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At the time of Noah, God said:

Genesis 6:3 NIV
Then the LORD said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.”

Now, later on, we have the account of Jacob and his sons. When Jacob moves to Joseph in Egypt, the pharaoh of asks him of his age, to which he replies:

Genesis 47:9 NIV
And Jacob said to Pharaoh, “The years of my pilgrimage are a hundred and thirty. My years have been few and difficult, and they do not equal the years of the pilgrimage of my fathers.”

Is there any explanation for this? I guess that either you can interpret this as Jacob referring to something else then his true physical age (e.g. "the years of my pilgrimage" having some kind of special meaning), or he might have miscalculated, or God's rule of the maximum age of man might not apply to all, like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and other distinguished men of God.

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Some say that the 120 years therein stated does not refer to an age limit, but the limit of time given to them to repent before God would bring forth the deluge. –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Apr 17 '13 at 4:23
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4 Answers

up vote 16 down vote accepted

There are a number of different theories as to the meaning of Genesis 6:3:

120 years to the flood

One common interpretation is that it's not talking about lifespan, but the amount of time humanity has to repent before the coming of the Flood.1,2

Aside: Genesis 7:6 tells us that Noah was 600 years old when the flood came, placing the flood 1656 years after the creation of Adam according to the dates in Genesis 5, thus placing the Genesis 6:3 statement at 1536 years after Adam's creation.

120 years left of Adam's life

Another argument is that many versions have slightly mistranslated this verse. If you compare translations you'll see that some have the passage relating to "humans" - all humanity (such as the NIV, which you've quoted), many others use the term "man". This is because the word that's interpreted here as "humans" can also mean "the man"; or, more specifically, "the man Adam". So this argument states that Gen 6:3 is not talking about everyone, but specifically that Adam had 120 years left to live at the time God made this statement.2

Aside: Genesis 5 tells us that Adam lived for 930 years, so this statement would have happened when he was 810 years old. According to the chronology in chapter 5, this places the statement after the birth of Methusela (Noah's grandfather) but 64 years before the birth of Lamech (Noah's father).

Human lifespan of 120 years

This is the way many versions of the Bible are translated, and of course the meaning you have taken from the passage. But as you say, there are several people recorded in the Bible that have lived longer than 120 years since then. It's worth noting of course that we don't know what methods were used for recording the passing of time in those days, and how accurate or otherwise those methods were. Moreover, Dr John Oakes tells us that it's really only a Western culture thing that puts such an emphasis on the exact-ness of numbers. I'm sure you're aware of the African stereotype today, where you set a time for a meeting and any African attendees will turn up some time after the scheduled start time. Similarly in the near-East culture, the "120 years" would be taken as a very broad estimate rather than something exact; perhaps more of an average than a maximum.

A quick note on my asides above - here's a footnote from Genesis 5:31 in the Amplified Bible:

It is now well known that the age of mankind cannot be reckoned in years from the facts listed in genealogies, for there are numerous known intentional gaps in them. For example, as B. B. Warfield (Studies in Theology) points out, the genealogy in Matt. 1:1-17 omits the three kings, Ahaziah, Jehoash, and Amaziah, and indicates that Joram (Matt. 1:8) begat Uzziah, who was his great-great-grandson. The mistaking of compressed genealogies as bases for chronology has been very misleading. So far, the dates in years of very early Old Testament events are altogether speculative and relative, and the tendency is to put them farther and farther back into antiquity.

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Interesting theories. I think the third make most sense to me, at least that part about 120 years being an average and not a definite maximum. Would it be possible for you to give some examples for the "several people recorded in the Bible that have lived longer than 120 years since then"? –  Shathur Oct 19 '11 at 7:19
    
One is Noah himself (600 years old when the flood came), in the very next chapter. Genesis 11 lists several more. Numbers 33:39 says Aaron was 123 years old when he died. 2 Chronicles 24:15 says Jehoiada died at 130. –  Waggers Oct 19 '11 at 8:28
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In entire bible, there are factors that changes the "default" man's lifespan:

Exodus 20:12 KJV
Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.

Deuteronomy 25:15 KJV But thou shalt have a perfect and just weight, a perfect and just measure shalt thou have: that thy days may be lengthened in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.

Proverbs 17:22 KJV
A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones.

Isaiah 65:20 KJV
There shall be no more thence an infant of days, nor an old man that hath not filled his days: for the child shall die an hundred years old; but the sinner being an hundred years old shall be accursed.

Luke 12:19-20 KJV
And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?

And you read in the patriarchs endings, each ends "full of years" and Jacob states that their years are "few and difficult". It makes me think about quality of years over quantity of days.

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Oops, got timed out by the computer, trying this again: In Genesis, the earliest patriarchs' individual lifespans are expressed the following way: "...the days of [name] were [number of] years, and he died..." The exception to this being Enoch, "...and he was not, for God took him." Similarly, Pharoah asks Jacob, "How many are the days of the years of your life?" (the difference there being he had not yet died). It's interesting that God uses the same idiom for "man"/humanity: "...yet his days shall be 120 years." Until God decided that, there had been no common maximum lifespan for humans, other than they seemed to die short of a thousand years, nor was any specific date given for when this descreased lifespan would start for humankind.

I read, of course, some years ago of scientists' discovery that the approximate, NATURALLY optimum lifespan for THE human body is 120 years: now God can alter this ordinance Himself for individuals for His own purpose, as He does for other ordinances (i.e., Enoch spared the common sentence of physical death for all humans), OR humans can medically alter it with ever-developing technology to rejuvenate human cells; nonetheless - but for godly or human intervention - 120 years is the natural optimum age the body is capable of on its own - barring poor diet, toxins that weaken our immune systems, disease, warfare, etc., that cause most of us to fall far short of that natural maximum age.

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I think it is important to note that when looking at the records of the generations of shem (son of noah)who was born before the mention of 120 year maximum human life span. Shem lived 600 years. Then the lifespan of his descendants declined throughout the generations. Mabe what God was saying was that the lifespan of a human would gradually declined untill it reached 120 years.

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This answer reads more like a discussion point or comment than an answer. It would be a lot better if you could add references showing that this is a common understanding, and who teaches/believes it. Remember that "maybe it means..." isn't an acceptable answer, since this site isn't about personal interpretation. See How we are different than other sites? and What makes a good supported answer? –  David Stratton Mar 11 at 0:18
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