# Ages of Patriarchs

To borrow from one of my favorite movies (The Hunt for Red October)…

“Could you launch an ICBM horizontally?”
“Sure, why would you want to?”

So, in theory, sure, I can imagine an unsophisticated ancient author could come up with ages that showed the pattern we’re talking about. Why would he? To deceive 21st century readers like Chris into believing it was historic when it isn’t? If not that reason, why? That’s the core question I’m asking on this thread.

1 Like

Well, if you are showing a trend to a decline in lifespan, either you have a linear decay or a non-linear decay, premeditated or otherwise. There is just nothing at all remarkable about the pattern of the numbers. An exponential curve can be drawn through any given set of trending ordered pairs, and non-linear regression will indeed yield the same form of equation, so there is zippo special about these numbers in particular. This is not about the Genesis authors attempting to pull a fast one, this is about 21st century would be apologists making something out of nothing.

2 Likes

Daniel, thanks for that, and that whole post. It helps me see better what you’re focused on. Different people in this thread have argued that (1) Genesis records a decline in the human lifespan (2) that fits a decay curve (3) caused by the flood. I agree with the first point but have challenged both of the other two. In the process, I forgot that you had explicitly set aside (3) and only tentatively accepted (2). I’m sorry for mixing up your view with others.

Of the three “obvious facts” you posted, I agree with the first. I somewhat agree with the other two, but I’m reluctant to use those statements as a starting point. By focusing on those features of the total ages we can calculate, we miss some interesting features in the actual numbers given in the text. So, I’m going to respond to your first post where you asked for other ways of understanding the numbers:

I agree that generally a long life would be some form of honorific. But an even greater honorific (or statement of importance) would be to receive round numbers or a significant number. This is a major difference between our culture and ancient cultures. For us, when we get to something important we tend to use more precision. Round numbers are fine for fluff, but what’s important should be precise. Genesis shows the opposite mindset. For relatively insignificant people, Genesis uses numbers that appear precise. But numbers for important people seem rounded or obviously significant:

• Adam: 130 + 800 = 930
• Enoch: 65 + 300 = 365
• Lamech: 182 + 595 = 777
• Noah: 500 (sons), 600 (flood) + 350 = 950
• Shem: 100 + 500
• Serug: 30 + 200
• Abraham: 175 (5 × 5 × 7)
• Isaac: 180 (6 × 6 × 5)
• Jacob: 147 (7 × 7 × 3)
• Joseph: 110 (5 × 5 + 6 × 6 + 7 × 7)

Aside from Lamech and Serug, we probably recognize these individuals as significant. The numbers given to them confirm their significance.

While significant numbers have a purpose in highlighting significant people, the rest – the precise numbers – seem to be chosen to establish wider patterns. In Genesis 5, the overall pattern seems to be lives just under a millennia long. Sons are born between ages 65–187. But the flood, in which Noah and his sons are the only males saved, poses a problem to this pattern. With people living so many centuries after their sons are born, you’d end up with many ancestors alive at the time of the flood. If they are killed by the flood, you’d end up with a pattern of diminishing ages leading up to Noah. It would seem like Noah’s ancestors are among those judged by the flood.

To solve this, Noah lives an astounding 500 years before his sons are born. This moves his sons several generations beyond his ancestors, giving those ancestors time to live long lives and die before the flood. His father, rather than dying in the flood, lives to a numerically significant 777 years to show his shorter life is not a judgement. And the one person who dies in the year the flood also doesn’t seem to be judged by it, since he – Methuselah – has the Bible’s longest lifespan.

After Genesis 5 and its 900+ lifespans, Genesis 6:3 reveals that God set the human lifespan to 120. The Genesis 11 genealogy shows the transition. In this genealogy, with the exception of the endpoints, sons are born between 29–35. Shem needs to have his son much later, since after his sons are born Noah lives 100 more years before the flood comes. Shem’s son at 102 (going by the other numbers) is rounded to 100, since as a significant figure all of Shem’s numbers are rounded.

