Making Sense of the Numbers of Genesis

Among the greatest stumbling blocks to faith in the Bible are the incredibly long ages of the patriarchs and the chronologies of Genesis 5 and 11 that seem to place the age of the Earth at about 6,000 years ago. The key to understanding the numbers in Genesis is that, in the Mesopotamian world view, numbers could have both real (numerical) and sacred (numerological or symbolic) meaning. The Mesopotamians used a sexagesimal (base 60) system of numbers, and the patriarchal ages in Genesis revolve around the sacred numbers 60 and 7. In addition to Mesopotamian sacred numbers, the preferred numbers 3, 7, 12, and 40 are used in both the Old and New Testaments. To take numbers figuratively does not mean that the Bible is not to be taken literally. It just means that the biblical writer was trying to impart a spiritual or historical truth to the text—one that surpassed the meaning of purely rational numbers. (Taken from a PDF at this link)

Author: Carol A. Hill

One of the greatest stumbling blocks to faith in the Bible has been, and is, the numbers found in Genesis—both the incredibly long ages of the patriarchs and the chronologies of Genesis 5 and 11 that seem to place the age of the Earth at about 6,000 years before present. As stated by Hugh Ross in the Genesis Question: “When readers encounter the long life spans in Genesis, they become convinced that the book is fictional, or legendary at best, whether in part or in whole.”1

Apologists have attempted to explain the long ages in Genesis in various ways.

1. Year-month-season explanation. This theory proposes that perhaps a “year” to the people of the ancient Near East had a different meaning than it does today. Instead of being marked by the orbit of the sun, a “year” then marked the orbit of the moon (a month) or a season (three months). Among the Greeks, years were sometimes called “seasons” (“horoi”), and this explanation of possible one-month or three-month equivalents of a year was mentioned by the ancient authors Pliny and Augustine, among others.2

However, this theory is nonsensical if one looks at the “begotting” ages of the patriarchs. If the ages for Adam and Enoch are divided by twelve (1 year = 1 month), then Adam would have fathered Seth at age eleven and Enoch would have been only five when he fathered Methuselah.3 Enoch’s age (65; Gen. 5:21) divided by four (1 year = 1 season) would result in an age of sixteen, which is biologically possible. But if the same number four is divided into 500— Noah’s age when his first son(s) were born (Gen. 5:32)—then the age of “begetting” would have been 125 years old, another unlikely possibility.

2. Astronomical explanations. Astronomical explanations also have been proposed to explain the incredibly long patriarchal ages. Perhaps the rotation period of the Earth has changed, so that the days then were not equivalent to those we have now. Or, perhaps a supernova could have damaged the Earth’s ozone layer, thus increasing ultraviolet radiation and systematically decreasing the age of humans.4 A problem with such astronomical explanations is that there is no concrete evidence for them. Some scientists have speculated that the transfer of angular momentum from the Earth to the moon over time has resulted in an appreciable increase in the length of a day.5 But this happened very early in Earth’s history—not within the last 10,000 years or less when the patriarchs lived. Similarly, there have been no known supernova explosions within the last 10,000 years that can account for the long ages of the patriarchs and a supposed decrease in the age of humans over time.

3. Tribal, dynasty, or “clan” explanation. Another explanation is that, when the Bible makes a statement like “Adam was the ‘father’ of Seth,” it means that the Adam “clan” had exercised dominion for 130 years (the age of Adam when Seth was born). In this view, Seth would be a direct-line descendent of Adam (grandson, great-grandson, etc.), but not the immediate son of Adam.6 Then, Seth’s “son” descendants would become part of the Seth dynasty or tribe. While this theory might have some merit, as will be described later in the Chronology section (p. 247), it is not in accord with the personal encounters that the “fathers” supposedly had with their “sons”; e.g., Noah was 500 years when his son(s) were born (Gen. 5:32), yet he coexisted with them on the ark (Gen. 7:13).

4. Canopy theory explanation. Other people have tried to explain the long ages of the patriarchs by creating a “different world” for pre-Flood humans. Whitcomb and Morris’ explanation of these long ages fits with their idea of a vapor canopy.7 Before Noah’s Flood this canopy supposedly shielded Earth from harmful radiation so that people could live to a very old age. After the Flood, harmful radiation slowly increased so that the patriarchs’ ages exhibit a slow and steady decline to the biblical life span of 70 years mentioned in Ps. 90:10.

