#12. Yahweh limits the maximum age of man at 120 years OR man still lives longer than 120 years? (Gen 6:3 vs Gen 9:29, 11:10-26, etc.)


“And Yahweh said: ‘My spirit won’t stay in man forever, since they’re also flesh; and their days shall be a 120 years’” (Gen 6:3).

The author of this text, the Yahwist, has Yahweh utter these words on account of the growing corruption on the face of the earth—the intermingling of the sons of god(s) and the daughters of man (6:1-4). Furthermore, the J source holds true to its portrait of an ever degenerating human life-span. From this point forward, no one lives longer than 120 years in the Yahwist source. Thus J concludes its Genesis narrative by mentioning that Joseph died at 110 years of age, and its Pentateuchal narrative by mentioning that Moses lived to 120 years (Deut 34:7).

P’s genealogical lists, however, display no knowledge of J’s claim, or outright dismisses it. For in the P textual tradition, Noah lives 950 years (Gen 9:29), Shem 600 years, Arpachshad 438, Shelah 433, Eber 473, Peleg, 239, Reu 239, Serug 230, Nahor 148, Terah 205 (Gen 11:10-32), Sarah, 127 (Gen 23:1), Abraham 175 (Gen 25:7), Isaac 140 (Gen 35:28), and Jacob 147 years (Gen 47:28). All these life-spans come from the Priestly composition. Again, we see the influence of Mesopotamian antediluvian kings’ list on the Priestly writer.

It is additionally possible to see, as noted in earlier posts, that P might be engaged in rewriting J’s narrative. Here, the issue for P may not be J’s 120 year limit on man’s life, but the reason behind it: man’s increasingly corrupt nature. In other words, the Yahwist decrees lesser life spans on account of man’s increasing sinfulness. So a decline in morality is expressed as a concomitant decline in mortality. By expressing continued longevity in man’s supra-human life spans, the Priestly writer on the other hand seems to be subverting yet again J’s negative portrait of mankind.

20 thoughts on “#12. Yahweh limits the maximum age of man at 120 years OR man still lives longer than 120 years? (Gen 6:3 vs Gen 9:29, 11:10-26, etc.)

  1. Referring to a previous brief comment,

    I have added a detailed article to my website, elaborating on refuting the wrong solutions around, and proving with lots of clues the aforementioned inerpretation of the scripture of (Gen6:3)

    A draft of Arabic version of the article at FB,

  2. Here is how the net bible translates this verse.
    “will remain for 120 more years.”
    and commentary
    “tn Heb “his days will be 120 years.” Some interpret this to mean that the age expectancy of people from this point on would be 120, but neither the subsequent narrative nor reality favors this. It is more likely that this refers to the time remaining between this announcement of judgment and the coming of the flood.”

  3. The word for “years” in Gen. 6:3 is “sanah”, which is used throughout many books in the OT to mean regular years (see http://biblehub.com/hebrew/shanah_8141.htm), so I’m afraid that any non-literal interpretation of the word as “Jubilee years” would fall under the heading of “numerological hocus-pocus”. It will always be possible to make some numbers in the Bible add up to a modern-day year, therefore “proving” it’s the end of the world. This has been practiced through much of the AD era, especially since the 1800s. Here was a 6000-year Jubilee end-time prediction that landed on the upcoming year of 1975: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watch_Tower_Society_unfulfilled_predictions#1975:_The_worldwide_jubilee

  4. You are basing this on a very often mistranslated word. The word “years” referring to the 120 allotted by God to man is not literal years, but Jubilee years. The Jubilee year only happens every 50 years after 7 Shemitah cycles of 7 years (7 x7 = 49 + 1 + 50). If God allots to man 120 Jubilee years that’s 120 x 50… 6000 years. Right now in Israel, Jewish scholars and Rabbis have determined that this Jubilee year that started yesterday is the 120th… the last. Right now they are calling all Jews home to Israel, as the long awaited Messiah is coming. They are saying “blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord”, exactly what Yeshua said they would have to say before His return. We live in very interesting times!

  5. Sorry Seedy, but lifespan data is commonly misunderstood. At birth, life expectancy was very low in ancient cultures because so many newborns and children died of disease. If you look up the life expectancy for an adult or even teen in those same ancient cultures, it’s similar to today’s lifespans. And there are lots of records of individuals living in places like ancient Rome and Greece who lived to 80 and beyond.

