When I first began reading the Bible, a major barrier to belief for me was the fantastic length of life ascribed to the patriarchs in Genesis.  I soon realized this issue was not only my struggle.  Hypotheses abound to explain these apparent conflicts with reality.  It seems well-meaning Christians, in seeking to resolve stumbling blocks to their faith, have created much larger stumbling blocks for non-Christians!

As Carol Hill puts it:

Ironically, by interpreting the numbers of Genesis “literally” Christians have created a mythological world that does not fit with the historical or scientific record.

–Carol A. Hill, “Making Sense of the Numbers in Genesis”, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith V55, No. 4 (Dec 2003): 250

For many, these and other difficulties with the book of Genesis have proven insurmountable to moving toward faith in Christ.  I was fortunately able to put some questions “on hold”, meanwhile accepting other truths of the Bible that were clear and much more fundamental - for instance, Christ’s words about my need for a “do-over” in my character and life, his ability and willingness to absorb my guilt with his own body and blood in order that this new life could happen for me, and his teaching of how to live out this life on a daily basis.

Still, the absence of a reasonable explanation for the genealogies in Genesis has nagged me for some thirty years.  I kept waiting and hoping that an answer would come.  As I read chapter 10 in a new book, “Origins”, by Doug Jacoby and Paul Copan, I realized my wait was over!  

To appreciate the force of the argument, I must recognize and confront bias in the way I view numbers.  To my computer-science-conditioned mind, numbers are primarily “secular”, conveying objective, observable data–in sharp contrast to art, poetry, or music.  Most poetry uses numbers sparingly; words, not numbers, are used for painting word pictures. Here and there in our day and age, numbers like 1, 3, 7, 10, 1000 (or 666!) do carry symbolic weight, but in general we tend heavily toward literal usage.

But in many cultures–especially eastern–the symbolic meaning of numbers carries at least as much weight as the arithmetic meaning.  These cultures enjoy a shared understanding of the language and nuances conveyed by sequences and combinations of these numbers.  As music conveys what words alone cannot, in such cultures numbers add an essential depth and richness to communication.

Now here I am, coming across a written product of such a culture some 4,000 years later and half a world away, and trying to make sense of it.  Pieces of the numeric language could be recovered, but much would be irretrievably lost.  And part of that loss would be the shades of meaning in those numbers.  This is a challenge modern westerners face with Genesis genealogies.

Still, as the ruins of a great city testify to its former grandeur, and the rock layers of the Grand Canyon expose deep time, so even the vestiges of this numeric language-within-a-language hint at its expressive power.  To this day, our culture preserves remnants of the numerology permeating the world of the Genesis authors.  We use a sixty-second minute, a sixty-minute hour, a 6x60-degree circle.  Distance at sea is in nautical miles, which measure 60-second increments of latitude, and speed at sea is in nautical miles per 3600 seconds (or “knots”).

Where did all these “sixties” in our modern culture originate?  From the Mesopotamian culture of the time of Genesis, around 3000 BC. They used a base-60, or sexagesimal, numbering scheme.

How does all this relate to the genealogies of Genesis?  As it so happens, most of the numbers in these genealogies can be expressed as multiples of numerological significance to the peoples of that time–that is, the Babylonians and Sumerians of southern Mesopotamia.

Consider the following table of 10 members (why exactly ten? Hmmm…) of the Genesis 5 genealogy, with their associated ages expressed in units of Mesopotamian base-60 numerology (from “Origins”, p. 134):

Age at son’s birth (A)A x 12 =Years after son’s birth (B)B x 12 =Age
1. Adam13060 x 2680060 x 160930
2. Seth10560 x 21800 + 760 x 160912
3. Enosh9060 x 1881560 x 163905
4. Kenan7060 x 1484060 x 168910
5. Mahalalel6560 x 1383060 x 166895
6. Jared155 + 760 x 3180060 x 160962
7. Enoch6560 x 1330060 x 60365
8. Methuselah180 + 760 x 36775 + 760 x 155969
9. Lamech175 + 760 x 3559560 x 119777
10. Noah50060 x 100[450]60 x 90950

One strong indicator that these numbers are not literal:  Notice that none of them end with 1, 3, 4, 6, or 8.  There is virtually no chance that any thirty actual arithmetic ages would be missing these digits.  Notice that the ages are not simply rounded to the nearest ten; some end with 2, 5, 9, or 7.  Clearly, something other than a literal numerical record is being communicated.

The table is organized like this:

  1. Subtract 7 if number does not end in 0 or 5 (the ages in bold above).
  2. Multiply by 12.
  3. The result is a multiple of 60.

Although much of the significance of the above pattern escapes me (for instance, why is 7 added to certain numbers and not others?), the underlying base-60 structure seems impossible to dismiss.  Even the number 5 fits within a base-60 system when used to express years; Mesopotamians used a lunar calendar with a 360-day year, and five years is 60 lunar months.

Other symbolic numbers are also featured:  We know the numbers 7 and 10 are symbolically significant, representing divinity and completeness respectively.  Notice above that Enoch and Noah are 7th and 10th from Adam, and that the age of Lamech (not Cain’s descendant) totals 777–perhaps ascribing honor to the father of Noah.  The number 12 is the number of God’s people.  Perhaps by multiplying all ages by 12 to convert to base-60, the Genesis author is communicating something about God’s vision for this line of descent?

We have another example of a genealogy from the age of Genesis: the Sumerian King Lists.  All of the numbers in these lists are base-60, with ages in the tens of thousands of years.  I will not go into the details of the comparison, but Jacoby and Copan conclude that, consistent with Genesis’s focus on contrasting God’s view of reality with the prevailing secular view,

It seems probable the Genesis writer is making a deliberate comparison with the Sumerian King Lists, and the original readers of Genesis were expected to notice.

p. 136

Of all the candidates I’ve seen for interpreting the genealogies, I find the base-60/symbolic view the best explanation by far. Rather than force a divorce of religious truth from scientific observation, this view rests on a consistent interpretation of the available evidence from textual criticism, archaeology, natural history, and a host of other disciplines. It falls squarely within the cultural context of the Genesis authorship.

Finally, consideration of this genealogy serves as a case in point for how to read and understand the rest of Genesis. What is the author saying, to whom, and why, when viewed within the context of the author’s own time, place, culture, and circumstances? If I take the time and trouble to follow that approach, my faith will be on much firmer ground!