I’ve had several readers over the past several months ask me to comment on a post authored by Chuck Missler entitled, “Meanings of the Names in Genesis 5.” The essay puts forth the idea that the list of names in Genesis 5, stretching from Adam to Noah, can be read as though the writer intended the string of names to describe the gospel story:
|Mahalalel||The Blessed God|
|Jared||Shall come down|
|Methuselah||His death shall bring|
|Noah||Rest, or comfort|
To be direct, this conclusion doesn’t follow from the data. That is, it’s a non sequitur. The reason is that both the approach and the data are problematic.1 The goal of using this analysis as some sort of proof for a “cosmic code” is also untenable.2 I’ll briefly explain why as we progress, limiting myself to the problems that are best translatable to this environment and audience (that is, there are more problems that require reading Hebrew and being able to show Hebrew, the latter of which I still can’t do in the blog — I can’t even get the transliteration to show correctly, and so the “single-quote” mark used for Hebrew aleph gets turned around – sorry for that, but nothing I try works).
The Methodological Problem
Missler writes in his beginning:
Since the ten Hebrew names are proper names, they are not translated but only transliterated to approximate the way they were pronounced. The meaning of proper names can be a difficult pursuit since direct translations are not readily available. Many study aids, such as conventional lexicons, can prove superficial when dealing with proper names. Even a conventional Hebrew lexicon can prove disappointing. A study of the original roots, however, can yield some fascinating insights.
The flaw here is a failure to honor the writer’s context and intent. If it is true that the names in this genealogy are proper names, then THAT is how the writer wanted them understood. As we have seen with our discussions of ‘adam, a writer can do things (like add the definite article) when he wanted readers to discern that the term wasn’t a proper name, or let the reader think about more than one option by making the term ambiguous. Conversely, when a proper name was the intent, one would remove the definite article to telegraph that meaning was intended. Missler’s take suggests the writer wanted to hide information (encrypt this “code”). Why the NT writers couldn’t figure this code out and then use it as a proof for the messianic nature of Jesus isn’t explained by Missler. A critic could read him as saying he’d figured out something in the text that Paul (or Jesus) couldn’t, since they never bring it up — which is (I hope) something Missler wouldn’t want to say, as that would amount to a claim of new inspiration. But that’s a problem for all this “code” thinking.
Further, that a “root” might mean something is itself problematic. Many words share common consonants (the “root” or base), but that doesn’t mean all the words that share those consonants have a shared, basic meaning. This thinking is known by scholars and those engaged in serious exegesis as the root fallacy. It isn’t hard to show that it’s a bogus approach to understanding words. For example, suppose I try this in English. Do the following words, all of which share common consonants, really all have some meaning that unites them?
Seriously? Not only is this approach fallacious, but (I hope) it serves to make the point that words only have meaning IN CONTEXT. That is, although you can have three or four words that share a root, they actually don’t “mean” anything (much less share a common meaning) until they are put into a clause or sentence by a writer — a placement that gives the words a grammatical and literary context (when that sentence is considered in light of surrounding sentences, paragraphs, etc.). Words by themselves mean nothing, and so roots of words by themselves mean nothing. And in our case, a writer chose to create a genealogy (there’s the genre / literary context), and so he chose proper names (that’s what goes into a genealogy) and so we can be sure that the writer meant these names to be understood as, well, names.
But Mike (you might object) what about the divine author? He might have meant more! Sure, and if he did, he would have told Paul or some other NT writer under inspiration, so they could have revealed the encrypted prophecy. Do we really want to think God saved that for Chuck Missler? This is what I mean about how these codes can really get you into theological trouble. Now, I don’t think for a minute Chuck Missler wants to go there, but that’s the logic chain, and it’s easy to follow. And just why would God want a prophecy encrypted anyway, when so many other prophecies are fairly transparent — including prophecies about a messiah?
For those interested in words and how they work, including the root fallacy and other fun fallacies, I recommend the following books:
Biblical Words and Their Meaning, by Moises Silva
Exegetical Fallacies, by D. A. Carson
Linguistics & Biblical Interpretation, by Peter Cotterell
The Etymological / Philological Problems
Now for the specifics.3 Let’s take the names one by one.