    So, although there is no clear proof that Moses wrote Psalm 90 (or even existed), whoever penned the phrase about “70 or 80 years” was probably telling the truth (from the standpoint of people who lived to adulthood). It would be an odd choice to exaggerate the human lifespan since the purpose of the statement was to lament the shortness of human life, plus the contemporary audience would clearly know it was false.

    I don’t have a response to the comments by “Prof. Curt Connors”, because I still think that the 120 years might have been a statement about the time left until the Flood, despite the 20-year discrepancy when one attempts to perform exact math using Noah’s ages of 500 and 600. I’ll just note a couple things:

    – If the Bible *were* really saying that God set a limit of 120 years for human life, then all we have to do to disprove this statement is observe one modern-day person living past 120 years. Oops, Jeanne Calment, guess that’s that then.

    – It’s interesting that the personages in the Bible who scholars believe may have actually existed start at the time of Moses, and do not include any of the patriarchs from before the Israelites’ time in Egypt. It’s those unverifiable individuals — whose stories read like myths and were written down long after they lived and therefore happen to be immune to fact-checking by their hypothetical contemporaries — who have superhuman lifespans attributed to them, and anyone who lived post-Exodus has a fairly believable lifespan (well, Moses lives to 120 and Aaron to 123, but personally I think their death and burial outside the Promised Land is a big hint that they never existed either).

  6. Hmm, they lived an average life span of 70-80 in the times of Moses, Science differs greatly from that. In fact the life span in the Bronze age was under 30. During Jesus lifetime it was even less and was around 20. However the Sumerian Kings list states that some of the rulers lived over 30,000 years (yes that is thousand years). So the bible is not the only document to accentuate the life spans of humans.

    It really has nothing to do with “theology” or what one person believes, it has to do with what is written, and what was written later.

    We live longer today then anytime in history. What the bible states for ages is exaggerated just like the Sumerian Kings list.

  7. I will be quite surprised if you come up with actual PROOF against my claim, not just “…legitimating and parading your own beliefs,” -Dr. Steven DiMattei

  8. As the comment above me says :) God refers to days as years NUMEROUS times. I believe and know to be true that God’s timekeeping is completely different from us humans and how we understand time. As the passage may say, “120 years”, you must also think, “Did God mean this would come into affect immediately?” No, obviously not pointing to the fact that Noah and many of his descendants lived on past that thing you are calling an “age limit”. Comparing Gen.5 with Gen. 11, we clearly see man’s average age of death drastically dropping in numbers. To prove this, a new character comes into the scene. Moses, born a few hundred years after the flood, notices that man’s age average is around 70-80 yrs. . This is apparent in today’s world as well, understanding that men and women of past and future generations will and have died at an average of: 70-80 years. It’s that simple, although I really do get where you are coming from when you think “120 years” meant an immediate change.

  9. As the comment above me says :) God refers to days as years NUMEROUS times. I believe and know to be true that God’s timekeeping is completely different from us humans and how we understand time. As the passage may say, “120 years”, you must also think, “Did God mean this would come into affect immediately?” No, obviously not pointing to the fact that Noah and most of his descendants lived well past that so-called limit.

  10. In the Bible are “codes”. When God refers to days, it is often “years”. In Gen. 6:3 is a code as well. It is not talking of literal “years”. The word in Hebrew for “years” actually refers closest to “feasts” and this one is the Jubilee. I believe God is saying he has allotted man 120 Jubilees, which come every 50 years, after 7 Shemetah 7 year cycles. The leading Jewish Rabis have after much study determined that this coming Jubilee which begins at the end of this years Shemetah (Sept. 13-14) is the 120th Jubilee and therefore the last. They have been putting out an urgent call to all Jews to return to Israel, as they believe the long awaited Messiah is going to return soon, and they have been coming back in record numbers. I believe it is going to be a very interesting time.

  11. “And Jehovah saith, `My Spirit doth not strive in man–to the age; in their erring they are flesh:’ and his days have been an hundred and twenty years.” (Gen6:3)

    The 120 years assigned as the days of man in Gen6:3 are the ultimate effective age of the genital power of human beings individually. The ability of reproduction has actually dropped from few hundreds of years before the meant prophecy down to 120 years starting immediately after the very mention of the prophecy from Shem, to later on degenerate further!
    This unprecedented exegesis is the only one that agrees with everything, biblically, contextually, linguistically, as well as logically speaking. Other common exegeses suffer from fatal mistakes. Read on to make sure of that,,,
    It is NOT about the Longevity, but about the Reproductive Energy!!!