For whatever reason, total ages aren’t given in this genealogy as they are in Genesis 5. It only gives the age at son’s birth and the years lived afterwards. Since the age at son’s birth stays flat (except the endpoints), this means the decline is portrayed through the numbers for years lived after the son’s birth. Looking at these numbers, there is a clear stairstep descent.

The text doesn’t tell us the years-after-sons for Noah or Terah, the endpoints. But starting with Shem, the numbers given are 500, 403, 403, 430, 209, 207, 200, 119. This is a pretty obvious stepwise decrease by hundreds, ending right around the magic number of 120. The biggest jump is right in the middle with Peleg (reinforcing a theme from the text about the earth being divided in his day).

Of course, when you add the age before the son’s birth, the total ages no longer hover just above the century lines or end close to 120. Also, Shem’s unusual 100 years before his son (to keep the males on the ark to 4) bumps his total age higher, creating a steeper decline at the beginning. But if we’re looking for patterns, I find the numbers given in the text more significant than numbers we can calculate.

In sum, the rounded/significant numbers mark out important characters, and the remaining numbers flesh out patterns that reinforce messages given in the narrative: the longevity of Seth’s godly line, a decline in lifespan to 120, a division at Peleg. Given the apparent willingness of the author to mold the numbers into patterns, I see their truth value in reinforcing themes from the text, not revealing historical facts.

6 Likes

would you say this is not unlike the patterns of Genesis’ creation story (not in numbers)?

I’m not sure how one “somewhat” agrees with a fact. Either it is true or not. If true, you might call my supposed use or context of said fact irrelevant, or misleading, or the like, but one doesn’t “somewhat” agree with facts. The “fact” remains that if you divide the genealogy in half between Noah an Abraham with Peleg as the halfway point (as you seemed to suggest), the decline in ages reflected in the first half is 1,111% of the decline reflected in the second half.

To me, this is “remarkable”, Ron’s (@rsewell) protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. If an anthropologist studied increasing lifespans across 11 generations across say the 17th - 19th centuries, and found a >1000% (>10X) difference in rate of change between the first and second half of his data, he would probably describe that as, what is the word… “remarkable”?

I find this to be an obvious and striking phenomenon of the ages recorded. Your and others’ response simply seems to be the proverbial, “move along, nothing to see here.” If so, we’ll have to simply “move along” as we’re at an impasse. I find that contrast in rate of decline striking, obvious, and remarkable. I noticed this as a child just from reading the raw numbers in Genesis before I’d ever heard of creationism, how fast those ages dropped right after Noah but then they steadied out to a pretty consistent but gradual decline. If you really don’t see something there, like I said, I can’t make you. But for purposes of this discussion, I’m afraid, we have nothing further to discuss there. It would feel like arguing you should be able to see a vase while you insist there are only two faces.

Very much appreciate your larger discussion, I see the potential numerological affinity for rounded or multiples of multiple numbers, rather interesting and very appreciated. But it doesn’t address either of my major questions:

• Why the decrease in ages at all? The affinity for multiple or round numbers, in itself, has nothing to do with increasing, decreasing, or maintaining trends. Those numbers and considerations were presumably present across the ages recorded from Adam to Noah, and they didn’t require any decline, precipitous or otherwise. Noah could have been 950, and Abraham could have been recorded as living until 970(9x10x10 + 7x10) or 972 (9x9x12), showing he was special with such fancy numbers and older than methuselah! Blessed indeed! Or why not even 3,024 (9x8x7x6) for that matter,and this would have both shown honor by having a fancy multiple and by increasing his age, showing far more honor than his ancestors. Why any decline? What was the purpose of the author/redactor inventing a decline at all?

• If the long ages reinforce Seth’s godly line, does the decline from Noah to Abraham reinforce decrease in godliness? Is Abraham’s relatively short age supposed to reflect his inferiority to Seth? If relatively short ages for Abraham have nothing to do with his godliness, why then do longer ages reinforce godliness in Seth?

• if the 120 years in gen 6 refers to a reset maximum lifespan, why does the gen 11 narrative progress listing generation after generation maintaining lifespans far above 120? Why not until Moses?

