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How long is a biblical generation?

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“Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” (Matt. 24:34)

This famous statement by Jesus has caused many Christians to start obsessing over the term “generation”. Exactly how long is a generation in the Bible? Many try to argue that whenever God talks about a generation, He has a precise number of years in mind. Well, no, He doesn’t. It turns out that the term generation can be translated to mean many different things. Let’s go through some of its most common usages in the Bible and see why we are being ridiculous to suggest that God uses the term to refer to a specific length of time.

1. “GENERATION” MEANS “ROUNDS OF DESCENDANTS”

Joseph saw the third generation of Ephraim’s sons; also the sons of Machir, the son of Manasseh, were born on Joseph’s knees. (Gen. 50:23)

In other words, Joseph lived to see the great-great-grandkids of his son Ephraim and the great-grandsons of his son Manasseh. This use of generation simply refers to layers of descendants that were added to one family tree. If you have grandkids today, then we could say you’re seeing the first generation of your kid’s kids. This use of generation doesn’t refer to any specific span of time. Clearly Ephraim’s line was expanding at a faster clip than Manasseh’s, because by the time Joseph died, Ephraim had more descendants than Manasseh did. We all know there are many factors that influence how quickly a family tree expands: fertility, age of marriage, use of birth control, etc.. Moses was the author of Genesis, and he’s letting us know that 1) Joseph lived to a ripe old age and that 2) he would have been very happy to see his family line progressing along so nicely. Descendants were very important to the Jews. Seeing his kids having more kids made a man feel very content in life. No one wanted to feel like their family line was dying out.

We find another example of the term generation being used as a reference to a specific number of descendants much later on in the book of 2 Kings.

Nevertheless, Yahweh said to Jehu, “Because you have done well in carrying out what is right in My sight and have done to the house of Ahab all that was in My heart, four generations of your sons will sit on the throne of Israel.” (2 Kings 10:30)

When we read on through 2 Kings, we see that this prophecy is kept to the letter. The crown in the northern kingdom of Israel is passed down from father to son exactly four times in Jehu’s family tree before God throws that family line out and puts someone else on the throne. Here the term “four generations” is not referring to a specific number of years, but rather to a specific number of descendants.

2. “THE FOURTH GENERATION” MEANS “A LONG TIME FROM NOW”

God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve, and afterward they will come out with many possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age. Then in the fourth generation your descendants will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” (Gen. 15:13-16)

Notice the reference to Abram, not Abraham. God is delivering this prophecy before the birth of Ishmael or Isaac, before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and before God changes Abram’s name to Abraham. Abraham has no children at this point—a fact which he finds very depressing. Yet here God is talking about a bunch of descendants that Abraham will have. It sounds pretty nonsensical, yet Abraham really wants it to be true.

We have to finish reading Genesis and read all of Exodus for this prophecy to make sense. Here God is describing the Hebrew slaves being oppressed by Egypt for 400 years before He miraculously frees them via the ten plagues on Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea. God says that after 400 years of slavery, Abraham’s descendants will return to the particular patch of land which is currently inhabited by a people group known as the Amorites.

So how long is a generation in this passage? It’s not clear at all. God says that after 400 years of slavery, Abraham’s descendants will return to a particular place—then He says they’ll return in the “fourth generation”. So is four generations a synonym for 400 years? Or does God mean 400 years of slavery PLUS four more generations because He’s factoring in the 40 years that the Israelites will spend wandering in the wilderness? If we look at it one way, a generation means 100 years. If we look at it another way, a generation means 10 years. Which one is correct? Neither. God isn’t using the term “generation” to designate a specific period of time here. He just means “a long time from now”. He is saying that Abraham is going to die an old and happy man, then at some point in the distant future, Abraham’s descendants will return to the land that Yahweh has given to Abraham.

3. “THE THIRD & FOURTH GENERATIONS” MEANS “A REALLY LONG TIME”
“A THOUSAND GENERATIONS” MEANS “FOREVER”

Let’s consider what the average lifespan of a man is. Elderly Joseph made it to 110 and he only lived long enough to see the third generation of his descendants. Today most of us don’t expect to see our great-great-grandchildren. So when God talks about the third and fourth generation, it’s like He’s saying “longer than a lifetime.” In the Bible, we’ll find that “the third and fourth generation” becomes a cultural saying for “a really long time,” while “a thousand generations” becomes a synonym for “forever”.

