Ages of Patriarchs

I think that progression is what is happening, but do not think it can be quantified that distinctly. We got from stories with truly bizarre and other worldly images such as talking snakes and rivers with a common origin, magic trees and such, and move to Noah with a fantastic story but within the realm of human experience as far as the principals (it is a big boat, but it is still a boat), to Babel with a fully human endeavor, to Abram who is totally believable historicaly except for the age, and even that is not far from human experience. Was Abraham historical? I think he was, though I know many scholars do not, thinking him to be a King Arthur like legend.

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Yes and no. I think in the flow of the narrative the reasons the ages begin decreasing straight after Adam is to indicate the increasing influence of wickedness even in the chosen line of Adam. The reason the ages begin to drop off dramatic around the flood might then be because wickedness became total. Total in the sense that there was no longer any natural righteousness left in humanity and that every action was tainted by sin. In other words, the flood generation marks the point when humanity could not qualitatively speaking, become more sinful.

Again, a great question. My answer is going to take a little explaining so bear with me.
Personally, I would argue that the Gen 6:5 description includes Noah in its damning assessment of humanity. This I think makes the best sense of the description of Noah in the following verses.

Firstly, after talking about the Lord’s grief and resolution to bring a purging justice on evil humanity, the writer adds, v7:

But Noah found favour in the eyes of the LORD.

I think we should understand this ‘favor’ to mean that Noah experienced God’s grace. In other words, it is not that Noah was somehow a bastion of purity in a debauched generation. Rather, Noah was a sinner who was chosen by God by God’s favour alone to carry out his task and be the one through whom the blessing and promise would continue.

This is certainly how future generations understood the verse. For example, Jerome’s Latin Vulgate reads

“Noë vero invenit gratiam coram Domino”
“Noah found grace before the Lord”

. Also, the LXX has

“Νωε δὲ εὗρεν χάριν ἐναντίον κυρίου τοῦ θεοῦ.”
But Noah found grace before the Lord God"

If Noah received God’s unmerited favour, then what are we to make of v9, which says:

Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.

Well, one thing of interest is that the Hebrew word for ‘righteousness’ in v9 denotes an objective reality not ethical action. In other words, the writer is not necessarily describing Noah’s behaviour (he did the right thing when everyone else didn’t) but rather his standing before God (how God chose to view him). God declared Noah righteous precisely because Noah found favour/grace in the Lord’s sight. Noah was blameless because God had graciously forgiven him and so was able to declare him blameless. This appears fits with the enigmatic final clauses too “Noah… walked with God.” I think this phrase is supposed to describe the result of this encounter with the Lord. Noah receives God’s grace and so obeys God’s ways. But I also believe the phrase is supposed to bring to mind Enoch from Gen 5:24. He “Walked faithfully with God” and so receives a special blessing from the Lord. Just as Noah walked with the Lord and was rescued from God’s justice by God’s grace.

To conclude then, I think Genesis 6:5-9 introduce us to sinful humanity’s desperate state, the Lord’s reluctant resolution to administer justice, and his singling out of one sinful human, in particular, Noah, to be the custodian of the promise made to Eve and the channel of creation blessing to humanity. However, the ages of his offspring continue to decrease because like the father they too are wicked sinners in desperate need of grace. Again I think the text indicates this point as Noah (in perhaps a PTSD like episode) gets drunk and naked and Ham comes along leers over his father like a voyeur.

In short, Noah is chosen for the job not because Noah is so good, but because God is so good to Noah. Its not a perfect solution but it is the best I have right now :wink:

Wotcha fink?

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Okay, I have too much time on my hands, but I think this might come in handy for a chapter in a project I’m working on. Anyway, here are three charts, the first two to expose some of the patterns, and the third to show what the data looks like as actual lifespans over time.

In the charts, I’ve drawn each person using two numbers, their age when their son is born (feet to loins), and their age afterward (loins to head). The first chart zeroes each person at their birth so it’s easy to compare total ages, while the second zeroes each person at their son’s birth so that both numbers given can easily be seen.

In this third chart, you can see total age on the y axis, while the x axis shows the progression in time. By looking down each vertical line, it’s easy to see who would all be alive at the same. This also shows how the ages change over time (rather than over numbered generations).

(Edited to fix some things on the charts.)


I admire it from afar. Like C S Lewis, I have trouble making a column of 4 figures come out the same way each time I tot them up (at least in long addition; calculus was fun).

I love the figures above from @marshall

There are some interesting thoughts here about the symbolic dimensions of some of the numbers. That probably has to do with them on some level.

