Long Lifespans in Genesis Literal or Numerological?

The genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11 have extremely long ages for the patriarchs that seem to contradict modern scientific understanding. A response to this is the interpretation that the ages are only numerological and not literal. Such as this article by BioLogos:

I feel this interpretation is convincing and makes sense. However, I have come across a passage that seems to suggest that the ages are indeed literal. Namely, Genesis 47:7-9, which reads:

7 Then Joseph brought his father Jacob in and presented him before Pharaoh. After Jacob blessed Pharaoh, 8 Pharaoh asked him, “How old are you?”

9 And Jacob said to Pharaoh, “The years of my pilgrimage are a hundred and thirty. My years have been few and difficult, and they do not equal the years of the pilgrimage of my fathers.”

So how is one to interpret this passage if the numbers are simply numerological and not literal?

Thanks for posting my favorite subject! First of all the Bible says “And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years: and he died.” it does not say Adam lived to be 930 years old. 930 total years of human life on Earth is equivalent to 21 to 30 lifetimes which could span 15,000 years or so, which is much more in line with genetic research and the old earth that science has demonstrated.

As unlikely as this sounds, 130 doesn’t seem to be so completely outside the realm of possibility as, say, 969. At least, considering people in modern times have been known to live into their 120s, and longevity sometimes seems to run in families.

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There’s one important point worth noting about the long lifespans in Genesis.

The only people who are reported as having long lifespans were Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their direct ancestors (i.e. the line of Seth in Genesis 5). We’re not told anything about the lifespans of Cain’s descendants, nor about any of their other contemporaries.

I personally conclude from this that if the lifespans in Genesis were actually literal rather than numerological, then they must have been a miraculous exception rather than the rule. I don’t buy the YEC idea that everyone lived longer in those days. Like many of their other science fiction ideas, that goes beyond what the Bible says.

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Here’s two patterns with the ages that lead me to think the point of the numbers was more symbolic than literal.

First, the ages of the main patriarchs.[1]

Abraham: 175 = (7)5^2
Isaac: 180 = (5)6^2
Jacob: 147 = (3)7^2

The factors of these ages include a square of 5, 6, 7. Then we get Joseph.

Joseph: 110 = 5^2 + 6^2 + 7^2

The factor apart from the square also has a pattern. For Joseph, it is simply 1 (the squares themselves), then 3 for Jacob, 5 for Isaac, 7 for Abraham. So it builds up to a 7 using odd numbers.

Seeing as these ages are all from the same book, this is hard to write off as coincidence. Since 110 was viewed as an ideal lifespan in Egypt, that was probably the starting point. Since that number contains the three squares, that may have led the author to the right meaningful numbers for the other patriarchs. But who knows.

The other pattern is even weirder. Adding the ages of all the patriarchs from Adam to Moses results in 12,600 years.[2] In days, 12,600 is exactly 35 years in the 360-day calendar often used in biblical times (or 7 x 5 years). Knock off a zero, and 1,260 days is exactly 3.5 years. This span of time is quite significant in Daniel (the “time, two times and half a time” of Dan. 7:25) and Revelation (11:2-3). There’s much more about this pattern here:

  1. I came across this in Victor P. Hamilton’s Book of Genesis 18-50 (NICOT), p. 709.

  2. Jeremy Northcote, “The Lifespans of the Patriarchs: Schematic Orderings in the Chrono-Genealogy”, Vetus Testamentum, 57(2), 2007, pp. 243-257.


I think the Biblical writers probably took the lifespans literally, even if they have numerological meaning to them. In the magico-mythical cosmology of the ancient near east, magic and the “supernatural” underlied everything, so it would have been theoretically possible in their mind for real lifespans to have mystical meaning.

In the ancient world though?

Could someone respond to a comment in this video:

This video assumes that the numbers from the Masoretic text are accurate. But these numbers differ in the older copies of the Septuagint and Samaritan texts. Although this chapter was not found with the Dead Sea Scrolls, almost every time there was a discrepancy between the MSS and the LXX the Dead Sea Scroll sided with the LXX. I think it’s reasonable to believe that the LXX has the original numbers which throws his calculations off. This also would fix the Egyptian timeline problems as it pushes the date of the flood back around 500-600 years.