“Do not make an idol for yourself, whether in the shape of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. You must not bow down to them or worship them; for I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the fathers’ sin, to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing faithful love to a thousand generations of those who love Me and keep My commands.” (Ex. 20:4-6)

Notice how God underscores the seriousness of His wrath, yet He really emphasizes the longevity of His love for us. If we defy God, He will certainly discipline us. But if we pursue Him, He will heap on the grace and mercy with mind-blowing generosity. By so exalting the rewards of obeying Him, Yahweh encourages people to choose the path of obedience.

4. “THE TENTH GENERATION” MEANS “NEVER”

So long as we’re throwing generational numbers around like adjectives, we might as well use “the tenth generation” as a way of saying “never ever”.

“No Ammonite or Moabite may enter Yahweh’s assembly; none of their descendants, even to the tenth generation, may ever enter Yahweh’s assembly… Never seek their peace or prosperity as long as you live.” (Deut. 23:3-6)

Clearly Yahweh has a major beef with the Ammonites and Moabites. What should we make of this? Is God a racist? No, God loves all people and He has always invited all ethnicities to seek Him. But He also knows the future, and He knows that the vast majority of Moabites and Ammonites will stay dedicated to Satan in their hearts. God doesn’t want His chosen people being dragged down by such negative spiritual influences, so He orders them to not seek out any friendships with the Ammonites and Moabites. But there is an exception to every rule God lays down, and it was understood that this cultural ban was to be lifted in cases where a soul was sincerely seeking Yahweh. Ruth was a Moabite. In the book of Ruth, we learn how she converts over to Judaism and then marries a Jewish man. This was not a violation of God’s Law, for ALL people were welcome to come to Him. But since some cultures were so entrenched in evil, He labeled them as permanently off limits for the Jews. The Jews were NEVER supposed to hobnob with demon worshiping Ammonites and Moabites—“even to the tenth generation”. But of course the Jews didn’t listen to Yahweh and in the Old Testament we find scores of Jewish men marrying Ammonite and Moabite women, then converting over to their satanic religions. Well, we can’t say that Yahweh didn’t try.

5. “THE GENERATION TO COME” MEANS “THE PEOPLE WHO LIVE AFTER YOU”

Deuteronomy is the elderly Moses’ long parting speech before he resigns as Israel’s leader and hands the reigns over to Joshua. Moses is a prophet, and after reviewing Israel’s sordid history of rebellion during her forty years in the wilderness, he delivers more threats about how Yahweh will discipline her if she keeps persisting in her rebellion. In short: it will be all bad. Yahweh will trash Israel so thoroughly that future generations will say “Wow, look at this mess! What did these people do to make their God so angry?” And then others will say, “It’s because these people didn’t obey the Covenant that they made with their God that He’s reduced them to this.” In the following passage, Moses uses the term generation to simply refer to people of the future: folks who will be born long after his immediate audience is dead.

“Now the generation to come, your sons who rise up after you and the foreigner who comes from a distant land, they will see the plagues of the land and the sicknesses Yahweh has inflicted on it. All its soil will be a burning waste of sulfur and salt, unsown, producing nothing, with no plant growing on it, just like the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which Yahweh demolished in His fierce anger. All the nations will ask, ‘Why has Yahweh done this to this land? Why this great outburst of anger?’ Then people will answer, ‘It is because they abandoned the c

Covenant of Yahweh, the God of their fathers, which He had made with them when He brought them out of the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 29:22-25)

6. “GENERATION” MEANS “A GROUP OF PEOPLE WITH SOMETHING IN COMMON”

The Israelites were never a shining example of righteousness, but there were certain periods of time when they sunk extra low into the muck of immorality. The book of Judges focuses on one of those periods. Judges describes a particularly black part of Israel’s history which followed the death of Joshua and a few other folks who were being a positive spiritual influence in the land.

Joshua son of Nun, the servant of Yahweh, died at the age of 110. They buried him in the territory of his inheritance, in Timnath-heres, in the hill country of Ephraim, north of Mount Gaash. That whole generation was also gathered to their ancestors. After them another generation rose up who did not know Yahweh or the works He had done for Israel.