Missler writes: “The first name, Adam, comes from adomah, and means “man.” As the first man, that seems straightforward enough.” Well, it actually isn’t, as Naked Bible readers know by now. First, the name “Adam” does not “come from” the word ‘adamah (Missler misspells it as adomah, with an “o” vowel, or his source did). The word ‘adamah means “ground” or “land.”
Adam” as a proper name comes from ‘adam, which, as we have seen in earlier posts, can mean “human, humanity, man” or the proper name, “Adam.”4
Missler says that Seth’s name means “appointed.” This is a possibility, though Hebrew and Semitics scholars disagree. Wenham’s comment is representative:
Though Eves explanation of Seths name suggests it is derived from the verb shiyt/siyt (to place, put) there may be no etymological connection, simply paronomasia.5
If Seth does derive from this Hebrew verb, since the term refers to an object (a person) it would actually be better translated “substitute,” not “appointed” as Missler suggests.
“Seth’s son was called Enosh, which means “mortal,” “frail,” or “miserable.” It is from the root anash: to be incurable; used of a wound, grief, woe, sickness, or wickedness. (It was in the days of Enosh that men began to defile the name of the Living God).
The statement is odd. There is no Scripture citation that in the days of Enosh people began defiling God’s name. I’m guessing that he means Gen 4:26, which most Bibles have as: “At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord” (ESV). Missler thinks that a mistranslation, but it isn’t. The difference between that translation and having the verse say that “people began to defile the name of the Lord” is due to the first of two verbs in a sequence being a Hebrew homonym. Like English, Hebrew has distinct words that are spelled exactly the same way but are divergent in meaning (e.g., “lead” [the verb] and “lead” [the metal] — and think of how that also muddies the “root” idea discussed above). To illustrate:
Since Hebrew moves from right to left, one cannot cheat and translate the two as “began to defile.” Not only is “defile” the (potential) first word, but the second one “to call” is quite clear (and has the infinitival lamed prefix). And so, you either go with “began to call” or “defiled to call.” I think the first option makes better sense (the latter really makes no sense at all).
But all that is actually beside the point. Does ‘enosh mean “mortal, frail, miserable”? The word ‘enosh means “man” or “human.” This is clear from its scriptural use, where it is commonly occurs in poetic parallelism with ‘adam. A meaning of “mortal” can work here, so I don’t have a problem with that. But the idea that ‘enosh “comes from” a root that means “mortal, frail, miserable” is not correct. That idea comes from a different word, ‘enush. Transferring meaning from one to the other is to commit the root fallacy.
Enosh’s son was named Kenan, from which can mean “sorrow,” dirge,” or “elegy.” (The precise denotation is somewhat elusive; some study aids unfortunately presume an Aramaic root synonymous with “Cainan.”) Balaam, looking down from the heights of Moab, employed a pun upon the name of the Kenites when he prophesied their destruction.
This is another odd description. First, Aramaic has little to do with seeing this name as “Cainan.” The fact is that this name is spelled qynn, the first three consonants of which are identical to qyn (“Cain”). The Septuagint transliterated the name as “Cainan.” The only difference in the consonants (Hebrew originally had no vowels) is the final “n”. Scholars disagree on its role in the name. Some take it as a diminutive (in which case it would be an appendage that means “little,” and so “little Cain” would be the meaning). There is precedent for an “n” diminutive in biblical Hebrew, but scholars have not found the argument compelling enough for consensus. And the option invariably takes us into the issue of whether the genealogies of Gen 4 and 5 came from a single source or not, which is well beyond the scope of what we’re doing here. Another option is that the final “n” is (in academese) “hypocoristic” (a term that in effect means “it’s a nickname for Cain”). I have no idea what Missler is angling for in the reference to Balaam. I suppose that he wants to connect the spelling of qynn with qyny (“Kenites”), but that wouldn’t explain the final “n” anyway. And what Balaam was doing isn’t of value for what the writer of Genesis 5 was doing when writing a genealogy. The contexts are entirely different.
The fact that no one is really sure how to take the final “n” also points to the fact that no one really knows what the term would mean *if it were not a proper name*. Missler’s suggestion (he gives no source) apparently comes from taking the meaning of the noun qynh (an altogether different word) and transferring that meaning to this name. Again, the root fallacy raises its head.