The problem with the canopy theory is that there is not one shred of geologic or physical evidence to support it. In addition, there is no archaeological evidence that substantiates incredibly long ages for people in the past—either in Mesopotamia or anywhere else. It is known that humans living in the Bronze Age (which time span includes most of the patriarchs) had an average life span of about forty years, based on human skeletons and legal documents of the time.8 If infants and children are included in this life-span average, it would be even lower. Examination of skeletons in a number of graves at al’Ubaid (one of the oldest known archaeological sites in Mesopotamia) has indicated that some people lived to be over sixty—a great age at that time.9 A wisdom text from Emar describes the stages of a man’s life as follows: forty as prime, fifty as a short time (in which case he died young), sixty as “wool” (that is, gray hair), seventy as a long time, eighty as old age, and ninety as extreme old age.10

How then can the great ages of the patriarchs and other problematic numbers of Genesis be explained? Does one have to construct a fantastical world based on fantastical ages in order to come up with an adequate explanation? The answer is quite simple—if one considers the “world view” or “mind-set” of the people living in the age of the patriarchs; that is, the Mesopotamians (the people who lived in what is now mostly Iraq) and the Hebrews in Palestine descended from the Mesopotamians. This world view includes both the religious ideas of these people and the numerical system used by them.

The Mesopotamian System of Numbers

The Mesopotamians were the first to develop writing, astronomy, mathematics (algebra and geometry), a calendar, and a system of weights and measures, accounting, and money.11 Even as early as the Ubaid Period (~3800– 5500 BC), Mesopotamian architects were familiar with numerous geometric principles such as 1:2, 1:4, 3:5, 3:4:5 and 5:12:13 triangles for laying out buildings,12 and by ~3000 BC scribes were working with unrealistically large and small numbers.13 The Mesopotamians were the first to arrive at logarithms and exponents from their calculations of compound interest,14 they knew how to solve systems of linear and quadratic equations in two or more unknowns,15 and they calculated the value of pi () to an accuracy of 0.6%.16 The so-called Pythagorean Theorem was invented by the Mesopotamians more than 1,000 years before Pythagoras lived, and was known not only for special cases, but in full generality.17

Sexagesimal Numbers

The mathematical texts of the Sumerians or Babylonians (people who lived in southern Mesopotamia) show that these people were regularly using a sexagesimal numbering system at least by Uruk time (~3100 BC). Along with the numbers sixty and ten on which their combined sexagesimaldecimal system was based, the number six was also used in a special “bi-sexagesimal system.”18 Examples of the Mesopotamian sexagesimal system are still with us today in the form of the 360º circle, with 60-minute degrees and 60-second minutes, and with respect to time, the 60- minute hour and 60-second minute. The Mesopotamians’ sexagesimal basis for time is also reflected in their 360-day (60 x 6) year, where a “13th month” (called iti dirig) was added every sixth year to make up for the days in an actual 365-day solar year.19 A sexagesimal (base 60) system made it possible for the Sumerians to construct a family of nicely interrelated measurement systems, with sequences of naturally occurring standard units that were easy to deal with in computation.20

One disadvantage of the Sumerian numbering system was ambiguity. The Sumerians wrote their system of numbers in cuneiform—a series of wedged marks impressed onto clay tablets. Although the Babylonians had developed the important principle of “position” (place-value notation) in writing numbers, the absolute value of the digits impressed on cuneiform tablets remained a matter of intelligent guesswork.21 Another uncertainty was introduced through the fact that a blank space in a cuneiform text could sometimes mean zero (the Mesopotamians had no symbol for zero).22 In practice, these types of ambiguities were not that serious for Mesopotamian scribes because the order of magnitude and position of the numbers could be realized from the context of the tablet (e.g., whether one was denoting rations of barley, rings of silver, or whatever). However, such contextual ambiguities could have created confusion for later Hebrew biblical scribes who were not familiar with the sexagesimal system and its peculiarities.

Despite the inherent difficulties in the Mesopotamians’ sexagesimal numbering system, these are not considered to be the major problem when it comes to understanding the ages of the patriarchs. The most important consideration in this regard is the Mesopotamians’ concept of sacred numbers.

Sacred Numbers

The Mesopotamians incorporated two concepts of numbers into their world view: (1) numbers could have real values, and (2) numbers could be symbolic descriptions of the sacred. “Real” numbers were used in the everyday administrative and economic matters of accounting and commerce (receipts, loans, allotment of goods, weights and measures, etc.), construction (architecture), military affairs, and taxation. But certain numbers of the sexagesimal system, such as sossos (60), neros (600), and saros (3600) occupied a special place in Babylonian mathematics and astronomy.23 In religion, the major gods of Mesopotamia were assigned numbers according to their position in the divine hierarchy. For example, Anu, the head of the Mesopotamians’ pantheon of gods, was assigned sixty, the most perfect number in the hierarchy. In addition, the Mesopotamians sometimes used numbers cryptographically; e.g., names could have a corresponding numerical value. For example, during the construction of his palace at Khorsubad, Sargon II stated: “I built the circumference of the city wall 16,283 cubits, the number of my name.”24

The sacred numbers used by the Mesopotamians gave a type of religious dignity or respect to important persons or to a literary text … [and] fit into [their] world view of symmetry and harmony.