The Israelites did what was evil in Yahweh’s sight. They worshiped the Baals and abandoned Yahweh, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt. They went after other gods from the surrounding peoples and bowed down to them. They infuriated Yahweh, for they abandoned Him and worshiped Baal and the Ashtoreths. (Jud. 2:8-13)

Here the term “generation” is not used to describe a specific number of years, but to refer to a group of people who shared a common quality. The first generation mentioned all knew the history of what Yahweh had done for Israel: how He’d brought them out of Egypt and given them a Covenant. Clearly these people did a lousy job of passing that information on to their children because after they die out, we’re told that the next crop of folks to come along “did not know Yahweh or the works He had done for Israel.” And because this new population doesn’t know or care about Yahweh, it turns to satanic idols like Baal and Ashtoreth and wallows in all kinds of shocking evil. (To learn about how bad things got in Israel during this time, see Judges 17-21: Anarchy in Israel.)

If we skip ahead to the book of Jeremiah, we find Yahweh also using the term generation as a way of identifying a group of people with a common trait—only this time that trait is very negative.

“When you speak all these things to them, they will not listen to you. When you call to them, they will not answer you. You must therefore declare to them: This is the nation that would not listen to the Voice of Yahweh their God and would not accept discipline. Truth has perished—it has disappeared from their mouths. Cut off the hair of your sacred vow and throw it away. Raise up a dirge on the barren heights, for Yahweh has rejected and abandoned the generation under His wrath. For the Judeans have done what is evil in My sight.” (Jer. 7:27-30)

Here God uses the term generation to refer to the people who are living in Jeremiah’s day. These people and Jeremiah would all be around to witness Yahweh’s shocking destruction of Jerusalem and His Temple. Now before we jump to wrong conclusions about God cutting people off, notice how He is describing these people. They refuse to listen when God speaks to them through His prophet. They refuse to repent and they have not responded positively to any of God’s milder forms of discipline. This group that Yahweh is rejecting and abandoning are hardhearted, spit-in-your-eye rebels who rejected God first.

It’s important to note that whenever God speaks hatefully towards some group of people, He is responding to their rotten heart attitudes. Not everyone who lived in this time was a bad apple. Men like Ezekiel, Daniel, and Shadrach were also part of this generation and they were very pleasing to God. These men were not rejected or abandoned by God, yet they still had to deal with the challenges of being alive on the planet when God was giving Judah the mother of all spankings. This passage helps us see that we can’t get too rigid in how we define the term generation when it is merely being used to refer to a group of people with a trait in common. In this case, the common trait is being alive to see Yahweh stomp on Judah. In our previous passage from Judges, the common trait was having or not having an understanding of who Yahweh was. Do you see how ridiculous it is for people to try and say that a biblical generation is always referring to a specific number of years? We’re finding all kinds of usages that have nothing to do with a rigid timeframe.

7. “GENERATIONS” MEANS “ALL PEOPLE”

“Who has performed and accomplished it, Calling forth the generations from the beginning? I, Yahweh—with the first of them and with the last—I am He.” (Isa. 41:4)

“But My righteousness will be forever, and My salvation to all generations.” (Isa. 51:8)

Here are two examples when generations is used as a synonym for all people. First Yahweh says that He’s the God who has created every person who has ever lived—all the generations of the world. Then He describes Himself offering righteousness and salvation to all people. Again, this usage has nothing to do with a specific number of years.

8. “GENERATIONS” MEANS “HOW MANY NAMES I BOTHERED TO LIST”

So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations. (Matt. 1:17)

The gospel writer Matthew should win an award for his terrible application of Old Testament Scripture. He pulls many passages out of context, he sees Messianic prophecies where none exist, and here he uses the term generations in an utterly meaningless fashion.

Bloodlines were a huge deal to the ancient Jews and it was very important to the early Jewish Christians to prove that Jesus was a Jew who descended from David. Now Jews trace their lineage through their fathers, and since Jesus had no biological human father, the whole idea of trying to trace His lineage is a joke. But Matthew goes for it anyway, and he gets rather poetic about it. He divides Israel’s history into three periods, then he picks fourteen famous names from each period and uses that list to “prove” that Jesus descends from Abraham. And after making this custom list, he tries to make some big point out of the idea that there were “fourteen generations” in each of his three periods. In other words, Matthew only bothered to write down fourteen names from each period. In real life, millions of Jews lived and died in each of these periods. Plus, the spans of time that Matthew is listing here are not equal. Abraham to David is about 1200 years. David to the deportation to Babylon is about 420 years. From the deportation to Jesus is about 590 years. So what kind of sense does this make? Matthew is choosing random periods of time and picking a random number of names in order to come up with his special list. Here his use of the term generations means nothing more than names in my list.