Missler writes that the name “means ‘blessed’ or ‘praise; and El, the name for God. Thus, Mahalalel means ‘the Blessed God’.” This rendering is scarcely possible in light of Hebrew morphology. The verbal root is h-l-l, and does mean “to praise.” The prefixed “m” indicates that this form is a participle (unlike the other examples he gives). That means “El” (“God”) is its object. The name means “praising God” — which does not fit at all with Missler’s allegorical interpretation of the sequence.
Scholars would agree with Missler’s note that this name has the same consonants (y-r-d) as the Hebrew verb yarad (“to go/come down”). The problem here is that this is a proper name. That the consonants are the same does not prove that the meaning of the verb with the same consonants is to be transferred to the name. A convenient modern parallel is illustrative: are we to assume that RUSH Limbaugh’s name “means” to hurry? Or should RUSH be understood as “a tufted marsh plant,” or perhaps “a fraternity’s recruitment tradition”?6 I hope you get the point. The meaning is therefore uncertain. Other issues contribute to this uncertainty. First, the same consonants occur in 1 Chron 4:18 (also a genealogy) vocalized as Yered. Second, the consonants, if understood verbally, could also be translated as a command “Go down!” Third, Akkadian parallels to the term suggest a meaning of “slave” or “servant,” though not all scholars accept those parallels as decisive here (See Hess’ book in footnote 5, pp. 69-70).
Missler notes that Enoch (spelled with consonants ch[h-dot]-n-k) means “‘teaching,’ or ‘commencement’.” This is a bit misleading in that he gets each meaning from a different word (or, at least that is the case with respect to the Semitic data).The two possible roots are also technically not in the same language, though they are both Semitic. There is a Hebrew verb ch-n-k that means “to train up, dedicate,” and a West Semitic verb of the same spelling that means “to introduce, initiate.” That the latter and not the former (the choice of Missler’s allegorical string) may be the best option here is suggested by the context of the same name in Gen 4:17, where Enoch was the first offspring of Cain, and the namesake of the city built by Cain. Now, if it be presumed that this was the first city, then the “initiate” meaning would go much better as a meaning. Since no other cities are mentioned in Genesis prior to this one, it appears that the writer is casting this city as the first one built. There is no rationale I can see, other than to make the allegory “work,” for Missler to choose “teaching” over the other. At any rate, it’s far from secure.
Enoch named his son to reflect this prophecy. The name Methuselah comes from two roots: muth, a root that means “death”; and from shalach, which means “to bring,” or “to send forth.” Thus, the name Methuselah signifies, “his death shall bring.”
This is incorrect. Although Missler has a footnote for this claim, the sources are not Hebrew scholars, hence the error. The first part of the name is the problem. Hebrew scholars know that the first part of the name is not muth (more properly, moth, if the meaning would he “death”), but rather Hebrew mt (“man”; this lemma occurs just over 20 times; see e.g., Deut 2:34; 3:6).7 That mt and not an original muth/moth is the first part is known because of rules of Hebrew orthography (“spelling”) and vowel reduction. An original “historically long” vowel such as required by muth/moth will not reduce to shewa, as it is in the Hebrew text of Methuselah’s name.8 The meaning of Methuselah’s name is therefore “man of sh-l-ch.” Missler assumes the second element is a verb, but there are actually a number of translation options, since there is more than one sh-l-ch in biblical Hebrew (and wider Semitic). The most plausible is “weapon, spear” (see this sh-l-ch in Joel 2:8; Neh 4:17; 2 Sam 18:14). The name “Methuselah” would then mean “man of the spear” (i.e., “warrior”). Other scholars see a reference to a river sh-l-ch or a deity by that name. The one thing it cannot mean is what Missler suggests.
I have to be honest. The treatment of this name is egregious. Though I appreciate Missler’s wide influence as a catalyst for people to get into the Bible, what he does here would get him in serious trouble in a hermeneutics or exegesis class, much less a Hebrew class. Missler elicits a meaning for this name on the basis that it sounds like an ENGLISH word (“lament”)! He writes:
Methuselah’s son was named Lamech, a root still evident today in our own English word, “lament” or “lamentation.” Lamech suggests “despairing.”
No language in human history can be interpreted this way. Just because a Chinese word might aurally sound like a word in my language (or any other language) doesn’t mean it shares the same meaning as the word from the other language!
It isn’t hard to show how deeply flawed this idea is. Anyone who has studied another language besides their own knows that the new language has similar sounding words or vowel-consonant combinations to words in their native language, and yet there is absolutely no relation in meaning. Put bluntly: Hebrew and English are not the same language. But for those to whom that isn’t obvious, let me illustrate.
