I had a look to see what some important Christian figures had said about this chapter to get a more rounded view, so I had a look at John Calvin's commentary on Genesis: nothing about the genealogy itself, just a little about the opening phrase and on the very ending, connecting it to the Flood, plus a paragraph or two on Enoch. This seems a general trend, though I only had a cursory glance. To remedy this, I would like to give a sketch of why I think Genesis 5 is a third creation account (after Genesis 1, Genesis 2) and why it is a fascinating story which sets the scene for the enigmatic verses at the beginning of chapter 6.
We must first ask a question: what does a creation narrative contain, and what issues does it seek to address? These accounts contain explanations of origins, of where the audience came from. Although the term is anachronistic if read back into the times of the ancient Israelites, they seem to set up a certain metaphysical perspective on the world, or more narrowly on humans' role in it. Thus, Genesis 1 presents a highly theocentric metaphysical view of the world, where everything is at a word away from God's command, everything is ordered and tidy, and humankind has a great dignity as well as the task to be fruitful and have dominion over the Earth. Genesis 2, on the other hand, which truly does stand alone in a sense (though is obviously made more rounded with Genesis 1) is a very anthropomorphic picture of God's hand in creation, with God hand-crafting humankind from the earth of the ground, and is said to "plant a garden in the east" (2:8). Combined we see God as entirely transcendent and beyond everything, and at the same time God as walking with us and bringing about growth in our midst - "imminently transcendent."
I propose that Genesis 5 is similarly a creation account: it begins with God once again being said to create man, in the likeness of God, male and female he created them, then he blessed them (v. 1). In this way, it echoes directly the similar statement in Genesis 1. Except unlike what we learn in Genesis 2, Adam is not said to father Cain, but Seth. Cain is completely forgotten, and interestingly, Eve is also forgotten - neither appears again in the Hebrew Bible, though they are both mentioned in the Christian New Testament.
In fact, there's not much mention of anything going wrong in Genesis 5 at all. The harshness of life suggested by the curse in Genesis 4 seems forgotten. The fratricide of Genesis 4 between Cain and Abel seems forgotten, as everyone seems to live peacefully. The line of Seth which came about almost as a fruit of that murder seems to be doing just fine. Calvin makes a long point about death, but I think for the original audience, un-immersed as they were in the eternal life and "death as the curse of sin" theology of centuries later after God's revelation in Christ, the long life and numerous children spelled peaceful success for the children of Adam in the line of Seth.
The line of Seth contrasts itself with the line of Cain directly as even the names resemble, or are even copied: Cain-Cainan, Enoch-Enosh, Irad-Iared, Mehujael-Mahalel, et cetera. Cain's Enoch had his name attached to a city, whereas Seth's Enoch walks with God. Lamech of Cain and Lamech of Seth also contrast similarly.
This would all be accomplished if the text said "lived a long life" after each patriarch, and left it at that. There seems to be no precedent for having details about when the first son (note the text has females but it is the first son which is mentioned in each case) was born or how old exactly the men were at their time of death. It indicates a great longevity - one I admit that I am unsure about - but it is nonetheless fairly superfluous.
What then are the numbers for? I dare say there is some of the typical symbolism in various of the numbers, such as the "perfect" 777 years of Lamech. These do not concern me presently, so I would instead like to point out three things which I find interesting which one discovers when one plots the lives of these men on a time-line:
|I did not attempt to draw this entirely to scale, but the recorded events do occur in the correct order spatially.|
First, note the green zone, where everyone in the line of Adam through Seth lives concurrently. Here the community of the line of Seth lives peacefully among each other, as far as we can tell, and coexist amicably with all their children. For about a century and a half, everyone from Adam through to Seth's Lamech coexist.
Then the red line, and this is the crucial second point: the curse of sin rears its ugly head, and death finally enters the world naturally. The murder of Abel was death at the hands of another human, and perhaps the curse was restricted to Cain's line, but suddenly this line is painfully aware of their own mortality. Close to a millennium since Adam came into the world, and now it is clear: humankind is destined to die.
I must stress this point of surprise, the jolt that comes from Adam's, and soon after Seth's death: it will be important to understand Genesis 6's cryptic starting verses, but it is even more important for understanding my third point: Noah is born into the mortal world. Note how the red line has everyone except Noah being born before the knowledge of humankind's mortality. Noah is the first person to be raised with the understanding that part of what it means for a person to live is that at some point they die. For everyone before him, death has been at most the consequence of active human violence. Once again, this will be crucial for understanding the figure of Noah throughout the Flood narrative.
To conclude, allow me to return to the idea of Genesis 5 as a creation narrative, and more importantly, how it answers the question that such an account raises: this genealogy presents humans as being first and foremost in the likeness of God, who created us and bestowed us with his blessing. Humans are fruitful creatures, who have children and live long lives. Except there's something horribly wrong - the reader knows full well that there was a curse pronounced on the first couple, Adam and Eve, and that life is therefore finite. This third and final creation account is practically an attempt at forgetting the weight of sin, at erasing all sin from history. This is why Eve, the woman who was tempted, is not mentioned, or Cain and Abel, or indeed anything evil. It thus foreshadows the Flood, where in a catastrophic way creation tries to renew itself by putting to death all the evil that has passed.
Yet it will not work. No amount of historical revisionism will suffice to change the fact that humans are mortal because of sin. With the Flood we shall see that even forcefully removing everything that has gone wrong in the past to try and start afresh will fail: sins must be forgiven, not simply forgotten. It will take the waters of baptism, not just of the Flood, gushing from the side of Christ on the Cross, to erase sin.
Note of gratitude: to the amazing work of Leon R. Kass that I discovered recently, many of whose comments are loosely paraphrased here. In particular, I refer to his commentaries in "The Beginning of Wisdom." He in turn claims to be indebted to Robert Sacks. Thanks to them both.