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Pondering Generation Lengths

Nothing of great theological depth tonight, just a random thought:

I had a great grandfather who was a Civil War veteran. Jasper Jeffers Sr. was born in 1843 and served as a corporal in Company E of the 11th Tennessee Cavalry and the 9th Tennessee Cavalry. He married Elizabeth Newport in 1864. Their first child was born in 1865, but they didn’t get around to having my maternal grandfather, Jasper Jr., until 1884. Jasper Jr. also had a large family, of which my mother was the baby. I came along in 1963–exactly 120 years after Jasper Sr.’s birth.

This means that these three generational jumps (Sr. to Jr., Jr. to Mom, Mom to me) took an average of precisely 40 years. If I add another generation at the beginning (Robert G. H. Jeffers, born around 1800) and the end (my kindergartner Rebecca), the average generation length–five jumps in about 200 years–remains approximately 40 years.

We don’t usually encounter generation lengths that long. On the contrary, Rebecca is without question descended from a long line of old people! But neither are such lengths impossible, at least in the short term. Some people marry later in life (or remarry after divorce or the death of a prior spouse); others are descended from the babies of the family rather than the firstborn. Strange as they may seem, these family histories have as much chance of being accurate as something that “seems” more plausible.

In reading the genealogies in the Bible, it is worth keeping in mind that longer-than-usual generation lengths sometimes occur in real life. That doesn’t mean there are never any gaps in the biblical genealogies, only that sometimes, especially when all you have is a chain of names, it isn’t wise to assume that everyone’s family situation was “normal” or “customary” by the standards of that era.

This morning I was looking over my biblical genealogy material and decided that a little stretching of some generation lengths would yield a more plausible setting for the story of Ruth. With a forty-year average generation length counting back from David to his great grandfather Boaz, the events recorded in the book of Ruth line up nicely with the very end of an era of relative peace in Israel.

To be specific, this calculation puts Ruth and Boaz’s courtship around 1131 BC, shortly before the end of the judgeship of Jair (Jdg 10:3) and the tandem oppression of Israel by the Philistines and Ammonites (Jdg 10:7-8). If Ruth’s story took place any later, it would mean she and Naomi relocated to Israel at precisely the time it was being oppressed by foreign powers.

By my calculation, Jair was judge from 1151 to 1130 BC. If I’m right, a severe famine struck the land at the beginning of the final decade of his judgeship. Around 1142-1141, this famine drove Elimelech, Naomi, and their sons to Moab as refugees. Their sons married Moabite women. After “about ten years” (Ruth 1:4) they died. Naomi then returned to Bethlehem with her daughter-in-law Ruth around 1132, where Ruth met Boaz and, in a flourish of genealogical data, the book of Ruth comes to an end.

Figuring an average father-to-son generation length of 30-35 years, we might propose that Obed was born in 1130 and his son, Jesse, was born in 1097. David, Jesse’s youngest son, was then born in 1041 when his father was about 56 years old.

technorati tags: boaz, book of ruth, david, genealogy, generation length, jesse, obed, ruth,



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