When we read the Bible, especially the Old Testament, we need to keep certain things in mind. Firstly, we always have to analyze what we are reading, when it was written, what genre it is, who the author is, and what is the main point of the text. We need to understand the Old Testament in its ancient setting – in this case the Old Testament is well grounded in the Ancient Near East (ANE). According to Christian writer and Old Testament Professor Peter Enns the Old Testament “belonged in the ancient worlds that produced it. It was not an abstract, otherworldly book dropped out of heaven. It was connected to and therefore spoke to those ancient cultures” (1).
So, when we view the Old Testament through these spectacles we see parallels in literature of other well-known civilisations, for example, the Sumer people of Mesopotamia. We have an ancient document know as the Sumerian King List (2). This is a list of several dynasties and kings that includes passages where kings ruled for some 28 800 years (Alulim), 36 000 (Alaljar) years, and another two kings ruled for 64800 years. However, this preceded the Old Testament documents that tell us that Adam lived 930 years (Gen. 5:5), Lamech lived 777 years (Gen. 5:31), Noah lived 950 years (Gen. 9:29) etc.
Some scholars believe that the numbers are being used in a more symbolic way rather than literally. Consider my Old Testament lecturer who is an avid Christian. I put this question to her and she was quite adamant that “numbers were full of meaning and were not intended by the author for his audience to be taken literally” (3). I didn’t get much more out of her since we were in the middle of going through the post-exilic period of Ancient Israel. However, the fact is that in much of ancient literature numbers were used numerologically which means that a number’s symbolic value could be used to convey mystical or sacred meaning rather than just its numerical value. If we consider Sumerian King List mentioned above (with its kings ruling for many thousands of years) no-one really views them as literal historical reports of how long kings really ruled for; instead, the large numbers came to have a role in approving certain dynasties – the numbers, therefore, have meaning attached to them. And since such a use of numbers was present in the ANE it helps us put a bit of context and background to our Genesis account. On the same note understanding the meaning behind the Genesis age numbers is a bit more complex and has been reviewed elsewhere for those interested (4). It’s also worth noting that in many places we are left in the dark when it comes to background details and, on that note, it’s okay if we do not have all the answers; for instance, how did the author exactly intend for his audience to read these numbers, or to what extent was the author influenced by Sumerian accounts? These are interesting questions for those wishing to explore deeper. Further, we should never divorce a text from its place in history and apply a modern 21st view to it. Genesis, for example, was primarily written to an ancient audience although it is still for us, as God’s inspired word. So, we shouldn’t be at all surprised that God intervened into history during a time where our biblical authors were influenced by surrounding nations. Enns explains that “When God reveals himself, he always does so to people, which means that he must speak and act in ways that they will understand. People are time bound, and so God adopts that characteristic if he wishes to reveal himself” (10).
Nonetheless, scholars and apologists (5) have provided several interpretative theories (6).
But this is not all. Many contemporary Christian thinkers of various interpretations hold to different views. Some believe that people really lived that long and that it fits in well with an Earth that is a few thousand years old (7). Others holding to an Old Earth view believe that God could, if he wanted, allow people to live hundreds of years long, after all, surely God could enable that (8) (9). The point is that we all need to review scripture, data and information & thus come to our own conclusions even if, as Christ followers, we end up disagreeing with each other. Disagreement is a good thing; it keeps us on our toes. I am likewise sure that connecting Genesis to other ANE narratives rightly brings up the questions of inerrancy & inspiration to many readers; although an important & well thought of consideration it is mostly irrelevant to this article, however, we will be tackling that question in further posts.
1. Enns, P. 2005. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. p. 27 (Scribd ebook format).
2. Mieroop, M. 2004. A History of the Ancient Near East. p. 41.
3. Personal correspondence with Old Testament lecturer Tammy (September, 2015).
4. Stump, J. 2014. Long Life Spans in Genesis. Available.
5. Hill, C. 2003. “Making Sense of the Numbers of Genesis” in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. p. 239.
6. Etz, D. (1994). “The Numbers of Genesis V 3–31: A Suggested Conversion and Its Implications”. Vetus Testamentum 43 (2): 171–87.
7. Purdom, G. & Menton, D. 2010. Did People Like Adam and Noah Really Live Over 900 Years of Age? Available.
8. Hugh, R. 2001. Long Life Spans: “Adam Lived 930 Years and Then He Died.” Available.
9. Matt. 2014. Ask Pastor Matt: “Why Did People in the Old Testament Live So Long?” Available.
10. Enns, P. 2005. Ibid. p. 31 (Scribd ebook format).