“Why did the people in Genesis live to be hundreds of years old?” is a question that surely everyone who ever took the Bible seriously has asked. Those who have moved on from their childhood (or childish) adherence to a literal interpretation of Genesis are still generally curious about the ages and if there is any symbolism to the numbers that the Bible records with such tedious exactitude.
Some of the typical answers provided by biblical scholars are less than satisfying, and the fact is that most of the numbers themselves may simply be meaningless on their own. However, some odd facts concerning the ages of the patriarchs have recently been analyzed in biblical studies journals, adding to our knowledge of the Bible’s composition history in the process. There are two issues of particular interest: the numbers in the genealogies taken as a whole, and a problem introduced by the Flood story, which required some tampering with the genealogies by the Bible’s editors.
The Ages of the Patriarchs: A Brief Overview
The biblical characters we’re concerned with here are the 26 patriarchs from Adam to Moses. Their lifespans and the ages at which they beget the next male child in Israel’s ancestral lineage are given in several passages, all apparently by the Priestly writer. Genesis 5 lists the first ten, from Adam to Noah. Genesis 11 lists the next nine, from Shem to Terah. The last seven are found scattered through Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy.
In Genesis 5, we are given the age of each patriarch when he begat the next son in line (A), and the age of his death, i.e. total lifespan (B). In Genesis 11, the age of begetting and remainder of years after begetting are given, requiring us to add the two numbers to determine total lifespan.
So here’s the first interesting fact: if you add the lifespans of all 26 patriarchs as given in the Masoretic Text, you get exactly 12,600 years, which surely is not an accident. The first person to notice this, as far as I can tell, was Jeremy Northcote in a 2007 paper (see bibliography).
12,600 is significant because it is 10 times 1,260, and a period of 1,260 days has important eschatological connotations in apocalyptic literature, particularly Daniel and Revelation. 1,260 days is equal to exactly 3½ years in the luni-solar calendar (a 360-day calendar), or 42 months. In both these two apocalyptic books, a period of 3½ years signifies a tumultuous period leading up to the eschaton.
He shall speak words against the Most High,
shall wear out the holy ones of the Most High,
and shall attempt to change the sacred seasons and the law;
and they shall be given into his hand
for a time, two times, and half a time [3½ years].
He shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week [3½ years] he shall make sacrifice and offering cease; and in their place shall be an abomination that desolates, until the decreed end is poured out upon the desolator. (Daniel 9:27)
And I heard him swear by the one who lives forever that it would be for a time, two times, and half a time, and that when the shattering of the power of the holy people comes to an end, all these things would be accomplished. … From the time that the regular burnt offering is taken away and the abomination that desolates is set up, there shall be 1,290 days. (Daniel 12:7, 11)
(In counting the number of days in 3½ years, the author has added an intercalary month of 30 days to make his total 1,290 instead of 1,260, but the same period of time is intended.)
[The court outside the temple] is given over to the Gentiles, and they will trample over the holy city for forty-two months. And I will grant my two witnesses authority to prophesy for 1,260 days, wearing sackcloth. (Revelation 11:2-3)
But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to her place where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. (Revelation 12:14)
The beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. (Revelation 13:5)
Outside the Bible, the famous War Scroll (1QM) from Qumran, dated to the first century BCE, says that the Sons of Light will fight the Sons of Darkness for a period of 35 years in the last days. 35 years in the luni-solar calendar equals 12,600 days.
Despite these examples, it’s not at all clear why the scribes of the Masoretic Test chose to encode this number into the lineage of Israel.
Alternate textual traditions must also be considered. The Samaritan Pentateuch and Septuagint both vary from the MT in the ages of some patriarchs and do not add up to precisely 12,600. Does the MT alone somehow preserve the original ages established by the Priestly writer, or were they altered later? If this chronology is original, it would suggest that the Hebrew text of Genesis was completed in the second century BCE or later, contemporaneous to other apocalyptic literature.
More on that below.
Three-and-a-Half, a Curious Biblical Motif
As we’ve seen, these apocalyptic numbers — 1,260 days, 42 months, etc. — are derived from the motif of 3½ years. Why that number?
The 3½ motif might originate as a symbol of drought. 1 Kings 17-18 tells a story in which Elijah starts and then ends a drought in Samaria. The length of the drought is not mentioned, but Yahweh tells Elijah of its impending end “in the third year”.
After many days the word of Yahweh came to Elijah in the third year, saying, “Go, present yourself to Ahab; I will send rain on the earth.” (1 Kings 18:1)
For some reason, a tradition developed that the drought had lasted exactly three-and-a-half years. This belief is attested in the New Testament in both Luke and James:
But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land. (Luke 4:25)
Elijah was a man like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. (James 5:17)
Did this 3½-year interpretation of Elijah’s drought lend that number eschatological significance with the rise of apocalyptic literature? Or was it the other way around — did apocalypticism cause interpreters to assign Elijah’s drought a period of 3½ years?
Another explanation was proposed by the German scholar Gunkel over a century ago. He believed it originated with the three-and-a-half months from the winter solstice to the festival of Marduk — the period in which Tiamat, the Babylonian sea monster of chaos, reigns supreme until her defeat by Marduk. (Gunkel, Schöpfung und Chaos in Urzeit und Endzeit [Goettingen 1895], pp. 309ff. Cited by Northcote, p. 247.) It might be relevant that in the Babylonian flood epic Atrahasis, the time span between Creation and the Flood was 3,600 years, or one saros¹. (Kvanvig, p. 37) Multiply that by 3½ and what do you get, but our magic biblical number, 12,600. Unfortunately, the biblical flood takes place in 1656 A.M.² rather than 3600, so, the connection with Atrahasis is weak.
