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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 years.

Many people these days seem to understand this passage as referring to man's lifespan, while many historical commentaries have seen it as referring to 120 years until judgement in the Flood.

Who or when was the first, or earliest, recorded interpretation of a 120 year lifespan in Gen 6:3?

This question is not a debate about which view is correct see the related questions below for that topic.

-120 years until the flood, or until Adam's death, or shorter lifespans from now on?
-Does the original Hebrew support the NLT of Genesis 6:3?

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Puritan Commentator John Gill is very good to find early Jewish understanding for OT passages. He said of this phrase in Genesis 6:3 -

...yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years: meaning not the term of man's life, reduced to this from the length of time he lived before the flood; but this designs the space that God would give for repentance, before he proceeded to execute his vengeance on him; this is that 'longsuffering of God' the apostle speaks of in the afore mentioned place, 'that waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was preparing'; and so both the Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan interpret it of a space of an hundred and twenty years given them to repent: now whereas it was but an hundred years from the birth of Japheth to the flood, some think the space was shortened twenty years, because of their impenitence; but it is more probable what Jarchi observes, that this decree was made and given out twenty years before his birth, though here related, by a figure called 'hysteron proteron', frequent in the Scriptures. (Gill, Bible Commentary -

  • Onkelos would be dated between AD 80- AD 120.

The nineteenth century commentator Johann Peter Lange is also good to help find early opinions. He said of this phrase in Genesis 6:3 -

Still, there is the expression: 'My spirit shall not always strive in him;' which means that there is yet a respite appointed for the race, and this is explained by, and explains, what follows: And his days shall be an hundred and twenty years. According to Philo, Josephus, and others, along with Knobel, it means that henceforth the period of human life shall be reduced to one hundred and twenty years. (See in Knobel a series of quotations from the views of the ancients respecting the life-endurance of man, p. 83). According to the Targums, Luther, and many others, as well as Delitzsch and Keil, God appoints a reprieve of grace for one hundred and twenty years, which is yet to be granted to men. Beyond a doubt this is the correct view; since the age of the first patriarchs after the flood extends much beyond one hundred and twenty years. Another reason is, that the supposed shortening of life would be no countervailing rule bearing a proportion to the obduracy of the race, whilst the time-reckoning agrees with the other hypothesis, if we assume that Noah received this revelation twenty years before the time given, Gen 5:32, in order that he might announce it as a threatening of judgment to his contemporaries. (Lange, Commentaries on the Scriptures

  • Philo would be AD 40-50, and Josephus would be AD 90-100.

So Onkelos and Jonathan are the earliest I could find for the "Till-Flood" View, and Philo and Josephus are the earliest for the "Shortened-Lifespan" View.

The Hebrew is not clear enough to give a definitive meaning for either view, thus both exist. One must decide if translations should reflect this original lack of clarity or choose one view over another like the NLT has. One could argue that this might be an example of double fulfillment or double application at least. Noah was being told to forward God's warning, while he was building and preaching (cf. 2Pet 2:5), that only 120 years were left till the flood judgment, and Moses, was now retelling this story in his Torah to remind his audience that God had foretold that they would hardly have more than 120 years of life before their individual day of judgment would come.

If I was to pick one, I think I would side with Josephus and Philo, the earlier Jewish views, that God was promising a shortened life in which to answer the Spirit's call. For needing more time than that had proven unnecessary in the antediluvian period. Early Christian views can be found supporting both interpretations. See Augustine for - The Till-Flood View (City of God, XV, 24)and Lactanius for - The Shortened-Lifespan View (Divine Institutes, Epitome, 27). But the Hebrew יָמָיו "his days" consistently points to lifespan throughout the OT, instead of a period for something befalling all mankind (though the later may still be its meaning here, grammatically). See also interesting verses at Job 14:5 and Isaiah 65:20.

