March 4, 2024
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The Longevity of the Ancients Recorded in Genesis

We all wonder about those long lifespans recorded at the beginning of Genesis. For example, we are told that Adam lived 930 years, that Shet lived 912 years and that Metushelach lived 969 years. How have Jewish sources understood these numbers over the centuries?

The first Jewish source to address this issue was Josephus (late first-century). Here is his statement in Antiquities, book I: “Nor let the reader, comparing the life of the ancients with our own and the brevity of its years, imagine that what is recorded of them is false … For, in the first place, they were beloved of God and the creatures of God himself; their diet too, was more conducive to longevity: it was then natural that they should live so long. Again, alike for their merits and to promote the utility of their discoveries in astronomy and geometry, God would accord them a longer life … ”

Now, I will survey the views of our Geonim and Rishonim: Rabbi Saadiah (10th-century) discusses this issue in his introduction to Tehillim. He writes that the longevity of these early generations was part of God’s plan for the rapid proliferation of mankind on the earth. The longer people lived, the more children they could have. It would seem that he believed that everyone in those early generations lived a long lifespan.

Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi (12th-century) discusses the issue in the Kuzari (section 95). He believes that it was only the individuals listed who lived long. Each of the individuals listed was the heart and essence of his generation and was physically and spiritually perfect. The divine flow was transmitted from one generation-to-another, through these exceptional individuals.

Rambam (Guide 2: 47) writes: “I say that only the persons named lived so long, whilst other people enjoyed the ordinary length of life. The men named were exceptions, either in consequence of different causes, as e.g., their food or mode of living or by way of miracle.”

Ramban (on Genesis 5:4) quotes Rambam’s view and then disagrees, calling Rambam’s words, “divrei ruach.” Ramban writes that the individuals with long lifespans named in the Bible were not exceptional in their lifespans. Rather, the entire world had long lifespans before the flood. But after the flood, the world atmosphere changed and this caused the gradual reduction in lifespans.

Most of the Rishonim who discussed the issue thereafter followed the approach of either the Rambam or the Ramban. Either way, they were taking the Genesis lifespan numbers literally. (An underlying factor that motivated Rishonim to accept the Genesis lifespan numbers literally was that the count from creation was calculated based on these numbers.)

Josephus had mentioned that one of the reasons that God allowed their longevity was to promote the utility of their discoveries in astronomy and geometry. This idea of longevity to enable the acquisition of knowledge and make discoveries (and write them to be passed down) is also included in several of our Rishonim. See, e.g., Radak to Genesis 5:4, Ralbag to Genesis, chapter 5, and Rashbatz, Magen Avot, on Avot 5:21.

Rashbatz also mentions the idea that the early generations were close in time to Adam and Adam was not born from a “tipah seruchah” like the rest of us, but was made by God from the earth. Those early generations inherited his superior bodily constitution. Another idea found in some of our Rishonim is that those early individuals did not chase after “taavat haguf,” which reduces the lifespan. See, e.g., Radak to Genesis 5:4.

But there were some Rishonim who were unwilling to take the Genesis lifespan numbers literally. The earliest such source that we know of was Rabbi Moses Ibn Tibbon (late 13th-century) He suggests that the years given for people’s lives were actually the years of “malchutam venimuseihim,” i.e., the dynasties and/or customs that they established. Similar is the approach of Rabbi Nissim of Marseilles (early 14th-century).

Another figure who took such an approach was Rabbi Levi ben Hayyim (early 14th-century). First, he mentions several of the possibilities to explain the longevity, e.g., good and simple food and “marrying late” (!). But then, he concludes that—in his opinion—the names mentioned were just roshei avot. In other words, the number of years given for each individual reflects the total of the years of the several generations of individuals named for that first individual.

The most interesting approach is that of Rabbi Eleazar Ashkenazi (14th-century) in his Tzofenat Paneach. First, Rabbi Eleazar refers to the view that perhaps the individual numbers were not to be taken literally, and points to other statements in the Torah that were not meant to be taken literally, e.g., 1) the land of Israel was “flowing with milk and honey,” and 2) the cities in Canaan were “fortified up to heaven.”

But then, Rabbi Eleazar suggests that in listing these individual numbers, the Torah was merely recording the legends about these figures, even though they were not accurate. The important thing was to provide data from which the total years from creation to Matan Torah could be derived, so that the people would be able to know the length of time between these two periods. Even though the numbers for the individual lifespans were not accurate, the Torah made sure that the total that would be arrived at would be accurate. (In contrast, when it came to events from Avraham and forward, the Torah was careful to preserve a more accurate individual accounting.)

(If you have never heard of this Rabbi Eleazar, that is to be expected. Eric Lawee—a professor at Bar-Ilan—has been writing, in recent years, to educate us about him. See his article in “Tradition 54,” 2022. He is also discussed extensively in Lawee’s book, “Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah,” 2019. Rabbi Eleazar was born in an Ashkenazic region and ended up in a Byzantine one. His above work survives in one manuscript, from Crete, in 1399. The only later commentator we know of who used the work was Abarbanel. That one manuscript ended up in an official Jewish library in Vienna, which was destroyed during Kristallnacht. But the Nazis took care not to harm the library’s contents and shipped them to Berlin. Eventually, the contents came under control of the Soviet Red army. The manuscript is now in the Russian State Military Archive. In the 1930s, a rabbi was able to make photostats of the sections covering Genesis 1-22 and took this with him when he fled from Vienna to London in 1938.)


Returning to our main issue, in modern times, many Orthodox writers have written on this topic. One is Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan—see his “Immortality, Resurrection and the Age of the Universe,” (1993). Another is Professor Natan Aviezer. For example, in one of his writings, he explains that modern science has figured out that aging is largely caused by genes, and not by a wearing out of our bodies. He then suggests that when God stated at Genesis 6:3, that man would be limited to 120 years, this was when God first introduced the gene for aging into the human gene pool.

If you have not found any of the above answers satisfying, I have some good news. Rabbi Saadiah writes (Emunot VeDeot, chapter 7) that in the era of the redemption, the lifespan will be approximately 500 years. Presumably, at that time, we won’t be bothered by those long lifespans in Genesis anymore!

Mitchell First aspires to longevity and hopes his children can tolerate him for that long. (Much of the above material above came from an article by Professor Daniel Lasker in Diné Yisrael, volume 26-27).

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