I occasionally get questions about the remarkably long lives of the patriarchs who lived before the great flood. Consider the ages at which these figures purportedly died:
- Adam – 930
- Seth – 912
- Enosh – 905
- Jared – 962
- Methuselah – 969
- Noah – 950
- Shem – 600
- Eber – 464
- Abraham – 175
- Moses – 120
- David – 70
How should we understand these references? Many theories have been proposed to explain the claimed longevity. Some use a mathematical corrective, but this leads to other pitfalls such as certain patriarchs apparently begetting children while still children themselves. Another theory proposes that the purported life spans of the patriarchs are 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 life spans of the patriarchs at face value and just accept it as a mystery: for some reason, the ancient patriarchs lived far longer than 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 to be that old. 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’s crazy or impossible?” The answers usually range from the glib to the more serious, but here are some common replies:
- People didn’t know how to tell time accurately back then. 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). They 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 today. They certainly knew what a day, a month, and a year were by the cycles of the sun, moon, and 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 today. Perhaps the gene pool later became corrupted in a way that it was not back then. There are many 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 than we are. While we surely do have advanced technologies, we also have things that make us more susceptible to disease: stress, anxiety, overly rich diets, pollutants, promiscuity, drug use, and hormonal contraceptives. There are many ways in which we live out of sync with the natural world. It is also quite possible that the strains of disease and viral attacks have become more virulent over time.
- Those long life spans just symbolize wisdom or influence. OK fine, but what is the scale? Does Adam living to 930 mean that 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 a mere 120? In other words, we can’t just propose a scale 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 false simply because it doesn’t comport with today’s experience? To live to be 900 is preternatural, not supernatural. (Something preternatural is extremely extraordinary, well outside the normal, but not impossible.) In other words, it is not physically impossible in an absolute sense for a human being to live for hundreds of years. Most people 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 some 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.
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. Although they died spiritually in an instant, the clock of death for their bodies wound down much later. As the age listing 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 (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. Perhaps that is why I am not too anxious to try to disprove the long life spans of the patriarchs, for what we know theologically is borne out in our human experience: sin is life-destroying. This truth is surely made clear by 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 life spans are something we fittingly discover in a world of sin. God teaches that sin brings death, so why should we be shocked that our life span has decreased from 900 years to about 85? It is what it is. It’s a sad truth about which God warned us. Thanks be to God our Father, who in Jesus now offers us eternal life, if we will have faith and obey His Son!
How or even whether the patriarchs lived to such advanced ages 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.
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Did Noah Really Live to Be 950?
28 Replies to “Did Noah Really Live to Be 950?”
There is no textual reason not to take these ages as literal. As Msgr Pope points out it is the refusal to accept these ages that makes exegetes deny them.
In fact, if we take the ages literally, we find that Adam and all of the patriarchs were alive while Lamech, Noah’s father was growing up. Lamech,during his lifetime, buried all of his ancestors. And Lamech died the very year of the flood.
So when God says there is noone left except Noah, He is speaking truly.
It also shows us how closely connected the family of God is during th time of the patriarchs.
I never realized that, Father, now that is really interesting! Maybe God wanted Adam to live long so that he could personally tell the tale of the Garden and the Fall to more people, witnessing directly to them about his and Eve’s experiences and God’s punishment – and the promise of a Redeemer. Can you imagine hearing the story from Adam directly rather than just reading about it? I’d have so many questions!! He’d be telling it not just to grandchildren, but great-grandhildren, and great-great-grandchildren, etc!
There is a need for a mathematical translation corrective:
some of these are not ‘years’, they are lunar months;
others are ‘years’ but calculated differently so they do not equate to a modern year;
the modern word ‘year’ is in the place of other words and phrases for different historical measures.
So what are some of these “other words and phrases for different historical measures”?
A similar example illustrates the possibility of these long lives. If today the AIDS virus were able to spread by mosquitoes, for example, or by sneezing, and became contagious, instead of only being transmitted by intimate contact or blood transfusion, the result would become worldwide epidemic. If there were no drugs to treat it as there now are, the result would be an early death for literally everyone. Eventually the only people left would be the children born with it, who would maybe survive into their teens and early adulthood before succumbing. People would be born, have children as teenagers, and die soon after, their life span being 15-25 years, perhaps. In this future, stories of people in our day living to be 70 80, 90 and older would seem to them like impossible fantasies.
Technology would have regressed because, with such short lifespans, they would not have the luxury of studying science or learning history. Ignorant of AIDS and its development, people would assume their short lives were just a part of the human condition, and deem the lifespans in our time to simply not be possible.
