The 120 year age limit

Does God limit the years that man can live to 120 years? If so, why do we have these variant textual traditions in the Bible? What is going on? (Genesis 6:3 vs Genesis 9:29, 11:10-26, 23:1, 25:7, 35:28, 47:28)

“And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.” (Genesis 6:3)

The Yahwist author of the text of Genesis 6 has Jehovah utter these words on account of the growing depravity on the face of the earth—the violence of the earth as well as the relations of the sons of god(s) with the daughters of men (Genesis 6:1-4). The Yahwist also works in a portrayal of the ever decreasing life-span of the sons of Adam. From Genesis 6 and on, humanity does not exceed a life-span of 120 years. Thus J completes the Genesis narrative by telling readers that Joseph died at 110 years of age, and its conclusion of the “Five Books of Moses” by informing us that Moses lived to 120 years (Deuteronomy 34:7). 1

P’s genealogical lists, however, display no knowledge of J’s claims about the limitation on the life-span of mankind, or else it just ignores it. From in the Priestly textual tradition, Noah lives 950 years (Genesis 9:29), Shem 600 years, Arphaxad 438, Salah 433, Eber 473, Peleg, 239, Reu 239, Serug 230, Nahor 148, Terah 205 (Genesis 11:10-32), Sarah, 127 (Genesis 23:1), Abraham 175 (Genesis 25:7), Isaac 140 (Genesis 35:28), and Jacob 147 years (Genesis 47:28). All these life-spans come from the Priestly composition. I have read works of a couple of scholars who have suggested that these ages in the narrative come from the influence of Mesopotamian antediluvian kings’ list on the Priestly writer. 2 Another possible explanation as to why P has these ages of man which contradict the narrative of the J text is a theory known as “The Book of Generations” theory. This theory postulates that a text existed which was used by the redactor to help connect parts of the Priestly source with the JE source of the text. 3

It may be that the Priestly author is reworking the Yahwist narrative, since it is probable that the J source was written first, and that the P author had access to these materials when he constructed his work. 4 Perhaps the Priestly author, when telling of the life-spans of these heroes in the text of Genesis, is demonstrating that these individuals were not part of the corruption and life shortening consequences of the events that led to the shorter life span for the Yahwist author. At any rate, while we may not know all of the reasons why the J text does not square up with all of the accounts of the lives of these patriarchs (at least according to P), we do know that this tension exists in the Bible. I think it is good to acknowledge this tension, and to continue to study the Bible and to read it as it would have been read by those that composed these texts in their time and place.


  1. Richard Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed, p. 368. The author writes, “This (Deuteronomy 34:7) section is J. It notes that Moses lives to be one hundred twenty years old, which is the limit that YHWH sets on human life in J (Genesis 6:3). It notes that his eye was not dim; and the expression that it uses for the dimming of the eye occurs only here and in Isaac’s blessing of Jacob in Genesis 27:1, which is J, and in the report of Eli’s dim eyes in 1 Samuel 3:2.
  2. For a discussion on this and other issues relating to reading texts like the Old Testament critically and how to view the ages of these individuals, I highly recommend the book God’s Word in Human Words by Kenton L. Sparks. Specifically I would refer the reader to chapter 2: Historical Criticism and Assyriology (pages 57-73), where Sparks demonstrates that other texts from the ancient near east show that their kings lived for ridiculous lengths of time prior to their flood epic. He writes, “Mesopotamian scribes frequently compiled lists of the kings who had reigned in their cities along with chronological information about how long they reigned. Two good examples are the Sumerian King List and the Lagash King List. The Sumerian King List (SKL) originated around 2000 BCE. Several different editions of the text exist, revealing a complicated literary history that probably goes back to a single original composition. In its most complete form, the text includes three parts: (a) a list of kings who lived before the great flood; (b) a reference to the flood itself; and (c) a list of kings who reigned after the food. SKL notes the length of each king’s reign, but the reign lengths are often exceptionally long, particularly for the pre-flood kings. King Alagar, for instance, supposedly reigned for 36,000 years! (God’s Word in Human Words, p. 69) See also Stephen DiMattei –
  3. Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel, Harvard University Press, 1997, p. 310.
  4. Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? (1987) and The Bible with Sources Revealed (2003) explains, in terms based on the history of ancient Israel, how the redactors could have tolerated inconsistency, contradiction and repetition, indeed had it forced upon them by the historical setting in which they worked. Friedman has argued that J appeared a little before 722 BCE, followed by E, with a combined JE soon after that. P was written as a rebuttal of JE (c. 715–687 BCE), and D was the last to appear, at the time of Josiah (c. 622 BCE), before the Redactor, whom Friedman identifies as Ezra, collated the final Torah. See Who Wrote the Bible?, p. 226.


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3 Responses to The 120 year age limit

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