Yesterday we picked up our series again in the book of Genesis, having left off at Genesis 22 at the back end of last year. In Genesis 23:1 we’re told that Sarah died at the age of 127. We’re going to see that Abraham died at the age of 175 (Gen 25:7). And these ages are nothing on Methuselah who lived to be 969 (Gen 5:27). These large numbers inevitably make the modern reader wonder, ‘did they really live that long?’
The two most common approaches to answering that question are as follows:
- The literal approach. If it says 969 years, that’s exactly what it means. Maybe there’s a delay in full effect of the fall. Maybe the flood dramatically changed living conditions and thus life expectancy. Just because we can’t get our heads round it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. You can read the ‘Answers in Genesis’ folks answer here: https://answersingenesis.org/bible-timeline/genealogy/did-adam-and-noah-really-live-over-900-years/
- The symbolic approach. In ancient cultures numbers were used symbolically and figuratively to represent fullness or perfection for example. The Sumerian ‘sexagesimal’ system (the number six and multiples thereof) accounts for the large numbers we find in Genesis. Hill states:
“All age-numbers (30 in all) from Adam to Noah are a combination of the sacred numbers 60 (years and months) and 7. No numbers end in 1, 3, 4, 6, or 8—a chance probability of one in a billion. Thirteen numbers end in 0 (some multiple or combination of 60), 8 numbers end in 5 (5 years = 60 months), 3 numbers end in 7, 5 numbers end in 2 (5yrs + 7 yrs = 12), and 1 number ends in 9 (5yrs + 7yrs + 7yrs = 19). All of this cannot be coincidental. The Mesopotamians were using sacred numbers, not real numbers. Therefore, these numbers were not meant to be (and should not be) interpreted as real numbers.”
You can read more in her article here: http://www.theopedie.com/IMG/pdf/pscf12-03hill.pdf
Neither approach answers all the questions we might have, but they do begin to offer plausible accounts of why these numbers, which seem so unusual to us, appear in the ancient text.