Monday, July 01, 2019

Anonymous Asks (47)

“How did people stay alive so long back in the Old Testament?”

If we are going to consider how it was that people were able to live to exceptional ages in the early chapters of Genesis (930 years for Adam, 912 for Seth, 969 for Methuselah, which is the highest recorded, and so on), we had better first ask the question, “Did they really?”

After all, some Bible students believe they did not. I think they’re wrong, but we should at least let them weigh in.

A “Similar” Case ...

The reasoning of the naysayers goes something like this: It is well known that the ages of Sumerian heroes and kings in Babylonian records appear greatly exaggerated. For example:
“After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridug. In Eridug, Alulim became king; he ruled for 28,800 years. Alaljar ruled for 36,000 years. Two kings; they ruled for 64,800 years.”
Obviously these lifespans are highly improbable. Some critics dismiss them as completely artificial. Others suggest they are symbolic numbers indicating relative power and importance. A third group thinks there is something significant hidden in the math; exactly what, we’re not sure. In any case, whatever the purpose of these fudged numbers may have been, they establish a precedent in ancient literature of exaggerating ages. Therefore, say the critics, the writers of scripture simply followed the traditions of their day and did the same, exaggerating the ages of the ancients, albeit not to the extreme degree found in the Babylonian records.

But is this likely? I think not.

... That is Not So Similar

For one thing, like the biblical account, the Sumerian accounts include a flood story, though it is couched in much more mythological language than the version found in Genesis. But just as in the Genesis account, the lifespans of Sumerian kings and heroes greatly decrease in the centuries following the flood until the recorded numbers approach what we might today consider believable.

Since both sets of records have similar themes and follow a similar pattern, the critics infer the Hebrew accounts are attempts to mimic the Babylonian style of mythologizing the past, perhaps with the goal of promoting the credibility of the Israelite nation out of religious and/or patriotic fervor. But it seems just as reasonable to view the stories of Sumerian kings as a mythologized version of a common history more factually set out for the Hebrews by Moses.

I also find it curious that scribes from both traditions continually re-transcribed the less probable ages right alongside the later, “more realistic” ones, rather than recalculate them or try to explain them. Obviously they felt they were preserving information of some value, even if they may have had reason to doubt its literal truth.

Actually, It’s Really Very Different

When we compare these two sets of ancient records, it turns out there are significant differences in the way they are documented for posterity:
  • Firstly, even if they are hard to believe based on our observations of the way people currently age, the Genesis ages are orders of magnitude more plausible than the Sumerian accounts; up to a little over eight times as great as the lengthiest we observe today, compared to up to 310 times as long in the Sumerian records.
  • Secondly, the Hebrew ages are neither approximated nor obviously symbolic. The Sumerian numbers (like 36,000 [which is 900 × 40] and 28,800 [900 × 32]) are unquestionably rounded and surely meant something noteworthy to ancient Babylonian readers. When we come to the Hebrew records, however, ages like 912, 905, 962, 365, 777 and 969 are as precise as their much smaller counterparts on modern tombstones. They are also sufficiently diverse from one another, sufficiently irregular, and sufficiently numerous that attributing special symbolic or mathematical significance to any entry, let alone all of them, becomes a lost cause.

    In short, Genesis reads like historical detail, not symbolism or higher math.
  • Thirdly, in the Genesis account we get not just the precise number of total years each early man lived, but also the precise number of years he lived before fathering the person who comes next in the genealogy. Most of these ages do not seem unreasonably high compared to the grand totals, and these numbers too appear neither approximate nor symbolic.
  • Fourthly, unlike the Babylonian records, the Genesis genealogy is not full of kings and heroes but, with a few exceptions, what appear to be fairly ordinary men, the vast majority of whose stories are never told. They may be of interest to Bible historians looking into the Messianic line of descent or researching a particular entry here and there, but they surely meant nothing special to most of the later generations of scribes who recorded and copied them. Since most were not persons of particular note, there is no obvious reason for Hebrew historians to have exaggerated their ages. Rather, what appears to have been important to the Hebrews was the over-arching Genesis narrative and the impression it creates in its totality. The individual numbers are mere data points.
Unnecessary, But Present

Finally, it is important to recognize that nothing about the Hebrew narrative actually requires these unusual lifespans. They are not critical to the plot. If they are fiction posing as fact, the Genesis story could more effectively have been told by substituting for them an extra dozen more generations of less-long-lived individuals.

