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Biblical rationality

The list of prediluvian patriarchs is for some evidence of the veracity of the Bible, for others evidence of the impossibility of the biblical accounts. But whereas some accounts are based on faith and the sceptical arguments have logical holes, a third alternative seems required.

Philip Coppens


One of the more intriguing aspects of the Bible is the list of prediluvian patriarchs and their age. Methuselah was said to have lived to the impressive age of 969 years, though “the First Man”, Adam, lived for a solid 930 years – respectable for any prototype.
Detailed recordkeeping of people’s date of birth and death is both a relatively recent, and still largely western practice. But from the available records, it is clear that Man’s age-limit seems to lie somewhere between 115 and 120 years – however few attain it. The oldest attested person on record is the French Jeanne Calment, who lived to be 122 years and 164 days, born as she was on February 21, 1875 and dying on August 4, 1997. If Adam had heard this news, he would say she had died in her infancy.

The list as given in Genesis 5 goes as follows:

Adam 930 years; begetting a son at the age of 130
Seth 912 years; begetting a son at the age of 105
Enos 905 years; begetting a son at the age of 90
Cainan 910 years; begetting a son at the age of 75
Mahalaleel 895 years; begetting a son at the age of 65
Jared 962 years; begetting a son at the age of 162
Enoch 365 years before walking with god; begetting a son at the age of 65
Methuselah 969 years; begetting a son at the age of 187
Lamech 777 years; begetting a son at the age of 182
Noach 950 years; begetting a son at the age of 500

Faced with these superhuman ages, the faithful are often told or encouraged to accept the veracity of these life spans that far exceed modern man’s life expectancy and anything that the archaeological records have uncovered. Hence, in the search to “understand” and make the account “acceptable”, people have tried to reduce these hard to imagine life-spans to more mundane possibilities.

A lunar solution has been proposed and is heard by many as “the likeliest alternative”. This would mean that to attain the “real age”, as we today calculate someone’s life-span, i.e. by solar years, their ages need to be divided by 12. This would make Methuselah having lived to just under 81 years old. Suddenly, the impossible seems not only possible, but likely.
This therefore offers an appealing solution to the problem. However, as soon as one mystery seems solved, a new problem arises: the age at which these people fathered children. The eldest, Methuselah, waited until he was 187 years old to have a child, which in solar years would be 16 years. No real problem there. But the youngest dad, Mahalaleel, would have been just under five years old before he became a father – rather young – and apparently not an exception, for his father and grandfather had started roughly around the same time. And that makes the “most logical solution” once again harder to accept.

As mentioned, some have no problem with such superhuman life spans. For Martin Luther, these patriarchs had a better diet, sounder bodies, and experienced a less developed impact of sin on the physical creation, hence allowing them to live longer. Others have proposed that there was a different climate prevalent on Earth that would have allowed for these extended life spans.
For those who turn to the Bible for every answer, on this point, it does not provide an explanation as to why these patriarchs lived so long. As to a “less developed impact of sin”, the Fall happened during Adam’s lifetime, so why his descendents still lived long, does not seem to have a “logical” explanation. The Bible furthermore does not attribute anything special to these people – except a long life, and living before the Deluge.

When we take the Bible out of its isolation – something Christians seem to dread – various parallels become apparent. Few, it seems, have pointed out that in ancient Egypt – and ancient Sumeria – there are known lists of kings. Several of these begin with a series of kings that ruled before a flood or, in the case of Egypt, before the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. Some of these deities lived even older than Methuselah, some to several thousands of years old. “After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridu(g). In Eridu(g), Alulim became king; he ruled for 28800 years." It seems that if Alulim had heard that Adam had died at the age of 930, he too would have said he died in his infancy.

Here is the Sumerian list:

Alulim of Eridu(g): 8 sars (28800 years)
Alalgar of Eridug: 10 sars (36000 years)
En-Men-Lu-Ana of Bad-Tibira: 12 sars (43200 years)
(En-Men-Ana) – the name is not present on all lists
En-Men-Gal-Ana of Bad-Tibira: 8 sars (28800 years)
Dumuzi of Bad-Tibira, the shepherd: 10 sars (36000 years)
En-Sipad-Zid-Ana of Larag: 8 sars (28800 years)
En-Men-Dur-Ana of Zimbir: 5 sars and 5 ners (21000 years)
Ubara-Tutu of Shuruppag: 5 sars and 1 ner (18600 years)
(Zin-Suddu) – the name is not present on all lists

No wonder that these kings were seen as gods and that is of course precisely what authors such as Zecharia Sitchin have argued: that we should take the Bible and these lists of kings at face value, that they show a reality, namely that we are face to face with alien beings, genetically engineered beings – which is meant to explain their enormous lifespan. This substitutes one belief system with another – the latter not really much different from the former.

