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I believe some of the ages given in Genesis are historical, but am one of many who happens to think the earliest ages might be symbolic (example source). If this were to be the case that leaves us with the question "Why?". What would be the author's intent in choosing these particular numbers?

Many people think the Genesis ages are chosen to be numbers that people could easily remember, and some are. At the same time, there are very often ages such as 905 and 912. Some other ages may be divisible by a common figure of influence.

Is there something they all have in common? How would we know which are historical and which are part of the story for another reason? Is there any one “rule” applicable to all of those Genesis ages that would help us interpret the story?

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It would have been interesting if they were all prime numbers or some code that spelt out the name of God. I suspect that it is something far more boring though. Maybe to do with honor your parents. You are as old as the ancestors you can remember. Part of ancestor worship or even the obsession people have with tracing their family tree. Maybe one day I will have the time to research this properly. Explain the ages so that it makes sense. –  gideon marx Dec 11 '13 at 16:25
I don't have the time at the moment to write up a full-formed answer, but I think it is worth noting that the ages in Genesis 5 all end in 2, 5, or 7 (and one 9, from adding a 2 and a 7). This fact alone makes it too improbable for the numbers to represent the actual or exact ages of any of the people described. A real genealogy wouldn't land so consistently on those numbers. Some kind of editing has clearly taken place, but why is much more difficult to determine from simple observation. –  Mark Edward Dec 11 '13 at 22:28

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Although I disagree with your presupposition that the ages are merely symbolic, I think this is a great question nonetheless. The reason I say this is that regardless of whether the ages are historically significant, we should assume they are literarily significant. The Bible is literature, and each author (or redactor) of each book has crafted his work of literature with a particular purpose in mind. What the author does include should be considered significant, since it was selected for inclusion while so many other details were left out. (This is often referred to as the "principle of selectivity".) The author could have just skipped the ages altogether if they were merely historical data points; there are plenty of other details the author leaves out, after all.

Short Answer: With that said, I believe the textual evidence points toward the ages being very significant in advancing the author's theological agenda. These ages show how the world changed after the flood, and how human life made the enormous transition from the original, exalted state of creation to the "modern", decrepit state of things (at the time of authorship.)

The Trend

Here is a chart of the ages of the Patriarchs prior to the Israelites' time in Egypt, normalized by birth date:

enter image description here

  • The green are the ages of people who were born and died prior to the flood1

  • The yellow are the ages of people who were born before the flood, and died after the flood

  • The red are the ages of people who were born and died after the flood

What the author shows us is that prior to the flood people lived a really, really, really long time, but then the flood changed things. Since I mapped the ages by birth date and not merely by textual entry the "taper" isn't as clear in the previous graph, so here is another graph of the post-flood ages that shows the post-flood taper more clearly:

enter image description here

You can see that while it is not a perfectly smooth curve, the trend does show, over all, the degradation of the human lifespan following the flood.

The Significance

The flood is a major catastrophic event in Genesis, executed because of man's great wickedness. The author wants the audience to see that things used to be much better than they are "now," but because of man's great wickedness, God executed judgment on the human race, and it had an enormous negative effect on our lives. The trend is intended to show the readers that their lives would have been much better if man hadn't sinned so greatly against God.

As for the ages being very specific and the curve not being perfectly smooth, I would suggest that the author intended for the reader to take these ages to be real ages. (Whether or not they are is another topic.) If the author had simply chosen symbolic ages along the lines of "900 . . . 900 . . . 900 . . . 900 . . . 700 . . . 500 . . . 300 . . . " it would not have been as believable, and would not have had the same effect on the reader as it would to relate these men to their own real, physical heritage. In other words, the "realness" of the ages brings the story home for the audience.

1: I left out Enoch, since the text explicitly claims that he was caught up to heaven before he could live out his days and die.

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Very nice graphs! –  Noah Dec 11 '13 at 18:06
Excellent summary. +1 –  fredsbend Dec 11 '13 at 19:10
I appreciate and find the graphs most useful. Can you clarify why people started living shorter lives when all the sinners had drowned and only a man that walked with God (perfect in his generations) and his family was left. Logic says people should have started living longer after the flood if all the corrupt flesh had been removed. –  gideon marx Dec 12 '13 at 11:02
@gideonmarx: Perhaps God's declaration that man's lifespan would be reduced to a maximum of 120 was still in effect after the flood. Not that the 120 was achieved instantaneously, but by the time of Moses, the 120 was common, and by the time of David, the "three score and ten [or perhaps four score if . . .]" spoken of in the Psalms had become the new norm. Just a thought. –  rhetorician Dec 12 '13 at 17:25
@gideonmarx Great question! I think it might be due to the fact that the flood represented the judgment on mankind, and all of mankind experienced the decline as a result. In other words, the point is not that a man's righteousness will provide him with a longer life, but rather, that mankind's sin is the cause for mankind's lowered lifespan. –  Jas 3.1 Dec 12 '13 at 23:09

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