I classify these ages as a subset of the problem of large OT numbers. Such inflated or hyperbolic numbers cannot be given too restrictive an explanation because they occur in such varied circumstances. The number of Israelites that came out of Egypt would form a column so long it would stretch from the Nile Delta to the promised land. But look also at the weight of quail meat each Israelite was supposed to have gathered in Numbers. Or the weight of the crown David wore after the capture of Rabbah. Or the weight of Absalom’s hair.

The height of Goliath grows from 6-1/2 feet in the Dead Sea Scrolls (which indeed was a giant in a time of low protein consumption) to a little over seven feet in the LXX to over nine feet in the MT.

The wall of the minor Iron Age town of Aphek fell and supposedly killed ten times as many people as died in the collapse of the World Trade Center. There were single battles that are said to have killed more men than the US lost in WWII. So, this problem of unrealistic numbers has many expressions.

Rather than moving forward from early Genesis, look at it the other way around–as ages lengthening as we peer back in time. This may have conveyed to early readers a sense of “deep time,” of a dim past so full of years that they must be counted on a scale other than the one we employ for the affairs of daily life.

In a similar way, the Deluge in Genesis marked for the ancients something like the boundary we draw between civilization and prehistory or between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. The comment in Genesis about the earth being filled with violence must have had a correspondence to collective memory, since one in ten skeletons from the Neolithic shows signs of violent death.

We have only speculation to go on in explaining the problem as a whole. The long ages in the Torah serve a spiritual purpose of some kind, if only to make clear that in the first chapters of Genesis we are in a cultural setting far removed from our own.


Those inflated numbers do make for a problem with some definitions of inerrancy. I think Enns states that they were essentially propaganda, along with the stories of genocidal killing that are problematic. Basically, they were telling themselves and those around them how big and bad they were.
Now, how do we integrate that view with Biblical truth and divine inspiration. Truthfully, it gives me pause, as it is hard to deal with.

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Maybe one way for Christians to begin to process it (and I think this is basically Enns’ approach) is to take those accounts not so much as God directly revealing his heart as it is a record of God’s people revealing theirs in their relationship to that God they dimly begin to know.


That is a very interesting observation, but it would present a very different take on the numerical difficulty. Assuming the DSS number was oldest, LXX transitional, and MT the late development, it would suggest that the original author (dare I say autograph) was perhaps more faithful or reasonable with the original estimation of G’s height, but it was only later copyists that further exaggerated the number.

(Even so, while I’m hardly an expert on OT Textual criticism, I do know determining the original is not simply a matter of deferring to the oldest, as sometimes the oldest extant manuscripts were nonetheless themselves copied less faithfulLY than what is preserved in the MT)

I do recall numerals are perhaps the most difficult and corrupted/corruptible part of textual transmission. Perhaps much of what we have extant today is either intentional exaggeration on later copyists part, or misunderstanding of more ancient conventions for numbering, as was discussed over on the thread re the size of the exodus.

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That’s a great way of putting it. I think it’s quite possible to take the ages too seriously. Most of the patterns and symbolism come through with a careful read, no charting required. These numbers are embedded in literature, and that’s how they’re supposed to be received. I think my last chart especially (with the slanted figures) takes these numbers far more seriously than originally intended, probably leading to “insights” the author never wanted us to draw.

For instance, Genesis 5 monotonously drills home the effects of Adam’s rebellion as it repeats “and he died.” While the curse is in full force, the blessing to be fruitful and multiply is muted. The text focuses on son’s birth followed by father’s death, so only with Noah’s three sons do we see a real gain. Other sons and daughters are noted parenthetically, keeping the focus off the growing population.

But charting it out tells a different story. Put the statements in Genesis 5 in chronological order, and the first “and he died” wouldn’t appear until after the birth of Noah’s father! Aside from Adam, Seth and Enoch, everyone in Genesis 5 lives alongside Noah until he’s at least an octogenarian. I don’t think Genesis is supposed to be read as showing such a delay in natural death coming to humans.

Likewise, I don’t think we’re supposed to picture Noah as among those building the tower, given a new language and scattered from Babel. When Abram leaves his father’s house, I don’t think we’re also supposed to picture him leaving all his living ancestors back to Shem, or wonder if Shem ever popped by in his late 500s when Jacob’s kids were being born. I don’t think we’re intended to picture Eber mourning the death of his son, grandson, great-grandson, and on to his great-great-great-great-grandson Abraham.

So yes, I think the ages speak of a misty past that can best be reflected by fabulous numbers set on an ethereal scale. Despite my efforts, they work best when read in their literary context, not plotted.