Noah’s Flood and Chronological Adjustments
The three major surviving textual traditions of Genesis — the Masoretic Text (MT), Samaritan Pentateuch (SP), and Septuagint (LXX) — do not agree completely on the chronologies of the patriarchs. Three patriarchs differ between the MT and SP: Jared, Methuselah, and Lamech. All the pre-Noah patriarchs differ in the LXX from the MT (except Jared) and SP. When we look at SP in particular, it becomes fairly obvious what the reason for these variations is. Jared Methuselah, and Lamech — the three that differ from the MT — all die in 1307 A.M., the year of the Flood. The Flood is the key.
As I have remarked in previous articles, it is fairly well-understood that the story of the Flood was a later insertion into a patriarchal foundation story that didn’t have it. (For a recent paper on this, see Derschowitz 2016.) In an earlier text, Cain, the eponymous founder of the Kenite (Cainite) tribe, was the ancestor of an unbroken genealogy that included the founders of various industries practiced by the tribe — shepherding, metalworking, etc. His genealogy was replaced with Seth’s by the Priestly author, and precise lifespans were assigned to each patriarch from Adam to Noah and beyond.
According to research by Old Testament scholar Ronald Hendel among others (Hendel 2012), the insertion of the flood story in Noah’s day created a problem that later scribes couldn’t overlook: if you did the math, the long-lived patriarchs Jared, Methuselah, and Lamech all survived for many years past the Flood, even though the Flood story made it clear that all outside the Ark had perished.
The editors of the LXX, SP, and MT had basically two ways to solve the problem: either delay the year of the Flood by delaying the age at which the patriarchs begat sons, or have the patriarchs in question die sooner. Here’s what each of them did:
The LXX’s editor methodically added 100 years to the age at which each patriarch begat his son. Adam begat Seth at age 230 instead of 130, and so on. This had the result of postponing the date of the Flood by 900 years without affecting the patriarchs’ lifespans, which he possibly felt were too important to alter. Remarkably, however, the editor failed to account for Methuselah’s exceptional longevity, so old Methuselah still ends up dying 14 years after the Flood in the LXX. (Whoops!)
The editor of the SP adopted a simpler method. He just altered the lifespans of the three patriarchs that posed a problem. Adjusting their ages as little as possible, he had them die in the same year as the Flood.
The editor of the MT chose to keep the lifespans untouched (like the LXX), and he altered the age of begetting only for the three patriarchs affected, pushing back the Flood date as a result. He first added 100 years to Jared’s begetting, and then 120 years to Methuselah’s. This reduced the overlap to 94 years. By adding 94 to Lamech’s begetting, he completed the fix, placing Methuselah’s year of death in the year of the Flood.
If that’s clear as mud, maybe this table will help:
This explanation accounts so well for the differences between the MT, SP, and LXX, that it is almost certainly correct, at least in its broad strokes. A few other observations must be made:
- The original age of Lamech was 753, and a late editor of the MT changed it to the schematic 777 (inspired by Gen 4:24, it seems, even though that is supposed to be a different Lamech: If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold). (Hendel 2012: 8; Northcote 251)
- If, as Hendel argues, 88 was the original age of Lamech’s begetting, then the SP’s 53 must be a scribal error that anticipates the 53 in his age total (653). In my opinion, if there was such an error, it occurred before the SP became a separate text, since the SP’s flood date is calculated from that number.
The only other detail that bothers me slightly is the fact that SP was able to subtract exactly 100 from Lamech’s original age (753) to have him die the year of the flood. That nice round number could just be coincidence, or there might have been another step involved somewhere.³
Apocalypticism and the Masoretic Text
If the Masoretic editors did not alter the ages of the patriarchs when they fixed the chronology of the Flood, it is possible that the magic number of 12,600 existed in the archetypal text. That would arguably place the writing of Genesis in the period of apocalyptic literature — say, the last two centuries BCE. Alas, it appears that the lifespan of Lamech was changed from 753 to 777. Additionally, the age of Eber was apparently changed from 404 (as it is in the LXX) to 464 (see Hendel, 1998, pp. 72–73). Presumably, these tweaks were made after the MT diverged from other versions of the text, in order to obtain the magic number 12,600 described above.
We do not then need to date the authorship of Genesis to the era of apocryphal literature — the last two centuries BCE (though it is not out of the question!). However, the Masoretic Text — which is the definitive and “inspired” version of the text in Protestant Christian tradition — was clearly still open to changes at that late date.
¹ One saros equals 60 times 60, a large number in Babylonian mathematics that was associated with “totality” and was written as a circle. (Kvanvig, Primeval History, p. 58, n. 146)
² A.M. = Anno Mundi, or the year after Creation
³ Alternatively, if 53 was the original age of Lamech’s begetting, then the LXX’s editor should have adjusted it to 153, resulting in a flood date of 2207 — exactly the same year as Lamech’s death. This might seem like an unlikely coincidence. However, both this “coincidence” and the one above (the SP being able to subtract exactly 100 from Lamech’s age to match the date of the flood) are mathematically derived from the archetypical age of begetting, either 88 or 53, and are not independent.
Jeremy Northcote, “The Lifespans of the Patriarchs: Schematic Orderings in the Chrono-Genealogy”, Vetus Testamentum, 57(2), 2007, pp. 243-257.
Ronald Hendel, “A Hasmonean Edition of MT Genesis?: The Implications of the Editions of the Chronology in Genesis 5”, HeBAI 1, 2012, 1–17.
Ronald Hendel, The Text of Genesis 1-11: Textual Studies and Critical Edition, 1998.
Idan Dershowitz, “Man of the Land: Unearthing the Original Noah”, ZAW 128(3), 2016, 357–373.
Helge S. Kvanvig, Primeval History: Babylonian, Biblical, and Enochic. An Intertextual Reading, 2011.