According to ancient Sumerian/Babylonian “king lists,” their kings could live for tens of thousands of years, but of course the worthiest of the kings lists were not merely men, but gods or demigods (“kings from heaven”), whose ages could consequently be recorded astronomically. The Hebrew authors dealt only with men, and therefore the ages they assigned to them are comparatively modest, less than a thousand years, because above one thousand years is a perspective proper to God alone. (Ps. 90:4). (The Hebrews were partial to that number, “1000,” as anyone can see who does a “search” for it throughout the Bible.)
Interestingly, both the “king lists” and the Hebrew list of the patriarchs are composed of ten kings/patriarchs. And in both lists the number of years that a king reigned (or patriarch lived) dropped after “the Flood.” (The Sumerian/Babylonians had their own “Flood” story that pre-dates the one found in Genesis.) In fact the Babylonian kingʼs ages dropped after their “Flood story” to ages appropriate to the ages of the Hebrew patriarchs before the Flood, i.e., none of the kings after the Flood reigned longer than 960 years.
Professor Bruce Vawtner in A Path Through Genesis, suggests that “Both the Hebrews and Sumerians/Babylonians knew that many more than ten generations had elapsed during these periods. To bridge over the enormous gaps in time, therefore, both of them assigned tremendous ages to the few names that they possessed. While the Babylonians simply set down astronomical figures, none of them under twenty thousand years, the Hebrew author has been comparatively moderate, and above all, he made his ten generations serve a religious purpose.”
But before discussing the ages of the Biblical patriarchs further, one must note that there are three different sources for the Hebrew Bible, the ancient Masoretic text, the Septuagint text, and the Samaritan text, and they record slightly different ages for the patriarchs, and different totals as well if you added all their ages up in a straight line one after the other. The MT gives a total of 1656 years, the Septuagint gives 2242 years, while the Samaritan text gives 1307 year. The MT is the one used in most modern day Bible translations. According to the MT text, Noah is the first man to be born (in the year 1056) after the death of Adam (in the year 930). Thus the author singles out Noah at birth as the beginning of the new generation of post-Adamic man that will follow after the Flood. This contrivance is further strengthened by the Hebrew authorʼs choice to have Methuselah, the longest lived man of the old generation (before the Flood) die precisely in the year when the Flood begins. A clean sweep, therefore, is made of all the patriarchs that preceded Noah and the Flood. And this neatly excludes any implication that the patriarchs were linked to the corrupt world that had to be destroyed, since the last, and the most aged of them dies immediately prior to the Flood. At least thatʼs according to ages given in the MT version of the Old Testament. Secondly, in the MT the age at which the patriarchs “begot,” drops progressively till the beginning of the second half of the list is reached, i.e., Jared.
Adam, who precedes the first five on the list, and Jared, who precedes the last five of the original ten patriarchs, also lives an identical length of time after “begetting,” i.e., 800 years. Jared also begins his “begetting” 32 years later than Adam, which happens to be 1/2 of the 65 years at which Mahalalel and Enoch (on either of Jared) begin “begetting.”
Enoch, the traditional holy man of the period, who occupies the symbolic 7th place on the list (and whom God “took”) also lived a symbolic number of years (365 being the number of days in the solar year). And simply by doubling Enochʼs year at “begetting,” you arrive at Adamʼs. In fact, all of the numbers of the MT for the ages of the patriarchs, aside from the total age of Methuselah, are in multiples of five or in multiples of five with the addition of seven (seven being the most popular number in the Bible, appearing in various capacities at total of over 500 times). The ancient Sumerian/Babylonian kings list employed a similar fancy of “adding seven” to numbers, like when in two places it explicitly stated that the total length of the monarchic period preceding the Babylonian Flood was “a great sar plus seven sar.”
Other aspects also hint of artifice: In Gen. 6:3 God “allows” man 120 year to live. Subsequently Moses, the supposed author of that passage, goes on to live exactly 120 years. (Yet in Ps. 90:10 we are told that man lives only 70 years, ah, thereʼs that “seven” again.) Joseph went to Egypt, and lo, lived to be the ideal Egyptian age of 110 years, then Joshua retrieves Josephʼs bones from Egypt and also lives 110 years. Lastly, compare how awkwardly the author of Gen. 11:10-26 and Gen. 25:8 juxtaposes the scene at Abrahamʼs death with the age of his distant relative, Shem, as though he had no idea that people still lived so long as Shem. For the author states that Abraham died “at a good old age, an old man, after a full life,” while Shem, Abrahamʼs 7X great grandfather lived to SEE his 7X great grandson die “at a good old age, an old man, after a full life!” For Shem was, if we take Gen. 11:10-26 literally, alive and 565 years old when Abraham died at a mere 175 years of age.
Vawterʼs book in chapter 6 and 7 discusses some of the other artifices. All in all, the ages of the patriarchs like the ages of the Sumerian/Babylonian kings, appear mythically larger than life, growing less so the nearer each king (or patriarch) came to the authorʼs actual day. “The Flood” was of course a major disjunction in both their mythologies, separating the world of demi-god-kings (or patriarchs whose father was “born at the creation and walked with God”) with the latter world nearer to the authorʼs own day.
Exaggerated Ages of the Biblical Patriarchs
It is certain that one cannot build up a chronology on the spans of years attributed to the Patriarchs, nor regard it as factual that Abraham was seventy-five years old when he left Harran and a hundred when Isaac was born and that Jacob was a hundred and thirty when he went into Egypt, for the evidence from the skeletons in the Jericho tombs shows that the expectations of life at this period was short. Many individuals seem to have died before they were thirty-five, and few seem to have reached the age of fifty.
- Dr. Kathleen Kenyon (the eminent excavator of the city-mound of Jericho)