• Even if we establish some reason the author wanted to decrease ages, combining two traditions (the ancient 900+ and the newly imposed 120 maximum), I’m still curious why the precipitous drop followed by the gradual decline. Ok, Peleg was the halfway point because, why? All the numerological insight has nothing to do (so far as I can see) with why said author would make a precipitous decline followed by a gradual decline.

If you really claim you really cannot see a precipitous drop in these numbers followed by a gradual decline, I don’t know what to say. It is there by any objective measurement. If you see it, but think it entirely irrelevant, or random, or incidental, or unintentional, I likewise don’t know what to say. It is so striking a contrast that - if we lay aside the creationist decay theory or any consideration of any kind that these were simply recording actual historic numbers - it seems very intentional on the part of the author. If so, what was that intention?

Hence I’d certainly entertain any speculation about any recognizable pattern, such as you noticed of “steps.” Noah then Shem then a step with 3 in the 400s, then a final “step” (leaning slightly downward) in the low 200s-high 100s. But again, why, specifically? Why did the author intend the steps at all, if thats what they are? Those 3 after Shem were twice as godly as Abraham and his more immediate ancestors, but less than half as godly as those before Noah? The author didn’t know half of them half as well as he should have liked; and liked less than half of them half as well as they deserved?

Yes, in Genesis 1 the fit to the work week climaxing with the Sabbath does seem unmistakably intentional. And since other texts anthropomorphize God to stress the pattern, such as speaking of God being refreshed on the seventh day, it seems the authors are quite willing to take liberties in order to make the pattern clear. I really appreciated the recent BioLogos article that shows how things like this happen elsewhere in the Pentateuch.

With the compound statements you gave, it’s quite possible to only somewhat agree. For instance, the steep decline after Noah disappears if you plot by time and turns into a bump if you add Noah’s father. Further, your statement implied it’s a steep decline over 5 generations. It’s actually a steep decline between Noah and his son followed by a linear descent (with stairsteps, as I mentioned). After the initial drop to Shem, no other point goes down more than the gap at Peleg in the middle. I agree there’s a big drop, and last post I explained why I think it arose.

That “fact” is a great example of how to mislead with statistics. The 1,111% decline is entirely based on subtracting Peleg’s age from Noah’s and Abraham’s age from Peleg’s. This supposedly helps us understand what is happening in the Genesis 11 genealogy, but that list goes from Shem to Terah and doesn’t even include Terah’s age. In other words, in order to show a trend in this genealogy, this calculation only used one person from the genealogy. The other two happen to be significant people given meaningful, high ages. And, by including Peleg with the first half, the calculation obscures the genealogy’s most significant feature: the big drop right in the middle, underscored by a three-generation plateau on each side.

One could as easily look at the period from Lamech (last person before the flood) to Abraham with Eber right in the middle. Then the decline in the second half is only 8.3% smaller than the decline in the first half. A bit less impressive than 1,111%! That number is meaningless and cherry-picked, and I hope you can see why I hesitate to affirm “facts” like that.

The ages in Genesis show a 350-year drop from Noah to Shem (presumably showing the importance of the flood) and a 225-year drop from Eber to Peleg (presumably showing the importance of the division that took place in his day). Aside from those two points, there is a stairstep decline by hundreds in Genesis 11 and a continuing decline in later ages that moves the numbers into the realm of actual experience the nearer one gets to the time of those hearing/reading the text.

Even as the degree of elevation given to significant people decreases, it still goes beyond what people knew was the actual human lifespan. While I have no problem accepting God miraculously increased a few lifespans, the widespread pattern of inflated, significant ages for significant people leads me to a literary rather than miraculous cause. As @Boscopup noted, even though Moses was given a lifespan of 120, he knew that “the days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong.”

1 Like

Appreciate the thoughts, and I do know what you’re saying about statistics… but to me this is in the category of, “if you didn’t measure the decline from the edge of the cliff, but from the bottom of a well some 1000 yards back from the edge, the “precipice” you’re think you’re seeing wouldn’t seem so steep.

