In the early chapters of the Book of Genesis we have people living for a very long time. Adam lived 930 years (Genesis 5:5), Seth for 912 years (Genesis 5:8), Methuselah lived 969 years (Genesis 5:27) and Noah lived 950 years (Genesis 9:29). I’m not even 50 yet and I am getting aches and pains, I cannot image living 20 times longer. The problem is no matter how you work the science, humans just do not live that long and they never have. I have heard all kinds of arguments for these remarkably long lives. The atmosphere was different soon after the earth was created so people were healthier, there was more oxygen in the atmosphere, or the closer you were to Adam the more pure your DNA and hence you lived longer. These are all stabs in the dark to support a very literal and concrete interpretation of the scriptures. The concern these so-called literalists have, it seems, is if the numbers are figurative then the story is fiction and therefore the bible is all made up, but this is not true. Figurative does not equal fiction.
If you have read some of my other blogs (Genesis 1 Part 1, Genesis 1 Part 2) you may remember my comments about function, and the difference between symbolic and fictional. That is, just because a text uses figurative language does not mean it is not recording a real event. If I were to say I went to the Big Apple, the fact that the proper name is New York does not mean I never went there. There are no big apples in New York, but this name serves the function to say that it is the place where the action is, with its origin referring to horse racing. The name evolved to become a function to express that if you want to succeed in the world, you have to succeed in New York. Ancient writers were not so concerned about literal scientific accounts mostly because the scientific method we take for granted today did not exist yet. We have become a bit obsessed with perfect accuracy in our records to the point that we take people to court over even slight exaggerations or omission. As Carol Hill explains “In the Mesopotamian world view, numbers could have both real (numerical) and sacred (numerological or symbolic) meaning……to take numbers figuratively does not mean that the Bible is not to be taken literally. It just means that the biblical writer was trying to impart a spiritual or historical truth to the text – one that that surpasses the meaning of purely rational numbers.” (Carol Hill “Making Sense of the Numbers in Genesis” In Perspectives on Science and the Christian Faith Volume 55, Number 4 December 2008.)
In the Mesopotamian (Persian Gulf) culture, the number system was based on 60, which is why it is called a sexagesimal numbering system, and also why the numbers 3, 7, 12, 40 and 60 show up a lot. Moses in the wilderness for 40 years, 7 days of creation, and 12 pillars of the temple are some examples. We have them to thank for 360 degree circle, and our 60 second minute and 60 minute hour. We find in ancient Mesopotamia writings several examples of exaggerated sacred numbers including the ages of their kings and deity who appeared to live for a very long time. In our literary tradition, we do not fool around with details like someone’s age unless we are flirting. What is also interesting is, when the Hebrews left Mesopotamia under the leadership of Abraham, and arrived in Palestine which used a decimal-based system, these very long ages fade away as they adopted the writing style of their new homeland.
Another factor when considering ages and timelines is the use of the word ‘begat’. It does not necessarily mean to sire. Unimportant names were systematically dropped to avoid having more names than absolutely necessary, and sometimes to make the list a nice round number. Exod 6:16-24 and Matthew 1 are two examples. The term ‘begat’ is even applied between brothers (Exodus 6:24) and places (Genesis 10:4). It seems reasonable, therefore, to take some liberties with who begot who and how much time passed between generations.
The question remains, if these people really did not live this long, then what do the numbers mean? It is difficult to say for certain because we know so little about their traditions, but they were likely creative multiples of 60. Adam, for example, works out to 60x3x5+6×5=930. This is partly conjecture, but it is consistent with how other Mesopotamian records recorded ages.
The point is that the ancient writers gave a lot of meaning to their words, mixing metaphor with history. It was the way they wrote which means we do not have to cling to anti-science rhetoric to understand the message. We do the same in our modern writing, but we are so accustomed to the hyperbole we do not notice it. In his paper “Hyperbolic Idioms in English: Form Realization and Cognitive Operations” Escribano identifies the following examples
- numeric hyperbole (I’ve told you a million times)
- words of hyperbolic nature (I have been here for ages, the odds of you getting your room clean are astronomical),
- simile and metaphor, (Superman (Christopher Reeves) fell off his horse and broke his back)
- comparative and superlative degrees (My car is a rust bucket)
- emphatic genitive (the finest of fine watches),
- empathic plural (all the sands of the sea), and
- whole sentences (she is nothing if not determined).
(Patricia Garcia Excribano ‘Hyperbolic Idioms in English: Formal Realization and Cognitive Operations’ Universidad De La Rioja.)
In fact there are times when, if we used a literal number, the truthfulness would be questioned. Compare the comment ‘I have been inside their house hundreds of times’ to ‘I have been inside their house 653 times’. It is extremely unlikely that someone would count how many times they visited any given location so it is common convention to use a hyperbolic expression when explaining that we have been somewhere many, many times. What we forget, is this convention works today but may not work 200 years from now.
In short, you need to understand the perspective of the original audience in order to understand the text. The bible was written for us, but not to us. It was written to people who lived thousands of years ago; a different time, a different culture, a different language, and different literary standards. Remember how much religious symbolism permeated their written language and, more importantly, search the bible to find out why we are here and let science answer the how we got here.