  • Lactantius in his Divine Institutes, Book II, chapters 13 and 14 takes it as shortened lifespan. This would date to around 303-311. Possibly the first Christian (non Jewish) instance? newadvent.org/fathers/07012.htm – Joshua Dec 25 '15 at 3:20
  • It is possible to see Clement of Alexandria (AD 200) as having this opinion, earlier, by his citation found in Stromata, Book 6, Chapter 11. "Now the number 300 is, 3 by 100. Ten is allowed to be the perfect number. And 8 is the first cube, which is equality in all the dimensions—length, breadth, depth. 'The days of men shall be,' it is said, '120 (ρκ´) years.' And the sum is made up of the numbers from 1 to 15 added together. And the moon at 15 days is full." – Brian H. Wagner Dec 26 '15 at 12:58
  • Also, Julius Africanus (AD 225) is an earlier view, than Augustine, it seems, for the "Till-Flood" View. "God decreed to destroy the whole race of the living by a flood, having threatened that men should not survive beyond 120 years." Early Church Fathers -"On the Deluge", The Extant Fragmants of the Five Books of Chronology. It is better not to say "first...instance" when talking about historical evidence, in my view, but "earliest or oldest evidence". – Brian H. Wagner Dec 26 '15 at 13:14
  • Minor point: It is better to block quote longer quotations. This is done simply by adding a > before a line. More substantial point: Answers really should stick to answering the question asked. Which translation is best is not in view here, so that material really shouldn't be in the answer (We have other questions on that subject [linked by the OP] to which it could easily to moved, if you are so inclined.) – ThaddeusB Dec 26 '15 at 19:55
  • And I didn't really make a point of it, but I don't ask for the earliest known interpretation of 120 years until judgment, which you also give information for. It is useful but as long as its not taking away from answering the main question. Maybe separate the two timelines a bit more? I like the answers material it's just a bit difficult to access. – Joshua Dec 27 '15 at 1:39
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The manners to translate this verse are very variegated, but, maybe the correctness of it depends from a lot of factors.

As regards - for example - around the concept of the term 'flesh' [בשׂר], we may find 4 different translating manner, at least ("is flesh", NET Bible, etc.); "is also flesh" (KJV, etc.); "he is but flesh" (NAB, etc.); "he indeed is flesh" (Darby, etc.).

My own in-progress-translation is: "'[...] my flux of energy [רוח] will not keep under control [ידון] humans until an unsighted time [עלם]. So the days of their contravening [שׁגם] as fleshly beings [בשׂר] will amount to 120 years."

In every case, the best manner to translate the Bible is to take on account also the global context of the Bible itself. So, Bible passage like Job 33:4 and Isa 42:5 indicate that the man's existence in life depends not only from the acceptance of the 'authority' of the countless earth's bio-physical cycles, but also to receive the God's flux of energy [רוח].

Now I cite the fine comment drawn by the Commentary of Keil & Delitzsch (bold is mine): "רוּהַ is the divine spirit of life bestowed upon man, the principle of physical and ethical, natural and spiritual life. This His spirit God will withdraw from man, and thereby put an end to their life and conduct. בְּשַׁגָּם is regarded by many as a particle, compounded of בְּ, שַׁ a contraction of אֲשֶׁר, and גַּם (also), used in the sense of quoniam, because, (בְּשַׁ = בַּאֲשֶׁר, as שַׁ or שֶׁ = אֲשֶׁר Jdg_5:7; Jdg_6:17; Son_1:7). But the objection to this explanation is, that the גַּם, “because he also is flesh,” introduces an incongruous emphasis into the clause. We therefore prefer to regard שַׁגָּם as the inf. of שָׁגַג = שָׁגָה with the suffix: “in their erring (that of men) he (man as a genus) is flesh;” an explanation to which, to our mind, the extremely harsh change of number (they, he), is no objection, since many examples might be adduced of a similar change (vid., Hupfeld on Psa_5:10). Men, says God, have proved themselves by their erring and straying to be flesh, i.e., given up to the flesh, and incapable of being ruled by the Spirit of God and led back to the divine goal of their life."

Similarly does the famous translator Chouraqui: "Dans leur égarement".

As regards the specific point about the '120 years' is very interesting what Jerome said in his Quaestiones Hebraicae in Genesim: "Non igitur humana huita, ut multi errant, in CXX annos contracta est, sed generationi illi CXX anni ad poenitentiam dati sunt". In other words, Jerome believed the 120 years weren't an individual life limit God-given to each man, but a time period for men to do penance.

After that years, the Flood...

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