A period of time and its significant events comprising the lifespan of a person but also used to talk of a more indefinite timespan. Two Hebrew words are at times translated, “generation.” The more significant of these is toledoth, derived from the Hebrew verb, “to bear children.” Toledoth gives structure to the Book of Genesis (Genesis 2:4;
Genesis 10:1,Genesis 10:32;
Genesis 11:10,Genesis 11:27;
Genesis 25:12-13,Genesis 25:19;
Genesis 36:1,Genesis 36:9;
Genesis 37:2). Thus creation, Adam, Noah, Noah's sons, Shem, Terah, Ishmael, the sons of Ishmael, Isaac, Esau, and Jacob each provide a generation and a structural unit in the Genesis narrative. In writing a narrative this way, Israel followed a pattern long used by Near Eastern neighbors, that of describing creation as a series of births. Israel, as so often under divine inspiration, radically changed the pattern. Israel's neighbors spoke of the birth of gods, such births representing at the same time a part of the universe, since the sun, the moon, the stars were all looked upon as gods. Israel simply spoke of the birth of creation by God's words and actions. This started a process by which human generations would endure as long as the creation generation endured. Each human generation lasts from the death of the father through the death of the son. This was the time when the son functioned as head of the larger Hebrew extended family. Often the aged patriarch presided over the active leadership of his sons as seen particularly in the cases of Isaac and Jacob. Human history in its simplest form of family history is then the way God tells His story of working with human beings to bless them and to accomplish His purposes for them. He works not only in miraculous, unique events; He works also in the continuing series of human births and deaths. Elsewhere toledoth appears in genealogical lists such as
Exodus 6:1, Numbers 1,
1 Chronicles 1-9.
The Hebrew term dor is related to the word for circle and refers to the life circle of an individual, either from birth to death or from birth to the birth of the first child. It can have extended uses in metaphorical language. Dor occurs over 160 times in the Old Testament. A generation was a general term for those persons living at a particular time. A generation did not necessarily have a specific number of years.
Genesis 15:13-16 apparently equates 400 years with four generations, thus 100 years per generation.
Numbers 32:11-13 may reckon a generation as 60 years, it including people twenty and above and giving them forty more years to die. Or one may interpret this to mean a generation is the forty years of adulthood between ages 20 and 60. God promised Jehu his sons would rule to the fourth generation, apparently meaning four sons (2 Kings 10:30;
2 Kings 15:12). Jehu began ruling about 841 B.C., his first son Jehoahaz about 814 B.C. and the fourth generation Zechariah died about 752 B.C. The five generations ruled less than 90 years, while the four sons' generations ruled about 60 years. This is reducing a generation to a quite small number. After his tragedies Job lived 140 years and saw four generations (Job 42:16). This would make a generation about 35 years. Basically, generation is not a specific number of years but a more or less specific period of time. (Compare
Isaiah 51:9.) The literal Hebrew expression “generation and generation” thus means through all generations or forever (Psalms 49:11). Similarly, “to your (his, their) generations” means forever (Numbers 10:8).
The generations come and go (Ecclesiastes 1:4). This should establish wisdom on which a present generation can draw (Deuteronomy 32:7). A generation also represents those who can gather for worship, so that the gathered worship community forms a generation (Psalms 14:5;
Psalms 73:15). The generations of people change, but God has given His name Yahweh to be remembered through all generations (Exodus 3:15). He is the refuge for all generations (Psalms 90:1). The danger is that a generation will arise that does not know Yahweh (Judges 2:10; compare
Psalms 12:1). Thus one generation must tell God's acts and write them down for the next generation (Psalms 22:30-31;
Psalms 102:18 NRSV; compare
God's people must be taught faithfulness. God is faithful to a thousand generations by His very nature (Deuteronomy 7:9). His salvation is available through the generations; that is forever (Isaiah 51:8).
In the New Testament “generation” refers to a specific contemporary audience. Jesus often used the term to describe the evil nature of the people He addressed (Matthew 11:16;
Luke 17:25). The message of the New Testament can be summarized: “To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever” (Ephesians 3:21 NRSV).
Trent C. Butler