This as a follow-up to the July 1st GraceTalk question I answered. I didn’t have enough time to cover all of the material I would have liked to. Also, having the answer laid out in writing (with passage hyperlinks) makes following the references easier. The question was…
Before dealing with the question itself. it is worth noting the importance of answering questions like this. There will always be mysteries in the Scriptures—things that are hard to understand or explain. As Dan sometimes says we get the what but not the how (think of the Trinity, the incarnation, the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, etc.). So we may not be able to tie up every loose end or answer every question we might have; however, an outright contradiction is another matter.
An outright contradiction in the Scriptures would undermine either the authority of the Bible as the Word of God or our understanding of God’s holy character. If there were a real contradiction in the Bible, then either we don’t have God’s authoritative Word or we do, but God is not able to author 66 books without making an error. Neither of those are good options.
120 Years Understood as the Limit on a Person’s Age
Our apparent contradiction arises because the Lord appears to make a declaration that He is aggravated with the sinful ways of mankind and will limit each person to no more than 120 years of life. Yet we learn that Jehoiada lived to be 130. According to the challenge, either God did not really limit a man’s age to 120, or God did not keep His word.
This challenge assumes that God’s statement in Genesis 6:3 was meant to be a hard limit that could never be violated—a new technical specification for Homo sapiens so to speak. But this could not be the case because in Genesis 9:29 we have Noah living to be 950, in 11:11 we have Shem living to be 500, and the rest of Genesis 11 lists many of the decedents of Noah living beyond 200 years of age. In fact, it’s not until the time of Abraham that life spans seem to settle into something less than 120 years.
So, if Jehoiada is a contradiction of Genesis 6:3, then Noah and his decedents would be as well. It seems highly unlikely that Moses took the 120 years as a hard-and-fast rule and then contradicted that just a few chapters later.
Even if we took it to mean that eventually the limit would settle down to 120 years, then be the rule from that point on, I still don’t think we have a contradiction. It was God’s decision to limit a person’s age to 120 years. If He decided to make an exception, that would be His prerogative. We have a ready example of this sort of thing that most of us are already familiar with. As a rule, all men die. However, God made exceptions for Enoch (Gen. 5:24) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11). Each of them was taken to heaven without experiencing natural death. These are simply examples of God exercising His prerogative over His creation.
An Alternative Understanding of the 120 Years
Even though I think we have satisfactorily resolved the apparent contradiction, there is an entirely different –and I think better– way to resolve this.
Given the flow of Genesis 6, it seems more likely that the limit of 120 years that God would “strive” or “abide” with man “because he is flesh” was the length of time before He would “destroy all flesh” (Gen. 6:17) with a worldwide flood.
According to John Sailhammer, Augustine, Luther, and Calvin all preferred this interpretation of Genesis 6:3. There are good reasons for us to prefer this interpretation as well…
- It fits better with the flow of Genesis 6, which is all about the flood.
- The flood seems like a more complete satisfaction of God’s frustration with the sinful ways of mankind in that day than simply shortening life spans.
- It is consistent with Peter’s reference to God’s patience while Noah built the ark in 1 Peter 3:20.
- In Psalm 90:10, Moses refers to a man as having 70 or 80 years of life; so, the 120 doesn’t seem to be his number for how many years a man should expect to live.
- It eliminates all of the problems associated with the first interpretation.
Conclusion and Interesting Facts
My conclusion is that the 120 years of Genesis 6:3 refer to the reprieve that mankind received before the flood. However, this verse is situated smack in the middle of a passage that refers to the sons of God marrying the daughters of men (6:2) and Nephilim walking the earth (6:4)—and I must admit that Moses loses me on those two verses. So, I am going to hold my interpretive convictions loosely on 6:3. Fortunately, the alternate interpretation, as we’ve seen, does not create a real contradiction anyway.
I do find it interesting that Moses lived to be 120 years (Deut. 34:7). It is also interesting that although some scientists speculate that people may one day live to be 150 years old, we seem to be biologically limited to around 120 years.