Mythological I would say…

Could you elaborate on what you think the 930 years represents?

Here is a video that might help

Dear Thanks,
The 895 to 969 years equates to about 30 lifetimes and according to reincarnation research, that is the average number of times that humans reincarnation during their path of restoration according to the theory of the Apocatastasis or The Restoration of All Things. This early Christian theory says that we all need to slowly relearn our lost virtues before achieving our final home in the Kingdom of God. This is not an exact science as it depends on the success of each student. Genesis 5 gives us an idea how long it took the various fallen souls to reconcile with God. This happened of course over thousands of years, with approximately four hundred years between lives, on average. It is interesting to note that the Yahwehist lists Adam as not the first one to complete his education, even though he was the first to start. Of course he was not successful during his first test in Paradise.

So your interpretation is that the ages of each patriarch is the sum of all their lives they had lived? My thoughts would be where is the scriptural evidence of this, and how could that belief work with the rest of Christian theology?

There is a third possibility, that will no doubt draw a lot of flack, and that is that a lunar calendar is being used for some of these lifespans, and so what is translated as “years” are actually “lunar months.” Then a lifespan of 960 “years,” for instance, would correspond to roughly 960/12 = 80 of our calendar years.

So has anyone elaborated on the significance of these patterns?

@Thanos My problem is the opposite-- I “need” them to be longer. :slight_smile:
What are the possible ways to stretch the genealogy to span, say 80,000 years?

Any basis for considering:
Precedence for lineages or tribes being represented by a key patriarch?
Gaps between “eras”, say, before and after the flood?

A few details to consider:
Obviously, Adam was created, not born in Genesis (what would his birth certificate say?).
Similarities with the Sumerian King List.
No scientific basis to explain longer living ancestors.

I thought it was 120 (Gen. 6:3, Ex. 34:7), but the point remains. A person of wisdom and importance could be said to be “120 years old” as a sign of respect, not necessarily actual age.

According to Walter Kaiser, the Septuagint’s ages at the birth of each child are 100 years more than the Masoretic Text (with some exceptions), and the Samaritan Pentateuch basically agrees with the MT in total number of years. I’m not going to research the Dead Sea Scrolls comment specifically, but as a general rule, the DSS rarely support the LXX over the MT, and when it does happen, you’ll usually see the alternative reading as a footnote in your Bible. Mostly, though, I agree with the overall point of the comment. Textual discrepancies are the reason that I am not much swayed by numerology. One variant throws every calculation out of whack. (Is the number of the beast 666 or 616?)

I think the numerology angle is interesting, but in the article linked in the OP, Jim Stump also pointed out, " Different versions of the Sumerian King List are found in several ancient documents, and these use outlandishly large figures for the number of years some kings supposedly reigned in various Mesopotamian city-states (e.g., in Eridug, Alulim ruled for 28,800 years!). The numbers there came to have a role in legitimizing certain dynasties, and no one thinks they are simply historical reports of true numerical values."

Much more to say about the various king lists, much of it thanks to research inspired by this thread, but the hour is growing late. Maybe tomorrow …

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For a couple extreme instances, sure. As a rule or an average, no.

Dear Thanos,
Yes, that is the case. Besides John 3 where Jesus acknowledged to Nicodemus that he must reenter the womb, there are number of references to reincarnation in the Bible, that have survived the damning of Origen in 543 AD.

I’m sure if you play around with numbers you can find some sort of pattern linking most small groups. IOW I’m skeptical that the pattern has any significance.
What is significant is the decreasing lifespans following the flood. This after God told Noah that lifespans would be reduced to 120 years max. This occured over several generations probably to compensate for small population sizes immediately after the flood.

I think the most natural explanation is that Jacob’s abnormally long lifespan is intended to be linked together with the lifespans of earlier patriarchs.

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