Genesis 5:5—How could people live over 900 years?

Problem: Adam “lived nine hundred and thirty years” (Gen. 5:5), Methuselah lived “nine hundred and sixty-nine years” (Gen. 5:27), and the average age of those who lived out their normal life span was over 900 years of age. Yet even the Bible recognizes that most people live only 70 or 80 years before natural death occurs (Ps. 90:10).

Solution: First of all, the reference in Psalm 90 is to Moses’ time (1400s b.c.) and later, when longevity had decreased to 70 or 80 years for most, though Moses himself lived 120 years (Deut. 34:7).

Some have suggested that these “years” are really only months, which would reduce 900 years to the normal life span of 80 years. However, this is implausible for two reasons. First, there is no precedent in the Hebrew OT for taking the word “year” to mean “month.” Second, since Mahalalel had children when he was only 65 (Gen. 5:15), and Cainan had children when he was 70 (Gen. 5:12), this would mean they were less than six years old—which is not biologically possible.

Others suggest that these names represent family lines or clans that went on for generations before they died out. However, this does not make sense for a number of reasons. First, some of these names (e.g., Adam, Seth, Enoch, Noah) are definitely individuals whose lives are narrated in the text (Gen. 1–9). Second, family lines do not “beget” family lines by different names. Third, neither do family lines “die,” as each of these individuals did (cf. 5:5, 8, 11, etc.). Fourth, the reference to having “sons and daughters” (5:4) does not fit the clan theory.

Consequently, it seems best to take these as years (though they were lunar years of 12x30=360 days) for several reasons: (1) First of all, life was later shortened to 120 years as a punishment from God (Gen. 6:3). (2) Life span decreased gradually after the flood from the 900s (Gen. 5) to the 600s (Shem 11:10–11), to the 400s (Salah 11:14–15), to the 200s (Rue 11:20–21). (3) Biologically, there is no reason humans could not live hundreds of years. Scientists are more baffled by aging and death than by longevity. (4) The Bible is not alone in speaking of hundreds of years life spans among ancients. There are also records from ancient Greek and Egyptian times that speak of humans living hundreds of years.

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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.