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Living Nearly a Millennium? How Could Genesis 5 be Literal?

Old man sitting on a bench watching the ocean: ID 132930490 © Olena Klymenok | Dreamstime.com

[Originally published as How Could Humans Have Lived to Over 900 Years Old?]

And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years: and he died.
And Seth lived an hundred and five years, and begat Enos: And Seth lived after he begat Enos eight hundred and seven years, and begat sons and daughters: And all the days of Seth were nine hundred and twelve years: and he died. Genesis 5:5-8

The Bible is a book that, oftentimes, lays strange truths before us—at least, truths that are strange to 21st-century eyes.

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Reactions to these claims vary.

Some attempt to shirk their responsibility to accept these claims by finding more comfortable solutions. In 1 Samuel 28, did the witch really divine Samuel unto Saul? I have heard lots of benign attempts at understanding this passage, but why not take it at face value?

In the supernatural world we live in (and especially the one the biblical writers introduce us to), it’s absolutely possible that divine, intelligent evil was responsible for the witchcraft the text relays to us here.

What about the “magicians” of Pharaoh in the Exodus story?

Could they really have done the things the text claims, or was it more akin to the sleight of hand that can be observed in Las Vegas or on late night television?

More and more, I’ve become convinced that we ought not to shy away when we read something strange in the Bible. Rather, we should embrace it! We should allow it to inform us of what the biblical writers really thought, and how they interacted with their world.

Humanity’s Founding Fathers

One such strange phenomena is the so-called “great age of the patriarchs.” The Bible reports to us that, prior to the watery destruction of the earth recorded in Genesis 6-8, human beings were living upwards of 1000 years.

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This sounds absolutely preposterous to the reader informed of modern genetics.

And, accordingly, attempts to rationalize and/or sanitize these accounts can be found. Perhaps in the ancient Near East (ANE), it was common to use such large numbers to represent other points, more theological or political in nature.

Perhaps the text merely aims to convey a sense of family relationships to us, such that generations could have been skipped, and the large numbers are merely a way of conveying that hidden meaning analogically.

Or, as with the instances above, perhaps the text is merely trying to tell us history in the truest sense of the word.

Perhaps these figures really did live to be almost 1000 years old! What then?

How is this possible given what we know about human history, human lifespans throughout history from other sources, and modern genetics?

The Biblical Claim

First and foremost, let me state upfront that I do think the proper reading is that the ages are meant to be taken at face value.

This is not to say that we must appropriate a sort of wooden literalism to them, though. I’m okay if the flood started in the 601st year of Noah’s life, for example, even though the text rounds out to the 600th year.

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What we cannot do is extrapolate these ages to mean whatever we want. We can’t say that this really meant Noah was only 60 years old when the flood started. There is zero indication from the text that such an interpretation would be warranted.

On the contrary, we do have evidence that the biblical authors often used round numbers, and in fact, we know this was a practice common to ANE writers in general.

In our modern world, we often strive for precision, but we must allow the Bible to be what it is. Trustworthy, for sure, but reporting in a way that sometimes deviates from what we might expect.

In the case of the Genesis 5 and 11 chronogenealogies, however, we have lots of detail and very good reason to think the ages reported should be taken fairly literally.

Difficulties of Science

The Bible says it, that settles it, right?

Well certainly I believe that to be true. However, it would only be honest to take the concerns of modern science into consideration.

There is much to learn from modern science. It is not the big bad boogeyman. In fact, it can be used to our advantage.

The face value problem is, then, that most believe modern science has entirely ruled out the possibility of people ever having lived to these incredible ages.

We find no fossil evidence of human beings ever having lived to these ages—a suggestion that is reasonable if young age creationism is true, but hard to believe if humans have been on the scenes for tens of thousands of years.

Assuming the widely accepted long-age timescale, there is no reason to think this was genetically possible either. No time in history would serve to provide the necessary conditions to produce such a drastic change as we see between the antediluvian patriarchs and the post-diluvian patriarchs.

This leads to a reasonable question.

What Happened After the Flood?

After the flood we observe a number of interesting things in the biblical account.

For one, lifespans seem to radically decrease. While the oldest man to live before the flood was Methuselah at 969 years old, the oldest to live their whole life after the flood was Eber at only 464 years old. From there the number only goes down with each successive generation, until it settles to ~90 years.

Although it might not be directly related to the question of these long ages, we also see a rapid increase in change within the animal kinds.

We have every reason to think that the animals on board the ark were much different, at least in most cases, than their modern descendants today. And yet, we also have every reason to think there were animals as we experience them today living just hundreds of years after the flood.1

While early creationist thought held that the most likely contributing factor was the radically altered ecology of the reorganized world, most creationists today have abandoned a few of the necessary assumptions this position would require, such as the Canopy Theory.

This, along with advances in genetic science (and with specific respect to young age creationist research), has led to the more prevalent view today that the radical decrease in lifespan is due primarily to genetic factors, with the ecology playing a more tertiary role.

This entails that there was a plethora of genetic diversity available to natural selection prior to the flood. (Yes, creationists believe in natural selection. It is observable.)

Since such genetic diversity would not yet have been subjected to any bottlenecks or thousands of years of degradation and devolution, it is perfectly reasonable to think that pre-flood (and therefore, pre-genetic-bottleneck) humans had much longer lifespans than those we observe today.2

Conclusion

Although we don’t have all the answers, and there is much more work to do from a scientific perspective, we can feel confident that the Bible is accurately reporting the pre-flood patriarchal ages.

This is because of assumptions that follow logically from a young age creationist interpretation of the Bible, such as created genetic diversity and a genetic bottleneck created by the flood scenario’s reducing of the human population to just eight souls.

These, taken together with other genetic, epigenetic, and ecological changes to the post-flood environment, serve to underscore the scientific plausibility of the biblically-reported ages.

Footnotes:

  1. See Todd Wood’s AGEing hypothesis for a possible explanation.
  2. Of course, what has been offered here is a small sampling of the work that has been done to answer this question. To go a bit deeper, read Dr. Nathaniel Jeanson here.

Steve Schramm

Written by Steve Schramm

Steve is an author, speaker, and Bible teacher with a heart for exploring God’s Word and God’s world. He trains Christians to become confident, passionate servants of Jesus, so they can grow in their walk with God and share their faith more persuasively. Enroll in Steve's FREE email course, The Battle for the Beginning, by going to steveschramm.com/battle.

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