The article of the month

IS THAT IN THE BIBLE? by Father Anthony Giambrone, O.P.

Ancient of Days

One of the oldest things in the Old Testament is ol’ Methuselah himself. We are not told what took him in his 969th year, and had his old man, Enoch, not been mysteriously raptured at a sprightly 365, the elder might have outlived his son and won the vaunted biblical geezer’s crown. As it is, though, Methuselah beat his father by a sexcentenary, and by a good week of years he also beat his venerable grandfather, Jared, who died at a mere 962.

Although we are impressed and nonplussed by these extraordinary biblical lifespans, by ancient Mesopotamian standards such ages were pedestrian antediluvian demographics. A cuneiform text dating from 1740 b.c., for instance, famously lists the names and ages of the kings of Sumer. Those who reigned before the great flood (a tradition that Mesopotamian culture shared with the Bible) were demi-gods whose lifespans range from a staggering 12 sars to a more modest 5 sars and 1 ner: that is, from King En-men-lu-ana’s robust 43,200 years to Ubara-tutu’s still respectable 18,600. Following the flood, the royal ages suddenly fall by an order of magnitude to more homely biblical proportions. Thus Kullassina-bel made it to 960 and Puanuum reached 840.

What explains such extravagant longevity? Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, speculated that it was due to the patriarchs’ diet. The medieval Nachmanides proposed climate change after the flood. In view of the parallel material from the ancient Near East, two things can perhaps be said.

First, it seems that a major point of these elevated numbers was to highlight the vast frontier in human existence established by the flood, which forms the border of a very different pre-historic world. Thus, in Genesis 6:3, in anticipation of the flood, God sets the future limit of human life at 120 years, marking a shift onto a scale of measurement like our own today. As a metric for a kind of “timeless time,” the exceptionally long lives accordingly help cover the vast expanses separating our world from the beginning, while after the flood the length of lives will steadily wind down and diminish like the dissipating mists of pre-history itself.

Second, with its notable absence of 40,000-year-old pre-flood demi-gods, the Bible rejects outright the mythic embroideries of the surrounding cultures concerning this foggy time before our own kind of time. In place of these all-but-immortal regal titans appears instead a line of hoary patriarchal chieftains. The difference in mood between the Biblical and Sumerian traditions is thus something like that separating the wild Celtic myths of Lugh from the stories of King Arthur (supposed by most scholars to be a historical king). For the Bible, these quasi-historical ancient begetters of the human family are in some sense rivals to the legendary yet mortal monarchs of Sumer. As the biblical personalities share an aging scale with the Puanuums, yet belong to a more remote “long ago and far away” proper to half-divine Ubara-tutus, the biblical characters are at once more august with antiquity and more realistic than their Mesopotamian peers.

One additional point might be made. The ages are symbolic and interconnected in a variety of ways. Methuselah, for instance, was 187 when he became the father of Lamech, who was 182 when he became the father of Noah, who was 600 when he entered the ark. In other words, at 969 years old Methuselah died the very year of the flood. We might well imagine that the waters took him.

 

Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p., is a Dominican priest of the Province of Saint Joseph and professor of the New Testament at the École biblique de Jérusalem.