I sometimes get questions about the remarkably long lives of the patriarchs who lived before the great flood. Consider some of their reported ages when they died:
- Adam 930
- Seth 912
- Enosh 905
- Jared 962
- Methuselah 969
- Noah 600
- Shem 600
- Eber 464
- Abraham 175
- Moses 120
- David 70
How to understand these references? There are many theories that have tried to explain the claimed longevity. Some try to introduce a mathematical corrective, but this leads to other pitfalls such as certain patriarchs apparently begetting children while they are still children themselves. Another approach is to say that the “ages” of the patriarchs are actually just indications of their influence or family line. But then things don’t add up chronologically with eras and family trees.
Personally, I think we need to take the stated ages of the patriarchs at face value and just accept it as a mystery: for some reason, the ancient patriarchs lived far longer we do in the modern era. I cannot prove that they actually lived that long, but neither is there strong evidence that they did not. Frankly, I have little stake in insisting that they did in fact live that long. But if you ask me, I think it is best just to accept that they did.
This solution, when I articulate it, causes many to scoff. They almost seem to be offended. The reply usually sounds something like this: “That’s crazy. There’s no way they lived that long. The texts must be wrong.” To which I generally reply, “Why do you think it is crazy or impossible?” The answers usually range from the glib to the more serious, but here are some common replies:
- They didn’t know how to tell time the way we do today. Well, actually, they were pretty good at keeping time, in some ways better than we are today. The ancients were keen observers of the Sun, the Moon, and the stars. They had to be, otherwise they would have starved. It was crucial to know when to plant, when to harvest, and when to hunt (e.g., the migratory and/or hibernation patterns of animals through the seasons). The ancients may not have had timepieces that were accurate to the minute, but they were much more in sync with the rhythms of the cosmos than most of us are. They certainly knew what a day, month, and year were by the cycles of the Sun, the Moon, and the stars.
- They couldn’t have lived that long because they didn’t have the medicines we do today. Perhaps, but it is also possible that they didn’t have the diseases we do. Perhaps they ate and lived in more healthy ways than we do. Perhaps the gene pool later became corrupted in a way that it was not back then. There are just a lot of things we cannot possibly know. The claim about our advanced technology (medicine) also shows a tendency of us moderns to think that no one in the world has ever been smarter or healthier than we are. Our modern times surely do have advanced technologies, but we also have things that potentially make us more susceptible to disease: stress, anxiety, overly rich diets, pollutants, promiscuity, drug use, and hormonal contraceptives. There are lots of ways in which we live out of sync with the natural world.
- Those long years just symbolize wisdom or influence. OK fine, but what is the scale? Does Adam living to 930 mean he attained great wisdom? But wait, David wasn’t any slouch and he only made it to 70. And if Seth was so influential (living to 912) where are the books recording his influence such as we have for Moses, who lived to be only In other words, we can’t just throw a scale out there indicating influence or wisdom without some further definition of what the numbers actually mean.
- Sorry, people just don’t live that long. Well, today they don’t. But why is something automatically assumed to be false simply because it doesn’t comport with lived experience today? It is not physically impossible in an absolute sense for a human being to live for hundreds of years. Most humans today die short of 100 years of age, but some live longer. Certain closely related mammals like dogs and cats live only 15 to 20 years. Why is there such a large difference in life expectancy between humans and other similar animals? There is obviously some mysterious clock that winds down more quickly for certain animals than for others. So there is a mystery to the longevity of various living things, even those that are closely related. Perhaps the ancients had what amounted to preternatural gifts. (A preternatural gift is one that is not supernatural (i.e., completely above and beyond our nature or ability to do) but rather one that builds on our nature and extends its capabilities beyond what is normally or currently experienced.)
So I think we’re back to where we started: just taking the long life spans of the early patriarchs at face value.
There is perhaps a theological truth hidden in the shrinking lifespans of the Old Testament. The scriptures link sin and death. Adam and Eve were warned that the day they ate of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they would die (Gen 2:17). But they did not drop dead immediately, and though they died spiritually in an instant, the clock of death for their bodies wound down much later. As the chart above shows, as sin increased, lifespans dropped precipitously, especially after the flood.
Prior to the flood, lifespans remained in the vicinity of 900 years, but right afterward they dropped by about a third (Noah and Shem only lived to 600), and then the numbers plummeted even further. Neither Abraham nor Moses even reached 200, and by the time of King David, he would write, Our years are seventy, or eighty for those who are strong (Ps 90:10).
Scripture says, For the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23). Indeed they are, especially in terms of lifespan. And perhaps that is why I am not too anxious to try to disprove the long lifespans of the patriarchs. For what we know theologically is borne out in our human experience: sin is life-destroying. And this truth is surely writ large in the declining lifespan of the human family.
Does this prove that Adam actually lived to be more than 900 years old? No. It only shows that declining lifespans are something we fittingly discover in a world of sin. Since God teaches that sin brings death, why should we be shocked that our lifespan has decreased from 900 to 85 years? It is what it is. It’s a sad truth that God warned us about. Thanks be to God our Father who in Jesus now offers us eternal life, if we will have faith and obey His Son!
So how or even whether the patriarchs lived past 900 is not clear. But what is theologically clear is that we don’t live that long today because of the collective effect of sin upon us.