I occasionally get questions about the remarkably long lives of the patriarchs who lived before the great flood. Consider the ages at which these figures purportedly died:

  • Adam – 930
  • Seth – 912
  • Enosh – 905
  • Jared – 962
  • Methuselah – 969
  • Noah – 950
  • Shem – 600
  • Eber – 464
  • Abraham – 175
  • Moses – 120
  • David – 70

How should we understand these references? Many theories have been proposed to explain the claimed longevity. Some use a mathematical corrective, but this leads to other pitfalls such as certain patriarchs apparently begetting children while still children themselves. Another theory proposes that the purported life spans of the patriarchs are just indications of their influence or family line, but then things don’t add up chronologically with eras and family trees.

Personally, I think we need to take the stated life spans of the patriarchs at face value and just accept it as a mystery: for some reason, the ancient patriarchs lived far longer than we do in the modern era. I cannot prove that they actually lived that long, but neither is there strong evidence that they did not. Frankly, I have little stake in insisting that they did in fact live to be that old. But if you ask me, I think it is best just to accept that they did.

This solution, when I articulate it, causes many to scoff. They almost seem to be offended. The reply usually sounds something like this: “That’s crazy. There’s no way they lived that long. The texts must be wrong.” To which I generally reply, “Why do you think it’s crazy or impossible?” The answers usually range from the glib to the more serious, but here are some common replies:

  • People didn’t know how to tell time accurately back then. Well, actually, they were pretty good at keeping time, in some ways better than we are today. The ancients were keen observers of the sun, the moon, and the stars. They had to be, otherwise they would have starved. It was crucial to know when to plant, when to harvest, and when to hunt (e.g., the migratory and/or hibernation patterns of animals through the seasons). They may not have had timepieces that were accurate to the minute, but they were much more in sync with the rhythms of the cosmos than most of us are today. They certainly knew what a day, a month, and a year were by the cycles of the sun, moon, and stars.
  • They couldn’t have lived that long because they didn’t have the medicines we do today. Perhaps, but it is also possible that they didn’t have the diseases we do. Perhaps they ate and lived in more healthy ways than we do today. Perhaps the gene pool later became corrupted in a way that it was not back then. There are many things we cannot possibly know. The claim about our advanced technology (medicine) also shows a tendency of us moderns to think that no one in the world has ever been smarter than we are. While we surely do have advanced technologies, we also have things that make us more susceptible to disease: stress, anxiety, overly rich diets, pollutants, promiscuity, drug use, and hormonal contraceptives. There are many ways in which we live out of sync with the natural world. It is also quite possible that the strains of disease and viral attacks have become more virulent over time.
  • Those long life spans just symbolize wisdom or influence. OK fine, but what is the scale? Does Adam living to 930 mean that he attained great wisdom? But wait, David wasn’t any slouch and he only made it to 70. And if Seth was so influential (living to 912), where are the books recording his influence such as we have for Moses, who lived to be a mere 120? In other words, we can’t just propose a scale indicating influence or wisdom without some further definition of what the numbers actually mean.
  • Sorry, people just don’t live that long. Well, today they don’t, but why is something automatically false simply because it doesn’t comport with today’s experience? To live to be 900 is preternatural, not supernatural. (Something preternatural is extremely extraordinary, well outside the normal, but not impossible.) In other words, it is not physically impossible in an absolute sense for a human being to live for hundreds of years. Most people today die short of 100 years of age, but some live longer. Certain closely related mammals like dogs and cats live only 15 to 20 years. Why is there such a large difference in life expectancy between humans and other similar animals? There is obviously some mysterious clock that winds down more quickly for some animals than for others. So there is a mystery to the longevity of various living things, even those that are closely related. Perhaps the ancients had what amounted to preternatural gifts.

So I think we’re back to where we started: just taking the long life spans of the early patriarchs at face value.

There is perhaps a theological truth hidden in the shrinking lifespans of the Old Testament. The Scriptures link sin and death. Adam and Eve were warned that the day they ate of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they would die (Gen 2:17), but they did not drop dead immediately. Although they died spiritually in an instant, the clock of death for their bodies wound down much later. As the age listing above shows, as sin increased, lifespans dropped precipitously, especially after the flood.

Prior to the flood, lifespans remained in the vicinity of 900 years, but right afterward they dropped by about a third (Shem only lived to 600), and then the numbers plummeted even further. Neither Abraham nor Moses even reached 200, and by the time of King David, he would write, Our years are seventy, or eighty for those who are strong (Ps 90:10).

Scripture says, For the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23). Indeed they are, especially in terms of lifespan. Perhaps that is why I am not too anxious to try to disprove the long life spans of the patriarchs, for what we know theologically is borne out in our human experience: sin is life-destroying. This truth is surely made clear by the declining lifespan of the human family.

Does this prove that Adam actually lived to be more than 900 years old? No, it only shows that declining life spans are something we fittingly discover in a world of sin. God teaches that sin brings death, so why should we be shocked that our life span has decreased from 900 years to about 85? It is what it is. It’s a sad truth about which God warned us. Thanks be to God our Father, who in Jesus now offers us eternal life, if we will have faith and obey His Son!

How or even whether the patriarchs lived to such advanced ages is not clear, but what is theologically clear is that we don’t live that long today because of the collective effect of sin upon us.

From Monsignor Charles Pope’s blog.