Alice C. Linsley
The only "old" dude mentioned in Genesis is Abraham, as St. Jerome, notes: "I am reviewing carefully the places in Scripture where I might find old age mentioned for the first time. Adam lived for 930 years, yet he is not called an old man. Methuselah's life was 969 years, and he is not called an old man. I am coming down all the way to the flood, and after the flood for almost three thousand years, and I find no one who has been called old. Abraham is the first, and certainly he was much younger than Methuselah." (Homilies on the Psalms 21)
Jerome's observation is significant. Abraham was old. Those who lived before the flood are not called old because the numbers assigned to them are symbolic.
Invariably, people ask: “What is the significance of the long lifespans listed in Genesis?” and “Why did those who lived before the flood live longer than those after the flood?” Many seem unaware of the semitic association of numbers to the letters of the alphabet. In the Hebrew system (Gematria), there is no notation for zero and the numeric values for individual letters are added together. This poses a challenge when attempting to understand the symbolism of years which include a zero, such as Kenan's 910 and Seth's 600 years.
Then there is the discrepancy between the Septuagint, the Masoretic, and the Samaritan texts. The three don't agree on the number of years before begetting sons and the total number of years. The total number of years in the Septuagint and the Masoretic (Hebrew) records agree except in the case of Lamech the Younger (Noah's father). The Septuagint assigns Lamech a total of 753 years, whereas the Samaritan Pentateuch assigns him only 653 years. The New Jerusalem Bible, following the Masoretic Pentateuch, assigns Lamech 777 years.
In his extraordinary Commentary on Genesis (Volume 1), Umberto Cassuto wrote, "What is the cause of the divergences between the three texts, and which recension has preserved the original figures? Much has been written on this subject, and the answer remains in dispute" (p. 265). Cassuto himself believed that the original figures are preserved in the Masoretic chronology. Those are the numbers I will use here.
Consider the lifespan assigned to each of these pre-flood patriarchs in Genesis 5:
Seth – 912 years
Jared – 962 years
Kenan – 910 years
Methuselah – 969 years
Lamech the Younger – 777 years
Now compare the lifespan of each of the following in Genesis 11:
Shem – 600 years
Eber – 464 years
Serug – 230 years
Nahor the Elder (Terah's father) – 148 years
Terah – 205 years
Various explanations are offered to make sense of the patriarchs’ longevity. They include:
· People lived longer in ancient times.
· God shortened the lifespan due to sin.
· Those who recorded the list of patriarchs (Gen.11) honored their forefathers by ascribing to them length of days.
· The numbers assigned are symbolic and intended to convey information about each patriarch.
· The number symbolism is based on a mystical numerological system that requires fuller investigation.
Let us explore each of these explanations.
Evidence for Exceptional Longevity among Ancient Peoples
Studies in Paleopathology indicate that the lifespan of ancient peoples living in an area extending from North Africa to Turkey and Mesopotamia was about 32 years. This data applies to peoples in the Late Paleolithic - 30,000 to 9,000 B.C., the Mesolithic - 9,000 to 7,000 B.C. and the Early Neolithic - 7,000 to 5,000 B.C. (For more information on this, go here.)
One might argue that the patriarchs listed in Genesis 11 enjoyed extraordinary longevity by divine providence. Were this the case we would want to know why God’s providence seems limited to a specific time, people and place. In other words, the singularity of the extraordinary longevity of these patriarchs is a miracle and therefore beyond scientific explanation. While I believe in miracles, I find this explanation unlikely, unnecessary and without support from the Bible itself.
God Shortened the Lifespan
Genesis 6 hints that God shortened the lifespan. The Lord said, “My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh; let the days allowed him be one hundred and twenty years.” (Gen. 6:3) Were we to take this literally we would expect the lifespan of the patriarchs in Genesis 11 to be no more than 120 years, yet all exceed that number. This suggests that the number 120 is symbolic, but what it symbolizes is unclear without access to the numerology that stands behind this text. If we examine the mystical symbolism of Kabbala, we find clues as to what the number 120 might signify in this context.
