The fifth chapter of the Book of Genesis is the first major stumbling block to those who would like to read the Bible. Unlike the majestic poetic language of the Creation and the drama of the Garden of Eden and its first human inhabitants followed by the tragic events in chapter 4, chapter 5 of Genesis, the list of the ante-diluvian patriarchs, their ages and their individual descendants, is an arid list of names and numbers, devoid of drama or other element that might hold one's interest. Moreover, the exaggerated ages assigned to these individuals strain the sense of reality of rational readers who are not true believers in the absolute truth of the words simply because they are a part of what we call the Sacred Scriptures.
Any attempt to understand the significance of the contents of this chapter must fail without a knowledge of the wealth of literature and tradition which preceded the composition of this document. Moreover, once this pre-biblical data is revealed and understood, the significance of this chapter can be appreciated. In addition, a comparison with these earlier sources shows how it differs from them and in what manner it modified its understanding of this early historical record.
One of the elements in this document that we should understand is the fact that these names are not intended to indicate the individuals or their nature. The names are symbolic. We may not translate each name exactly as the composer of this list intended, but some of them can be translated and understood and the list then begins to assume more reasonable meaning.
The first and the third names; Adam and Enosh, mean exactly the same. Each of them means "Man." There is significance in the fact that they have the same meaning, which will be clarified. Kénan can be translated
--on the basis of cognate meanings in other Semitic languages-- as "Metalsmith." This is the same as the name Kayin in chapter 4, where Tubal-Kayin is described as the "forger of all instruments of bronze and iron;" in other words, the father of all those who work with metals.1
Mahalalel can be broken into its component parts. written as Mahalal-El and translated as "The one who praises God." For the name Jared (or Yared) I do not have a certain explanation. Since the root letters of the name are the same as the verb "to descend," one can speculate that it may have something to do with working the soil. More than that one cannot say. The "son" of Jared is named Hanokh in Hebrew, written, by way of the Greek transliteration, as Enoch in English. The figure of Enoch is most interesting for many features which will be explained.
Following Enoch is Methushelah, written, because of the Greek transliteration, as Methuselah. The name can be translated as "Man of the sword." And Methushelah is followed by Lamech and Noah. The list and the chapter end with the statement "Noah became the father of Shem, Ham and Japheth."