Friday, October 24, 2008

The Age of Ages

In Genesis 6:3, God sets a limit on how long a man will live; 120 years. This is actually one point where the Bible seems somewhat accurate, as I can't remember the last time someone lived that long. The problem is that following this proclamation, Genesis then records at least 10 people that exceeded the age of 120 years. We are left to wonder what was it supposed to be like if you had that type of longevity. Is it equivalent to our aging today? We'll see the answer we are supposed to believe is impossibly yes and no.

The Age of Ages
Genesis records some cases of unreal longevity. Adam lived 930 years. Noah lived 950 years. Several more live well over 120 years. How should we understand what life would have been like for one of these super-elders? Our best reference is Abram (a.k.a. Abraham) and his wife Sarai (a.k.a. Sarah) due to the amount of recorded context.

Abraham lived to be 175 years old. Sarah lived to be 127 years old. Sarah was 10 years younger than Abraham (Genesis 17:17). The effects of their age in their latter years are somewhat documented around the story of their miracle baby Isaac.

Sarah had been barren of children throughout her life, beyond the point of menopause (Genesis 18:11). Age had ravaged Abraham's body too. You can tell because when Abraham and Sarah get the message from God that they will have a son, they both laugh like this is an impossibility (Genesis 17:17, 18:12). So obviously we should expect that certain age-related issues occurred back then as they do in modern times today. Sarah puts it best, after having a baby at the age of 90 years old in Genesis 21:7:
And she added, "Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age." NIV
On the other hand, when Abraham was waiting out a great famine in the safety of Egypt in Genesis 12, he tells the Egyptians that Sarah is his sister, not his wife. Abraham does this because Sarah is such a beautiful woman that he is afraid the Egyptians would kill the husband of such a beautiful woman so that she would become available. Sure enough, while in Egypt Sarah catches the eye of the Pharaoh, and the Pharaoh takes her into his palace. We're not given an age when Abraham gets to Egypt, but we know that Abraham was 75 years old when he left his home. That would make Sarah at least 65 years old at the time when Pharaoh took her.

By the way, God afflicts Pharaoh with diseases for taking the (unknown to him) married Sarah into his household.

Now back in those Biblical times, the kings and Pharaohs could have their pick of any of the single women in the empire. It seems strange that the Pharaoh would pick a 65 year old. This is especially true when you consider that skin care and cosmetics were primitive at best back then. Few people, if any, understood that the sun accelerated the aging of the skin. However, there are 65 year olds today that are still somewhat beautiful. So for now, let's say that Sarah was somehow very well preserved.

The Bible often likes to tell a good story twice, and in that custom we find Abraham once again claiming that Sarah was his sister instead of his wife in Genesis 20. Instead of Pharaoh, this lie is told to Abimelech, the king of Gerar. Instead of being at least 65 years old, Sarah is at least 89 years old this time per Genesis 17:17. Sarah manages to catch Abimelech's eye, so he brings Sarah into his household.

Now, I don't know about you, but this seems pretty unrealistic to me. I have seen women around 90 that look good for their age relative to other 90 year olds. However, I think that for Abimelech to take Sarah into his household because she is such a beautiful woman at the age of 89 would take a miracle indeed. Because God supposedly cares much more about the heart of a person than their aesthetics, I think it's extremely unlikely that God would perform such a miracle in the name of beauty.

So we have seen that we are expected to believe that the super-old people of the Bible are afflicted with the same age-related ailments as modern man at the same ages. Yet at the same time, we have seen that we should also believe that they maintained their youthful physical appearance much longer. These concepts are incompatible because many of the mechanics of the age-ailments are the same mechanics of aesthetic aging as well. Furthermore, this seems contrary to God's message of looking at the inner beauty of man as opposed to the outward appearance, for why would God choose to preserve form instead of function.

In case you wonder what happened to Abimelech, God makes all the women in Abimelech's household infertile because Sarah is there. Then He comes to Abimelech in a dream and tells him Sarah is married. Why did God choose to inflict diseases on Pharaoh, while only causing infertility on Abimelech's women? God only knows...


  1. I have always thought Gen 6:3 was an interesting "age cap" especially when we are to believe Moses first recorded the book of Genesis. The Moses point is interesting because that was the length of age at the time of his writing Genesis. Yet, he records different people surpassing that cap immediately after.

    Some theologians explain away the 120 years as a reference to the great flood. Although, this is easily explained away because Noah's documented age shows only 100 years to have passed (5:32 he is 500; 7:6 he is 600).

    I agree with you about Sarah's "hotness" factor. Wierd. I also agree with you on God's random choice of punishment for Pharaoh and Abimelech. /sigh

  2. That "age cap" is a bit baffling juxtaposed against the records of the super-elders. Perhaps it's just something forever lost in the translation.

    But this is far from the only square peg smashed into a round hole in the Bible. We've already discussed the early sacrifices. Another example that I think I'll eventually cover the one where God gives Moses laws for a kingdom, like in Deut 17:14-20, yet He doesn't establish a kingdom. Then when the Israelites push for a kingdom in 1 Sam 8, Samuel's message from God suggests that He is angry about it.

  3. You can't judge Sarah until you've been with a woman from Ur. Have you?

  4. Ha! Maybe I am missing out!

  5. Have you ever thought that she was African, brown skin and didn't really show her age like most were in that time....

  6. Sarah was no doubt African, as most were in that time. Melanin was stronger at that time because of the lack of "mixing" races , and her age did not show as well as the age of people today...

  7. Hello L B Bryant, thanks for the comment, and sorry for my delayed reply.

    Indeed, Sarah may have been African in the sense of having dark, melanin rich skin, or at least would have most probably been darker than my pasty white self. And, indeed, melanin rich skin does seem to age better overall...

    But we are talking about being 89 years old here. Even if we allow for relatively fewer wrinkles, time, and gravity, aren't kind to our bodies. Certain things sag. Bone density degrades. Nerve cells and muscle cells degrade, affecting mobility and posture. Hair changes. Etc.

    If you can find an 89 year old woman who is good looking enough that a ruler would kill her husband to be with her (which is what they were afraid of in this story), then, by all means, please posts a link to a photo to help persuade me and others that this is not a bit too far-fetched.