    For details cf. http://www.copticyouth4holybook.net/e_120yrs_gen6-3.htm

  12. I meant to put Jesus promised two things to his believers that are dead and alive.

    Those things are
    if you believe in Jesus and are dead,you’ll live
    and if you live and believe in Jesus,you’ll never die

    This is a profound statement
    and Jesus basically says by believing in me,
    death will leave you if you are dead
    and death will not go to you at all if you are alive

    I believe in Jesus strongly,so maybe I’ll live past 120 years,
    yet only God knows how long that I’ll live.
    Maybe y’all will live past 120 years if y’all believe in Jesus strongly,
    yet only God knows how long that y’all will live.

  13. Jesus promised two things to his believes both that are dead and alive:

    John 11:25-26
    25Jesus said to her, I am the resurrection, and the life:
    he that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:
    26And whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Believe you this?

    Jesus is awesome in my opinion.
    All that it takes to have immortality is believe in Jesus.
    That is so simple.
    Some people that were Christians that I told this to,
    refused to believed what it plainly says.

    1. Sorry Jimmy, but all you’re doing here is legitimating and parading your own beliefs, and at the expense of objectively understanding the text and/or the views and beliefs of real historical people. Jesus was a Galilean Jew who left no writing of his own behind. In fact, we know so very little about him and his own beliefs.

      The gospel of John, on the other hand, is a text written 70-90 years after Jesus’ death—that’s approximately 2 generations afterward. And more specifically, the beliefs in John’s text and the “Jesus” in John’s text re-present what John and his community believed about Jesus. It, like all the gospels, are decades later theologized portraits of a “Jesus” shaped and created by each community. How do we know this? By studying the gospels each on their own terms, by understanding the culture that produced them, who wrote them, to whom, and why, etc. John’s Jesus, in fact, is so utterly contradictory to how Jesus is portrayed in the synoptic gospels, that scholars find it hard to find any historical verisimilitude in his account. When we get to listing the contradictions in the NT, most of them will come between what only John’s Jesus says and what the synoptic’s Jeususes say. When you toot that you believe in Jesus then quote John, what you’re really saying is that you believe in John’s Jesus. It’s a double faith statement since this belief rests on your belief that John’s Jesus is accurate, and that assessment—well that’s the point isn’t it; there is no assessment on your part. And that’s where I have to chime in as a biblical scholar: all you’re doing is upholding John’s beliefs! And at the expense of Jesus’ own beliefs, views, etc—which were most likely in line with the Judaism of his day!

      Second, you’re really not being fair at all to this Jew from Galilee, since ALL of the literature produced from antiquity has ancestors, mythic characters, gods, and real historical people saying and doing lots of things. In fact, every single text produced from this world/culture exhibits this feature. Yet with no knowledge at all of this world and the texts it produces you boldly claim truths about it! On an analogous level, we have tons of movies that have superheroes, gods, and even real historical people saying and doing lots of things in real historical settings. No one in our culture, however, would say that Iron Man believes…. or Superman believes…. or Zeus says…. or Jake Bauer believes…. Why? Because we know and understand the culture that produced these compositions. Imagine living 2,000 years later and knowing nothing about cinematography and literary techniques of this culture, and yet then proclaim belief in the beliefs of a character in one of these movies.

      The point being, these are texts, literary products of a culture you apparently know little about, yet imagine you can proclaim truths about that culture and the individuals represented in their texts. This is the same culture wherein the Roman historian Suetonius puts words into the mouths of Roman emperors in his histories, or Plutarch who puts words in Alexander the Great’s mouth when he composes his biography, or Josephus who puts whole speeches into Agrippa’s mouth, etc. etc. This was the common literary practices of the day!