The Pentateuch was put into writing long after most of these figures died – the earliest guesses usually put it sometime in Moses’ paltry 120-year lifespan, with modern scholarship suggesting it was actually written down later. Given that, and assuming that the word “year” is being used in the modern sense, it seems likely that the earliest readers would have also been struck by the drastic lifespans. That makes me wonder whether they weren’t simply literary devices meant to convey some deeper meaning, like the fruit of sin being death. After all, the literal approach to history is relatively modern. Ancient histories are full of mythic language. Not to mention, the Pentateuch wasn’t even a mere history of Israel (another modern idea), but a divinely inspired story about the relationship between God and mankind that was meant to demonstrate true devotion and right conduct.
On another note, while we can’t make assumptions about humans several millennia ago based on humans today, the studies of archaeology and of biology have become pretty good at learning things about our ancient ancestors. For instance, when we find remains, we’re able to make decent estimations of how long they lived. The fact that we’ve yet to find any other evidence, archaeological or biological, that supports the existence even of 150+ year lifespans is itself something to consider.
Of course there is reason not to take the ages literally. Because we are not fundamentalists, and we don’t believe biblical inspiration means dictation. It’s quite obvious Scripture is a human work, even if it is fully God-breathed as well. This article is sad in that it cozies up to unscientific biblical fundamentalism.
Actually, Patric, the Catholic Magisterium does us the term “dictation” to describe God as the principal author of Scripture. Look it up!
Not being a Fundamentalist means we have the freedom to accept alternative interpretations FOR SUFFICIENTLY GOOD REASONS. A fear of miracles cannot be that reason, because Christianity is based on the Incarnation and the Resurrection; take those away and there is nothing left that cannot be supplied by the United Way.
There is nothing wrong with admitting that we are not presently sure just what is the best way to understand each and every passage of Scripture, so long as we remember that Scripture demands respect vastly greater than either your interpretation or my interpretation. We may not agree on what the story means or why it was passed down to us; it may be poetry we do not understand, but we can at least be honest enough to repeat the poem accurately.
declining life spans are something we fittingly discover in a world of sin. God teaches that sin brings death, so why should we be shocked that our life span has decreased from 900 years to about 85?
That assumes that dying at 85 is more punitive than dying at 900. But as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out, it might actually be more merciful. That it might be something of a blessing —
I agree. Living to be 900-plus years would be more of a curse. Certainly not anything that I would want. That’s not 900 years of fun and happiness, but 900 years of struggle and drudgery. Just trying to live day-to-day would be hard — finding food, withstanding the weather, laughing at the same stupid jokes and stories century after century. No thanks. Eighty-five is plenty.
Hahaha. Agree. One could imagine that by ages 90-100 a person would awake each morning, look at the mirror and say, “Oh my … are you still here?!” As faithful Catholics enter the status of “elderly” they realize their continued existence is the opportunity to pray earnestly for the souls of their children and grandchildren – a mighty and precious calling.
An author named Jody Dillow did some fascinating work on this decades ago. He charted the ages of the patriarchs over time before and after the flood, and found the resultant graph to resemble a capacitance curve, as what happens with the discharge of electricity or energy. This of course was unknown to the ancients, and the fact that such a precise mathematical result could be obtained by charting these ages suggests the reported ages are accurate, and that something dramatic happened at the Great Flood to alter the earths atmosphere/environment to adversely affect longevity. In addition, it is known that reptiles and lizards, unlike mammals, grow throughout adulthood until the day they die. Therefore, the great size of the dinosaurs may indicate their great age. Interesting to think about, but I doubt we’ll have any definitive answers until we meet the Lord in glory.
Dean, our comment led me to Google Jody Dillow to try and find out more about what you were referencing. Seems Dillow wasn’t the only one to look at that. The mathematical analyses of the ages of the patriarchs really are fascinating reading! Thank you!
Interestingly, the idea of dinosaurs being large indicating their great age was proposed by secular scientists, not Biblical fundamentalists, though it might accord with literal understanding of life on earth having once been more conducive to longevity than it is today. But it also seems to have been disproven, with later evidence from dinosaru bone cross sections seeming to indicate they achieved their great size during a quick growth spurt just before reaching full maturity.
It may well be that the effects of original sin took time with life’s longevity.
