Sunday, May 3, 2009

Methuselah's Real Age

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.


David Ould said...

thanks for this, Alice.

I wonder if it's just a bit simpler. I'd expect some form of numerology in apocalyptic but here in what purports to be a narrative I think it's stretching a long bow.

Is the point not simply that lifespans shorten as another indication of the spread of sin in the world? As you read the genealogies 2 things strike you:

In one line (from Cain) there is only death, not even an indication of ages.

In the other line, the "line of life" (from Seth) we see their ages but they, too die. As the generations pass and the ages decrease we see the inexorable spread of sin in the world.

Alice C. Linsley said...

David, the problem with that interpretation is that Cain's line doesn't die out. It is traceable to the time of at least Moses. Also, Methuselah lives the longest of all and he married into Cain's line. He married Naamah, Lamech the Elder's daughter and she named their first born son, Lamech after her father, which was the bride's naming prerogative.

If interested, I've written about this here:

Best wishes, David. Thanks for your faithful witness!

Seraph said...

What about the idea that these folks were not merely individuals, but tribes which were in ascendancy? Just as "Israel" can mean either Jacob or the nation which sprang from him?

Alice C. Linsley said...

Kinship patterns cannot be retroactively contructed. Had that been done editorially, the imposition on the text would be obvious. Were the people in Genesis 4 and 5 not historic individuals, it would be impossible to do an analysis of their kinship pattern. Since it is possible and the analysis shows a true kinship pattern, consistent with those found in west central Africa, we have no reason to doubt the historicity of these chiefs.

David Ould said...

David, the problem with that interpretation is that Cain's line doesn't die out. It is traceable to the time of at least Moses. Also, Methuselah lives the longest of all and he married into Cain's line. He married Naamah, Lamech the Elder's daughter and she named their first born son, Lamech after her father, which was the bride's naming prerogative.

I think the point is that Cain's line doesn't get the ages mentioned. All they get is "and he died" as opposed to anything positive, albeit a declining age.

As for Meth. marrying into the line, surely the point is that he's still from Seth, not Cain?

Agreed on the issue of the historicity of the individuals.

Anam Cara said...

Sorry it took me so long to find this blog, Jandy. I have read back to the beginning.

In a comment you stated:
"However, the language families are not related. This means that the languages of the world can not be traced to a common linguistic origin."

Might not the Tower of Babel account for this?

You are right about the possiblility of your research on Genesis making you anathama to fundamentalists! I don't consider you anathama, but I am sceptical of some of your conclusions that I've read so far.

I really wish I were more scholarly minded and could intellegently discuss - but, alas, I learned long ago that I shouldn't imagine myself more learned than I am. I imagine you long ago considered anything I would have to offer and rejected it in your research.....

Northern Plains Anglicans said...

I am leaning toward the "God Shortened the Lifespan" argument and am working to absorb the wonderful Trinitarian action you describe in this post.

I am wondering how accurate (or inaccurate) it might be to say, "The fall shortened the lifespan" (that is, God didn't just "zap them" and shorten their spans of years - but over time the consequences of rebellion became more pronounced (hmmmm - might support Augustine's idea of the sexual/genetic transmission of orignial sin).

The fall cost human beings a pretty comfortable existence - evidently the garden was temperate enough to run around naked, and the fruit trees were there for the picking.

The curse included things that wear us down - hard, repetetive labor, the possibility of scarcity, emotional longing and craving, the pain and phsiological changes associated with child bearing. It's the inversion of Nietzche - "That which should have made us stronger killed us."

Over time, the created perfection faded and faded, displaced by fleshly sin. No surprise that our Savior had to be "marred" and bear wounds - "that which was not assumed was not redeemed."

Alice C. Linsley said...

Anam Cara, Your thoughts and observations are always welcome here. This is an open forum for discussion of the book of Genesis.

What I present is not gospel truth, simply the observations of a sinner who believes that Genesis is foundational to the entire Bible and therefore should be better understood.

Again, as of now there is no evidence that the lifespan of ancient humans decreased at any point in the fossil record.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Northern Plains Anglican, "the Trinitarian action" is mystically seen throughout the Bible. One of the ancient names for God was Baal-shalishah: The Three God.

