Did Noah Spend 120 Years Building the Ark?

Genesis 6:3 is another example of a commonly misused Bible verse. A closer look at the verse itself and its immediate context goes a long way to clearing up the misconceptions about it.

Genesis 6:3 is another example of a commonly misused Bible verse. A closer look at the verse itself and its immediate context clears up the misconceptions.

“It took Noah 120 years to build the Ark.”

I come across this sentiment nearly every day. I have had the tremendous blessing to work on the content for the upcoming Ark Encounter theme park so I frequently hear what people think about the Flood account. Because so many people recite this claim one would think that it comes directly from Scripture, but is that really the case? Does the Bible ever teach that Noah needed this length of time to build the Ark?

 

Difficult to Translate

The idea of “120 years” is drawn from Genesis 6:3. Before examining what this verse actually means, we need to realize that it is a difficult verse to translate. This fact is borne out by the way it is translated in our English Bibles.

And the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” (NKJV)

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.” (NIV2011)

And the LORD said, “My Spirit will not remain with mankind forever, because they are corrupt. Their days will be 120 years.” (HCSB)

Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” (ESV)

So the LORD said, “My spirit will not remain in humankind indefinitely, since they are mortal. They will remain for 120 more years.” (NET)

What was God really saying at the start of this verse? Was He stating that His Spirit/spirit would not contend with or strive against mankind forever or was He making the point that His Spirit/spirit would not remain in or abide with man forever? This is not a small difference. Was God’s Spirit/spirit continually battling with mankind or was His Spirit/spirit dwelling within mankind and would be withdrawn?

You may have noticed another difference in the verses above. Why did I write “Spirit/spirit” multiple times above? Another difficulty involved in translating this verse is that scholars are not sure if the Hebrew word ruakh refers to the Lord’s personal Spirit or to His life-giving spirit or breath (i.e., that which was breathed into Adam making him a living soul in Genesis 2:7).

Studying the context and seeing how the ancient Greek translation rendered the passage will help us determine what was really being stated. We will look at these matters in a later section, but first we need to talk about some of the weaknesses of the popular understanding of the 120 years being a reference to the Ark construction period.

Difficulties with the Countdown View

Genesis 6:3 is right in the middle of the verses about the sons of God and the Nephilim. It would seem that the 120 years should be understood in that context, particularly since the destruction of the Flood is not introduced until several verses later. The first part of Genesis 6 describes the staggering amount of wickedness on the earth and the Lord’s sorrow over man’s evil. Verse 7 tells us that God determined to blot out men and the animals, but it isn’t until verse 17 that the Flood is mentioned.

Another problem with the popular view is that if the 120 years was intended to be a countdown to the Flood, who heard this pronouncement of judgment? Did God announce it to the whole world? Did He speak it to Noah? The Bible doesn’t indicate that He did either one of these things. Rather, this is almost certainly a declaration God made to members of His heavenly council.

Given the two points above, it seems highly unlikely that the 120 years refers to a countdown to the Flood. And even if it did mean that, nothing in the text tells us that this is when Noah was called to build the Ark or that he began construction at this time.

Is there an explanation that makes better sense of the wording of the passage, the immediate context, other relevant passages in Scripture, and what we observe in our world? I believe there is a much better explanation.

Maximum Lifespan

A cursory reading has given many people the impression that the 120 years refers to a new limit on man’s lifespan. But how could this be since Noah lived 950 years and his son, Shem, lived 600 years? Before dismissing the lifespan view based on this argument you need to consider what the Bible reveals about lifespans from the time the announcement was made until the time it was written down by Moses. The following chart shows the lifespans of the people from Noah to Moses.

Name Lifespan
Noah 950
Shem 600
Arphaxad 438
Salah 433
Eber 464
Peleg 239
Reu 239
Serug 230
Nahor 148
Terah 205*
Abraham 175
Isaac 180
Jacob 147
Levi 137
Kohath 133
Amram 137
Moses 120

Man’s life expectancy at that point in history steadily dropped from 900+ to 120 years in the 16 generations from Noah to Moses.1 Lifespans continued to decrease after Moses. Joshua lived 110 years, and before long, it seems that few lived beyond 80 years.

[The following paragraph was added on 7/2/15]
I find it very interesting that the Bible records the ages of the people in the genealogy from Adam down to Moses. As soon as the lifespans decreased to 120 years, then the Bible stopped recording how old a person was when they died. It’s as if Moses was showing the fulfillment of Genesis 6:3 by listing all the ages, but as soon as this passage was fulfilled, there was no longer a need to record the ages. Yes, I know Joshua lived to 110, but the ages of his immediate ancestors are not given, and there may be another reason why his age was specifically given.2

Objections to the Lifespan View

There are some objections that lead people to look for an interpretation other than the lifespan view. In addition to the one just mentioned, let’s take a look at three more reasons why the most natural reading is rejected.

