Long Lifespans in Genesis Literal or Numerological?

The probability that the numbers represent a natural genealogy has been calculated to effectively zero, watch Stanhope’s video.

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  1. When did God tell Noah this? He told it to the Bene HaElohim.
  2. It is more likely that Genesis 6:3 gives humans 120 years to live before the flood. The point being is that there is no biblical reason given for decreasing lifespans:

in Zechariah 12:1 we discover that Yahweh forms the spir-
it of (corporate) humanity. When God’s spirit is removed, the result is death.
Consequently, the verse can be understood to refer to a span of 120 years before
(corporate) humanity will lose God’s spirit and die.
Such a reference to time spans also occurs preceding the flood in the Atrahasis
Epic. There, after the creation of humanity (corporate), “1,200 years had not yet
passed, when the land extended and the peoples multiplied”; already problems
developed between humanity and the gods (see proposition 8—here its descrip-
tion does not matter). The gods send disease to reduce the population, but hu-
mans are coached to respond by withholding food from the gods in general while
giving gifts to the god of disease, who then relents. Again, 1,200 years had not yet
passed, the problem continues, and the gods send drought and its resulting
famine. Again, humans respond by building a temple to the storm god and bring-
ing him gifts, and the god relents.

The sources I looked at, including that Genesis commentary by Victor Hamilton, claim it is 110 that had special significance in Egyptian culture. Googling showed several other sources making this claim, sometimes with no apparent connection to biblical interpretation.

I can appreciate the skepticism. The pattern with Abraham-Isaac-Jacob-Joseph does seem a bit too perfect to be coincidence, at least to me. If it just worked for four random individuals drawn from the Genesis genealogies, I would be far more skeptical. As for the other pattern, its fragility makes it surprising that it has remained intact within the Masoretic Text. It almost seems like a checksum.

The other thing is how the ages in the Genesis genealogies differ between the Masoretic, Greek and Samaritan versions. The differences aren’t easily explained as scribal corruptions: they seem to be intentional changes, such as subtracting 100 from some numbers so that nobody outlives the flood (the link I posted before gets into this). This seems to show that the people preserving these genealogies felt free to adjust the numbers as long as there was a good reason. That suggests that they, at least, did not view them as flat historical details.


You’re correct. I checked in Sarfati’s book “The Genesis Account”.

Yes, the biblical authors believed lots of weird stuff. Numerology and exaggerations, like ANE king lists.

Exaggerated Ages of the Biblical Patriarchs

It is certain that one cannot build up a chronology on the spans of years attributed to the Patriarchs, nor regard it as factual that Abraham was seventy-five years old when he left Harran and a hundred when Isaac was born and that Jacob was a hundred and thirty when he went into Egypt, for the evidence from the skeletons in the Jericho tombs shows that the expectations of life at this period was short. Many individuals seem to have died before they were thirty-five, and few seem to have reached the age of fifty.

  • Dr. Kathleen Kenyon (the eminent excavator of the city-mound of Jericho)

Exaggerated Ages of the Sumerian/Babylonian Kings Compared with those of the Hebrew Patriarchs

According to ancient Sumerian/Babylonian “king lists,” their kings could live for tens of thousands of years, but of course the worthies of the kings lists were not merely men, but gods or demigods (“kings from heaven”), whose ages could consequently be recorded astronomically. The Hebrew authors dealt only with men, and therefore the ages they assigned to them are comparatively modest, less than a thousand years, because above one thousand years is a perspective proper to God alone. (Ps. 90:4). (The Hebrews were partial to that number, “1000,” as anyone can see who does a “search” for it throughout the Bible.)

Interestingly, both the “king lists” and the Hebrew list of the patriarchs are composed of ten kings/patriarchs. And in both lists the number of years that a king reigned (or patriarch lived) dropped after “the Flood.” (The Sumerian/Babylonians had their own “Flood” story that pre-dates the one found in Genesis.) In fact the Babylonian kingʼs ages dropped after their “Flood story” to ages appropriate to the ages of the Hebrew patriarchs before the Flood, i.e., none of the kings after the Flood reigned longer than 960 years.