The directional poles are represented also. Another ancient name for God was Baal-zephon: The North God.

Northern Plains Anglicans said...

Thanks, Alice.

The Lakota cosmos (shared with other North American tribes in many cases) looks to the four cardinal directions, as in the four-color medicine wheel, and also up to the Sky Father and down to Mother Earth.

If I remember correctly, kabbalah also relies on "4" as a number of completeness, and the "four corners" idea of creation comes up in the Revelation as well.

Of course "4" is applied to the creation - the Trinity is the creator.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Yes, Mircea Eliade showed tribal cosmologies are universally built upon the concept of the 4 cardinal points, which makes it possible to speak of a "center" and the center is regarded as a place of meeting with the Divine.

High noon is regarded as the center of day, a time when there are no shadows. All is seen in the fullness of the sun's light. James probably had this in mind when he wrote, "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning." (James 1:17)

Zac said...

Again, as of now there is no evidence that the lifespan of ancient humans decreased at any point in the fossil record.

Is the fossil record of early human civilizations really so complete/reliable/subject to singular interpretation that you actually believe this rules out the possibility that the patriarchs were especially long-lived?

I don't think the key to understanding Genesis is necessarily to harmonize every detail with modern scientific methodologies, which, though perhaps very useful in some ways, are based upon definite philosophical presumptions that are at times in discord with the phronema of Christianity.

Plus, what would 500-year-old bones look like to modern paleontologists today? Assume for the sake of argument that the Patriarchs did live the ages assigned to them in scripture... would it also not follow that their rate of aging and deterioration would also be drasically unlike what we normally see today, and therefore likely to be misunderstood if modern paleontologists (most of whom are materialist if not in belief, at least in methodology) came across them?

Plus, Orthodoxy seems to have no problem with exceptionally long lives of certain persons, even more "recent" ones like the Prophet Simeon-- Tradition says he was one of the "seventy" who translated the Septuagint back in the 200s or 300s BC, and whom God allowed to live in the flesh until he saw the one born from a virgin which Isaiah 7:14 foretold. That would put him up there in the 200s or 300s, before he held the newborn Christ and spoke the now-famous prayer: "Lord, lettest now thy servant depart in peace according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples..."

Concerning Kabalah and Numerology:

Where have any Orthodox fathers mentioned the Kabalah favorably? It teaches Ten "manifestations" ("sfirot") of God, the Tetragramaton as having magical creative properties, Enoch as having become "Metatron" the angel, and various other things where are not simply heretical but cacodox and entirely foreign to the Christian understanding of the revelation given to Abraham.

I would just caution you-- maybe for the sources of "mystical" interpretations you should consult the Fathers of the Church who have attained to the vision of Uncreated Light? We may not attain to their sanctity, but we can benefit from their wisdom. Have you begun to consult any of these sources?

Alice C. Linsley said...

Good comment, Zac. I'm not a fan of Kabbalah, especially since it clearly strays from the Truth hidden in Jesus Christ, but I use it to illustrate that numbers are symbolic in Scripture and in the Tradition.

I'm interested in this approach to the longevity question because, as the kinship analysis of Genesis 4 and 5 reveals, the cultural context of Abraham's ancestors is west central Africa and number symbolism is a significant aspect of that culture. Consider these numerological tidbits among peoples of West Central Africa: The Bulanda of West Africa use 6 as a base for counting. The number 7 is expressed as 6 + 1, 8 as 6 + 2, and so on. The number 6 represents the end of the sequence and 7 the beginning of a new sequence. Where do we find this idea in the Bible? Genesis 1, of course. Perhaps a coincidence, but it is a provocative coincidence, given the other data that points to Abraham's ancestors coming out of west central Africa.

Among the Baganda of Uganda the number 9 is sacred and in ceremonies nine vessels or ritual items are used. (Readers may recall that the Jews kept 6 vessels of water for ritual ablutions. See John 2:6).

For the Akan of Ghana the number 5 is sacred as are its factors: 4 and 1 or 3 and 2.