I think we’ll just have to leave it there and acknowledge the impasse.

Yes, but to know where the edge of the cliff is, we’d need to know what mechanism is at work to shorten lifespans, and that’s a topic you wanted to leave aside. If it’s a genetic mechanism, then Shem would be the edge of the cliff, since he’s the last one in the list born before the flood. If it’s an environmental mechanism, then Lamech would be the edge of the cliff, since he’s the last one to live his entire life unaffected by the flood.

Choosing Noah makes no sense if you’re one is trying to tie the pattern to something real.

1 Like

The attachment Chris links, “Genetic Entropy - Recorded in the Bible”, by Sanford, Pamplin, and Rupe, 2014, makes the argument that the Biblical record of decay in lifespans after the flood must be real because, quoting from the paper:
The data is coherent and internally consistent in a way that could never happen by chance.

The smooth curve is shaped according to the specific formula shown (y = 1064.7x-.766).

The first explanation would be that the mathematical nature of the decline arose because all these data points, scattered in various books of the Old Testament, were fabricated by a sophisticated and scheming single author. That such an author would need to be a skilled mathematician.

The second explanation would be that the mathematical nature of the declining lifespans arose because the Biblical accounts are true, and are actually faithfully recording the historical unfolding of some fundamental natural degenerative process.

End of quotes. I think I’ve been fair in excising their essential argument, correct me if I’m wrong.

We probably are at an impasse as you suggest, but I just wanted to make clear what I meant to state in case I failed to communicate in my prior posts. True, lifespans of hundreds of years are certainly remarkable. As you observe, there is an obvious steep decline in the recorded lifespans post flood, which then levels off to more or less typical of today, depending on conditions. I am not taking a position here as to if these lifespans are real or honorary or reflecting some sort of numerology. It is surely reasonable to presume that there would be some significance to the drop off in age, but as to what it is, I have no insight. I do not know. I have no idea. I have given that little thought.

It is the assertion, however, that the data yields a mathematical curve that is, and it is in this context I use the term “remarkable”, that I repudiate. To somewhat rehash, any set of trending ordered pairs can be modeled by an exponential equation of the form given, so the lifespan data tabled here is not unique in that respect. Hence, the data is not “remarkable” in a statistical respect. The premise that the author of these lifespans would have to have been a skilled mathematician is simply invalid, because no matter what ages the author chose, so long as you have a trend, you could derive an exponential curve of the very exact same form. Only the parameters would change. I’m not even touching the concerns with data selectivity. Therefore, the conclusion that there is a hidden math, unknown to the original authors but available to us, which self-authenticates these lifespans and leaves no option but to accept them as true, is complete bunk. So my position is this and no further than this, that statistics has no bearing on the literal or literate nature of the recorded lifespans, and on that point, I believe I hold the high ground.

4 Likes

In addition to @rsewell’s excellent summary of the problem (or lack there of), I’d also like to point out that the author’s first explanation (quoted above) is a straw man. A weak argument, easily refuted which (even if unintentional) serves to bolster there own. Even when limiting the range to the set we are considering (the patriarchs of Genesis), there are any number of reasons why the author might use ages which are not ‘actual’. Non of which reasons, I’d point out, are scheming in any way, nor require them to be a skilled mathematician.

Marshall, please… You are still reading me through some kind of “creation science” lenses. I don’t know how much more clearly I can say this… It is not that I don’t want to consider the mechanism of why these very real historic ages declined… I am asking why the numbers declined, whether they represent something real, imagined, invented, symbolic, or something that came from multiple die rolls.

The “mechanism” I’m considering here could be different authors, change in genre, redacting or different sources or traditions, numerological considerations, shifts in purpose, darts against a chart, blind die rolls, etc.

And no, to recognize the edge of a cliff one doesn’t need to know the mechanism… you take measurements of elevation above sea level and find out where the elevation starts to decline. You don’t need to know if said geographic feature was cause by plates, earthquakes, erosion, man-made, or the like to notice the ground is pretty consistent for a while then starts to quickly decline.

