This week's question comes from a Bible Study class I attended recently. They were studying Genesis and noticed the disparity between the ages of people back then (Methuselah lived 969 years, Noah lived 950, Abraham lived 175 years) and people today. The question, "Did people really live that long or did they count time differently?"
It would be nice to be able to say that based on their clean living and additive- and preservative-free diets they actually lived that long, but likely this isn't the case. There is, of course, no archaeological evidence that humans have ever had an average life span much longer than 70 or so years, and most evidence points to a much shorter average than today's standards. Indeed, even the scriptures themselves indicate that the normal span of life for humanity is 70-80 years (Psalm 90.10). So how do we account for these longer life spans?
Three possibilities come to mind. The first is that these actually lived the years stated and as generations passed, life spans decreased until the average was about 70. The problem with this notion is its tendency to make the scriptures less relevant to us--who can relate to a life of 900+ years--as well as the difficulty of trying to reconcile sweeping changes in natural law.
The second is a possible difference for the accounting of time. This is certainly a possibility, since the annual calendar based on a solar year wasn't widely accepted in Palestine until Greek domination in about 300 BC. Prior to this date the Israelites generally based their calendar on the lunar month. However, even in arid Palestine the seasons of the year are quite distinct, so it is unclear how, even with a primitive calendar, the ancients could have miscalculated so badly as to cite Methuselah's age at 969 years if he had only actually lived through some 70 or so rainy seasons.
The third possibility is that the recording of the ages of these ancients serve some other purpose. The fifth chapter of Genesis is replete with listings of men who lived 365 years or longer. And yet, it is curious that Psalm 90, the psalm stating the average life span as 70-80 years, is attributed to Moses--a man who reportedly lived to 120. So why the lengthy life spans?
The five books of the law, Genesis through Deuteronomy, were compiled during the Babylonian exile. During this period the Israelites were exposed to a bevy of outside influences, including the great hero stories of Babylonia and Persia. Babylonian mythology, as most other Eastern religions, include the story of a great flood. In their mythology, which predates the writing of the Israelite scriptures, they tell of their antediluvian (pre-flood) kings. There were ten of these kings, the seventh one was supernaturally removed from the earth, and they all lived to an exaggerated age of 18,000 to 65,000 years-old.
Similarly, in Genesis there are ten generations, the seventh one, Enoch, was supernaturally removed, and they too lived lengthy lives. Further, there are a number of coincidences in the numerology of the Genesis text that might explain some of the numbering of these years. Enoch lived 365 years, perhaps an etiology for the length of a solar year. Methuselah died in the great flood. Adam lived long enough to see the birth of Lamech, who was a violent man (cf. Gen. 4.23-24) and represents the evil generation that precedes the flood. And nine of these ten patriarchs lived at the same time. There are a number of other numerological schemes associated with this and related texts, so clearly the numbers were not at all randomly assigned.
The accounts in Genesis were not meant to be historically accurate, any more than they were meant to be scientifically accurate. Instead, these texts were written to inform our faith, to teach us about God and our relationship with the Divine. To force scientific or historic understandings upon these texts is to do violence to their teachings. It should be enough for us to ponder this: what a wasted life it is for a person to live a great many years (even 969 of them) and still not accomplish anything worthwhile enough for even God to save them from the great flood.