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The Goliath story is interesting also. One article I read discussed how he probably had a medical condition called acromegaly which actually can be quite disabling and often leads to early death (think of Andre the Giant and Princess Bride who died age 46 of heart failure). Vision problems and joint problems are common, and hints they may have been present are in the biblical text. In other words, Goliath may have been more for show than go, and his slowness and limited vision may have made him a sitting duck for one skilled with the sling.
Now, that all rings of having a naturalistic explanation for David’s victory, and makes some uncomfortable, but the text really does not suggest miracles outside of the normal physics of the world, and certainly leaves space for God’s preparation and leading of David to victory.

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I have never, or do I personally know anyone or have heard any sermon on the topic (and there have been many), who attributed David’s victory to supernatural means. I for one never have. A sling, properly wielded, is a powerful and deadly weapon.

Do you really know anyone who thinks this event to have been genuinely supernatural, not merely “providential” where a God worked through natural means to accomplish his end? If so, what specifically was claimed supernatural about it? God guided the stone? It went faster than regular stones? It was more lethal than regular stones? To me the very beauty of the story is that David went in armed for combat, and he specifically wasn’t counting on a miracle, (he got five stones, not just one, after all)., but he trusted that God guides and is in charge of even the natural and ordinary flow of events.

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You just got me curious… Is there actually a firm suggested or proposed date of the Tower of Babel? I just noticed that it had been put into the first chart I stole from the Internet, but I have no idea on what basis someone put it there.

I think the way it is taught in children’s Sunday school and in adult class in most churches give that impression. They portray David as a little kid, and Goliath as a big bad warrior. Who should be able to crush David like a bug. I have really never heard it preached that David had a fighting chance of winning, but did so only by the grace of God. Maybe not as a miracle, but pretty close. I think that if you went to your local Sunday school class and said that David was pretty likely to win the confrontation, you would get some funny looks.


That’s a good example of cultural significance that we continue to import into that story just as they did in the way it’s told. Regardless of any details of how things actually went down (or whatever handicaps Goliath may have had that we/they just didn’t know about) it is still our narrative for “underdog faces overwhelming odds” scenarios. Even if we can imagine things in David’s favor now (easy to do in retrospective victory) they obviously didn’t think it was any slam dunk battle back then. Otherwise, larger “more worthy” warriors would probably have been jumping at the opportunity for the glory.

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As father to two young boys, that’s been my experience too. It’s basically relegated to a children’s story about overcoming great odds with God’s help. In church, I’ve never seen it explored more deeply with adults.

Our wider culture also has the cliche “like David against Goliath.” It would be cool if that referred to someone having a weapon that turned their opponent’s greatest strength into a liability (Goliath’s size making him a larger target for a projectile), but so far that hasn’t happened.

This may not reflect how the stories in Genesis were understood before they were compiled together, but in its canonical form, the text implies the division in Peleg’s day was the division of peoples at Babel. Genesis 10:25 puns on Peleg’s name to say in his day the earth was palag or divided. Genesis 11 describes the Babel incident similarly, but without using the exact same word. It instead puns on the name Babel to say earth’s language was balal or confused. Both words come together in Psalm 55:9: “Confuse [balal], O Lord, divide [palag] their tongues.”

Another connection is that the statement about the earth being divided in Peleg’s day is in the context of the table of nations that shows how the peoples of the earth are divided into various groups with their own languages. To read it as being about an earthquake or such instead of nations and languages ignores the context. So, the detailed description of Babel in the following chapter would seem to explain how these divisions came about.

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Then said David to the Philistine, Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied. This day will the LORD deliver thee into mine hand; and I will smite thee, and take thine head from thee; and I will give the carcases of the host of the Philistines this day unto the fowls of the air, and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel. And all this assembly shall know that the LORD saveth not with sword and spear: for the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give you into our hands. 1 Samuel 17:45-47

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I’ve always kind of laughed at that… My own personal paraphrase: That you may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear, but with slings and rocks!


Indeed it is so, and many forget that it wasn’t the stone that killed Goliath, but it knocked him down and David ran to him, took Goliath’s sword and cut off his head.

In my view David was probably in his early to mid teens and Goliath was probably the height of a modern day basketball player give or take a few inches taller maybe.

Yes, I was wondering how that exactly worked–Why didn’t God just flatten the Philistines? The point seems to me to be (as in much of the Bible) that God is the one who brings the proud low, and David was just a shepherd boy who ordinarily would not stand a chance–but is this sort of an ID paradigm? Where does God begin and where is nature? :laughing:

Most things happen that way, though, don’t they? God chooses to use us as His tools. Thanks.

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The battle belongs to the lord, but usually in such a way that i still have to unsheath my own sword.

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

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