Long Life Spans in Genesis: Literal or Symbolic?
A closer look at the different uses of numbers in ancient Near Eastern literature can shed light on our understanding of the life spans of the Hebrew patriarchs.
We at BioLogos are often asked how we understand the long life spans attributed to the patriarchs in Genesis. There is no direct connection between these and the scientific theory of evolution, but I suppose some people think there is a problem for us since the ages given in the genealogies (in chapters 5 and 11) have been used to date the origin of humanity to the relatively recent past (six to ten thousand years ago).
Furthermore, it is charged, people living for more than 900 years stands in conflict with BioLogos’ acceptance of contemporary science. On this latter point, I should note that our acceptance of science does not at all imply that we think God never performs miracles. If God wanted to make Methuselah live to be 969 years old, we certainly believe that God could intervene in the natural order of things and make that happen. The question rather—as it should be for all biblical interpretation—is whether that is really the message of the text.
A closer look at Genesis 5
Genesis 5 gives very specific numbers for the genealogy from Adam to Noah. If these mean what 21st century English speakers naturally take them to mean, then we’d be committed to believing either that some people lived very long lives in the distant past or that the Bible is reporting incorrect information. But of course Genesis was not written in 21st century English, so our concern is not with what these words would mean if they were written by us today. Instead, as biblical scholars regularly remind us, we should ask, “What do the words mean in the language and culture in which they were written?”
In answering this question, the first thing to point out is that, in the records we have from the ancient Mesopotamian culture, sometimes numbers were used like we use them today, as the way of counting and measuring—like in this receipt for sale of a slave and a building from about 2500 BC. But other times in the ancient literature numbers are used numerologically. That is to say, a number’s symbolic value could be used to convey mystical or sacred meanings rather than just its numerical value (if you’ve ever read Potok’s The Chosen, you’ll remember the kind of numerology—gematria—practiced by Reb Saunders in the Hasidic community; or you could go to this website today and get an explanation of the numerological value of the letters in your name according to ancient Chaldean numerology).
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. So, since there are clear examples of numbers being used numerically and of numbers being used numerologically, when we see some numbers in literature from the ancient Near East (like in Genesis), we must consider in which way they were being used.
A casual look at the numbers in Genesis 5 seems to suggest a fairly random distribution of ages: Adam lived to be 930, Mahalalel to 895, Jared to 962, and of course the granddaddy of them all, Methuselah lived to be 969. We don’t immediately notice anything special about these numbers, so we are inclined to see them as consistent with the sorts of numbers we’d expect in a report of ages (albeit of very old people). But that’s because we think of numbers in base 10. If the numbers reported were all “round” numbers like 500 or 1000, that would give us pause and suggest to us the implausibility of all these people dying at one of these “special” ages. Perhaps we’d think there to be something more significant going on than just a straight numerical account of ages. Well it turns out that these numbers in Genesis 5 do have some peculiar characteristics when you dig a little deeper. This gets a little technical, so hold on tight!
Getting technical with numbers and numerology
There are 30 age numbers we can get from Genesis chapter 5—three numbers for each of ten patriarchs: the age when a son was born, the number of years the patriarch lived after the son was born, and the total number of years the patriarch lived. For example, “When Adam had lived 130 years, he became the father of… Seth. The days of Adam after he became the father of Seth were 800 years… Thus all the days that Adam lived were 930 years” (Genesis 5:3-5). We get similar accounts of Seth, Enosh, Kenan, Mahalalel, Jared, Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech, and Noah (though for Noah we have to go to Genesis 9:29 to see how old he was when he died).
The first thing more careful observation reveals about these 30 numbers is that all of them end with the digits 0, 2, 5, 7, or 9. You might not think that is too remarkable until you realize that it eliminates half of the possible numbers. It is like seeing a list of 30 numbers that are all even. We wouldn’t think that was a random distribution of numbers. In fact, the odds of getting all thirty numbers to end with just these “approved” digits in a random distribution of ages are about one in a hundred million.1 That should make us suspicious that Genesis 5 is merely giving a historical report. Something else must be going on here.
