The significance of Genesis chapter five is best understood through a comparative study alongside chapter four. In its context, the genealogy section is not a trivial side note but a pivotal feature of the primeval history.
Genesis four is the failed lineage of Cain. It begins with wicked Cain, ends with wicked Lamech, and is ultimately washed out by the flood. As discussed in the previous article, it is a spiral of moral decay.
Genesis five is not called the genealogy of Seth, but of Adam (Genesis 5:1-3). It begins in much the same ways a chapter two (2:4). The generations of Adam were not fully subverted by the rebellion of Adam, Cain, and his descendants. The story continues in another genealogy. Genesis five begins with the Creation to indicate to the reader that God’s purpose for humanity continues.
One key point that emphasizes the comparative nature of these two chapters is the presence of two men named Lamech.
First, we meet the Lamech of Cain’s lineage (4:18). He is the first recorded polygamist (4:19). Like his forefather, he is a murderer (4:23). He is a man who bragged about his sins (4:23). He is a man who irreverently mocked God’s word (4:24).
In contrast, the Lamech of Seth’s lineage is altogether different (5:25-29). He is the father of Noah, the world’s last righteous man (6:9). He is a man who understood God’s curse on humanity’s sin and its history (5:28-29). He is a man who believed God would bless his creation with “relief” (5:28-29). In short, Lamech son of Seth is the polar opposite of Lamech son of Cain.
Long Years & Long Life
But what do the long ages of man mean in chapter five? Methuselah lived 969 years (5:25-27). Far more important than debating whether such ages were possible is the discussion of why we needed this detail in the story. That it is important to the story is clear from the specificity of the ages and the insistence on conveying that detail for each recorded generation.
But why should we care? The moral seems to be both subtle and simple. Life is lost by sin and regained by grace. Cain’s lineage has no age attached. Long life is only recorded for those who belong to the continued purpose of God in chapter four. The prophets of the Old Testament and the New continue to use this type of language to describe the ideal culmination of God’s project for humanity.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed. (Isaiah 65:19-20)
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Revelation 21:4)
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb … also, on either side of the river, the tree of life … yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:1-2)
Life is the trademark of faithfulness, just as violence and death is the sad stamp of unfaithfulness.
The Meaning of Legacy
A final observation on these two chapters notices the meaning of human legacy. What does Cain accomplish? Cain built the first city (4:17). His descendants are skilled in ranching (4:20), music (4:21), and metal working (4:22). The story paints him as the father of human civilization, but what did these accomplishments amount to in the flood?
In contrast, what do Adam & Seth accomplish? No mention is made of any great contributions or achievements in chapter five. Instead, we see men of faith like Enoch (5:18-24), Lamech, and Noah. Their accomplishment is in the faith of their children. While Cain’s lineage was trying to live out their own story, Adam’s lineage was satisfied to live out the story of God. Cain’s line sought immortality in human accomplishments, but even cities crumble. Seth’s line all died, but each passed on a heritage of faith that endured.
The memory of the righteous is a blessing, but the name of the wicked will rot. (Proverbs 10:7)
The accomplishment of a lifetime is in the faith passed to our children. Cain built for his son. Seth built into his son. Cain sacrificed his sons to success. Seth found success in his sons.
Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep. Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate. (Psalm 127)