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Genesis 6:3 refers to when God set humans' lifespans to (approximately) 120 years. However, the NLT (the translation I prefer) has a slightly different translation for the 120-years part.

Genesis 6:3 (NIV)
3 Then the LORD said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.”

Genesis 6:3 (ESV)

Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120

Genesis 6:3 (NLT)
3 Then the LORD said, “My Spirit will not put up with humans for such a long time, for they are only mortal flesh. In the future, their normal lifespan will be no more than 120 years.”

In particular, the NLT says "no more than" whereas the other translations don't. Thus, my question is: does the original Hebrew support this interpretation, allow it, or neither?

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Welcome to Hermeneutics! ;-) –  Jon Ericson Feb 27 '12 at 16:57
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Yeah, I signed up four months ago just to post this! ;P –  El'endia Starman Feb 27 '12 at 16:59
    
One of the most interesting aspects of this verse is that it is out of place in the narrative, it is one of the places where you could have an interpolation. But I don't see any possible motivation for anyone to interpolate this, other than it looks like an interpolation. NLT is not very good in keeping faithful nuance of meaning--- it is a crude translation IMO. –  Ron Maimon Apr 12 '12 at 6:53
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I always interpreted this to mean that from that point it was 120 years until the flood of Noah considering the time it took to build the ark and so forth. Not human life spans, because even after the flood people we living 3 and 4 hundred years fairly commonly up until Abraham and even he lived well over 120 years. –  user654 Jun 29 '12 at 22:24
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2 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

The Hebrew says:

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, לֹא-יָדוֹן רוּחִי בָאָדָם לְעֹלָם, בְּשַׁגַּם, הוּא בָשָׂר; וְהָיוּ יָמָיו, מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה.

My literal translation of the last clause:

His days will be one hundred and twenty years.

It doesn't explicitly say "no more than", but it also does not say—and history does not bear out—"exactly". Since some people die younger it is reasonable to understand this as a limit.

The "normal lifespan" in NLT is not present in the Hebrew; it just says "his days". Perhaps the translation softened that because the text tells us that some people did live longer than that, but that's not what this text says. That's an interesting question, but not the one you asked. :-)


Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of any religious belief or doctrine.

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Does "his days will be one hundred and twenty years" mean limiting the human lifespan, or was God giving people 120 years until judgment? Or is it intentionally ambiguous? –  Bruce Alderman Feb 28 '12 at 5:49
    
I believe it is meant as a limit to man's life span. It is significant that men live for shorter and shorter periods of time and the close of the Torah is with Moses's death at 120 years old. –  false0start Feb 29 '12 at 2:24
    
Note, though, that after this passage we have patriarchs living much longer than 120 years, so it's not a hard limit. (It seems to be by the time of Moshe's death; I don't think anyone after him in the bible lives longer.) We also see the "days...N years" construct when Yaakov meets Paro, and there it's pretty clear he's talking about his earthly lifespan. –  Gone Quiet Feb 29 '12 at 14:09
    
Right. I meant my comment to encapsulate that but the point remains that this statement is speaking of man's lifespan and it is fulfilled by the end of the Pentateuch. –  false0start Feb 29 '12 at 15:49
    
@false0start See II Chronicles 24:15-16 –  Double AA Nov 13 '12 at 1:02
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That passage is referencing how long man has before the flood is going to happen. God proclaims that he will do the flood and that he'll tell Noah to build the ark. This is how long from the time He pronounces this to the time it will actually happen. It really has nothing to do with lifespans. Psalm 90:10 references lifespans around 70 to 80 years on average, that is a SPECIFIC reference. Even if you don't agree with my answer, there's still reasonable doubt that God is speaking about the time till the flood and not general lifespans. Besides, the average lifespan for that time period was MUCH longer than 120 years, so it doesn't make sense as a lifespan generality statement. --R.L.

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Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics--StackExchange! You make some interesting points. I'd say that a reasonable interpretation could be that lifespans dropped from several hundred years pre-Flood to 120 years in the Patriarchal period to 70 or 80 years when Psalm 90 was written. (Later it dropped to about 55 before climbing back up again.) It might help your case if you could provide some citations to experts who hold your view. (They certainly exist, but I don't know who they are!) –  Jon Ericson May 4 '12 at 0:26
    
While normally I would happily cite other experts to back up my claims, I find it to be a time drain on this point. For this type of passage that doesn't deal with a non-essential doctrine, debate about how many experts you have on your side doesn't change anything. If you don't hold my opinion after I flesh it out, you won't believe it if I cite anyone from church fathers to contemporary Bible experts. The passage is talking about the wickedness of man and the consequences of such. Stating that the verse is about man's lifespan is a non sequiter in light of the context. –  Robert Lee May 4 '12 at 2:57
    
However, that being the case, I don't want to be a jerk and a spoil sport by not citing anyone, so I'll find the specifics and post it sometime soon. –  Robert Lee May 4 '12 at 2:58
    
+1 @Robert Made me look... –  Bob Jones May 26 '12 at 17:46
    
Noah was 500 when he began having children. He was six hundred when the flood waters came. Between the two is when he said man's days would be 120 years. So it doesn't quite work. But you have made me curious... –  Bob Jones May 26 '12 at 17:55
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