Can people live really as long as Genesis 5 says? This article looks at the evidence around Genesis 5, and it shows that these ages are not mythical, but real.

Source: Australian Presbyterian, 2001. 4 pages.

So Long Could people really have lived to be that old?

As old as Methuselah remains a proverbial simile even in our days of Biblical illiteracy. The expression refers to the patriarch in Genesis 5:25-27 who lived for almost 1000 years, no less.

But he is not the only one: as we survey the chapter we find a range of ages of the same order:

Adam                930 years;
Seth                   912 years;
Enosh                905 years;
Kenan               910 years;
Mahalel            895 years;
Jared                 962 years;
Enoch                365 years,

before he was translated;

Methuselah       969 years;
Lamech             777 years;
Noah                  600 years
 

before the Flood, and  350 years after the Flood.

Considering overlaps, this period cov­ers 1656 years from Adam to the Great Deluge, that is, according to our conven­tional Hebrew text. Two other ancient versions, namely the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Greek Septuagint, give respectively 1307 years, and 2242 years.

However, the latter has Methuselah living for 14 years beyond the Flood, which is out of the question. The Samaritan text has its own problems as well, hence there is good reason for adhering to the traditional text.

Furthermore, barring Enoch, these ages average out at more than 820 years for each patriarch! Clearly, these are far beyond our experience, even for the famous war veteran Jack Lockett of Bendigo, who at 110 is presently one of the oldest men in the world. No-one seri­ously expects him to attain to anywhere near 900.

Moreover, it is not just the total life-spans, but the age of parenting: 130 years when Adam fathered a son; 105 for Seth; 90 years for Enosh; 187 for Methuselah, for an overall average of 117 years.

What then are we to make of these ages? Many in today’s world naturally dismiss them, as just one more evidence that the Bible is full of legends and myths. But not so fast! Like the Flood itself, which figures in native folklore all over the world, traditions of long-lived people before that Great Flood have surfaced among various ancient peoples. Legends of primal longevity exist among the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Persians, and even as far afield as China.

Of most interest from the Biblical standpoint, however, is the Sumerian King List, dating to about 1950 B.C. or earlier, and found in several versions from Mesopotamia. All versions have a list of pre-Diluvian kings with prodigiously long reigns, in the tens of thousands of years. A similar list has also come down to us from a Babylonian priest of the third cen­tury B.C. named Berossus, in his account of the origins of Babylonian civilization. The best known version, in the cuneiform script, is on the Weld-Blundell prism, which reads as follows:

Alulim                        28,800 years
Alalgar                       36,000 years
Enmenluanna            43,200 years
Enmengalanna          28,800 years
Dumuzi                       36,000 years
Ensipaziann               28,800 years
Enmenduranna         21,000 years
Uburtutu                   18,600 years
Total                           241,200

After the last king the List tells us, “Then the Flood swept over the earth”. After the Flood kingship was again low­ered from heaven to the city of Kish, then follows a long list of post-Diluvian kings whose reigns range from 1560 years in the post-Flood epoch to much lower, “nor­mal” figures later on. One notable king is Gilgamesh, an ancient Sumerian hero but a confirmed historical figure, who accord­ing to the list reigned in Uruk (the Biblical Erech, Gen. 10:10) for 126 years. A case can be made for equating him with the Nimrod of Genesis 10:8-10, although at least one scholar has identified Nimrod with Enmerkar, also of Uruk, in the post­-Flood period.

Although not the primary focus of this discussion, we must make clear from the outset that the old idea that Genesis 5 and 11 were “borrowed” from the Sumerian King List, has been all but abandoned. This shibboleth of the old “Pan-Babylonian” school is yet again nothing more than a simplicism: the King List is in essence a political tract designed to justify kingship at a city called Isin. It also enu­merates a succession of kings and their reign lengths, not a genealogy of mankind with the life-spans of each patriarch. In short, it has an intent very different from Genesis 5, which by contrast traces the development of mankind from Adam to Noah, and in particular, the perpetuation of a godly line in a world of growing god­lessness and violence. Put another way, there are too many divergences of content and aim to allow for borrowing.

Could they then represent a common tradition from which the King List has diverged? One factor which could well place Genesis 5 as much earlier concerns the actual figures, or at least the totals.

One scholar has proposed that if we total up the ages, the sum comes to 6695 years. When we round this off to 6700 the result is a figure which a Sumerian scribe might well have mistakenly inflated because of his sexagesimal system of numbering. In this system a Semitic scribe would note 100 as o, but a Sumerian scribe would use the same symbol to denote 3600. Similarly, the number 1000 would be written with a symbol somewhat similar to (, which to the Sumerian scribe would represent 36,000.

Let us suppose that our Sumerian scribe sees a list of names with the total ((( oooo at the bottom. What was intended to read as 6700 he (mis)reads according to ((( ooo his system as 241,200, precisely the total above for the reigns of the pre-Flood kings.

Now the crucial observation is that this is a one-way process. If we propose that the Sumerian List was original, and this total was then read as a decimal number the result would be nonsense (space for­bids an explanation); the Semitic decimal representation has to be prior.

It is therefore quite possible that behind both the Sumerian King List and Genesis 5 there was a written genealogical document, later incorporated into our book of Genesis, which Sumerian scribes transformed into a king list. While such a document would date from very early times, this should not surprise us, since the heading is specifically “the written account of Adam’s line” (Gen. 5:1, NIV).

