This entry is part 4 of 114 in the series: Tough texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 3:16b – ‘Your desire shall be for your husband’
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 15:16 – ‘The sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its limit’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Leviticus 19:18 “Love your neighbour as yourself”
- Deuteronomy 23:6 – ‘Never be kind to a Moabite’?
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 1 Samuel 16:14 – ‘An evil spirit from the Lord’
- 2 Samuel 1:26 – ‘More special than the love of women’
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Daniel 7:13 – ‘Coming with the clouds of heaven’
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:22/Luke 9:60 – ‘Let the dead bury their dead’?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Matthew 10:28 – ‘destroy’: annihilation or everlasting punishment?
- Matthew 10:34 – ‘Not peace, but a sword’?
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Mt 12:30/Mk 9:40/Lk 11:23 – For, or against?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Mt 16:28/Mk 9:1/Lk 9:27 – “Some standing here will see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom”
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Mt 24:34/Mk 13:30 – ‘This generation will not pass away’
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10 – The unpardonable sin
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2 – Was Joseph from Nazareth, or Bethlehem?
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 2:39 – No room for a flight into Egypt?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- Luke 14:26 – Hate your family?
- Luke 22:36 – ‘Sell your cloak and buy a sword’
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:40-44 – Did John know about Jesus’ birthplace?
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- John 21:11 – One hundred and fifty three fish
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Acts 5:34-37 – a (minor) historical inaccuracy?
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 10:4 – ‘Christ is the end of the law’
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- Romans 16:7 – ‘Junia…well known to the apostles’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:28 – ‘The Son himself will be subjected to [God]’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Philippians 2:10 – ‘The name that is above every name’
- 1 Cor 11:3/Eph 5:23 – ‘Kephale’: ‘head’? ‘source’? ‘foremost’?
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:11f – ‘I do not allow woman to teach or exercise authority over a man’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 7:4 – The 144,000
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
Aside from textual difficulties (there are many differences between the most ancient texts on this matter) we are faced with the question of how to explain these exceptionally long life spans (all these individuals were at least 65 when their first child was born, and most lived for up to 1,000 years!). The problem is compounded by the fact that if we put the various data together, we come up with a date for the creation of Adam (about 4004 BC) which would be even more recent if we assumed normal life spans for his descendants!
Various theories have been put forward. They cluster around two possibilities: either that the numbers are to be taken more or less as they stand, or that they are inflated in some way.
A. Literal interpretations
1. The traditional view is that the numbers are to be taken literally, without gaps, and that the earth is, accordingly, just a few thousand years old. Howe and Geisler (When Critics Ask) offer the following points in favour: ‘(1) First of all, life was later shortened to 120 years as a punishment from God (Gen. 6:3). (2) Life span decreased gradually after the flood from the 900s (Gen. 5) to the 600s (Shem 11:10–11), to the 400s (Salah 11:14–15), to the 200s (Rue 11:20–21). (3) Biologically, there is no reason humans could not live hundreds of years. Scientists are more baffled by aging and death than by longevity. (4) The Bible is not alone in speaking of hundreds of years life spans among ancients. There are also records from ancient Greek and Egyptian times that speak of humans living hundreds of years.’
2. As a variation on the first option, Kaiser (Hard Sayings of the Bible) thinks that the ages Adam and others are to be understood literally. The long life spans reflect ‘the fact that the effects of the Fall into sin had not yet affected human generative powers as seriously as they have more recently’. However, he takes an ‘age-day’ view of Genesis 1, and thinks that the sons attributed to Adam and others may have been between one and six generations away. (In support of this latter point, Kaiser points to Gen 46:18, where Zilpah is said to ‘bear’ her grandchildren, and Gen 46:25, where the same is said of Bilhah). Kidner takes a similar view.
Writing in the Apologetics Study Bible (art. ‘Numbers in the Bible’), Kirk Lowery writes:
‘Some have suggested that environmental conditions could explain it; others suggest mankind’s closer proximity to its original sinless estate explains it. We just don’t know how to explain the apparently impossible life spans. What we have is a witness (the Bible) that has proved trustworthy too often to dismiss.’
According to Jonathan McClatchie, there are some frequently-overlook problems with the literal interpretation. For example, the note that “Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years,” (Gen 25:8), does not ring true if the ages of his ancestors are to be understood literally. In fact, four of them (Shem, Arphaxad, Shelah, and Eber) would still have been alive when Abraham entered Canaan; indeed, the two last-named would have outlived Abraham. But ‘the text treats these men as respected ancestors, not contemporaries. There is no hint that these men were living at the same time as Abraham, and the narrative would not make sense if they were’ (Craig Olson). The age given for Abraham as his death (175) can scarcely be described as ‘old age’ in the light of the ages of his ancestors (Shem (600), Eber (464), Methuselah (969), Noah (500), Enoch (365), Terah (205)).