At least from the late third millennium BC onward, “sacred numbers” were used in religious affairs for gods, kings, or persons of high standing. Just as a name held a special significance to the ancients (e.g., Noah, Gen. 5:29)—beyond its merely being a name—a number could also have meaning in and of itself. That is, the purpose of numbers in ancient religious texts could be numerological rather than numerical. 25 Numerologically, a number’s symbolic value was the basis and purpose for its use, not its secular value in a system of counting. One of the religious considerations of the ancients involved in numbers was to make certain that any numbering scheme worked out numerologically; i.e., that it used, and added up to, the right numbers symbolically. This is distinctively different from a secular use of numbers in which the overriding concern is that numbers add up to the correct total arithmetically. Another way of looking at it is that the sacred numbers used by the Mesopotamians gave a type of religious dignity or respect to important persons or to a literary text.

Sacred numbers also fit into the Mesopotamians’ world view of symmetry and harmony, which was at the core of their meaning of life. It was important to associate one’s life with the right numbers and to avoid wrong numbers that might bring disharmony (kind of like the Chinese concept of Yin and Yang). Symbolic numbers were of highest value in religious texts because they were considered to be the carriers of ultimate truth and reality. And what was the “really big” unit to the Mesopotamians—the number around which their whole mathematical system revolved? It was the number sixty (and to a lesser degree the number ten), or some combination of these two numbers (e.g., 60÷10 = 6; 60 x 10 = 600).26 Because sixty was considered to be the fundamental unit of the sexagesimal system, it is not surprising that it came to be thought of as sacred.

The Mesopotamian-Biblical Connection

Scholars in biblical and Mesopotamian studies have tried over the years to show the common traditions of both cultures, including the creation and flood stories and the numbers contained in Genesis. Stories from the ancient Akkadian (northern Mesopotamia) and Sumerian (southern Mesopotamia) cultures also tell of extraordinarily long life spans of important persons. This is not proof of long life spans, only that the two cultures were connected in their dual concept of sacred and secular numbers, and that people from both cultures were educated in essentially the same mathematical curriculum.27 Similar to the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians had exaggerated “long reigns” for their gods and kings,28 and this seems to have been a common religious tradition for peoples of the ancient Near East. A number of scholars have specifically attempted to mathematically determine a numerical connection between the long time spans in the Sumerian king lists and the long ages of the patriarchs in Genesis,29 but despite these attempts, there still remains no absolute demonstrable relationship between the two besides a superficial similarity.30

What has emerged from such comparative studies, however, is that the concept of numbers has changed over time (Table 1). While the Mesopotamians used a sexagesimal-based system, the Hebrews centuries later were using only a decimal-based system.

A possible scenario for this noted change is: When Abraham left Mesopotamia (Ur) for Palestine, he and his descendants came in contact with other Semitic peoples and the Egyptians who were using the decimal system.31 Thus, gradually the decimal system replaced the sexagesimal system in the Hebrews’ numerical world view as they moved from Mesopotamia to Palestine to Egypt and back to Palestine. Certainly Moses, the author of Genesis, would have used the decimal system, having been raised and educated in Egypt, but perhaps some of the numerological elements of the Mesopotamians’ world view remained in the Hebrew culture even at this time. It seems certain that a sound and really historical chronology had become established in Israel by the time of David (~900 BC), as two hundred or so chronological dates in the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles are, with a few exceptions, of remarkable consistency.32 But even then, and long after, preferred or figurative numbers continued to be used throughout both the Old and New Testaments. During the Middle Ages, the concept of “sacred” numbers was lost, and it was not until the discovery and publication of the Babylonian mathematical texts in the second quarter of the twentieth century that the numerological nature of the patriarchal ages was rediscovered.33

This change in the conception of numbers may be the reason for the overall general decrease of patriarchal “begetting” ages and life-spans over time (from 930 years for Adam down to 175 years for Abraham; Table 2). The tendency to use exaggerated sacred numbers decreased after the Hebrews left Mesopotamia and slowly acquired a different numerical world view in Palestine and Egypt. However, in the generally decreasing age trend, there is an enormous jump in the “begetting” age of Noah (Table 2). This may signify an attempt by the biblical writer to favor the more righteous, or those who “stand out” from the rest due to their promi

TABLE 1: How the Concept of Numbers May Have Changed over Time



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