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Genesis Years
Written December 15, 2013

 

Author's Note:  It's a problem as old as Methuselah:  anyone who quotes the fifth and eleventh chapters of Genesis has some explaining to do.  Did each patriarch really live for many centuries?  The human lifespan is not nearly that long.

Here’s one possible explanation, for which I’ve invented — with no evidence whatsoever — some additional “facts” about seasons and feasts and a scroll and an editor called Atad.  The fictional account is told by a Hebrew living in the land of the Pharaohs.

 
While our people are sojourning here, Atad is assembling a book about our origins.  He calls it our Genesis.  Perhaps it will be of interest if, God willing, the day arrives when we leave Egypt and return to the Promised Land.

One of his sources is a small papyrus scroll that he found in the tribal archives.  It chronicles the 20 generations of patriarchs from Adam through Abraham.  Atad is using it to compose the “begat” sections of his book.

In the ancient list, each patriarch has an entry that follows a set formula.  For example:

Atad wanted to modernize the language, so he shortened “had attained an age of 162 seasons” to “was 162 years old.”  He changed “celebrated 800 feasts” to “lived 800 years.”  He also did the arithmetic, adding 162 years before Enoch’s birth plus 800 years afterwards to get a total lifespan of 962 years.   The result looks like this:

 

When I saw what Atad had written, I was appalled.  Someday the old parchment may disappear, all knowledge of it may be lost, and Atad’s rewrite may become the official version of our history.

I reminded him, “The days of our years are but threescore years and ten.  It is said:

Our days may come to seventy years,
Or eighty if our strength endures.
Yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow.
They quickly pass, and we fly away.

“However,” I went on, “you claim this patriarch lived almost a thousand years!  Almost fiftyscore!  That’s simply impossible.”

“I don’t believe it’s impossible,” he replied.  “It seems only appropriate that the great men of the past lived for a great span of time.  Don’t you agree?  And the sacred texts cannot lie.  There you see the numbers, written in ink.”

I studied the old parchment for a few minutes.  Then I announced, “I have three objections.  I disagree with all three time spans.  In Jared’s case, those are 162 years and 800 years and 962 years.

“First, the scroll says that at fatherhood, Jared ‘had attained an age of 162 seasons.’  You’ve changed that to say he ‘was 162 years old.’  What makes you think that 162 seasons equals 162 years?”

“What could it mean otherwise?” Atad replied.  “How else do we measure a person’s age, but by years?”

“Perhaps by weeks.  We speak of a six-week-old baby.  Or perhaps by seasons; you know, winter, spring, summer, fall.  I’ve heard that before Noah’s Flood, a child’s age was indeed counted by seasons.  It was easier to say ‘my son is one season old’ than ‘my son is one quarter of one year old.’  And my mother used to repeat what her mother told her:  ‘After four seasons, a boy will walk.  After six seasons, a boy will talk.  And after ten seasons, a boy will walk and talk and make sense.’”

“I never heard that,” he said.  “You’re just making things up.”

But I continued.  “Now in the case of Noah himself, the scroll seems to be confused about the facts.  It says Noah was 500 seasons old, or 125 years, when his son Shem was born.  It also says he was 500 seasons old when his son Ham was born, and again the same age when his son Japheth was born.  It does not say the sons were triplets nor born of different mothers.  Something is wrong here.

“However, we know that Noah’s Flood changed the world.  The rainbow appeared as a sign there would never be another such deluge, with the promise:

As long as the earth lasts,
     Seedtime and harvest,
     Cold and heat,
     Summer and winter,
     Day and night —
They will never cease.

“Those famous words persuaded us that there are not four seasons in a year but only two, seedtime and harvest.  Or summer and winter, if you will.  After the Flood, a boy of 15 years who had lived 60 of the old antediluvian seasons was now considered to have lived only 30 of the new seasons.”

“That’s ridiculous,” he scoffed.

I wasn’t finished.  “Here’s my second objection.  The ancient scroll says that after his son was born, Jared ‘celebrated 800 feasts,’ and you’ve changed that to say he ‘lived 800 years.’  How can you do that?  Don’t you know about the feasts?  When a boy’s firstborn arrived, the boy became a man, a father, a patriarch.  Thereafter, as the head of his clan, it was his duty to offer the monthly sacrifice celebrating the feast of the new moon.  There are 13 new moons in a year.  A patriarch who had celebrated 800 feasts had been a father for almost 62 years.

“Finally, I object to your arithmetic.  Just as we can’t add apples and oranges, you can’t add seasons and feasts.  And you certainly can’t call the result ‘years.’ ”

I worked on the numbers for about an hour and came up with these two tables.

 

FOUR SEASONS PER YEAR
(Genesis chapter 5, before the Flood)

 

Age when
son was
born:

Seasons

130

105

90

70

65

162

65

187

182

500

Years

33

26

23

18

16

41

16

47

46

125

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

Thereafter:

Feasts

800

807

815

840

830

800

300

782

595

450

Years

62

62

63

65

64

62

23

60

46

35

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

At death:

"Years"

930

912

905

910

895

962

365

969

777

950

Years

95

88

86

83

80

103

39

107

92

160

 

TWO SEASONS PER YEAR
(Genesis chapter 11, after the Flood)

 

Age when
son was
born:

Seasons

100

35

30

34

30

32

30

29

70

100

Years

50

18

15

17

15

16

15

15

35

50

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

Thereafter:

Feasts

500

403

403

430

209

207

200

119

205

75

Years

38

31

31

33

16

16

15

9

16

6

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

At death:

"Years"

600

438

433

464

509

509

230

148

275

175

Years

88

49

46

50

31

32

30

24

51

56

 

I noted, “If we add up the ages of these 20 patriarchs when their successors were born, by my reckoning this table spans 512 actual years.  But by your reckoning, it’s 1546 seasons, which you claim are ‘years.’  So Adam lived more recently than your book of Genesis suggests — a thousand years more recently!

“Enoch reached only the age of 39, but that’s because he didn’t die.  He vanished, and it’s said that God took him directly into heaven.

“Some of the patriarchs did die young, three centuries later, when they were dwelling in Ur of the Chaldees.  Conditions must have been bad there, because Peleg, Reu, and Serug perished in their early thirties, and Nahor survived only to the age of 24.  He left a 9-year-old son named Terah.  It was this Terah, once he became a man, who led the family out of Ur.  They moved first to Harran and then to Canaan.

“Finally, if we discount Noah because the numbers don't make sense, Methuselah still holds the record as the oldest patriarch.  By my reckoning he died at 107.  That’s an extremely old age, but unlike your ‘969 years’ at least it’s believable.”

“All very clever,” Atad admitted.  “But it never has been my aim to make all of Genesis believable.  Have you read the part about the talking snake?”

 

TBT

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