McClatchie adds that Abraham’s protest that he is too old, at 100, to bear children (Gen 17:15-19) does not make sense if his own father, Terah, bore him at the age of 130. Still less does it make sense if Noah fathered children at the age of 500.
Sarah, likewise, expressed incredulity at the prospect of bearing a child at the age of ninety Gen 18:11-15. The narrative clearly suggests that the birth of Isaac was of the nature of a miracle, a deviation from the norm. This suggests that the extreme ages (at death and at the time of bearing children) given for the antediluvians are not to be taken literally.
B. Non-literal interpretations
McClatchie notes that according to archaeological evidence dating back to 9000 BC, the maximum age for humans has been 70 or so, with the majority dying much younger.
1. Some think that the years of Genesis 5 were much shorter than ours. Perhaps we should understand them as months, rather than years. Adam’s age of 930 years would then become a more manageable 80-odd years. The trouble is that according to this theory Nahor would have fathered Terah at the age of two, rather than 29 (Gen 11:24)!
4. According to W.H. Green, the numbers cover multiple generations, with long gaps in the genealogy. In this case the numbers might indicate the lifespan of the family, rather than the lifespan of the individual (Kidner). But this would not work for Enoch, of course, who was ‘taken up to heaven’. Howe and Geisler state a number of valid objections to this interpretation:
‘First, some of these names (e.g., Adam, Seth, Enoch, Noah) are definitely individuals whose lives are narrated in the text (Gen. 1–9). Second, family lines do not “beget” family lines by different names. Third, neither do family lines “die,” as each of these individuals did (cf. 5:5, 8, 11, etc.). Fourth, the reference to having “sons and daughters” (5:4) does not fit the clan theory.’
6. It has been suggested that a different numerical system (e.g. sexagesimal rather than decimal) is used here. This was the case with the Sumerian King List, which lists the kings of the pre-flood and post-flood periods.
7. Barnouin theorises that the ages relate to various astronomical periods.
8. For some, the long life spans reflect theological (and possibly not historical) truth: not only procreation, but long life, is seen as a blessing and hope from God. Mathews writes: ‘In the Mosaic law long life was the product of God’s blessing for obedience. This was etched in the mind of the community by the Fifth Commandment (Exod 20:12; Deut 5:16), which is distinctive as the first of the commands with a promise (Eph 6:2–3). Long life was commonly tied to the heritage of living in the land (e.g., Deut 4:25; 30:20). Outstanding heroes, such as Abraham, Gideon, and David, were said to have lived to a “good old age” (Gen 25:8; Judg 8:32; 1 Chr 29:28). Strikingly, apart from the patriarchs of Genesis, in the Old Testament only Job (140), Moses (120), Joshua (110), and Jehoiada (130) lived longer than a century of years. Isaiah also points to long life as a feature of blessing in the eschatological age (Isa 65:20).’
McClatchie notes that the Sumerian King List records some absurdly long reigns (thousands of years) for some of the pre-flood kings. Both, however, are supposed to record kings who actually lived and reigned, even if the lengths of reign are implausible. Kitchen suggests that the numbers may have been inflated using sexagesimal multipliers. A reign of 60,000 years (given for Alalgar and Dumuzi), when divided by 10 × 60, would yield a reign of 60 years. This method, according to Kitchen, works smoothly for all the pre-flood kings. In the case of the (less heroic) post-flood Sumerian kings, plausible numbers can generally be obtained by appplying a factor of 60 (not 60 x 10).
Turning to Gen 5, McClatchie notes that of the 30 numbers listed, 21 are divisible by 5. Of the remaining 9, 8 are divisible by 5 5 after subtracting 7. (The one exception is Methuselah, who died at 969). Lloyd Bailey observes a similar pattern in the Sumerian King Lists. In Gen 5, the final digit is 0, 2, 5 or 7 in all but one case. The probability of ranson ages falling into the pattern is surpassingly small. Compare the random distribution of the length of reigns of the kings of Israel and Judah, as recorded in the books of King – 17, 3, 41, 2, 24, 2, 7 days, 12, 22, 25, 2, 8, 1, 28, 40, 17, 16, 29, 52, 41, 6 months, 1 month, 10, 2, 20, 16, 16, 9, 29, 55, 2, 21, 3 months, 11, 3 months, and 11.
Another similarity between the Sumerian and the biblical lists is that the importance of the seventh person in the list is stressed.
McClatchie concludes that some kind of symbolism is going on in the Genesis account, even if we cannot be sure what that symbolism is.
What About Genesis 6:3? (asks McClatchie). This seems to teach that from that time onwards a man’s lifespan would be limited to 120 years, which itself would imply that it had hitherto been longer than this. But this is not decisive, because even after this point some individuals (including Abraham) lived longer than 120 years. In fact, this verse may not be referring to human life span at all, but, rather, giving a countdown to the flood.
Wenham, after reviewing various options, concludes that no adequate explanation is available at present. McKnight (DOT:P, art. ‘Seth’) notes: ‘there are no successful attempts at explaining the ages of the antediluvians other than that each one met the same end.’