9. “THIS GENERATION” MEANS “YOU PEOPLE”

As Jesus comes onto the scene in the four Gospel books, He is surrounded by Jews who really don’t care one wit about honoring God. New Testament Israel is every bit as rebellious as Old Testament Israel was, and Jesus doesn’t try to hide His disgust with the hardened hearts in His audiences.

“To what should I compare this generation?” (Matt. 11:16)

Jesus answers His own question by describing how the people living at this time rejected the prophetic messages of John the Baptist, and are now rejecting Jesus, who is fulfilling John’s words. Here “this generation” simply means “you people.” Jesus is talking to the current culture: His fellow Jews who are being such stubborn twits.

But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet…” (Matt. 12:39)

“The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” (Matt. 12:41)

Here are more choice comments that Jesus puts out regarding His peers. They are an evil and adulterous people. Now when God talks about people being adulterous, He means idolatrous. God often uses sex as a metaphor for worship and He calls His people His bride. So then, for Israel to go around worshiping other gods is like a wife committing adultery.

When Jesus says that the men of Nineveh will condemn “this generation” in eternity, it’s a major slam. The people of Nineveh were so wicked that Yahweh had decided to wipe them off the map. Yet when He sent His prophet Jonah to announce His judgment on Nineveh, the people repented and Yahweh was merciful. Jesus’ point is simple: “If those creeps repented at the words of Jonah, what excuse do you Jews have for rejecting God Himself standing in your midst?” Again “this generation” is a very general term which is only referring to the rebellious souls in the group—which is most of them. There is always a remnant of faithful souls who really care about God, and He never loses track of them. So when Jesus talks about “this generation” getting condemned, He means “all you people who are refusing to listen to God.” He doesn’t mean “every single person living during this time who is between the ages of such-and-such”. Don’t try and read a specific time frame or age range into these comments.

And Jesus answered and said, “You unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you?” (Matt. 17:17)

Here again, Jesus’ disgust is only being aimed at those who are hating God in their hearts, not at those who are sincerely seeking.

Now after using “this generation” as a general term for the people of His time, Jesus really throws us off balance.  After giving a long description of tribulation, something terrible happening in Yahweh’s Temple, His second coming, and the rapture, Jesus says:

“Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” (Matt. 24:34)

There’s no way to salvage this. It’s a fat lie. Looking back through history we know that the people of Jesus’ day did indeed face great tribulation. The Jews and the Christians were terribly persecuted by the Roman government. It was in 70 AD that the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple after an extremely gruesome battle with the Jews. But did Jesus come again? Was there a rapture? Not hardly.

Jesus clearly states that the people of His day would witness not just some but ALL of the events He described. Why would He intentionally deceive people like this? There are several reasons. First, He knows that the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem will be extremely traumatic for the Jews. By promising that glorious things will happen right after the terrible things, He’s giving them an anchor of hope. Yes, it’s false hope, but it still works. Read through those New Testament epistles and the apostles are CONVINCED that they are living in the last days. They ought to be—that’s what Jesus taught. In Revelation, Jesus keeps harping on the fact that He’s coming back any minute. Two thousand years later, that language should be ringing pretty hollow in our ears. Jesus intentionally set people up with false expectations in order to get them through the tough times. Yahweh does this in the Old Testament. Jesus does it in the New Testament, and our Gods are still doing it with us today. Today Christians recoil at the thought of our Gods lying to us and many adamantly deny that this is what They do. Yet such people are delusional.  If you join them in the land of denial, you will only end up hampering your own growth. Instead of freaking out and instantly closing your mind, you need to ask the Holy Spirit to give you further education on this subject.  When He does, you will realize that we ought to be GRATEFUL that our Gods love us enough to mislead us now and then. The full truth is way too much for us to handle.

CONCLUSION

So then, how many years is a biblical generation? It isn’t. Biblical generations are not specific periods of time, they are general terms which are used in a wide variety of ways. We need to stop trying to turn the Bible into a cryptic code book and focus on the spiritual principles that God wants to teach us.

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