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God Himself limited a human's lifespan to 120 years, as told in the following verse:

Genesis 6:3 (NLT)
3 Then the LORD said, “My Spirit will not put up with humans for such a long time, for they are only mortal flesh. In the future, their normal lifespan will be no more than 120 years.”

Yet, Jeanne Calment managed to live for 122 years and 164 days, significantly more than 120 years. Does this mean that God's decree was somehow part of an old order of things that has since passed away or been overwritten, much like what Jesus did with the Law?

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@Caleb ooh, applying a rule by average - that's... unique. I wonder how that would work with local law enforcement... –  Marc Gravell Feb 27 '12 at 8:23
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@Marc Gravell - so why aren't we asking "what does it mean when someone doesn't reach the promised 120 years"? Not all translations include "not more than". You use sarcasm at the idea of it being an average while ignoring the obvious other side of the limit. Even literlalists allow room for normal speech patterns, such as averaging numbers, figures of speech, and the like. It would be silly to interpret this one literally, since not everyone lives to be exactly 120 years. Caleb's statement about averages is how most Christians interpret this. Something we actually pretty much agree on. –  David Stratton Feb 27 '12 at 12:47
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Of the translations listed here, only the NLT includes "no more than". bible.cc/genesis/6-3.htm –  David Stratton Feb 27 '12 at 12:50
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If you are interested in the meaning of the Hebrew text in it's original language, you might ask this question on the Hermeneutics site. It sounds like this might be a translation issue. –  Jon Ericson Feb 27 '12 at 16:16
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in this specific translation, it seems that 'normal' is a significant qualifier. likewise, normal humans have no more than 10 digits on their hands. of course some humans do have more, but statistically, it is not 'normal' (normal in the casual sense, not the distribution) –  Keith Oct 24 '12 at 7:36

5 Answers 5

While marc-gravell mentions that the 120 years until the flood interpretation is "hotly contested" I would say that is definitely the best interpretation. Even the link provided by Marc really talks more about the timeline for building the ark rather than contesting the "120 years to the flood" interpretation. The author of that article concludes that this is the best interpretation of Genesis 6:3.

If we take 120 years to as some average lifespan then the Bible completely misses this mark. Immediately following the flood the lifespans are still measured in the hundreds of years and by the end of the patriarchal period the lifespans drop well below a 120 year average. The main issue with interpreting this number as the years until the flood only occurs with the length of time it took Noah to build the ark. When we realize that the text doesn't require that Noah started building at the same year as the statement in 6:3 then the interpretation works rather well.

The problem stems from the poor translation of the NLT text. In attempting to make the text more "readable" they have inferred meaning that isn't required by the original text. Most (all?) scholarly translations do not force this meaning into the text of Genesis 6:3.

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Did you mean "120 years" until the flood? –  Narnian Aug 13 '13 at 14:34
    
I think he meant Genesis 6:3 means that God was saying there would be 120 years then the flood, which based on Genesis 11:10-11 would be the correct interpretation. Thus Genesis 6:3 is not limiting the lifespan of individuals after the flood. –  HelloWorld Aug 13 '13 at 15:14
    
Yes, I meant 120 years. Thankfully someone fixed that with an edit. –  davidethell Dec 23 '13 at 10:20

It's all relative, of course. Here's the immediate context:

When Lamech had lived 182 years, he fathered a son and called his name Noah, saying, “Out of the ground that the LORD has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands.” Lamech lived after he fathered Noah 595 years and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Lamech were 777 years, and he died.—Genesis 5:28-31 (ESV)

Compared to Lamech, Mme. Calment died regrettably young. She ought to still be in prime of her life.

However, the NET Bible footnote offers a simpler solution:

Heb “his days will be 120 years.” Some interpret this to mean that the age expectancy of people from this point on would be 120, but neither the subsequent narrative nor reality favors this. It is more likely that this refers to the time remaining between this announcement of judgment and the coming of the flood.


Further, we can see that Genesis contradicts the idea that 120 years is a hard limit:

These are the generations of Shem. When Shem was 100 years old, he fathered Arpachshad two years after the flood. And Shem lived after he fathered Arpachshad 500 years and had other sons and daughters.—Genesis 11:10-11 (ESV)

The ages do drop fairly rapidly. Nine generations later:

The days of Terah were 205 years, and Terah died in Haran.—Genesis 11:32 (ESV)

Assuming a limit to the length of life is meant, the author(s) of Genesis seem to be thinking in terms of approximations or orders of magnitude. An occasional 122 (or 130) year-old is to be expected, but we don't see anyone living 500+ years anymore.

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This "120 years to the flood" interpretation is hotly contested, for example here. More subjective, but I also find the "to the flood" interpretation far more of a stretch from the text, which does IMO clearly seem to be saying something unrelated to the flood, but instead relating to maximum life of people. –  Marc Gravell Feb 27 '12 at 10:05
    
ah, yes - the ages in all the begats; I suspect that is worth editing into your answer, actually - it so flat-out contradicts the 120 in terms of this question, that Jeanne Calment's notable achievement is moot. –  Marc Gravell Feb 27 '12 at 10:27
    
@Marc: Good idea. (But I'm sure Mme. Calment would disagree with you. ;-) –  Jon Ericson Feb 27 '12 at 10:41

In Genesis, the lifespans of people - denoting from birth to death - are described in the following manner, "...the days of [so-and-so] were [number of] years, and he died..." The exception being that of Enoch "...and he was not, for God took him." Later on, Pharoah asks Jacob, Joseph's father, "How many are the days of the years of your life?" The difference here being Jacob hasn't yet died, and the question adds the necessary words, "are" and "of your life?" It's interesting that God uses the same idiom for "man". God: "...yet his days shall be 120 years."

Before God determined that immense decrease in lifespan for the human race (no specific time frame was given for when this would begin to happen to our race), there had been no common maximum lifespan for the human body, other than people seemed to die short of a thousand years; I read in amazement the news some years ago, that scientists discovered the approximate, NATURALLY optimum lifespan capable within the human body is 120 years. Obviously, God can alter this in specific instances for certain individuals, for His own purpose, as He alters other ordinances of His occasionally (such as Enoch being spared the common sentence of physical death of all humans). Granted, few of us - what with poor diet, toxins around us that weaken our immune systems, and warfare - are able to live to that maximum lifespan, even though it exists.

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Notice the wording of:

Genesis 6:3 (NLT) 3 Then the LORD said, “My Spirit will not put up with humans for such a long time, for they are only mortal flesh. In the future, their normal lifespan will be no more than 120 years.”

The verse only says "In the future". That could be at anytime God wanted. Look at humans today. How many humans live to 120? Heck you are lucky to make it to 90.

Also this scripture is pre-flood. This is what God said before he decided to wipe them off the earth. When God feels regret, it is not in the sense that God made a wrong decision he regrets. Instead what that means is “change one’s mind with regard to past (or intended) action". God felt regret then when he found favor in Noah. He could also have felt "regret" over his decision to shorten mans life. If God had wiped wickedness off the earth then there would be no need to administer such a punishment.

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If you really read the scripture is says Genesis 6:3 (NLT) 3 Then the LORD said, “My Spirit will not put up with humans for such a long time, for they are only mortal flesh. In the future, their normal lifespan will be no more than 120 years.”

It will be normal that most will not live past 120 but can live a little past as meaning exceptional lifespan. After the flood of Noah the people no longer was able to live 400-500 years. Everything does not have to be so exact. The bible didn't say NO Matter what absolutley NOone will live past 120. (no exceptions) It is not that specific.

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