I have wondered about the very old ages of the patriarchs in Genesis (if we take them at face value) at various times, but have never done a study of it in my forty years of writing apologetics. It seemed to me a good time to tackle it, since I have recently been doing a great deal of writing on the Old Testament. In particular, in my paper, How Many Israelites in the Exodus?, I followed an interpretation of the stated number of 600,000 men who left Egypt in the Exodus (which really amounted to about two million people in all, at face value), whereby (for reasons explained) the numbers were literally 20-22,000.
A while later, I discovered that archaeologists estimate a 300,000 population for Pi-Ramesses in the 13th-century BC, which was the city that the Hebrews would have departed in the Exodus. So it can hardly have been possible for this city to contain two million Hebrew slaves. That’s almost seven times its estimated population. There is something going on with numbers in the Pentateuch / Torah (first five books of the Bible) and we are able to analyze the “problem” and come up with sensible solutions.
The topic above my pay grade, so I will cite the Presbyterian geologist Carol A. Hill, who writes very helpfully and insightfully about the intersection of the Bible and science. Her article, “Making Sense of the Numbers of Genesis” (Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, Volume 55, Number 4, December 2003) presents a perfectly plausible explanation, filled with analysis of the various numbers in play, which are often symbolic in nature. Her introduction is a good summary of the elaborate argument that she sets forth:
Among the greatest stumbling blocks to faith in the Bible are the incredibly long ages of the patriarchs . . . The key to understanding the numbers in Genesis is that, in the Mesopotamian world view, numbers could have both real (numerical) and sacred (numerological or symbolic) meaning. The Mesopotamians used a sexagesimal (base 60) system of numbers, and the patriarchal ages in Genesis revolve around the sacred numbers 60 and 7. In addition to Mesopotamian sacred numbers, the preferred numbers 3, 7, 12, and 40 are used in both the Old and New Testaments. To take numbers figuratively does not mean that the Bible is not to be taken literally. It just means that the biblical writer was trying to impart a spiritual or historical truth to the text—one that surpassed the meaning of purely rational numbers. [the original was italicized] . . .
The key to unraveling this mystery is the worldview of the Mesopotamians:
The answer is quite simple—if one considers the “world view” or “mind-set” of the people living in the age of the patriarchs; that is, the Mesopotamians (the people who lived in what is now mostly Iraq) and the Hebrews in Palestine descended from the Mesopotamians. This world view includes both the religious ideas of these people and the numerical system used by them.
The Mesopotamians were the first to develop writing, astronomy, mathematics (algebra and geometry), a calendar, and a system of weights and measures, accounting, and money. . . . The Mesopotamians were the first to arrive at logarithms . . . they knew how to solve systems of linear and quadratic equations in two or more unknowns, and they calculated the value of pi to an accuracy of 0.6%. The so-called Pythagorean Theorem was invented by the Mesopotamians more than 1,000 years before Pythagoras lived . . .
In other words, these were no dummies. They were highly advanced and intelligent, and this sophistication extended to how they used numbers:
The mathematical texts of the Sumerians or Babylonians (people who lived in southern Mesopotamia) show that these people were regularly using a sexagesimal numbering system at least by Uruk time (~3100 BC). Along with the numbers sixty and ten on which their combined sexagesimal decimal system was based, the number six was also used in a special “bi-sexagesimal system.” Examples of the Mesopotamian sexagesimal system are still with us today in the form of the 360º circle, . . . and with respect to time, the 60-minute hour and 60-second minute. The Mesopotamians’ sexagesimal basis for time is also reflected in their 360-day (60 x 6) year, . . .
But the problem of interpreting the great supposed ages of the patriarchs involves more than just these technical explanations of mathematical systems. The Mesopotamians (and the early Hebrews, following them) also had a notion of sacred and purely symbolic numbers, alongside actual ones, used in arithmetic, geometry, and algebra:
[C]ertain numbers of the sexagesimal system, such as sossos (60), neros (600), and saros (3600) occupied a special place in Babylonian mathematics and astronomy. In religion, the major gods of Mesopotamia were assigned numbers according to their position in the divine hierarchy. For example, Anu, the head of the Mesopotamians’ pantheon of gods, was assigned sixty, the most perfect number in the hierarchy . . .
The system of numbers used by the Hebrews changed over time, which would be one reason why the great ages decreased and became more like what we see today:
While the Mesopotamians used a sexagesimal-based system, the Hebrews centuries later were using only a decimal-based system. . . . It seems certain that a sound and really historical chronology had become established in Israel by the time of David . . . But even then, and long after, preferred or figurative numbers continued to be used throughout both the Old and New Testaments.
