I just didn’t have the imagination necessary – or the superior genius – to chart the age of the earth based on a series of tall tales about 900 year old men. To me, these genealogies were just something to skim over on the way to better stories.

For the most part there is no story to Genesis 5. I suppose you could make the argument that the chapter begins with Adam, the man who broke the rules in Eden resulting in humankind toiling away at the earth for hours on end, and ends with Noah, the man who apparently sussed some sort of relief out of the poisoned ground, and that this resembles a story. But the truth is that the genealogy has more of a philosophical significance. The idea of the image of God takes center stage here, forcing the question, “Who is created in the image of God? All of humankind or just a select few?” And if that is not enough, there is an added bonus concept of a son in the likeness or image of Adam as well. With this language abounding, the reader is required to consider what these image relationships mean and who they apply to.

The scope of the image of God is confounded by a funny quality of the Hebrew word “Adam,” which could be understood as a proper noun, referring to a particular person named Adam, or as a common noun meaning “humankind.” The same sentence can be rendered two different ways:

When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God.

When God created Adam, he made him in the likeness of God. [Gen. 5:1 NRSV]

Depending on how you understand the wording, the group of people created in the image of God may include only Adam, Adam and Eve, Adam and his heirs, all humankind, or even only those humans descended from the original garden dwellers, excluding those people outside of and to the East of Eden who welcomed Cain into his life of wandering.

The scope of the image of Adam becomes similarly confusing. Adam fathered “a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth” [5:3]. If we flash back to the previous chapter, Seth was given to Adam and Eve as a replacement, as Eve says, “God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel, because Cain killed him” [4:25]. If there is continuity between these chapters, then Abel would have been the child created in Adam’s image. Perhaps the entire lineage of men in Chapter 5 are the children who share the image of Adam (which may or may not be different from the image of God). Noah seems especially to embody the image of Adam. After all, because of forthcoming events he becomes the second coming of the first man. Do all of the descendants of Adam share in his likeness, or only those selected and named? Was Cain a son created in his father’s image? If so, perhaps the likeness faded once Cain committed murder. If not, then I think we finally know why God chose the offering of Cain. Maybe it had more to do with the one making the offer than the product that was offered.

It is difficult to understand who is seen in an image relationship with whom without first postulating as to what being in the image of another means. This concept is worthy of further discussion, but for the sake of moving this particular discussion forward I want to suggest that the image of God is another way of talking about personhood and the image of Adam is another way of talking about priesthood.

Those created in the image of God are persons. Like God, who is a singularity, persons cannot be replaced. Their existence ought to be treated with reverence. Persons are co-creators, be they parents, artists, builders, farmers, or anything else, but also stewards of that which God created (the whole cosmos). Persons are to be treated with dignity, never killed, never lied to, never cheated on. There is no need for the Ten Commandments if persons only understand that they are created in the image of God. What God is in actuality, persons are in potential. This applies to all of humanity. Cain’s fault was not recognizing the personhood in Abel, and similarly we have enacted endless chains of violence because we dehumanize others. We image that we can remove their personhood, and with it their entitlement to life and liberation.

If I didn’t believe that the first several chapters of Genesis are thinly veiled discussions of the early Jewish priesthood (an idea that my buddy Rodney set me onto), I certainly would have after reading Genesis 5. If the origin story is about all of humankind, then why are those outside of the garden not even mentioned until after Cain is exiled? And why, when we reach the genealogies, do we only learn of one person each generation as opposed to the plethora of interesting and dynamic persons who must have populated the planet? This is because the story of Adam is the story of the first high priest. (Yes, this story is highly male-centered, but there is no reason to believe that Eve is not a high priest as well. Those humans that were created in the image of God were created as both male and female, after all. Not just male.) Abel would have inherited the role of high priest from Adam, but Cain put a stop to that, so the role passed to Seth. This explains how in irreplaceable child created in the image of God could be replaced by another – it is not the person who is being replaced, but the priest! After this, one male in each generation, along with, potentially, his wife, is made the high priest, and left to receive commandments from God, to teach humankind, to plea for humankind’s sake, to enter into covenants, and to generally act as a human-God relations associate.

Genesis 5 is much more than a simple genealogy. Of course, I’m probably not the only person who believes it impossible to call a genealogy “simple” when it includes a person (Enoch) who never died but who joined God at the end of his days. This chapter is certainly not a chapter to skip. It is the conclusion of the great creation epic in which all of humanity is created and granted the dignity that any irreplaceable entity deserves with one chosen each generation for the horrors of communicating between a fearful God and a violent animal called Adam, AKA humankind. But after creation comes destruction, and this destruction begins when first the name Noah is written.

To be continued…

Further Reading:

Letter to a Confused Young Christian at Political Jesus

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