      I’m not trying to knock your faith, nor do I have a bone to pick against faith in general; my concern is properly understanding these texts. And any serious, honest, and genuine study of either Old Testament texts or those of the New Testament leads to realizing that the textual data—here contradictory portraits and sayings of Yahweh and Jesus—along with other data stemming from our knowledge about the historical and literary worlds that produced these texts—strongly and convincingly lead to the conclusion that all of the words in the OT placed into Yahweh’s mouth rather represent the views, beliefs, and ideology of the powerful scribes and priests who wrote these texts whereby Yahweh becomes the mouthpiece for promulgating and legitimating these authors’ own beliefs! Again, how do we know this? By studying the texts and by our knowledge of the literary and rhetorical conventions of the cultures that produced these texts. Likewise, we’d have to surmise that all or most all of the sayings of Jesus in the gospels are likewise rather the views, beliefs, and agendas of their authors, legitimated by making Jesus a spokesperson for them. How do we know this? By studying the texts each in their own historical setting. To take a quick example, John’s Jesus is the ONLY Jesus of the gospels who is anti-Semitic. And we understand this by understanding who “John” was and who he was writing to, and in response to what historical circumstance—John and his community have just been kicked out of the Jewish synagogues. Thus John writes in response to this, presenting a Jesus who voices John’s bitterness and Johns own beliefs about Jesus, and against the Jews of John’s—not Jesus’—historical time. Matthew’s Jesus, on the other hand, is completely, 100%, Jewish. He obeys Torah; tells his follows to obey Torah; is presented as a Torah teacher, etc. Matthew’s Jesus too was shaped by Matthew’s own concerns when he wrote his text, wherein Jesus becomes the spokesperson for Matthew and his community’s beliefs, views, etc.

      So in the end, you may believe what the Jesus of John’s gospel says—but I would even challenge you on this. If you were honest what you’ll find is that your beliefs, or those beliefs of yet a later Christianity, are legitimated by claiming that Jesus believed them in the same fashion that John does in composing his Jesus! Quite frankly, it’s impossible to live in the 21st century and believe in the worldview, values, and even beliefs of a text and/or a character from that text which was written 2 millennia ago, in response to a specific historical concern/crisis, and which reflects the views, attitudes, concerns, and beliefs of a culture that is so radically different than ours. I would wager that an objective study of the text would reveal that you selectively believe!

      In fact, I doubt you believe in the resurrection as understood and depicted in this 1st century text! One of John’s agendas was to promulgate belief in Jesus’ resurrection, and again against the Jews who don’t believe in Jesus. But remarkably, John’s views on resurrection conform to 1st century Jewish beliefs about resurrection—and not to later Christina views and beliefs. In other words, resurrection is exactly what it says—when you die you are dead in the ground, body and soul (soul is a Greek concept that comes into Judaism late; it is not found in OT). Your soul/body is raised when Jesus comes back. John and his community, like Paul, could believe in a literal resurrection from the dead because they believed Jesus was coming in their own life-time, and as elsewhere in the gospel, John has Jesus pronounce this belief of his (Jn 5:24-29)! So one would not have to wait long in the earth! In fact, John, and Paul, believe this so much that he even has Jesus say that there are some that will not die but pass directly from life into life (8:51-52), since Jesus’ return is that imminent! This too is Paul’s beliefs (1 Thess 4). This is called being honest to these ancient texts and what they believed, not what we believe! Most modern Christians influenced by Christian doctrine of a later period which modified these beliefs, confuse the Greek idea of the immortality of the soul with the Jewish idea of resurrection. So here again, you actually do not believe what this 1st century Jew most likely believed, nor for that matter what John’s Jesus believed; but most disingenuously, you believe what you have been taught through tradition and legitimate that belief by claiming it’s Jesus’ belief. Woe unto you!

      Anyway, my point is: believing in John’s Jesus and believing in Jesus may just be two radically different things, and the evidence that we have so far—textual data, archeological data, cultural data—strongly suggest that this is indeed the case. But as demonstrated above, this is even secondary, since it can be textually demonstrated that most all 21st century Christians do not believe in the beliefs of these ancient texts. Once we as a culture can be honest to these texts and their beliefs (and ourselves!) and understand why these authors believed what they did, etc. then we as a human species can move forward both intellectually and spiritually and start to use our “god-given” intellects to actually think and ponder the truly difficult, and perhaps unanswerable questions of our existence, moral responsibilities, being, hopes, dreams, etc.

  14. Many people understand Genesis 6:3 to be a 120-year age limit on humanity, “Then the LORD said, ‘My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years.’” However, Genesis chapter 11 records several people living past the age of 120. As a result, some interpret Genesis 6:3 to mean that, as a general rule, people will no longer live past 120 years of age. After the flood, the life spans began to shrink dramatically (compare Genesis 5 with Genesis 11) and eventually shrank to below 120 (Genesis 11:24). Since that time, very few people have lived past 120 years old.