The ancient Hebrews developed a system of their own, with regard to “preferred” numbers:
Even a cursory reading of the Bible will reveal that certain numbers are used over and over again Among these preferred numbers are three, seven, twelve, and forty.
Three. Three is the number of emphasis in the Bible; e.g., “holy, holy, holy” signified that God was being especially hallowed. Jesus often repeated himself three times to emphasize a point, or things were done three times for emphasis. Three as a number also symbolized completeness; e.g., as when Jesus rose from the dead in 3 days, his mission was complete. Jonah was in the whale 3 days and 3 nights, in 3 days the temple will be raised, etc.
Seven. The number seven was especially sacred to the Jews because of the Sabbath, the seventh day of their week. As the last day of the week it signified wholeness, contentment, and peace. It is a recurrent biblical symbol of fullness and perfection: 7 golden candlesticks, 7 spirits, 7 words of praise, 7 churches, 70 (7 x 10) nations, 70 (7 x 10) elders, forgive 70 x 7 times, Terah’s age of 70 (7 x 10), Lamech’s age of 777, etc. . . .
Twelve. Another number that is repeated over and over in the Bible is twelve (6 x 2). There are 12 pillars, 12 wells, 12 springs, 12 precious stones, 12 silver bowls, 12 golden spoons, 12 bullocks, rams, lambs, and goats, 12 cakes, 12 fruits, 12 pearls, 12 tribes of Israel, 12 tribes of Ishmael, 12 districts of Solomon, 12 gates of the New Jerusalem, 12 disciples of Jesus, 12,000 horsemen, 144,000 (12 x 12 x 1000) remnant of Israel, etc. Twelve was the symbol of wholeness and totality.
Forty. The number 40 also occurs many times in the Bible in different contexts, and it can be taken either literally or figuratively (for a long period of time). The Flood lasted 40 days and 40 nights, Moses fasted 40 days and 40 nights, Jesus fasted 40 days and 40 nights. The Israelites were in the wilderness for 40 years, Jesus was seen by his disciples after his resurrection for 40 days, Jonah preached to Nineveh for 40 days, Solomon, David, and Saul are each credited with a reign of 40 years, Goliath presented himself 40 days, etc. . . .
[W]e must acknowledge that in many cases where preferred numbers are used in the Bible, they are to be taken symbolically or figuratively. . . . To take a number symbolically or figuratively does not mean that the Bible is not to be taken literally. It just means that the biblical writer was trying to impart a spiritual or historical truth to the text—one that surpassed the meaning of purely rational numbers.
With this background (abridged as much as I could, for the sake of an introductory presentation), we can now move onto a direct analysis of the very old ages of persons mentioned in Genesis (up to the time of Abraham, who lived around 2000 BC or so). Dr. Hill continues:
The first thing that is immediately apparent . . . is that the numbers listed in the Genesis chronologies are based on the sexagesimal (60) system and can be placed into one of two groups: (1) multiples of five; that is, numbers exactly divisible by five, whose last digit is 5 or 0; and (2) multiples of five with the addition of seven (or two sevens). The significance of the number five is that 5 years = 60 months, and combinations or multiples of 60 years + 5 years (60 months) are basic . . . . Note that for the 30 numbers listed for the antediluvial patriarchs up to the Flood (from Adam to Noah), all of the ages end in 0, 5, 7, 2 (5 + 7 = 12), or 9 (5 + 7 + 7 = 19)—a chance probability of one in a billion! For the entire 60-number list (antediluvial and postdiluvial), none of the ages end in 1 or 6—a chance probability of one in about one-half million. Surely, if the ages of the patriarchs in Genesis are random numbers, as would be expected for real ages, this could not be the case. It is inconceivable that all of this should be accidental! Undoubtedly these numbers have a special significance. . . .
Whatever the specific intent of the biblical writer for each of these patriarchal ages, it does seem apparent that the overall
purpose of the text was to preserve the harmony of numbers.