Consider these three Hebrew words: yam, sod, regel. Do they really correspond to English words for “sweet potato”; “dirt”; “to squirm”? Hardly. They mean, in order, “sea”; “council”; “foot/leg.” I could provide hundreds of examples from a range of languages to demonstrate the absurdity of this approach. Anyone who has studied a language other than English could also contribute their own list.
I should add that the Hebrew word translated “lament” is qiynah. No aural resemblance to Lamech.
The reality is that Lamech has no known, certain “meaning” so far as scholars can determine. Here is a sampling of the speculation:
Like Abel for hebel, Lamek is the pausal form of Lemek, but unlike Abel, not certainly of Hebrew derivation. It may be connected with Sumerian lumga, a title of Ea, as patron deity of song and music, but this is very doubtful. Other suggestions based on Arabic include strong youth or oppressor.”9
This name is well understood. It means “rest” as Missler notes.
So where does this leave us? It quite clearly means that Missler’s allegorical “sentence” or prophecy (or “code”) in Genesis 5 is bogus.
I hope readers see the larger point, however. WHY would God want to encrypt a message that is found elsewhere plainly in sight? The whole idea makes no sense. Frankly, if we need these sorts of “codes” to stimulate us to believe that God was capable of prompting men to write down revelation for human posterity, there’s a serious problem with our faith and theological thinking. If one believes in God, and that such a God can do something as simple as prompt humans to write something down, and then further prompt them to preserve it, inspiration doesn’t need some magical justification. It’s a simple, reasonable idea.
- Let me say that, while I think Missler’s essay is misguided and deficient in terms of understanding Hebrew grammar and philology, Missler is to be commended for prompting so many lay people to get interested in studying the Bible. I personally know a number of people whose interest in Scripture is directly traced to Missler’s influence. ↩
- Many readers will know what I think of Bible codes in general. The idea that the Bible has embedded codes that somehow escaped the attention of inspired OT and NT authors when they themselves comment or quote the Bible is, to say the least, theologically troublesome. The goal of inspiration / producing the Bible was clear communication, not encryption. Every code argument I’ve seen fails to consider the multiplicity of manuscript data, which goes far beyond differences in words. Rather, it extends to phrases and arrangement (micro and macro) of large blocks of Scripture content — e.g., differences between LXX and MT. ↩
- The screenshots come from Logos Bible Software’s Dictionary of Biblical Languages: Hebrew. For readers who know some Hebrew and can follow transliteration, I recommend Richard Hess’s scholarly work on this subject: Studies in the Personal Names of Genesis 1 to 11. ↩
- Incidentally, ‘adam is one of several words that share the root consonants: ‘-d-m (aleph, daleth, mem). Others include ‘edom (red, Edom – Edom had reddish dirt) and ‘adom (the color red or blood — but of course not all things that are red have anything to do with blood). And for those familiar with my critiques of the ancient astronaut nonsense of Zecharia Sitchin, please note that the Sumerian scholar A. W. Sjoberg (he was professor of Sumerian at Penn when I was there) notes that Sumerian á-dam is not actually Sumerian; rather, he demonstrates that it was brought into Sumerian after being *borrowed from* Canaan! See A. W. Sjoberg, “Eve and the Chameleon.” Pages 217-225 in In the Shelter of Elyon: Essays on Ancient Palestinian Life and Literature in Honor of G.W. Ahlstrom (W.B. Barrick & A.R. Spencer, eds.; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1984). ↩
- Gordon J. Wenham, vol. 1, Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15, 115. The word “paranomasia” is a literary term for word play. Wikipedia: “a form of word play which suggests two or more meanings, by exploiting multiple meanings of words, or of similar-sounding words, for an intended humorous or rhetorical effect.” ↩
- Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 2003. ↩
- See Hess, Studies in the Personal Names of Genesis 1-11, p. 70; Wenham, Genesis 1-15, Word Biblical Commentary, p. 128; Sarna, Genesis; Jewish Publication Society Commentary, p. 43; Hamilton, Genesis 1-17; New International Commentary of the Old Testament, p. 258. ↩
- See Jouon-Muraoka, Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, Sec. 29b. ↩
- Wenham, p. 112. The Arabic term alluded to by Hamilton would be yalmak, “powerful man”. ↩