Similarly, I don’t need to know a specific mechanism or purpose to notice the edge of the cliff, any more than I need to know the mechanism to notice a decline in general. The pattern stays relatively steady, then starts an obvious decline. And Noah is the patently obvious apex of that decline (though one alternate possibility I’d consider, see below).

I. AM. NOT. TRYING. TO. TIE. THE. PATTERN. TO. SOMETHING. REAL.

my purpose here, again, is to explore any and every OTHER possibility BESIDES THE “REAL” HYPOTHESIS.
Tying the pattern to something real is the one hypothesis I am not interested in hearing about. I’m already generally aware of that one. I want to explore all the other alternatives. Again, from my original post…

As for where to measure the apex and/or top of the decline, there are only two possibilities I can conceive, simply thinking of the math involved.

1. Methusaleh is the edge of the precipice / beginning of the decline, Lamech at 777 starts the decline, Noah is a high aberration, then the decline continues with Shem, etc.
2. Lamech’s low 777 is a low aberration of the previous patterns, Noah’s 950 continues the obvious ~900+ pattern of Genesis 5, and the decline starts with Shem.

For various reasons, not least of which the chapter break between 5-11, the latter seems to me far more sensible, especially if I leave any “real” considerations out and simply consider what the author(s) is trying to accomplish… it seems more likely that Lamech was understood by the author(s) as part of the “previous” world, Noah began the “new” pattern.

But if you wanted to propose that the decline in ages, for whatever reason and authorial intent and purpose, began with Methusaleh, Noah being the aberration, I’d be completely open to your observations.

What I will not bother entertaining as anything but cherry picking, though, is your suggestion to “measure” the decline starting with Lamech as the “edge of the cliff”, or high point from which the decline started… whatever we make of Lamech’s age of 777, being smack between his immediate ancestor at 969 and immediate descendent at 950, the one thing I can confidently claim is that he is not the “high point” from which any decline should be measured.

“ What we know from reincarnation research is that humans live up to 30 lifetimes or about 900 years total”

Can you define the word “know”

A lecturer of mine explained it as the Fall resulting in gradually declining lifespans. I don’t believe in this as a literal explanation, but I can see Bibical authors adopting this as an illustration of sin increasingly affecting human existence.

1 Like

Okay … point heeded. Maybe we can tiptoe away from that for a bit.

To “know” comes from knowledge, from studying a body of knowledge.

I’ve considered this in and of itself, and in general I think there is significant merit to that. But what gives me pause is still the strange pattern in the numbers. Why would an author trying to communicate the progressive effects of sin have essentially shown nine or so generations basically unchanged, and then only later after Noah did he decide to demonstrate a progressive decline due to the effects of the fall?

In other words, if I think of an author demonstrating, or wanting to illustrate, the cumulative or progressive corruption of humanity due to the fall, I would think that such a decline would have started with Adam, no?

Adam lived only 900+ years, which granted is a huge decline from infinity, But then the line of his descendants immediately after him showed no significant decline. Could there have been some reason that the author/authors were trying to communicate that the Deeper or more lasting or more significant effects of the fall did not start taking place until around or after the time of Noah?

Interesting question. Perhaps, Genesis 6:5 might hold a clue? Genesis 6:5 says,

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.

It would seem that the time of Noah marks the point when total depravity becomes total. Not only in that sin effects humanity as a whole but also that also in that it taints everything they do. Even good deeds in the eyes of their peers are no longer good in the eyes of God.

Just a thought…

I have considered that also, and I think it’s a good thought. One would think that the consequence of the flood was the main response, however, Reduction in lifespan as a judgment could well be in view. The passage about man’s years being 120 do certainly seem to be in connection with God’s displeasure of humanity.

Seems odd to me that after the flood, you still have generations upon generations, throughout Genesis, that lived well past 120 though, even so, God does tend to delay his judgments often enough. I think of, “the day you shall eat it you shall surely die.“

One complication, is that many have interpreted the 120 years as essentially the countdown to the flood, Not a new upper limit on human lifespan. Man has 120 years left until judgment comes, not unlike Jonah’s 40 days until Nineveh is destroyed. And this is not a modern interpretation to try to solve this current difficulty, I noticed John Calvin took this approach in his commentary 400 years ago. I honestly don’t know what to make of the 120 year comment in genesis six, I could go one way or the other on that one.

