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

by / April 17, 2020

[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.

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.

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.

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.
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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.

5 Comment

  1. I love the unique perspective of this article. It really serves as a great introduction into this particular issue, but it also presents some powerful arguments for creation science in general. I love the way Mr. Schramm treats the Bible as his highest authority while not dismissing the science. I hope to see more of his articles here in the future!

  2. Dear Steve,
    There is something that bothers me greatly about the terms you use in the ‘Genesis 5 Literal’ article re: the ‘summoning’ of Samuel. I cannot believe in any such thing as ‘divine, intelligent evil.’ The story however makes perfect sense if you allow that God SENT the spirit of Samuel to the house in Endor, rather than sending the message through the demonic familiar spirit the witch was expecting to see. There was no evil involved here, just the man of God, from the realm of the dead, doing as he was accustomed, obeying and declaring the Word of God to the king of Israel. To me, brother, the simplest explanation is usually the closest to the truth. That’s why creation, with its straightforward accomplishment by the Word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, is much more intellectually and scientifically satisfying than all the convolutions and tortorous contortions we read of in the evo literature. You said it yourself, iin the previous paragraph: Why not take it at face value? If the Word says it was Samuel, it was Samuel.

    • Hi John! Thanks for your comment.

      I think there are two things going on here. One of them is, I think you may be misunderstanding some of the points I’ve made. The other one is there seems to be some contradiction in what you are saying.

      First, you’ve misunderstood what I meant as “divine, intelligent evil.” Frankly, if you believe in Satan and demons, you already believe in divine, intelligent evil. That’s all I meant by the term.

      Second, you say “The story however makes perfect sense if you allow that God SENT the spirit of Samuel to the house in Endor, rather than sending the message through the demonic familiar spirit the witch was expecting to see.” In fact, my *point* is that this person just *was* Samuel! Just like the text says! My problem is with those who try to spiritualize this and say it was *not* Samuel but some kind of illusion of something. That’s not what the text says. It was Samuel, and I think you agree.

      But the witch was a diviner—a medium. She was practicing an evil art. You’ve read into the text when you said that “God SENT the spirit of Samuel…” Again, the text doesn’t say that. Actually, it says the opposite. Here are vv. 15-18 (CSB), emphasis mine:

      “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Samuel asked Saul. “I’m in serious trouble,” replied Saul. “The Philistines are fighting against me and God has turned away from me. He doesn’t answer me anymore, either through the prophets or in dreams. So I’ve called on you to tell me what I should do.” Samuel answered, “Since the LORD has turned away from you and has become your enemy, why are you asking me? The LORD has done exactly what he said through me: The LORD has torn the kingship out of your hand and given it to your neighbor David. You did not obey the LORD and did not carry out his burning anger against Amalek; therefore the LORD has done this to you today.

      If God had wanted to instruct Saul further, he would have answered him. Rather, Saul tried to “bypass” God, and Samuel put him in his place! But no mistake, a medium was involved, which is evil by definition (Lev. 19:31) and the text does not say God sent the spirit.

      So I think perhaps you and I agree here more than we disagree, brother. But it seems to me the face-value interpretation suggests that (1) the encounter was evil and (2) the real Samuel showed up and declared God’s judgment.

      Steve Schramm
  3. Bro Steve says that he’s 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. Except the Bible doesn’t say that, Bro. Steve: it states plainly in Genesis 7:11 (WHY haven’t I memorized THAT reference yet?): ‘In the 600th year of Noah’s life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month.’ That’s pretty exacting for an approximation, don’t you think? I hate to keep reminding you of your own words, but why can’t we take the text at face value?

    • John, thank you again.

      I am fully aware of what the text says. I did not pull the “600” number out of thin air. That’s why I used that example.

      For me, I *do* think, just as the text says, the flood came in the 600th year of Noah’s life. My point was that it does not wreck my theology if that number is rounded. And in fact, there’s plenty of good evidence to think that *some* numbers in the Bible are rounded. It’s a case-by-case thing.

      Here’s a great journal piece, written by a committed creationist who has written a book *addressed to his peers in scholarship about taking the creation account at face value,* arguing for rounded numbers in the biblical text: https://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/40/40-3/40-3-pp377-387_JETS.pdf

      So again, I agree with you regarding Noah’s life. I was just making a general point that there is evidence that the biblical authors sometimes rounded numbers.

      One additional point: When we say face-value, we still have to use the standards for literature that the biblical authors had. We need not think that, in order for the text to be telling the clear truth, they reported with the precision a 21st century news reporter would. A great article on this (from a friendly source) is this one: https://creation.com/genesis-as-ancient-historical-narrative

      Thanks again, sir!
      Steve

      Steve Schramm

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