Monday, March 16, 2015

Longevity in the Genesis King Lists

A solar cycle: a montage of ten years' worth of Yohkoh SXT images,
showing the variation in solar activity during a sunspot cycle,
from after August 30, 1991, to September 6, 2001.
Credit: the Yohkoh mission of ISAS (Japan) and NASA (US).

Alice C. Linsley

Scholars recognize that the numbers of years assigned to rulers in the ancient world was symbolic on many levels. The Sumerian king lists assign reigns of thousands of years, for example. Longevity claims for only eight Sumerian kings totaled 241,200 years. The reign of the Persian king Zahhak was said to be 1000 years.

We should not get hung up on the ages of the Biblical rulers. The fact that these Genesis King Lists reflect a practice this old, means we are dealing with authentic material.

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. 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. Very possible the zero was originally a solar symbol, or an ancient lexeme, that indicated the completion of a solar cycle.

Typically, solar cycles have a duration of about 11 years. But how are we to interpret 910 or 600? In Kenan's case we have only one solar symbol. Does this mean he lived for 91 years? Or does this mean 91 years plus eleven = 102 years?  In Seth's case, do we have two cycles of eleven plus 6? If so, Seth lived only 28 years.

Clearly, there is much we do not understand about the numbers assigned to the rulers of Genesis, and until we have a better understanding, it is best not to insist that these spans represent literal ages.

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