The Ages of the Antediluvians >>back home

Genesis records that before the Flood men lived to an extremely great age: Adam to 930 years, Seth to 912, Enosh to 905, Kenan to 910 and the longest of all, Methuselah, to 969. Noah himself was 600 when the Flood came, and he lived 350 years after it. These figures are certainly surprising; but coming in a book of the stature of Genesis they are given with a 'painful deliberateness' (von Rad) which should preclude us from dismissing them lightly. One thing seems certain: the genealogies of which they form part are not intended to be regarded as unbroken chains,1 enabling us to calculate how long ago Adam lived. That is not their purpose. They constitute not a line, but a dotted line, giving historical concreteness to the narrative, keeping it well 'earthed', and enabling us to follow the course of God's redemptive purposes as they unfold. Thus the narrator picks out ten generations from Adam to Noah, then another ten from Noah to Terah, whose death in Haran marked the call of Abraham. This follows the same pattern which Matthew palpably uses in giving the genealogy of Jesus, which he divides into three periods of fourteen generations each (perhaps for mnemonic purposes). Matthew is giving us a 'dotted' line (as comparison with the O.T. history shows), and there is no reason to doubt that Moses is doing the same. That Noah should have lived to see Abraham attain his sixtieth year, and that Shem his son should have been alive when Jacob and Esau were born (as the assumption of a continuous line would mean),2 and yet that there should be no shadow of a suggestion of this in the narrative, is surely quite incredible! Archbishop Ussher's date of 4004 BC for the creation therefore need not be taken seriously.

This leaves us the problem of the individual longevities. Other nations have similar traditions; in particular the Sumerian King List has records of ten 'great men' who ruled before the Flood and whose reigns were of the order of 30,000 or 40,000 years!3 The existence of these traditions is, somewhat strangely, held to throw doubt on the biblical record; but it could equally well be held to lend it support. In fact, the latter seems the more reasonable view; if other nations had no such traditions it would surely be more difficult to take the biblical record seriously. However, it is worth remarking that there is sometimes an element of doubt about the meaning of large numbers in the Old Testament. The census figures in the book of Numbers are a case in point, and there is an interesting discussion about these by Gordon Wenham.4 Until further light is thrown on the question it seems wisest to assume that the author intended the figures we now have (for longevities) to be taken at their face values. The prophecy of Isaiah 65:17‑25 seems to imply that the Messianic age will again see such extended life spans. There may possibly be a hint of the change in man's tenure of earthly life in the '1,000 years' and the 'three score years and ten' of Psalm 90 (verses 4,10).

NOTES

1     See the comments of D. Kidner, op. cit. p. 82.

2     G. von Rad, op. cit., p. 72.

3     'Genealogy', NEW BIBLE DICTIONARY (IVP, 1980).

4      G. Wenham, NUMBERS, AN INTRODUCTION AND COMMENTARY (IVP, 1981).