How Old was Terah when Abraham was Born?
Unfortunately, in an attempt to defend the strict chronology of Bible genealogies, there are some who read them without taking into account that certain Hebrew phrases possess a wider connotation than what might be perceived in English. One of these phrases is found several times in Genesis 11. In this chapter, we learn of various Messianic ancestors who lived a certain age and begot sons. For example, verse 16 of that chapter reads: “Eber lived thirty-four years, and begot Peleg.” Later, we read where “Nahor lived 29 years, and begot Terah” (11:24). The sons listed in this chapter are generally thought to be the firstborn sons, yet the evidence shows that this was not always the case because there was not always a father-to-firstborn-son linkage.
Many have assumed that because Genesis 11:26 states, “Now Terah lived seventy years, and begot Abram, Nahor, and Haran,” that Abram (also known as Abraham; cf. Genesis 17:5) was Terah’s firstborn, and that he was born when Terah was 70. The truth is, however, Abraham was not born for another 60 years. When Stephen was delivering his masterful sermon recorded in Acts 7, he stated that Abraham moved to the land of Palestine “after the death of his father [Terah—EL]” (7:4). Yet if Terah was 205 years old when he died (Genesis 11:32), and Abraham departed Haran when he was 75 (Genesis 12:4), then Terah was 130, not 70, when Abraham was born. In light of this information Henry Morris and John Whitcomb have aided us in better understanding Genesis 11:26 by paraphrasing it as follows: “And Terah lived seventy years and begat the first of his three sons, the most important of whom (not because of age but because of the Messianic line) was Abram” (1961, p. 480).
Lest you think this is an isolated incident (where the son mentioned was not the firstborn son), consider another example. Genesis 5:32 states: “And Noah was five hundred years old, and Noah begot Shem, Ham, and Japheth.” Like the situation with Terah begetting Abraham, Nahor, and Haran, here we read that at age 500, Noah begot Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Was Shem the firstborn? Were the three sons of Noah triplets? Or was Shem mentioned first because of his Messianic connection? In all likelihood, the evidence seems to indicate that Shem was not the firstborn, but was born two years later. Consider the following passages:
“Noah was six hundred years old when the flood waters were on the earth” (Genesis 7:6).
“And it came to pass in the six hundred and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, that the waters were dried up from the earth and Noah removed the covering of the ark and looked, and indeed the surface of the ground was dry” (Genesis 8:13, emp. added).
“Shem was one hundred years old, and begot Arphaxad two years after the flood” (Genesis 11:10, emp. added).
These verses seem to suggest that Shem was not born when Noah was 500, but rather when Noah was 502. A comparison of Genesis 11:10 with 10:22 may suggest that Shem’s son, Arphaxad, was not the firstborn son in his family. Likely, Shem, Arphaxad, and others are mentioned first for the same reason Abraham is—because they are Messianic ancestors, and not because they were the firstborn sons of their fathers. Interestingly, numerous other Messianic ancestors, such as Seth, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, and Perez, were not firstborn sons. Was Moses being dishonest when he recorded these genealogies? Absolutely not. We must remember,
the year of begetting a first son, known in the Old Testament as “the beginning of strength,” was an important year in the life of the Israelite (Gen. 49:3; Deut. 21:17; Psa. 78:51; and Psa. 105:36). It is this year…and not the year of the birth of the Messianic link, that is given in each case in Genesis 11 (Whitcomb and Morris, 1961, p. 480).
Just as Genesis 5:32 does not teach that Noah was 500 when Shem was born, Genesis 11:26 does not teach that Abraham was born when Terah was 70. This verse basically means that Terah began having children at age 70, not that all three children were born at that age. According to other passages, Terah was 130 when Abraham was born. Those who allege these passages contradict Genesis 11:26 simply are misunderstanding the text by not taking into account that certain Hebrew phrases possess a wider connotation than what might be perceived in modern-day English.
Custance, Arthur (1967), The Genealogies of the Bible, Doorway Paper #24 (Ottawa, Canada: Doorway Papers).
Whitcomb, John C. and Henry M. Morris (1961), The Genesis Flood (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).