One option is attaching some significance to the fact that all of the 30 numbers can be expressed as combinations of the two “sacred” numbers 60 and 7 in terms of years and months. 60 was culturally significant because it was the number that Babylonian mathematics was based on (the influence of this sexagesimal system is still felt today with our 60 minutes per hour and 60 seconds per minute). And 7, of course, has a prominent place in biblical symbolism beginning with the Sabbath. So when we’re told that Methuselah was 187 years when he had his son Lamech (Gen. 5:25), we can see that 187 = 60+60+60+7 years. And then because 60 months = 5 years, when Adam is said to be 130 years at the birth of his son Seth (Gen. 5:3), that can be expressed as (60+60 years) + (60+60 months).
This could explain why all the reported ages end in 0, 2, 5, 7, or 9. These are what common combinations of 60 years, 5 years (=60 months), and 7 years end with: besides the obvious 0, 5, and 7, numbers ending with 2 come from adding 7 to a number that ends with 5; and 9 comes from adding 7 twice to a number ending with 5.
For some of the numbers in Genesis 5, the combinations have to get more complicated. Check the footnotes to see how to calculate Seth’s 912 years2 when he died, or the 782 years3 Methuselah lived after the birth of Lamech. These and all the others can be generated by combinations of 60, 5, and 7.
Now perhaps it might be claimed that you can come up with most any number if you let the combinations get complex enough. See the footnote to see how a number ending with a 3 (an “unapproved” number in Genesis 5) like 963 can be expressed.4 Doesn’t this prove that numerology is contrived and capable of showing whatever you want it to show? Maybe. Such practices are often vague and ambiguous under the light of rational investigation. The truth is that we don’t really know what it meant to the ancients to attribute these numbers to lives of the patriarchs. Some scholars have tried to show how there are other more complicated schemes of numerology by which the numbers in Genesis are derived and perhaps related to the similar accounts of the Sumerian King List (see Young’s papers in the further reading list). Others have claimed that the numbers in these genealogies might function rhetorically (remember the “40” year old Indonesian woman in Walton’s post about cultural context?). We may never know for sure what significance the numbers had for the ancient Hebrews who wrote the text.
The question is whether it is a better explanation to interpret the numbers as having some symbolic or rhetorical significance to the original audience (even if we don’t know what that is), or that they were just a straightforward listing of numbers the way we would use them today. Knowing what we do about the culture, and in the absence of any persuasive reasons for thinking that the ages of these men were so radically different than they are today, it seems that a symbolic or rhetorical interpretation is a legitimate option and maybe even a preferable one.
Ancient text with relevant takeaways for today
Taking the biblical text as a product of an ancient culture which was very different from our own forces us to do a lot of difficult work in order to interpret it correctly. Sometimes people respond to this fact with despair that they can’t understand anything in the Bible. I don’t think that is the appropriate response. I believe that anyone can pick up the Bible and read it profitably. The Holy Spirit speaks to us today through Scripture, and you do not need a PhD in biblical studies in order to hear the Spirit’s voice in your life. Even if we never know for sure how genres worked in the ancient world or how long the patriarchs actually lived, we know enough to understand what God expects us to take from the text.
In this case it seems that the takeaway message is God’s providential preservation of a people: the sin of Cain in chapter 4 could have meant death for all, but here in chapter 5 there is a “reboot” that runs through Seth instead. We make it to the time of Noah, and God starts things over again, preserving Noah to carry on the human race. Then the Tower of Babel sends civilization scattering, and God calls Abram to father the Hebrew people (through whom all people would be brought back to God). These genealogies orient the Hebrews’ thinking to the deep past and highlight their role for all of humankind.
Now none of us is infallible in how we interpret the Spirit’s voice and in how we interpret Scripture, so we should exercise some caution in dogmatically asserting that we’re certain that we’ve got it right—especially when there is the possibility that we’re imposing our own culture’s ideas on the text. Not everyone needs to get a PhD in Ancient Near Eastern studies in order to read Genesis; but there should be some people in our faith communities who get such degrees and help us to read the text more accurately. They aren’t infallible either, but we must give credence to their work. God expects us to use our minds to the best of our ability. He has communicated to us through the Bible and through the created order. Christian communities honor God and enable themselves to proclaim the truth more effectively by studying both of these.
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