Just so I followed your thought, is it that due to man’s wickedness hitting its maximum, that is when God’s judgment in decreasing lifespan began? The other difficulty with that, now that I think about it, is that in theory, all the population of the world that was so depraved would have been drowned, and it seems a bit odd that God would go forward on this Decreasing life span judgment on righteous Noah and his descendants, right after he had drowned all the people that were in fact so deprived. Thoughts?

Well, with increasing life spans in the last century or so, does that mean we are more righteous?
That is half tongue in cheek, but half serious in that it points out the problem with linking it to righteousness. Plus, in pre-flood days, things were so bad God wiped them all out, so why did he let them live that long in the first place? Of course, you have to have a literalist interpretation to really enter the conversation, as that is a pre-supposition of the discussion, so I am probably out of line to comment.
The environmental change with the flood lowering lifespans does not fly with me either, as no plausible mechanism is present for that sort of change. Ultimately, I think we have to accept that the account is more mythical than historical or else is clothed in miracle and outside our understanding.

2 Likes

I agree. It doesn’t take higher math or a geiger counter to make a series of numbers that plots a curve. Take a number and keep halving it and – presto – perfect decay curve!

In an artificial series of decreasing numbers, it’s quite reasonable for the size of the drop to depend on the scale of the number, showing bigger drops with bigger numbers and smaller drops when the numbers get smaller. No special math required, just awareness of how 900 to 800 seems about as significant a change as 90 to 80.

Yes, I know. What I’ve been trying to point out, perhaps poorly, is that setting aside reality and focusing on the way Genesis presents the numbers is the best way to make sense of them. For others (not you!) who wonder about a natural cause to the numbers, it doesn’t make sense to start with Noah (for the reasons mentioned before), and it doesn’t make sense to treat Moses and Joshua’s ages as reflective of their generation when the Bible tells us otherwise. This in itself is a strong point in favour of literary explanations, since the easiest way to explain the numbers we’re given in the context they’re placed is to set aside reality and focus on literary reasons.

If we’re looking for patterns and symbolism, it makes sense to measure the drop of a cliff from the roof of a lighthouse built at its edge. When it’s exactly 100 metres from roof to base of the cliff, it’s probably intentional. But if we’re looking for a natural mechanism for the cliff (and Daniel, I know you are not), the roof of the lighthouse is no longer a good starting point.

Back to the literary explanation. Between Noah and Abraham there’s generally a stairstep decline by hundreds, but those whose ages are given outside the genealogy (Noah, Terah, Abraham) receive significant numbers that are a bit higher (lighthouses, if you will) while still fitting the overall decline. There are two dramatic drops to indicate the importance of the two key events in these chapters: the flood and the division at Babel. While the second drop is actually bigger as a percentage than the first, it’s smaller as an absolute number. After the genealogy, the later numbers also show a decline, but rather than decreasing by hundreds like the genealogy, they decrease at a scale appropriate to the smaller numbers.

One other cool thing is that the two sharp drops create two gaps in the total ages after the flood. There’s nobody who lives in the 700–800 range, and nobody who lives in the 300–400 range. If we go back to Genesis 5, the two exceptions to its 900-ish lifespans are 365 and 777, neatly filling both gaps. So, the Genesis 5 genealogy creates a kind of flipped negative image where the two figures deviating from its pattern of uniformly high lifespans coincide with the two gaps in the Genesis 11 genealogy’s pattern of ages decreasing by hundreds.

One could speculate all sorts of reasons for such a pattern, all of which would be only guesses, but it’s one more way it looks like these numbers have been arranged and massaged over long periods of time to embed all sorts of intriguing patterns and symbolism. Like the many wordplays in Genesis, the numbers seem to be one more tool used to bolster themes already stated in the surrounding narrative.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

This is a place for gracious dialogue about science and faith. Please read our FAQ/Guidelines before posting.