Professor Bruce Vawtner in A Path Through Genesis, suggests that “Both the Hebrews and Sumerians/Babylonians knew that many more than ten generations had elapsed during these periods. To bridge over the enormous gaps in time, therefore, both of them assigned tremendous ages to the few names that they possessed. While the Babylonians simply set down astronomical figures, none of them under twenty thousand years, the Hebrew author has been comparatively moderate, and above all, he made his ten generations serve a religious purpose.”

But before discussing the ages of the Biblical patriarchs further, one must note that there are three different sources for the Hebrew Bible, the ancient Masoretic text, the Septuagint text, and the Samaritan text, and they record slightly different ages for the patriarchs, and different totals as well if you added all their ages up in a straight line one after the other. The MT gives a total of 1656 years, the Septuagint gives 2242 years, while the Samaritan text gives 1307 year. The MT is the one used in most modern day Bible translations. According to the MT text, Noah is the first man to be born (in the year 1056) after the death of Adam (in the year 930). Thus the author singles out Noah at birth as the beginning of the new generation of post-Adamic man that will follow after the Flood. This contrivance is further strengthened by the Hebrew authorʼs choice to have Methuselah, the longest lived man of the old generation (before the Flood) die precisely in the year when the Flood begins. A clean sweep, therefore, is made of all the patriarchs that preceded Noah and the Flood. And this neatly excludes any implication that the patriarchs were linked to the corrupt world that had to be destroyed, since the last, and the most aged of them dies immediately prior to the Flood. At least thatʼs according to ages given in the MT version of the Old Testament.

Secondly, in the MT the age at which the patriarchs “begot,” drops progressively till the beginning of the second half of the list is reached with Jared. Adam, who precedes the first five on the list, and Jared, who precedes the last five of the original ten patriarchs, also lives an identical length of time after “begetting,” i.e., 800 years. Jared also begins his “begetting” 32 years later than Adam, which happens to be 1/2 of the 65 years at which Mahalalel and Enoch (who come directly before and after Jared on the list) begin “begetting.” Enoch, the traditional holy man of the period, who occupies the symbolic 7th place on the list (and whom God “took”) also lived a symbolic number of years (365 being the number of days in the solar year). And simply by doubling Enochʼs year at “begetting,” you arrive at Adamʼs. In fact, all of the numbers of the MT for the ages of the patriarchs, aside from the total age of Methuselah, are in multiples of five or in multiples of five with the addition of seven (seven being the most popular number in the Bible, appearing in various capacities at total of over 500 times). The ancient Sumerian/Babylonian kings list employed a similar fancy of “adding seven” to numbers, like when in two places it explicitly stated that the total length of the monarchic period preceding the Babylonian Flood was “a great sar plus seven sar.”

Other aspects also hint of artifice: In Gen. 6:3 God “allows” man 120 years to live. (“120” is “50” plus “70,” much like the way the ages of the patriarchs in the Masoretic Text of Genesis are all divisible by “5” with the addition sometimes of “7.”) Moses, the supposed author of the passage about God “allowing” man to live 120 years, goes on to live exactly 120 years. Yet in Ps. 90:10 we are told that man lives only 70 years (ah, thereʼs that “7” again). Joseph went to Egypt, and lo, lived to be the ideal Egyptian age of 110 years; then Joshua retrieves Josephʼs bones from Egypt and also lives 110 years. Lastly, compare how awkwardly the author of Gen. 11:10-26 and Gen. 25:8 juxtaposes the scene at Abrahamʼs death with the age of his distant relative, Shem, as though he had no idea that people still lived so long as Shem. For the author states that Abraham died “at a good old age, an old man, after a full life,” while Shem, Abrahamʼs 7X great grandfather lived to SEE his 7X great grandson die “at a good old age, an old man, after a full life!” for Shem was, if we take Gen. 11:10-26 literally, alive and 565 years old when Abraham died at a mere 175 years of age.