There is a strong platonic thread in Orthodoxy and platonism is geometric. The ancients were fascinated by numbers which revealed order in creation and pointed to the sovereignty of the Creator.

Thanks for visiting. Please check in again!

Steve said...

I really don't think that they were using Hindu/Arabic numerals 2,000 BC and earlier, so the Kabbalistic interpretation relying upon decimal-system numbers not adopted for another three thousand years or more.

Average lifespans are always very different than the normative lifespans. Infant mortality and death in childbirth really skews things. People always got as old as they do now, just not as many of them. So you can throw out the hypothesized 32 year lifespan has having anything to do with the ages of the patriarchs.

Why not just accept what God says? He was there. 19th century pseudo-sciences really shouldn't be influential over Scripture.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Numbers were a fascination for the ancient peoples of the Afro-Asiatic world, especially in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The earliest symbolism involved numbers and the directional poles.

If one accepts that numbers are symbolic, as I do, there is no reason to regard the livespans of the antediluvian patriarchs as literal. In fact, by doing so, we fail to investigate the meaning that is there. See for example the symbolism of 7, 77 and 777 related to Cain, Lamech, the Elder and Lamech, the Younger (posted above in Chrysostom on Lamech's Speech).

I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that the Genesis genealogies are revelatory. I don't rely on 19th century sciences at all.

I welcome your comments and hope that you will take time to read more of the essays posted here.

Alice C. Linsley said...

For more information on the "sefer" system of Jewish mysticism see:

monomakh said...

Dear Alice, thanks for this article.While i may not directly contribute to the present discussion, let me share with you and the readers some thoughts. I can clearly see the evolution of an Afro-asiatic theory in your articles. Does it include the hypothetical elamite-dravidian connection? Pardon, maybe there already is some statement of this afro-asiatic theory on the blog, but couldn't you sketch its basic assumptions? It's so interesting! thank you.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Yes, it does include the hypothetical Elamite-Dravidian connection which I believe is rather well confirmed. Elamite and archaic Tamil correspond closely in virtually every linguistic aspect. As the Afro-Asiatic worldview diffused through migration, commerce and the intermarriage of nobles, so did the words used for key concepts of this worldview. This is why the Elamite of the Archaemenid Period is such a valuable reference. This was the language of government, the verbage of rulers.

For an excellent (technical)discussion of this read David McApin's research here:

I have attempted to trace the diffusion across the Afro-Asiatic Dominion in this essay:

And here:

monomakh said...


Alice C. Linsley said...

Sorry, Monomakh. That's David McAlpin.

Hope you are well.

Sarah's Daughter said...

Total neophite here, but has there been any consideration of what dictated age? I do appreciate that there can be an association of the numbers to something significant, but has any explored the though that the true calendar as we know it today was not developed until much later (I think sometime around Ceasar) by I believe Newton? There was the constant changing of the way they determined time base on how and when the seasons change leaving great jugling of what was real time until they realize that the earth when around the sun, instead of the sun going around the earth. Just a though.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Sarah's Daughter,

The ancient Afro-Asiatics knew sidereal astronomy better than most people today can imagine. They studied the Sun-Moon and knew that the Moon's light was refulgent, that is, that it reflected light. They knew that the earth is a sphere because they spoke of the Creator riding the Sun as a chariot and making a daily circuit. They studied the clock-like movement of the constellations and they were so well informed that they recognized unuual events in the heavens - such as the Star of Bethlehem.

You are correct that the calender used in the West is the Julian calender. Julius Caesar introduced it after discovering it in Egypt. He recognized that it was more accurate than what was being used in Rome.

From the most ancient times, humans have observed 12 lunar phases by which they divided time. They did not conceive of these in the same way we do today however. The earliest time device is the Lebombo Bone which was found in the Lebombo Mountains of southern Africa. It appears to divide the lunar phases into 2 groups of 6, suggesting a binary view of time. The 6 warmer seasons were probably associated with females and the work they did during those seasons and the 6 cooler seasons were probably associated with males and the work they did during those seasons. We are taking about a bone that dates to about 80,000 years ago.