Ages of Patriarchs

A mathematical bent is a boon for many tasks, but making sense of ancient literature isn’t one of them.

I don’t see why a linear reduction would be more expected than something proportional. Why couldn’t biblical authors portray a decline by showing God taking a tithe of years away from each generation (something that would also plot a pretty curve)? I don’t think that’s what they did, but there’s no reason why they couldn’t.

When Jesus told three stories about lost items, he moved from many to few in the progression of 100 sheep, 10 coins, 2 sons. There’s no reason to have expected him to aim for a linear reduction by having 50 coins instead. In fact, probably all but accountants would see a clearer progression in 100-10-2 than in 100-50-2. Literarily and artistically, it just pops more.

When numbers span a wide range, what counts as a big drop will change depending on the starting point. A son who lives 100 years less than his dad may seem unremarkable if Dad lived to 969 but tragic if Dad lived to 119. A linear reduction would be an awkward choice for numbers spanning a range this large.

Math doesn’t get us far in seeing what’s going on with the ages. Literary considerations are at work. For instance, there’s another way of looking at how the big numbers in the Genesis 11 genealogy hover just above the century marks: except for the 119 at the end (which calls to mind Genesis 6:3), every 3-digit number contains a zero. The reason, I expect, is literary. In Hebrew as well as English, big numbers containing zeroes are shorter to spell out and say. This may also explain why Genesis 5 includes an extra phrase and number to total each person’s age, even though doing so doesn’t add any new information.

The patriarchs’ paragraphs in Genesis 5 look weighty (especially in a translation that writes out the numbers, reflecting the Hebrew). By contrast, in Genesis 11 they’re shorter to write and faster to say. That’s one more way Genesis conveys a shift from the giants of the past to people closer to us. It’s not a pattern to be reduced to an equation, but something to be experienced as an attentive reader or hearer.


Yes, this! Narrative not numbers - that’s the emphasis of the passages. The numbers are a McGuffin. A plot device the propels the narrative forward as it drives home it’s theological significance to the hearer - and us the reader! This is so easy to miss as a modern Western reader. Thanks for the reminder.


Just an interesting bbc article on genetic and other current influences on longevity averages:

If Wikipedia is correct a number without a final zero is only 1 letter longer than one that ends in 0 (letters represent 1 to 9 and there is no zero). Is there any idea on how they would pronounce a number represented by a string of letters?

The genealogies don’t use the abbreviated format where each letter represents a number. Instead, the numbers are written out in full, like “eight hundred and eighty-five.” In Hebrew I think that number is “חָמֵ֤שׁ וְתִשְׁעִים֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וּשְׁמֹנֶ֥ה מֵאֹ֖ות” but that’s just going by tools (I haven’t learned Hebrew).

Maybe not so much over-read as entirely misinterpreted? Need I spell this out? The above was further explaining my prior observation:

“If I were” is subjunctive case. It indicates unreality or counter to fact. I’d have thought that would be enough to recognize that I am not defending this idea, besides all the other clues. I am beginning to seriously wonder if my communication skills are really that bad.

I had simply observed that a curved versus linear decline seems irrelevant to the YEC hypothesis, that they could claim that either case could support their hypothesis.

To spell it out further, my point was simply this: my observation that the ages seem to reflect an interesting curved decline has nothing to do with needing to see some kind of curved decline in order to support a YEC hypothesis – because a linear decline would seem to be just as supportive to that hypothesis. If I were [subjunctive/contrary-to-fact] defending the YEC/postdiluvian genetic decay hypothesis - WHICH I AM NOT - I would have no need whatsoever to see, find, force, inject, interpret, manipulate, or otherwise discover some kind of decay curve. If I were [subjunctive/contrary-to-fact] defending the idea that some sort of environmental or genetic change after the flood contributed to decreasing lifespan, I’d be just as happy finding a decay curve as a steady decline. Either seems that it would support their hypothesis.

As such, I am simply trying to make absolutely clear that I have no motivation, ulterior motive, or other need to “find” some decay curve as many here seem intent on accusing me of. this should be obvious, for two reasons:

  1. as stated repeatedly, I’m simply not interested in exploring the creationist hypothesis, and

  2. even if i were [subjunctive/contrary-to-fact] defending it, I would have no need to find such a curve, as said curve seems to me entirely unnecessary to the creationist hypothesis even if I were [subjunctive/contrary-to-fact] defending it, WHICH I AM NOT.

I’m seeing the aforementioned pattern because it is there, not because I have some need to see it to prove some ulterior conclusion I have no interest in defending. I saw this pattern when I was a child just from reading the text, before I knew what to call it, before I’d ever heard of creationism.

Perhaps I should edit my comment to “If I read Wikipedia correctly” because it seems I didn’t. :smile:
And a quick check of my interlinear shows the numbers are written out. I understand your point about a number ending in 0 now because it is missing the word for 1-9.

No problem! And it’s not just ending in zero, but also ones that have a zero in the middle (which is the case for most ages-after-sons in Genesis 11).

I think that defining these long periods as imaginary only because “it is not possible for people to live hundreds of years” is really limiting.
If we want to see things from a pure rationalistic way the resurrection of Christ, his birth from a Virgin, walking on water… it is all impossible.
I am not one of the people that believes everything is literally true in Genesis.
It would be easy for me to see the first 11 chapters of Genesis only as etiological research for Mankind’s origins.
The problem is that if we see the first chapter as only mythology we have no objective evidence to prove that also Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Lot or others biblical characters actually were historical.
My question to you is the following:
Where do you put your line between what is rationally acceptable and what can be possible thanks to God’s grace and intervention in human history ?
My line is in the middle. I am open to a medium account between the mythological and the rationalistic account of Genesis 1-11.

