The Long Life of the Genesis Patriarchs?
Image from p. 12 of the 1995 edition of Spirit Filled Life Bible for Students.
Ever wonder about those people in Genesis who lived a long time?
Certainly, those who take the Scriptures seriously have to grapple with how we should view these texts.
One option would be to suppose that there was something different about the environment of those times or something different about the humans of those times or some combination of both that fostered the longer life spans. From this perspective, the great age of these individuals are taken at face value.
However, could one offer an explanation that takes the integrity of Scripture seriously and yet acknowledges that people rarely live beyond 100 years of age and certainly not many centuries beyond 100 years as the Patriarchs seem to?
One of the principles of Bible interpretation is to recognize the GENRE of the particular text being examined. Thus, is it possible that these long-life recitations fall into a genre that is non-literal?
Was chatting with a friend who is very interested in the Old Testament suggested that this might be the case. Apparently, in the ancient Middle East, other cultures of the time also had documents that claimed people who lived a very long time. For instance, the Babylonian kings.
Of course, we can only speculate as to what is going on. Scholars suggest that these exaggerated life spans was a way to (1) highlight the greatness of those people, (2) account for the fact the historical memory of ancient events encompassed more years than they could accurately account for, and (3) the inflated numbers were keyed to numerology of the culture.
Thus, could the Genesis genealogies with extended life spans be of that same genre?
A case could be made that there is a "mythic" quality to the accounts of Adam until Abraham. One definition of myth is a fanciful untrue story. However, as a literary style, a myth is a non-literal explanation of reality. And indeed, that is one of the purposes of those early chapters of Genesis. They are attempts to describe how things came to be with particular emphasis on the relationship of God and humanity, God and the creation, and humanity and the creation.
As for numerology in these texts, the one that jumps out right away is that there are 10 generations from Adam to Noah and 10 generations from Noah to Abraham. Because of this, some interpreters have suggested that from Abraham onward, the writing is more historical in the sense we understand literal history and the material prior to Abraham is more mythic in the genre sense of non-literal history.
The challenge of the numerology explanation is the ages specified for the various people in these genealogies. However, the lack of clarity on what the "key" is doesn't change the impact of these texts to describe the reality of the human condition.