Dr. Hill constructed an elaborate chart of the patriarchs who, prima facie, lived an extraordinarily long time. It’s apparent that the numbers 60, 5, and 7 play a key symbolic role. I have greatly abridged it [name / age of death in the Bible / sexagesimal and preferred numbers]:
Adam 930 60x3x5yrs (60mos) + 6x5yrs (60mos)
Seth 912 60x3x5yrs (60mos) + 5yrs (60mos) + 7yrs
Enosh 905 60x3x5yrs (60mos) + 5yrs (60mos)
Kenan 910 60x3x5yrs (60mos) + 2x5yrs (60mos)
Mahalalel 895 60x3x5yrs (60mos) – 5yrs (60mos)
Jared 962 (60+60+60+6+6)x60mos – 5yrs (60mos) + 7yrs
Enoch 365 60x6yrs + 5yrs(60mos) = 1 solar year
Methuselah 969 (60+60+60+6+6)x60mos – 5yrs (60mos) + 7yrs + 7yrs
Lamech 777 7x10x10 + 7×10 +7yrs
Noah 950 60x3x5yrs (60mos) + 10x5yrs (60mos)
Shem 600 60x10yrs
Terah 205 40x5yrs (60mos) + 5yrs (60mos)
Abraham 175 60x10x2mos + 15x5yrs (60mos)
Dr. Hill summarizes the numerological patterns above:
All age-numbers (30 in all) from Adam to Noah are a combination of the sacred numbers 60 (years and months) and 7. No numbers end in 1, 3, 4, 6, or 8—a chance probability of one in a billion. Thirteen numbers end in 0 (some multiple or combination of 60), 8 numbers end in 5 (5 years = 60 months), 3 numbers end in 7, 5 numbers end in 2 (5yrs + 7 yrs = 12), and 1 number ends in 9 (5yrs + 7yrs + 7yrs = 19). All of this cannot be coincidental. The Mesopotamians were using sacred numbers, not real numbers. Therefore, these numbers were not meant to be (and should not be) interpreted as real numbers.
Figurative numbers continue to be used throughout the Bible, though to a lesser extent as time goes by. For example, Moses was said to have died at 120 (60 x 2). Joseph and Joshua were said to have died at 110: a number that the Egyptians (since they both were part of Egyptian culture) considered “perfect” and representative of “a life that had been lived selflessly and had resulted in outstanding social and moral benefit for others.” Dr. Hill notes spectacular numerical patterns in Genesis:
An even closer look at Genesis 1 reveals the carefully constructed and intricate harmony of the original Masoretic Hebrew text. After the introductory verse (v. 1), the section is divided into seven paragraphs, each of which pertains to one of the seven days. Each of the three nouns that occur in the first verse (“God,” “heavens,” and “earth”) are repeated throughout the chapter a multiple of seven times: “God” occurs 35 times (7 x 5), “earth” is found 21 (7 x 3) times, and “heavens” appears 21 (7 x 3) times. Each verse after the first contains three pronouncements that emphasize God’s concern for humankind’s welfare (three being the number of emphasis), namely the type phrases “Let us make man,” “be fruitful and multiply,” and “Behold I have given you every plant yielding seed.” Thus, there is a series of seven corresponding dicta of triads (threes). The terms “light” and “day” are found seven times in the first paragraph, and there are seven references to “light” in the fourth (parallel) passage. “Water” is mentioned seven times in paragraphs two and three; “beasts” seven times in parallel paragraphs five and six; the expression “it was good” appears seven times—the seventh time “very good” for emphasis, etc. To suppose that all of this is a mere coincidence is not possible—the text was purposely constructed this way using preferred numbers and prosaic symmetry.
For other remarkable deliberate patterns in the Bible, see my recent papers, Chiasmus & “Redundancy” in Flood Stories and Chiastic Literary Genre in Genesis. Dr. Hill provides many more examples. Anyone interested in this topic must read her entire article. It’s a goldmine and an explanatory masterpiece. She goes into additional aspects, too, such as Genesis chronology and genealogies, and provides a very helpful “Conclusion” that all students of the Bible must always keep in mind as an interpretive guide, especially regarding the earlier books of the Bible:
The fact that the numbers in Genesis may have been “contrived” or “intentional” rather than “real” is difficult for many people to accept. Does this compromise the integrity of the Bible and mean that the Bible cannot be trusted? Does it mean that it cannot be taken “literally”? No, it means only that the text must be approached from the culture of the people who wrote it. We have to try and “get into the minds” of these ancient people and understand what made them tick—just like modern missionaries must try and understand the world view of the people they are trying to evangelize. In the case of Genesis, we must try to understand the text from the world view of the ancient Near East of ~2000 BC, not from . . . the scientific world view of the twentieth through twenty-first centuries. Peoples of the ancient Near East simply did not think along the same lines, or express themselves in the same manner, as the European races. . . .
To faithfully interpret Genesis is to be faithful to what it really means as it was written, not to what people living in a later age assume or desire it to be. It is also ironic that the mythological world created by many well-intentioned and serious “literal” Christians, based partly on the numbers in Genesis, has caused millions of people to reject the Bible and the truths contained therein.
Photo credit: jhenning_beauty_of_nature (10-10-20). Noah and his family after the ark came to rest; it looks like a woodcut from the 15th or 16th century [Pixabay / Pixabay License]
Summary: Are we to believe that Methuselah literally lived to 969 years old, Noah to 950, and Adam to 930 years? No. The early Bible used sacred & figurative numbers: influenced by Mesopotamia.