Explaining declining Biblical lifespans

When Pharaoh asked Jacob his age he replied, ‘My years on earth have been 130; hard years they have been and few, not equal to the years that my fathers lived in their time.” (Genesis 47:9) True enough; Jacob died at the age of 147

Jacob knows that his father Isaac lived for 180 years, and his grandfather Abraham for 175 years. Indeed, the generations following the flood till the time of Abraham lived for 200-450 years; and the generations prior to the flood lived for about 900 years with two exceptions. How do we explain these very long lifetimes, and even more important, how do we explain the steady SHORTENING of lifetimes over the generations until we reach Moses?

Most people are shocked by these long lifetimes and fail to notice the trend of decreasing life spans. Yet the answer to the later explains the former.

There were two trees in the midst of the Garden of Eden: “In the midst of the garden God set the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Gen. 2:9 During the time they were in the garden man and woman nibbled from the fruit that had dropped from the tree of life. Not enough to attain immortality but enough to attain almost 1,000 years of life.

Their descendants inherited their longevity, but as the generations passed their longevity dissipated and lifespans steadily decreased. The ten generations from Adam through Noah had a maximum life span of 1000 years (25×40) and 8 of the ten reached about 90% of that.

The first three generations after the flood had a maximum of 480 years (12×40) and all of them reached 90% of the maximum. The remaining generations to Isaac had a maximum life span of 240 years (6×40) but only the first three came close.

This continual halving would have continued until life spans shortened to a maximum of 40 years, and then 20 years and finally 10 years, at which time the human race would have died out since it could not reproduce. (There is a Hindu belief that this is exactly what will happen at the end of our present evil era.)

But the giving of the Torah at Sinai stopped the shortening of life spans. Moses dies at the age of 120, Joshua at 110. In the generations after the Covenant at Sinai no person lives to an exceptionally old age.

We are all aware that average life expectancy has doubled from the beginning of the 20th century to the beginning of the 21st century. But that was mostly the result of a major decline in infant death rates which raised the average life span greatly.

Although the percentage of people living to 100+ years is increasing, the practical limit of human life span still is about 120 years as Genesis 6:3 says, “My life-giving spirit shall not remain in humans forever; they are flesh, they shall live120 years.”

So we are close to fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 65:20 “No child shall die an infant, no old man fail to live his lifetime, everyone will live to100 years and those who fall short of 100 will be considered cursed.”

Another view. The Torah is called a Tree of Life because it provides us with the bases of our spiritual life, and enables us to attain a life that transcends the body’s death. Torah teaches us to measure a lifetime not just in years lived but in lives loved and sanctified.

We know very little about the earliest generations because they contributed very little to society. Their only claim to fame was their long meaningless life. Don’t envy them, pity them.

Always remember: the opposite of death is birth; the opposite of living is not living, not loving, not giving, not learning, not growing, not becoming wiser.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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