A lot of ink has gone into the purpose of Genesis 5, with some noting that if anything, the list of patriarchs is out of place, functioning merely as a bridge between one narrative and the rest, largely there to fast-forward the story with a few millennia. The quickest method to fill this gap would indeed be to choose a small number of people, and attach long lives to them, so that the gap is quickly bridged. The Sumerian King List may have served as inspiration for this exercise. During their Babylonian captivity, the Jews will definitely have stumbled upon the Sumerian King List and they may have decided to incorporate this information into their own creation myths, though reform it either to conform to their calendar system, or for other purposes.
The Sumerians had a different system of counting, based on the number sixty. Some have tried to align Genesis 5 with the information of the Sumerian King List. The Jewish exegete Cassuto suggested that the figures in Genesis 5 (and 11) were "multiples of five with the addition of seven". An earlier attempt noted that the figures for the antediluvian patriarchs could be computed by 39 × 42 years and the period of time from creation to Abraham's entry into Canaan by 6 × 7 × 7 × 7, or 42 × 49 years.

In this interpretation, we are midway between a literal interpretation and the atheist viewpoint, which is that the Bible as a whole is a literary invention, and hence pure fiction. But if fiction, why not make it more believable, or at least give a moral or logical explanation why characters were inserted into the story that had hard-to-believe life-spans?
In the late 1800s, theologians sought ways to make the Bible conform to the claims of Darwinian evolution and uniformitarian geology. One novel way was to offer the idea that the names of the patriarchs were used to refer to entire dynasties, clans, or tribes, and not to actual individuals. This would mean that when the Adam clan had exercised dominion for 130 years, a person was born in the Adam clan who eventually either ruled or was the progenitor of the Seth clan. The Adam clan continued to be powerful for an additional 800 years, and then the Seth clan took over. Though it is somewhat logical, it doesn’t sound all too logical and would be a nightmare from a “legal” point of view within tribal matters: having to go back 800 years within a clan to find out who could succeed whom? Hence, this is another unlikely explanation.

Others have suggested that an astronomical interpretation. For example, Michel Barnouin proposed that the life-spans were actually the synodic periods of the planets. The life span of Lamech, 777, would be related to the cumulative synodic periods of Jupiter and Saturn; 962 (the life span of Jared) would be the cumulative synodic periods of Venus and Saturn.
The life span or age was thus an astronomical age – not that of an individual. Here, we can once again draw parallels with other ancient accounts, such as the Greeks and the Romans, who identified their gods, like Jupiter or Saturn, with the planets, as well as offering them a “life” on Earth, largely residing on Earth on sacred mountains, such as Mount Olympos.
Within a similar astronomical framework, Julius Wellhausen suggested that Biblical chronology adhered to the schema of a "Great Year" of 4000 years. In his argument, the period from Adam to the Exodus measured 2666 years, or 26 2/3 generations of 100 years each. This is two-thirds of a world cycle of 4000 years. In this argument, the precise ages of the biblical patriarchs who thus be secondary to the desire to achieve a symbolism of numbers.
Another astronomical inroad is a variation on this theme: the possibility that each patriarch was assigned a star “kingdom”, ranging from one star to another. Their age would then be the number of days to be calculated between the rising/setting of certain stars. For example: Seth is born to Adam and Eve after the birth of Cain and Abel, which have been linked with Castor and Pollux in Gemini, when Adam is 130 years. This is the distance in rising star days from the Left Lower Corner Star of the Great Square, here identified with Adam, to the star Sirius – Sothis in Egypt – Seth of Jews?
The life span is therefore a section of the sky and the “son” is the location of the next star. To repeat: if the left lower corner star of the Great Square is the heliacal rising star at dawn, it takes 130 days until Sirius is the dawn's rising star. Continuing in this scheme, from the star Sirius, i.e. Seth, it is 912 days – its life span – to the star Altair in Aquila. Furthermore, the star Altair sets as the star Sirius rises – coinciding with the notion of “dying”. From this foundation, the entire series of kings in Genesis 5 –and 11 – has been linked to certain prominent stars and constellations.
In this system, after Noah, the old Patriarchs – stars – "passed away" and the stars were named anew – and hence why Genesis 11 contains another list. In the new scheme, the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, now became associated with Isaac.

As calculated by William Walker III, this system of identifying patriarchs with star regions only applies at ca. 42.5 degrees latitude – i.e. the Black Sea – thus identifying that area as the likely origin of this system. And it is a system that would have greatly pleased the authors of Hamlet’s Mill, Giorgio De Santillana and Hertha Von Dechend, for they always saw the “Flood” as linked with the precession of the equinoxes, rather than a cataclysmic event.
This “third alternative” thus sits in the middle of the two standard theories, one asking total faith in the Bible, the other sceptical, reconciling both. It argues that the Bible is true, but that the patriarchs are not mortal men, but gods – stars. Their “ages” are correct, they are even life-spans – of stars and their visibility in the night’s sky. And, hence, the Bible is correct – and so are the sceptics.