It may be worth considering that there are many genealogies recorded in the early chapters of Genesis prior to the flood, but with only one line are extraordinary ages noted. It seems that this one line was extraordinary. It’s the line from which the Messiah would eventually come. Presumably the ages of these patriarch’s wives were extraordinary at the times when they gave birth as well. Perhaps this is forshadowing of a miraculous birth for Christ Himself, but in any event, I think we’re wrong to treat these extraordinary life spans as being generally representative of nearly everyone in the antediluvian world. The account seems to suggest that they were indeed extraordinary. No other line recorded from that time includes such a record of ages or lifespans.
I should correct part of my comment above. There are multiple geneaolgies between Genesis 4 and 11, but two prior to the flood. Nonetheless, only with Seth’s line do we see a point made of great longevity. If there’s a message there, it would seem to be “Pay attention to this line.” It is indeed the line from which the Messiah would come, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the writer calls special attention to it early on. I otherwise have no problem with the idea of such longevity at God’s bidding (or births to people in their hundreds of years, or a virgin birth for that matter).
Jim, it’s not true that no other writing from that time includes those ages or lifespans. Check out the Sumerian Kings List, the early part of which which exists in more than one manuscript and tablet, and may correspond to the eight patriarchs after Adam (it does not mention the Sumerian “first man”). The ages are in the thousands of years not hundreds, but the numbers do relate, and a plausible scribal error (mistaking the numbering system in use) explains the difference.
I’m only considering the Biblical account. My point is that within that account there’s only one line wherein great longevity is noted. In considering it I think we’re wrong to infer great longevity generally for people of that time. I’d also put much more stock in the Biblical account as being factual than I would in other ancient writings of the time, though perhaps that’s just a prejudice on my part.
I don’t think we need to decide this issue. Let it be a mystery. Not everything in the Scriptures is meant to be taken as literally as the Resurrection. In fact, the Resurrection is special because it is such a historically unprecedented literal miracle. Maybe the patriarchs lived 900 years, maybe not; what matters is what the inspired authors meant when they wrote it, and we can’t be sure about that, so we can trust the Spirit does not want us to worry about it too much.
Simple answer is Genesis 6:3: “Then the LORD said, “My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.”
Sin caused a reduction in life span. Actually was a great mercy to not be subject to 900 plus years of spiritual combat.
My comment to scoffers is usually if Our Lord can create the universe and mankind he certainly can provide what is needed to ensure humans live as long as he wants. Not sure why we would put limits open what God can do just because it outside our experience.
The best reason to deny that any of these people lived to such advanced ages is that there is zero independent evidence that any of them ever lived at all; they were fictional characters. Beyond that, there is no evidence from any other source that any human has ever lived that long or even that any MAMMAL has ever lived that long. You provided a bunch of really stupid straw arguments that were easy for you to torch. Now answer a real question with real evidence: is there any evidence from science, including archaelology, that supports the Biblical patriarchs existing and living to such ages?
Wait a minute, since when does lack of independent evidence prove someone was a fictional character?
Karen, I suppose that you would actually like evidence that the whole bible is the word of God rather than just the confirmation of the age of the patriarchs. If that is true read on!
You may require believable explanations and evidence in order to believe in the bible and a Christian God! You may be a little like me with a scientific mind. I could not see any sense in the Bible or in the Sacrifice of Jesus especially in relation to a suffering world and life. I had no idea how one could know God at all or where to start looking.
After decades suffering with depression I decided to find and understand God with a full commitment. If He was there I wanted to know. Five years later I can say that I have experienced God in many ways. I have summarised my understanding of God, life and Christianity and described the path we need to take to find God. I have posted my summary on the internet along with a several sub-posts. The ‘blog’ is linked to my name. Have a look if you are interested. We just need the humility to start looking for truth.
If someone lived that long, it would not be preternatural as the author said. It would be supernatural. Bone density loss alone would preclude that kind of lifespan and disease has nothing to do with that.
This is the most true observation. Combined with the prior one that noted when the books were written compared with when the the so called life spans in question took place make the issue one of the least important Biblical topics.
I chose to believe The Bible as God’s Word without error! I have faith in the unseen as well as what He has allowed us to see.
He has let us understand many things although some of the things he has let be known, many shirk them and play God themselves. I know nothing is impossible for God and I thank Him for an amazing gift of The Bible for us to read and know how he wants us to live.
The early books of the bible have long been debated for historical context. The most logical explanation is that allegory was used early in order to simplify explanations of complex events and teachings. As time passed, biblical writings became more literal and historic. The time of David, around 1000 BC, is about as good a place as any to divide the periods. All should remember that it is a spiritual volume, not an history text book. The lessons to be learned are far more than just material.
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