This observation considers only the totals, but some scholars have attempted to correlate the individual ages in the King List with those of Genesis 5 by a similar manoeuvre, but without agreed results. If we accept this theory regarding the totals, it remains possible that the individual ages have inflated due to a similar type of mis­reading. However, there is still room for the older explanation, that the Sumerian list has grossly exaggerated the individual time spans in the interests of boasting the long pedigree of its civilization.

Attempted correlations of names in the list with persons and places in Genesis 2-5 likewise remain speculative. For all that, many of the post-Flood kings in the Sumerian list are known to be part of gen­uine history. Hence the list seems to reflect real historical memory of these people and events, even if garbled and embellished.

Another observation regarding the Sumerian list is that recent study has con­firmed that the pre-Flood section (i.e. the one under discussion) is an import from elsewhere. Hence, while the bulk of the List belongs to the Mesopotamian tradi­tion, the pre-Flood portion belongs to another tradition, ultimately and quite possibly that underlying our Genesis 5.

Likewise, a set of Sumerian epics known as “The Eridu Genesis” highlights a certain similarity to Genesis in a similar Creation-Fall-Flood pattern, but clearly not from “borrowing”. As with the King List, it points to a common tradition which the Christian reader may legiti­mately assert is preserved faithfully in the Biblical text.

There is still every reason to endorse the comment of D.J. Wiseman in 1969: “...‘king lists’ and epic poems combine to con­vey the oldest Babylonian account of the creation, the fall (?) and the Flood. As with Genesis 1-11 this early history, for such they considered these events, was com­bined in a single document including poetic narrative of events linked by genealogies and without any specific indication of the time covered by the events described.”

The Biblical Ages: Turning from the issue of historical memory, we look at Genesis 5 in particular. Some have attempted to apply the sexagesimal tech­nique described above to reduce the ages of these antediluvians, but unsuccessfully: there is no evidence that such a system applies to a Semitic text like Genesis.

However, an outstanding fact is that while the life spans before the Flood are prodigious, there is a dramatic drop and then a tapering in the post-Flood geneal­ogy of Genesis 11. Hence from Shem’s life-span of 500 years to Abraham’s of 175 years, or Sarah’s of 127 years, there is something of an exponential decline. When we come to Joseph and Joshua, both die at 110, while the kings of Judah have very short lives by modern stan­dards, e.g. Joash dies at 47, Ahaz at 36, Josiah at 39, and Jehoiakim at 36.

Similarly, when we compare this with the King List there is a similar phenome­non: the pre-Flood reigns are staggeringly large, but drop dramatically after the Flood, and continue to decline to familiar lengths around 2000 B.C.

Are such life spans scientifically feasi­ble? The scientists tell us that a cell can only divide a finite number of times — about 50. But was this always so? Moreover, can we compare the conditions in both the human physiology and the environment which prevail now, with those which could well have prevailed in a different world system, early in human history?

Even in our own world longevity is not unknown. I remember well a report in Time magazine, about 1966, of an American Negro who died at 136. Even up to his death he could recall life on the plantations, and relate vivid and accurate memories of the Civil War 100 years before. When in 1912 Tsar Nicholas II cel­ebrated the centenary of the Battle of Borodino (when Russian troops stood against Napoleon), the parade featured an aged veteran of 122 who had fought in that battle 100 years before. Also, there were until recently persistent reports from the Hunza Valley in Pakistan of peo­ple living to around 150!

To return to Scripture, we should con­sider questions about the antediluvian world, and its immediate aftermath, in the light of the Hebrew expression “heavens and earth”, the equivalent expression for our word “universe” or ordered world system. Greek has the word kosmos (cosmos), from the verb kosmeo: “to set in order, make beautiful, adorn” (hence our word “cosmetic”). The kosmos therefore is an ordered, harmonious world system, a functioning universe. With this in mind, observe how the apostle Peter asserts that before the Flood there was a “cosmos” or world system different from the “heav­ens-and-earth” or cosmos which now exists (2 Peter 3:6-7).

While we should not expect scientific information in the modern sense from Scripture, some speculation is unavoidable. If then, a very different cosmos prevailed in those far-off times, with possibly much less mutation-inducing radiation incident on the earth’s surface, and if the human con­stitution allowed for a much extended capability of cell multiplication, these would explain longer life spans in that age.

Also at this early stage in human his­tory there would have been less pollution, a richer gene pool in contrast to the depleted pool which prevails today, and greater ability of the body for self-regeneration. These factors could well have contributed not only to a much slower ageing process, but also to an extended procreative capacity.

Add to this possibility the above observation of the dramatic drop in life-spans after the Flood. Not only the Bible, but studies of so-called cave-men from various European sites likewise indicate an early death for many, e.g. of the Cro-Magnon group. A combination of factors seem to determine this result: a harsher environ­ment after the Flood, poor diet and lack of sunshine in more northerly latitudes in par­ticular (with consequent proneness to rick­ets), proliferation of disease, plus a greater propensity for mutations.

Regarding the last factor, we should note that under Moses the laws of consan­guinity or prohibited degrees are intro­duced (Lev. 18). In all, the effects of the Curse of Eden can be seen to tighten their grip, while a Divine decree of a shorter life-span seems to be indicated in Psalm 90:10. For all the immense efforts of modern medical science, life expectancy remains at the biblical 70 to 80 years.

Sceptics should therefore hold their dismissive fire when reading these pas­sages. The insistence, “if it doesn’t hap­pen now, then it never could”, betrays a narrow dogmatism, closed to both his­torical and contemporary evidence. In the words of Shakespeare, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy!”

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