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3Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” ESV

Some1 have taken the 120 years in Genesis 6:3 to mean the time remaining until the flood, and others understand it to mean the human lifespan. There is also the theory that it refers to the remaining years left in Adam's life.

To which is God referring according to the mind of the author?


1 e.g. comments here and here from this site.

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The theory that 120 years refers to the remaining life of Adam does not seem to be supportable from the chronology in chapter 5:

Genesis 5 tells us that Adam lived for 930 years, so this statement would have happened when he was 810 years old. According to the chronology in chapter 5, this places the statement after the birth of Methusela (Noah's grandfather) but 64 years before the birth of Lamech (Noah's father).

Of the other two, I suggest that the context strongly favours the 'lifespan' argument rather than the 'time until the flood'.

  1. Verse 3 is within the unit of Genesis 6:1-4. It is not superficially obvious what the connection is between verse 3 and the the other verses in the unit, but the connections between the surrounding verses are apparent:

    6:1When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, 2the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. 3Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” 4The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown. ESV

  2. The unit of 6:1-4 comes immediately after explicit reference to the lifespan of men in the genealogy of chapter 5:

    25When Methuselah had lived 187 years, he fathered Lamech. 26Methuselah lived after he fathered Lamech 782 years and had other sons and daughters. 27Thus all the days of Methuselah were 969 years, and he died.

    28When Lamech had lived 182 years, he fathered a son 29and called his name Noah, saying, “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands.” 30Lamech lived after he fathered Noah 595 years and had other sons and daughters. 31Thus all the days of Lamech were 777 years, and he died.

    32After Noah was 500 years old, Noah fathered Shem, Ham, and Japheth. ESV

  3. It even appears that the lifespan of men is increasing — three of Adam's descendents live longer than he does. This creates an issue similar to that which comes later in Genesis 111. Man seems in his own strength2 to be effecting a degree of reversal of the fall3, and God acts to prevent this4.

  4. Although lifespans are not suddenly restricted to an upper limit of 120 years after God's edict, the decline is dramatic and begins immediately5:

    Lifespans

    It seems reasonable to suppose that God's plan to reduce the lifespan of humans did not need to be a step change, and that its steady fullfillment is consistent with the edict of verse 3.


1 See 11:6 "…nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them". Note also that the story of the city/tower of Babel comes just before the genealogy of chapter 11, indicating that 6:1—11:9 together form a larger unit of connected narrative.

2 In this case assisted by the Nephilim or the 'sons of God' in contract with Babel

3 Note that God says that "My Spirit shall not abide in man forever…", not just '…for a long lifespan': He appears to have in mind that man might escape the curse (and blessing) of death entirely unless he intervenes

4 It seems to me that this purposefully includes the sweeping away of "the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown" — the progeny of the 'sons of God' (see footnote 2)

5 This is a truncated version of a graph found on creation.com

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    Genealogies are consistently placed out of sync with the chronology of the main narrative. I'm not sure that can really be used as a point against the "120 years till the flood" perspective. Though you may have meant to only count it against the 120 years for Adam? Also, you leave out that 6:1-4 then go straight into what God thinks about their behavior and what he decided to do about it: the flood. – Joshua Dec 21 '15 at 16:28
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I truly hope this follows and helps. It's far more profitable to count time from creation or AM (Anno Mundi) Hebrew: The Year of Creation.

(Refer to Genesis 5) God Infinity -Adam Born 0-1 AM -Seth Born 130 AM -Enos Born 235 AM -Cainan Born 325 AM -Mahalaleel Born 395 AM -Jared Born 460 AM -Enoch Born 622 AM -Methuselah Born 687 AM -Lamech Born 874 AM -Adam dies 930 AM -God takes Enoch 987 AM -Seth Dies 1042 AM -Noah Born 1056 AM -120 Year Warning 1536 AM (Gen. 6:3) -Shem Born 1558 AM -Methuselah dies 1656 AM -Flood 1656 AM (Noah is 600 Gen. 7:11) -Arphaxad Born 1658 AM (Gen. 11:10)

With a proper timeline in mind, here's what we have;

Gen. 5:32 "And Noah was five hundred years old: and Noah begat Shem, Ham, and Japheth.". Gen. 6:3 "And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.". Gen. 6:8 "But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD."

And then

Gen 6:9-10 "These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God. And Noah begat three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.".

So we have Noah walking with God for 480 years from 1056 AM - 1536 AM. Gen. 6:1-2 narrative. Then 1536 AM God tells Noah Gen. 6:3 and then Gen. 6:4-6 are narrative, then God tells Noah Gen. 6:7 and Gen 6:8 is narrative.

Then we get Gen. 6:9 generations of Noah.

I hope this is beneficial. God bless.

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Noah's birth is recorded in Genesis 5:30, before YHWH makes this decree. It does not include people that are already alive with a higher life expectancy. YHWH is not saying: I'm going to kill everyone that is already alive with a higher life expectancy. The change is for new births. YHWH told Adam and Eve they would die but never said how long they'd live. Death carried over through their offspring.

"But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it, for in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." (Genesis 2:17, KJV)

Life expectancy is calculated differently. This is one of several possible answers. But it seems to leave out the problems of having to recalculate.

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