8. How old was Abram when Ishmael was born?

Posted: April 19, 2013 in Uncategorized

gen 16:16 ≠ acts 7:2-4, gen 11:26, 11:32

Genesis 16:16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

Acts 7:2-4  To this he replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran. ‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.’  “So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living.

Genesis 11:26  After Terah had lived 70 years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran.

Genesis 11:32  Terah lived 205 years, and he died in Haran.

There’s a whole range of related timing problems in these passages that lead to an apparent contradiction. Let’s try and lay them out:

  • If Terah had Abram when he was 70 and lived to 205, Abram must have been 135 when Terah died
  • We’re told that Terah died in Genesis 11:32, yet five chapters later in Genesis 16:16 we’re told that Abram is only 86 years old, which according to Genesis 11:32 would still be 49 years before Terah’s death

If this was all there was to it, we might assume that Genesis 11:32 is just a summary verse, reporting that Terah lived to a total of 205 years but not implying that he died before Abraham left Haran.

But…

  • Acts 7:4 says God sent Abram to Canaan only after the death of his father
  • But Genesis 12:4 says Abram left Haran for Canaan when he was 75…
  • So that would make Terah 145 when God sent Abram to Canaan, 60 years before his death

So it seems like a pretty strong case that Acts 7:4 contradicts Genesis, even if Genesis doesn’t contradict itself. Are there any possible solutions? There are quite a few suggestions, most of which strike me as a bit desperate. But there are two that I think might hold water:

  1. Perhaps a copying error has entered the Hebrew text, mistakenly altering Terah’s age at his death to 205. The Samaritan Pentateuch and Philo record Terah’s age at his death as being 145, not 205. Both those sources are pre-Christian, so they can’t be fiddling the figures to fit with Acts 7:4. That would resolve the problem, but I’m not wild about it. It would be a big call to go against both the Masoretic text and the Septuagint, which are normally very reliable (although clearly some copying errors have entered both at different points).
  2. When Genesis 11:26 says, “After Terah had lived 70 years he became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran” it probably doesn’t mean he had triplets at 70, but rather that he began to have children at 70, and Abram is listed first not because he is oldest, but because he is the most important. [A similar thing occurs in Genesis 5:32, "After Noah was 500 years old, he became the father of Shem, Ham and Japheth," but Genesis 9:22-24 identifies Ham as the youngest son of Noah, not the second youngest.]

If the second possibility is right then Abram was born when Terah was 130 (or more) and God sent him to Canaan 75 years later, after the death of his father as Acts 7 says. The main objection to this proposal is that if Terah had Abram when he was 130, God’s promise that Abram would have a child at 100 doesn’t seem that amazing, but the Bible always treats it as amazing (eg. Romans 4:19). However, in Genesis 11, given their ages, it doesn’t seem that having children at 100 or even older would be that unusual, although unlike Terah most seem to have their first child around 30. The issue with Abram is not simply that 100 is old to have a child, it’s that 100 is old to have a child when you’ve been trying for decades without any luck and your wife is post-menopausal (Genesis 18:11).

In summary, these verses are possibly contradictory, but not necessarily. The big problem is that Genesis just doesn’t give us enough information to work it all out. Specifically, it doesn’t tell us exactly how old Terah was when Abram was born.

Oh, and how old was Abram when Ishmael was born? 86, just like Genesis 16:16 says.

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