December 13th, 2018
In Genesis 5 we read: “Altogether, Adam lived a total of 930 years, and then he died” (Genesis 5:5, NIV). Even more impressively, a few verses later we read that “Methuselah lived a total of 969 years, and then he died” (Genesis 5:27, NIV). What are we to make of such long lives attributed to the first characters of the biblical narrative? The most popular interpretation among Christians is to take the text literally: Perhaps there were genetic or environmental differences leading to extraordinarily long life-spans. While I don’t intend to deny or refute such an interpretation, I would like to present an alternative possibility.
In order to understand what else might be going on, it will help to look at another Ancient Near Eastern text: the Sumerian King List. The Sumerian King List dates back to about 1800 B.C., and it originates, as the name suggests, in the ancient civilization of Sumer. The text begins with creation followed by the passing down of kingship from heaven. Kingship is first passed down to Eridu, the oldest Sumerian city, and then to the four other leading cities of the civilization. According to the text, eight kings rule in these five cities before the flood sweeps over the cities. After this, kingship is once again lowered down from heaven, the dynasties continue, and we move out of prehistory: the time before there were written records. This somewhat parallels the prehistory found in Genesis 1-11: Creation, fall, flood, restoration, and the start of protohistory with Abraham in Genesis 12.
What is interesting to note about the Sumerian King List is that it also ascribes extraordinary life-spans to its prehistoric figures. According to the text, these ancient kings ruled in the early cities of Sumer anywhere from 18,600 to 43,200 years. While the Sumerian King List is a historical document, it seems clear that it is not altogether literal. How then should we understand the long ages? What some Ancient Near Eastern scholars suggest is that ascribing long ages to these kings was a way of honoring their legacy. This is similar to the way in which pharaohs in Egyptian reliefs are often depicted as being far larger than their subjects. Expanding both the spatial and temporal existence of these figures seems to be a great sign of respect.
Coming back to the genealogy found in Genesis 5, a possible non-literal interpretation could be to see these long life-spans as the author’s way of honoring the first figures of the biblical narrative. Like with the Sumerian kings, the writer of Genesis wanted to pay his respects to the original patriarchs. Also, like with biblical numbers in general, the specific values ascribed may carry theological significance. While I am not certain that this is the intended message of the genealogy, I find it to be a plausible interpretation of the text.
Collins, C. J. (2013). “A historical Adam: Old-earth creation view.” The historical Adam.
Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.