Vawterʼs book in chapter 6 and 7 discusses some of the other artifices. All in all, the ages of the patriarchs like the ages of the Sumerian/Babylonian kings, appear mythically larger than life, growing less so the nearer each king (or patriarch) came to the authorʼs actual day. “The Flood” was of course a major disjunction in both their mythologies, separating the world of demi-god-kings (or patriarchs whose father was “born at the creation and walked with God”) with the latter world nearer to the authorʼs own day.

Why trust the Masoretic text though, when the other two biblical manuscripts have serious disagreements?

Your assumption that the LXX has the “original” numbers of the ages of the patriarchs is simply an assumption since that chapter is lacking in the DSS. Also, the remaining three texts, Masoretic, Samaritan and LXX all contain some matching ages and some differing ages. No “original text” exist, we are dealing with approximations. Perhaps the LXX ages are nearer the original, or perhaps some of those numbers also were altered due to errors or for numerological reasons.

Even if the LXX is a closer approximation to the original text I doubt one can make a case for using such ages as authentic historical landmarks.

The Lucianic text of the Septuagint has Methuselah surviving the flood!

The point I was making is that we cannot insist on using one text. And no I don’t believe humans lived for thousands of years

My biggest problem with the literal interpretations are the very late ages at which they supposedly had children. I might buy the long life but not that. The first idea that comes to me is that perhaps time was simply measured differently. But the most you can divide the time by and get a reasonable time at which they had children is 5 and that still would make many of them living to an age of over 180.

The numerology studies suggest a slightly different answer that this isn’t simply a difference in measuring time by a linear factor but a difference in writing the numbers themselves. This is not so unbelievable because the use of the decimal system was not universal. For example, instead of 815 meaning 8 centuries, 1 decade, and 5 years, it could mean 8 decades, 1 five years period, and 5 single years, which comes to 90 years old. Though this might suggest that the sums were added later.

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I find this discussion fascinating and helpful. However, something always nags at me, something I can’t quite formulate, in discussing scientifically dubious biblical accounts. That is, most (if not all) of us who are believers accept the mother of all miracles, that God created a universe (at least one.) And if we are not deists, we believe he continues to interact with the world. So why then the concern for the long ages (or other miracles)? Surely God tweaking human lifespans is “miracle dust” compared to creating a universe.

Why is the biggest miracle readily accepted, or at least granted, while (relatively speaking) parlor tricks are met with skepticism?

I am not saying that we should not seek alternative explanations, especially in this case (extended lifespans) where it is not presented as miraculous. * I am saying that for me the lack of an explanation is not troublesome. And for the obvious miracles (virgin birth, walking on water, Jacob’s striped cows, etc.) it’s a feature, not a bug.

I have a gut feeling that the fact that the long life spans are presented matter-of-factly, to an original audience that would have been as skeptical of such numbers as we are, is meaningful. But I don’t know how.


I don’t think the original audience would accept the life spans as an accurate count of the number of rotations of the earth around the sun during a lifetime. To them the numbers are symbolic, not literal. Only in our western culture do we have a fetish for accurate numbers.

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Hi Bill,
I know they did not not share our custom for precision, hence the common practice of only one significant digit, such as 5000 cattle or 1000 hills. However the ages contain three significant digits. Is there scholarship that indicates the Jews of, say, 1000 BCE would have viewed these numbers symbolically?

I am not predisposed against such an explanation, in fact I’d welcome it.

Dear Bill,
You do not seem to understand the importance knowing the accurate passage of time is for a farming community. The author of the Bible knew these large numbers would make people contemplate the author’s intended meaning. The early biblical scholars used this logic to eliminate literal meanings with logic and thus, move on to discovering possible spiritual or moral meanings.

Claiming inerrancy of the Bible makes most people think you can take everything at face value, and any reasonable person would reject much of the Bible with this premise. This is why I am so against the claim of inerrancy because its meaning depends on the level of enlightenment of the reader (observer).

To you they contain three significant digits. I am sure that is a concept of which they were unaware. Remember they had no concept of 0 as a number.

The importance was in planting at the right time of the year. This didn’t depend on knowing an accurate passage of time but of which phase of the moon or the appearance of constellations was best for planting a crop.

I take everything in the Bible at face value, except for the parts that I can’t. :wink:


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