Long lives in Genesis

  • Question 121, from Luci, Canada

    Our current system of dates was devised by Dionysus Exiguus in about 525 AD. I know that prior to adopting this ‘modern’ system many western cultures measured time by the reigns of their leaders. Today (as it was in the book of Genesis) days are measured by periods of light and darkness. What I wonder is who decided what an hour was, and who decided a day had 24 hours and the year was 365 days? Is it possible that the people who are marked as being centuries old in Biblical times actually had the same life spans that we do now but the method of measurement was different?

    There are basically three different explanations for the long lifespans recorded in Genesis, before the account of Noah and the Flood. The first, adhered to by those who would argue that Genesis is literally true is that they did live those lengths of time. Various theories relating to the state of the world before the Flood are put forward to explain this.

    The second explanation is that there has been some kind of counting error. This might be because of confusion over dating, due to time being measured in a variety of ways, or it could be because Hebrew ‘numbers’ are easy to misread and misinterpret (see this previous article). The third explanation is that the long lifespans were invented to imbue a certain kind of semi-mythical ‘hero status’. It has been commented that in many cultures the ‘ancestors’ of a particular people group are described as having lived unfeasibly long lives. For example, Babylonian records claim a succession of ten kings ruled for an incredible combined total of 432,000 years [cited in Peake’s Commentary on the Bible, p.143].

    In terms of Biblical ‘time’ and ‘dating’, it seems only by Roman times are ‘hours’ used, and then only during daylight, when the ‘day’ was divided into twelve periods. In earlier traditions, a Jewish ‘day’ began at sunrise (see, eg, Leviticus chapter 7, verses 15-17), but once Judaism was established, some time after the period described in Leviticus, the day was considered to start at sunset and end at the following sunset. This explains the description in Genesis chapter 1 of “there was evening, and there was morning” – followed by the number of the day.

    This detailed description of a ‘day’ means the ‘days’ in Genesis are actual 24-hour periods when translated literally. However, they are sometimes interpreted as being figurative descriptions of geological eras.

    Generally among Biblical scholars it is recognised Genesis contains a number of very old stories, but the book itself, particularly the early chapters seems to have been compiled after the Israelite people returned from Babylon, from c.400BC onwards. This explains why the later version of what constituted a day is used in Genesis. Babylonian influence may also lend credence to the idea that these lifespans were deliberately lengthened by the writers of Genesis, although they may be genuine errors which occurred when much older stories were written down centuries after the events they describe.

    See also: Long-lived people in Genesis and The effect of the Flood on human life-spans

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