The Scorpion King II on the Scorpion Macehead found at Nekhen,
the oldest known site of Horite Hebrew worship (c. 4200- 2600 BC).
Alice C. Linsley
Invariably, people ask: “What is the significance of the long lifespans in Genesis?” and “Why did those who lived before the flood live longer than those after the flood?”
Genesis chapters 4 and 5 list ancestors of the early Hebrew, a caste of ruler-priests. These were powerful men who built kingdoms and expanded their territories. As with the kings named in the Sumerian King Lists, theses rulers are assigned unusually long lifespans. The fact that the Genesis King Lists reflect a practice of antiquity means we are dealing with authentic material.
The long lifespans of the early Hebrew rulers are not to be taken literally. It was a practice in antiquity to assign long years to rulers. The reign of the Persian king Zahhak was said to be 1000 years. The Sumerian king lists assign reigns of thousands of years. Longevity claims for eight Sumerian kings alone totaled 241,200 years. The length of years for these rulers cannot be correlated with dynasties from contemporary Mesopotamian records.
The lists in Genesis chapters 4 and 5 are typical of royal lists from the ancient world such as the Sumerian King Lists, the Turin Royal Canon, the Abydos King List, and the Saqqara King list. The lists attribute absurdly long reigns and lifespans to the rulers. There is no single pattern for the numbers assigned. Some theorize that the years are calculated according to the 11-year solar cycle. Others recognize that the 365 years assigned to Enoch, the son of Jared/Yered (Gen. 5:23), are a reference to the solar year.
In his book Genesis Chronology and Egyptian King-Lists (2019) Gary Greenberg argues that the birth and death dates found in Genesis 5 represent a disguised but accurate chronology of Egypt's dynastic history. However, Cain and Seth lived before the emergence of Egypt as a political entity (c. 3150 BC).
St. Jerome's Observation
The only "old" person 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 lived to a ripe old age. Those who lived before the flood are not called "old" because the numbers assigned to them are symbolic. Note also that the numbers vary depending on the version of the Bible.
There is the discrepancy between the Septuagint, the Masoretic, and the Samaritan texts. 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 Masoretic Pentateuch assigns Lamech the Younger 777 years.
In his 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 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
Clearly, there is much we do not understand about the numbers assigned to these early Hebrew rulers, and until we have a better understanding it is wise not to insist that these numbers represent literal spans of time.
Related reading: Why Nekhen is Anthropologically Significant; Methuselah's Real Age; The Lifespans of Methuselah and Lamech; St. Jerome on Genesis; The Genesis King Lists; An Anthropologist Looks at Genesis 4; An Anthropologist Looks at Genesis 5; An Anthropologist Looks at Genesis 11