Since these Hebrew numbers are not self-evidently symbolic, since there exist no accompanying stories of most of these men, and since they are meticulously recorded for posterity, the logical conclusion is to take them literally. I believe they were preserved simply because they are true, and it did not occur to the original writers or copyists to alter them for the sake of greater credibility with their contemporary audiences. The only reason not to take them literally is that we have never witnessed a person who lived 900+ years.

But is this really so improbable? Perhaps not. Suggestions have been made over the years in commentaries and elsewhere that are interesting and certainly not outside the realm of possibility. A couple of examples follow.

An Older Explanation

From John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes, circa the mid-1700s:
“Some natural causes may be assigned for their long life in those first ages. It is very probable that the earth was more fruitful, the products of it more strengthening, the air more healthful, and the influences of the heavenly bodies more benign before the flood than they were after. Though man was driven out of paradise, yet the earth itself was then paradisaical; a garden in comparison with its present state: and some think, that their knowledge of the creatures and their usefulness both, for their food and medicine, together with their sobriety and temperance, contributed much to it; yet we do not find that those who were intemperate, as many were, Luke 17:27, as short-lived as temperate men generally are now. It must therefore chiefly be resolved into the power and providence of God; he prolonged their lives, both for the more speedy replenishing of the earth, and for the more effectual preservation of the knowledge of God and religion, then when there was no written word, but tradition was the channel of its conveyance.”
Providence and natural causes. Hmm. There’s a fair bit of speculation in these few lines, but nothing Wesley suggests is wildly improbable or contradicts the revealed character of God. It does seem an insufficient explanation to me, however.

A More Modern One

I have no problem with the idea that the human organism was originally intended to live a millennium or more. It’s the sudden drop to today’s much shorter lifespans that begs for an explanation. My instinct is that the decline had something to do with deteriorating genetics. The folks at Answers in Genesis agree, and point out there were two genetic “bottlenecks” in early Genesis: the Flood and the Tower of Babel.
Flood Bottleneck. Genetic bottlenecks cause a significant loss of access to other people’s versions of genes (called alleles) that are essentially lost. The obvious loss of pre-Flood people reduced the alleles in the gene pool in humanity to only eight people, but really only six. Scripture reveals that Noah and his wife had no more sons after the Flood (Genesis 10). So, this leaves Shem, Ham, and Japheth and their wives, and, of course, these three men each inherited their genes from the same two parents.

Tower Bottleneck. If you look at the ages of people born after the Flood, the ages do a sudden drop but are stabilized at about 450 years or so. After the Tower, ages suddenly drop from about 450 to about 235 or so for three generations. Even two generations after this, Terah lived to only 205. But age limits trickle down from there.

Conclusion. [T]he Flood and the Tower bottlenecks did something significant to cause ages to drop. In both cases, there is a loss or splitting up of the gene pool. Consider also how mutations can affect age with an extreme example: “One Tiny Flaw, and 50 Years Lost!” With these bottlenecks, a host of alleles would have been filtered out and lost. For example, immune systems may not be as good, resulting in more infectious disease.”
The Tower Bottleneck is less fully explained than the Flood Bottleneck, whose effects should be crystal clear, but in general I think this explanation a sound one.

In Summary

So how did people stay alive so long prior to the Genesis flood and in the first few generations thereafter? For most people, the most satisfactory answer is the one most consistent with their view of the first few chapters of Genesis.

If you take these accounts literally, you will probably be satisfied with the theory that a greater average lifespan was the original plan, and that a combination of the cumulative effects of the cataclysms and judgments we read about in scripture, and the gradual corruption of the gene pool changed that.

And if you already read those early chapters of Genesis as mythological and are convinced lifespans have always been roughly the same throughout human history, you should have no problem with a few odd symbolic numbers thrown in for effect, right?

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