The directional poles are critical to the interpretation of the numerical symbolism. The number 1 is associated with north and always represents the Creator God. The number 2 represents the Generative Word and zero is a placeholder that makes this a 3-digit number. The number 3 is associated with the Spirit of God. With this in mind, the symbolism of the number 120 seems to be that the lifespan of the sons of Adam is the exclusive knowledge of God, God’s Generative Word and God’s Spirit. It could also be that the zero is a pictograph representing a cycle or eternity. If so, the meaning would be that what God creates and imbues with the Generative Word will be eternal.
Honoring the Forefathers by Ascribing Length of Days
The Assyrian Kings List provides evidence that ascribing length of days to noble persons was not a common practice. If anyone expected to be shown honor, it was the ancient kings, but their regnal years are, by all appearances, historical. This is borne out by the similarity between the different inscriptions that speak of these kings’ reigns.
Were the Forefathers honored by the assignment of length of days, we would expect Abraham to have been assigned many years since he is the principal Patriarch and the progenitor of Jews, Arabs and other Semites. Yet we are told that Abraham's days were only 175 (Gen. 25:7). If we take up the idea that the longer days are a sign of honor, then we would expect Abraham, the most honored of the Patriarchs to have a very great number. Instead his number - 175- is the equivalent of 4 average lifespans for people at that time.
The Numbers are Symbolic and Convey Information
That the numbers are not to be taken literally is supported by the assignment of 930 years to the mythological first Father, Adam.
Were I to interpret the significance of this number based on the mystical numerology of Kabbala, it would be this: The creature will enjoy the consummation of his faith at the end of time. This makes Adam a type of Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten, who will enter the bridal chamber at the end of days. Paul may have had this in mind when he wrote: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the first fruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at his coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father…” (1 Corinthians 15:22-24a) And this: “And so it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being.’ The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” (1 Corinthians 15:45)
I draw on Kabbala, not because I believe it accurately represents the number system of Abraham's people, but because it has affinity to the older Afro-Asiatic cosmology which assigns numbers to the directional poles and to points between the north-south and east-west axes.
This exploration of the Patriarchs' lifespans seems to indicate that the numbers are symbolic and intended to say something about these individuals. What is being communicated is not clear because we still have much to learn about the numerology of Abraham's people.
The view that the numbers are symbolic is supported by the numerical discrepancy surrounding Lamech the Younger. Some might not view him as especially righteous because he was named after his maternal grandfather who bragged about killing a man. Yet Lamech was Noah's father, and Noah found favor with God. The different numbers pertaining to Lamech the Younger are (Greek Septuagint) 753, (Samaritan) 653, and (Hebrew) 777. No other man in the chronology has such a discrepancy in total number of years. It makes one wonder what the numbers suggest about Lamech in each cultural context.
So if the numbers are symbolic, what is Methusaleh's real age? He is assigned 969 years. The sum of these numbers is 21. That would mean that Methusaleh's lifespan was shorter than average. But there is another possibility. As the number system of Abraham's people was base nine, 969 might indicate that Methuselah lived 2 full cycles plus 1/3 again. If the average lifespan was 35 years, this would mean that he lived 35+ 17 + 35 = 87 years.
Who was Melchizedek?
Melchizedek, the ruler-priest of Jerusalem (Salem), is one of the most fascinating figures of Genesis. His Hebrew name means "righteous king." He is mentioned in Genesis 14, Psalm 110:4 and in the New Testament book of Hebrews. Melchizedek is also considered in the works of modern philosophers such as Soren Kierkegaard.
It is clear from Genesis 14 that Melchizedek and Abraham were well acquainted. Both belonged to the Horite caste of ruler-priests which practiced endogamy. In other words, they were kin. It is likely that Melchizedek was the brother-in-law of Joktan, Abraham's father-in-law.
Melchizedek comes to Abraham after a battle in which Abraham incurred blood guilt. Melchizedek's ministry in this situation would have been to perform the appropriate purification ritual. Every warrior society has a purification ritual to help returning warriors deal with their blood guilt. Melchizedek performed the purification ritual that absolved Abraham of blood guilt. In thanks, Abraham offers him the tithe.