    However, another interpretation, which seems to be more in keeping with the context, is that Genesis 6:3 is God’s declaration that the flood would occur 120 years from His pronouncement. Humanity’s days being ended is a reference to humanity itself being destroyed in the flood. Some dispute this interpretation due to the fact that God commanded Noah to build the ark when Noah was 500 years old in Genesis 5:32 and Noah was 600 years old when the flood came (Genesis 7:6); only giving 100 years of time, not 120 years. However, the timing of God’s pronouncement of Genesis 6:3 is not given. Further, Genesis 5:32 is not the time that God commanded Noah to build the Ark, but rather the age Noah was when he became the father of his three sons. It is perfectly plausible that God determined the flood to occur in 120 years and then waited several years before He commanded Noah to build the ark. Whatever the case, the 100 years between Genesis 5:32 and 7:6 in no way contradicts the 120 years mentioned in Genesis 6:3.

    Several hundred years after the flood, Moses declared, “The length of our days is seventy years—or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away” (Psalm 90:10). Neither Genesis 6:3 nor Psalm 90:10 are God-ordained age limits for humanity. Genesis 6:3 is a prediction of the timetable for the flood. Psalm 90:10 is simply stating that as a general rule, people live 70-80 years (which is still true today).

  15. KW wrote:
    The usual explanation for that time gap is that the narration about God deciding on the Flood date takes place 20 years before he tells Noah.

    Oh, I know. 20-year discrepancy? No problem. Just assert that God told Noah 20 years earlier. Here’s how Rashi attempted to explain it:

    Until a hundred and twenty years I will delay My wrath towards them, but if they do not repent, I will bring a flood upon them. Now if you ask: from the time that Japheth was born until the Flood are only a hundred years, [I will answer that] there is no [sequence of] earlier and later events in the Torah. This decree had already been issued twenty years before Noah begot children, and so we find in Seder Olam (ch. 28). There are many Aggadic midrashim on the words לֹא יָדוֹן, but this is its clear, simple explanation.

  16. The usual explanation for that time gap is that the narration about God deciding on the Flood date takes place 20 years before he tells Noah. However, this might well be a mistake in the story (or due to rounding, or due to the assemblage of different writings). I still think, though, that the writer of 6:3 was referring to the date of the Flood, not a lifespan limitation. The notion that he was thinking of the Flood is supported by the most common translation of “yadown” as “strive with”; why would God say that his spirit would not “dwell” in man forever? We already knew that from all the people who died so far :-) And again, the context is the evil that’s corrupting the Earth and what should be done about it.

  17. KW wrote:
    I was taught that Gen. 6:3 refers to the amount of time allotted to man before the Flood occurs; that it’s not a statement of longevity at all…

    Genesis 5:32 says that Noah was 500 years old and sired Shem, Ham, and Japheth. These sons were already born at the time that God told Noah about the flood (6:10,18), and Noah was 600 years old when the flood came (7:6), so at best, 100 years elapsed between the promise of the flood and the flood.

  18. I was taught that Gen. 6:3 refers to the amount of time allotted to man before the Flood occurs; that it’s not a statement of longevity at all, although it certainly sounds like one at first. It’s pointed out that the surrounding verses are telling us about the fallen angels and the Nephilim — mankind is advancing from bad to worse as a result of their actions. Therefore, as a punishment, the idea of a Flood wiping out the wicked would make more sense than limiting the lifespan of all mortals.

    Also, note that the verse does not say that “man’s days shall not exceed one hundred and twenty years”, but that “their days shall be/amount to” 120 years. That makes it sound more like a single number that applies to all mankind, like a countdown more than a limit to lifespan. I’m actually seeing a number of commentaries on this verse which all say the same thing, e.g. “this means, not that human life should in future never attain a greater age than 120 years, but that a respite of 120 years should still be granted to the human race” (Kell & Delitzsch).

    You might be thinking that this is just apologetics after the fact, but it seems that the key to figuring out what the writer himself meant is the phrase you’ve given above as “stay in man forever”. In most translations, I am actually seeing “My spirit shall not strive with man forever” as the most common wording, which tends to indicate that God is referring to how long he will put up with man’s wickedness, not how long man will have a spirit in him. My own Bible puts it “shall not act toward man indefinitely”. But since I’m not fluent in ancient Hebrew, I can’t comment on how accurate any translation is.

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