What’s any of this got to do with Christianity? With the claim above all claims? Incarnation. And its continuation in us.

Sorry Klax, I am not sure to understand.
Do you mean that the fundamental truth in christianity is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ so historicity of biblical characters has anything to do with christianity ? Do you see them all as allegories to represent the origins of Israel and the action of God in history ?
I think that to represent an allegory it is not necessary to introduce so much people.
All myths introduce only the people that are necessary for the narration, while the vast majority of the Bible characters are practically useless to the message that the relative chapter wants to communicate. Genesis for example reports only age and name of nearly all the Patriarchs.
Why to imagine all these numbers and names ?

No problem ylsalvus, yes, to your first question. All ancient cultures have detailed myths and genealogies. The reasons for these are very basic power plays.

Thank you Klax.
The problem is always to mark a definite line from what is historical/mythological or real but exaggerated…
The impossibility to mark a line (for example saying that first 11 chapters of Genesis are not historical and then yes)studying the Old Testament makes me want to stay in the middle and trying to find a sort of compromise because the problem becomes “when the revelation of God to Israel actually began ?”. I know it is not interesting for our faith because Jesus is historical without any reasonable doubt.
Has God chosen for incarnation a people whose vision of God was, let’s say more similar to reality ?
Hard questions… :grimacing:

Israelite society evolved in tantalizing ways, it’s easy to see the magnet of God as He is, if He is, aligning their filings sufficiently to incarnate among them, as Jesus - an indirect historical figure - saw.

1 Like

Ah ok! Thank you again for your explanation…
Last question… What do you mean by “indirect historical figure”?

He is inferred from actual history, i.e. other documentary sources than the Bible. His social and cultural impact is greater than any other contemporary below Roman emperor and He subverted that when alive and after His death in His followers exponentially for centuries. The testimony to and by the earliest church in the seven consensually most valid letters of Paul is to his indirect historical presence.

Just my rationally faithful take Andrea.


I have a theory, one that I haven’t seen anywhere else.

It has two parts:

  1. Down to Abram, fathers and sons counted their age in this way: at the age of adulthood (12 or 13) they were responsible for tracking their age in lunar counts. They recorded their age when a son was born, and later the son maintained the record of their ancestors, passing it down.

  2. Sometime after Abram left for Canaan, this record keeping method was discontinued. From then on, the years were estimated and reconstructed from the testimony and documents handed down through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the large bulk of Genesis material was likely compiled by Joseph from his own life, Jacob’s testimony, and from the family library.

A brief example of (1):
– Jared began counting his age (in months) when he became a man at 12.
– When he was 25, Enoch was born, and he had counted 162 months.
– When was 89, he died, and Enoch or another descendant recorded his count as 962.

This would likely have involved some rounding, but would have been generally accurate. The line was re-recorded by successive generations, until Abram.

A brief explanation of (2):
– Abram’s father and brother die when he’s very young, about 10 or 11.
– His nephew Lot is likely a toddler when he adopts him in Haran, following Terah’s death.
– He sets out for Canaan at about the age of 18, having counted to 75.
– After Canaan his ages are estimated from other documentation – his age of 100 is reflected as occurring 25 years after his arrival – likely at age 43.

From there, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are accounted in rough estimates from a later compiler/historian (I assume Joseph) or some similar accounting that differs from the earlier records.

So as to not make the post overly long, I’ll leave it at that. Try working out the math. It’s pretty neat, and if it’s close to the truth, is very clarifying. Has anyone ever come across a similar theory? Thoughts?

1 Like

I seem to remember coming across the lunar method somewhere.

However, remember writing was only invented around the time of Abraham which is why Genesis 12 and onward “reads” more like a history. There were only oral traditions before then which to me explains the difference in tone for Genesis 1-11.

Thank you Bill. I’m not sure whether replies in a thread are notified to everyone; I’m replying to Daniel bc he began the thread and I meant to do that originally, but will address your reply.

The lunar count is an obvious theory, until you get to patriarchs seemingly fathering children at age 6, and everywhere I’ve seen that analysis, it’s rightly rejected… I haven’t seen any hypothesized qualifier that the count may have begun at age 12-13. It seems possible to me that serious people reject the lunar count theory early, never to revisit the idea. But shifting the lunar ages by 12 years resolves every biological concern, and makes many of the circumstantial remarks and actions more reasonable and interesting as well.

By this reckoning, there would have been something like 600 years, maybe less, from Adam to Joseph, if the 23-24 generations are the full picture. I think writing had evolved enough by this time to reasonably account for most everything being passed down in roughly the form it takes in Genesis down to Jacob – but I’m certainly not an expert in that, and I agree, linguistic and literary analysis could help support or undermine the theory.

There are 2 Reply buttons. If you use the one at the bottom of a person’s post they are notified. Like I did here. If you use the one at the bottom of the thread after “This topic will close…” no one is notified directly.

The earliest form of writing is Sumerian archaic (pre-cuneiform) writing dating to roughly the time of Abraham so no written records.

“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.