Delayed Judgment

Some have argued that if God pronounced a reduction of man’s lifespan at this time to 120 years then we would not see a steady decline, but a sharp and immediate drop to that limit because God would not need to wait for another 16 generations for the sentence to be completed. But God can delay judgment or gradually carry out a sentence. Although sixteen generations did pass before the lifespan was sufficiently reduced there was an immediate decline between Noah’s generation and the next (Noah-950 to Shem-600). In fact, the alternative to the lifespan view—that God gave man 120 more years before the Flood—would also be a form of delayed judgment, so those who use this argument have a similar issue.

70 or 80 Years

Psalm 90:10 states, “The days of our lives add up to seventy years, or eighty if one is especially strong” (NET). Some have used this verse to argue against the lifespan interpretation of the “120 years,” but there are obvious problems with this objection.

First, Moses is credited with writing this psalm. He lived to 120 years and all of his male ancestors lived even longer. His brother Aaron lived 123 years (Numbers 33:39), and was older than 80 when this psalm was penned, so it would be very strange for Moses to claim that men could only live to 70 or 80 years. Furthermore, many people today surpass 80 years, so why would someone cite this verse as a definitive argument against the lifespan view of Genesis 6:3?

Second, the psalm described what normally happens, but it was not meant as an absolute statement of what always happened. That is, people usually live to 70 or 80 years if they die of “natural causes.” Genesis 6:3 seems to speak of an upper limit for man’s lifespan rather than a generalization.

Exceptions

The Bible records that someone after Moses outlived the 120 year lifespan: Jehoiada the priest, who reached 130 years.3 Doesn’t his long life invalidate the lifespan interpretation of Genesis 6:3? I don’t believe it does. Jehoiada was a faithful servant who “had accomplished good in Israel and for God and his temple” (2 Chronicles 24:16, NKJV). He and his wife hid Joash from the wicked usurper Athaliah for six years, and then Jehoiada risked his life to overthrow Athaliah and crown Joash as king.

God may have simply rewarded Jehoiada’s faithfulness by making an exception to the 120 year lifespan rule. Do we have examples of any other “exceptions” to biblical rules that God has made? There are plenty. For example, Hebrews 9:27 states, “And just as people are appointed to die once, and then to face judgment…” (NET). This rule holds true in nearly every case, but by raising people from the dead, God has made at least eight exceptions of people who would die twice.4 Furthermore, Enoch never died (Hebrews 11:5), and it seems that Elijah never faced death either (2 Kings 2:11).

This is a copy of Jeanne Calment's birth certificate. The first few words spell out the year 1875.

This is a copy of Jeanne Calment’s birth certificate. The first few words spell out the year 1875.

A French woman, Jeanne Louise Calment, is reported to have lived 122 years (1875–1997), making her the only person on Wikipedia’s list of oldest people to ever live to surpass 120 years (of course, the list does not include biblical people). Perhaps Calment is another exception to the rule. Or perhaps the records of her earliest years are not entirely reliable and she didn’t truly reach 120 years. Claims of longevity have frequently been controverted by the evidence, so it would not be overly surprising if Calment’s lifespan is slightly exaggerated, although the Guinness World Records organization is satisfied with the data supporting it.5

Calment’s long life by modern standards would not invalidate the lifespan view of Genesis 6:3. Indeed, it is very interesting to see that several people have surpassed 110 years, but only Calment seemed to have reached 120. This fact lends support to the lifespan view and the reliability of Scripture.

The Meaning of Genesis 6:3

To best understand Genesis 6:3 we really need to view it in its immediate context.

When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown. (Genesis 6:1–4, ESV)

Verses 5–12 tell us that every intent of the thoughts of men’s hearts was continually evil, that all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth, and the earth was filled with violence. Surely, our planet was not a nice place to live prior to the Flood, but something else was going on that made it more sinister than most people imagine.

My Th.M. thesis on the sons of God and the Nephilim addresses the topic of the sons of God at length. It is available in print or for Kindle.

My Th.M. thesis on the sons of God and the Nephilim addresses the topic of the sons of God at length. It is available in print or for Kindle.

The “sons of God” mentioned in verses 2 and 4 above are heavenly beings that left their proper abode to marry women and have children with them. Their offspring were the Nephilim (giants). Other than describing them as mighty men of renown and telling of their unique parentage, verse 4 does not tell us much about the Nephilim. The only other time they are specifically mentioned is in Numbers 13:33, and in that passage it seems as if these giants were involved in cannibalism, a fact that terrified ten of the twelve Israelite spies sent to check out the land. I have written extensively on these topics elsewhere so there is no need to elaborate here.

In the midst of the Bible’s description of rampant evil on the earth we read this passage about God’s pronouncement that men’s lifespans would be shortened to 120 years. Man does enough wickedness in his 70 to 80 years today, imagine how much more evil he could do if he lived over 900 years. God’s judgment of reducing man’s lifespan was apparently done to curb the spread of evil in the world.

The ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint (LXX) stated that God’s spirit or breath (pneuma) would not reside (katameine) in man for an age or eon (aiona). So the Hebrew scribes who translated the LXX viewed this passage as a declaration that man’s lifetime would be shortened.

The Greek translation helps us see another important point that is missed by most English Bibles, which translate the Hebrew word olam as “forever” in Genesis 6:3. While the word can carry this meaning, it often refers to an age or a long period of time. The well respected Hebrew-Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT) gives the word’s primary definition as “long time, duration.” The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament states the following about olam:

That neither the Hebrew nor the Greek word in itself contains the idea of endlessness is shown by the fact that they sometimes refer to events or conditions that occurred at a definite point in the past, and also by the fact that sometimes it is thought desirable to repeat the word, not merely saying “forever,” but “forever and ever.”6

If the LXX’s and ESV’s rendering of verse 3 is correct, then the Bible also tells us how God would accomplish this reduction of man’s lifespan. He stated that “His spirit would not abide in man forever.” If this is a reference to the breath that God breathed into Adam making him a living soul, then the Bible is telling us that God announced that He would not allow that breath/spirit to remain in man for so long. God would no longer graciously preserve man’s long life.7

Conclusion

The long ages of the people who lived prior to the Flood have led to considerable discussion. Skeptics mock the possibility of people living so long, and many Christians have proposed a variety of solutions to explain how this could have happened. But it seems that the answer has been staring us in the face the whole time.

Man was originally created to live forever, but when Adam sinned man’s lifespan was reduced to less than a thousand years.8 When people continued in vile behavior and filled the earth with their wretchedness, God announced that He would no longer allow humans to live for so long. So this verse doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the length of time it took Noah to build the Ark.

120 years seems like a long time for us today, but it was just a fraction of how long our earliest ancestors lived. In His judgment God once again demonstrated His mercy. Wicked people cannot live for hundreds of years spreading their evil around the globe. Our time is short and judgment awaits us after death. Our significantly shorter lifespans should cause us to reflect on our own mortality and to be sure we are in a right relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, our Creator and coming Judge (John 5:24–30). Those who believe in Christ will not come into judgment, but those who reject Him will face His eternal judgment.


  1. The asterisk behind Terah’s name is to point out that the Samaritan Pentateuch lists his age at death as being 145 years old. This would be consistent with Stephen’s statement in Acts 7:4 that Abram moved from Haran after his father (Terah) had died. The resolution of this difficulty is beyond the scope of this article. 

  2. The Egyptians of that time viewed the ideal age for a person was 110 years. As such, it is quite ironic when Jacob told Pharaoh that his 130 years had been few compared to his ancestors. Moses outlived this “ideal age” and Joshua reached it. 

  3. Some may argue that Job fits in this category as well. While we cannot be certain when Job lived, the book’s internal clues give every indication that he lived well before the days of Moses. 

  4. At least eight people besides Jesus were raised from the dead in Scripture: Elijah raised the widow’s son (1 Kings 17:21–22), Elisha raised a young boy in 2 Kings 4, and a man came back to life after contacting the bones of Elisha (2 Kings 13:20–21). Jesus raised the widow’s son at Nain (Luke 7:11–15), Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:49–56), and Lazarus (John 11). God used Peter to bring Tabitha back to life (Acts 9:40) and Paul to raise Eutychus (Acts 20:7–12). There are other possible exceptions as well. For more information, see chapter 21 in my book, In Defense of Easter: Answering Critical Challenges to the Resurrection of Jesus

  5. For more information on the challenges of verifying longevity and for examples of refuted claims, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Longevity_claims. 

  6. Allan A. Macrae, in R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, editors, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 673. 

  7. Kenneth A. Mathews, The New American Commentary: Genesis 1–11:26 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), p. 332. 

  8. The longest living person recorded in Scripture was Methuselah, who lived 969 years. While others may have lived longer I believe a case can be made that no one lived longer than a thousand years. That discussion is beyond the scope of this article. When I get around to writing about this issue I will update this post with a link. 

About Tim Chaffey

I am the founder of Midwest Apologetics and work as the Content Manager with the Attractions Division of Answers in Genesis. I have written (or co-authored) several books, including In Defense of Easter, God and Cancer, The Sons of God and the Nephilim, and The Truth Chronicles Series (see the publications page for more details). Please note: the opinions expressed on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Answers in Genesis.

Comments

Did Noah Spend 120 Years Building the Ark? — 17 Comments

  1. Your questions expressing your skepticism of the tablet model show that you read the Bible as if (as if) it were a work of fiction, or a movie whose cameraman is separate from the story.

    You seem to assume that Adam was either or both of incompetent or unmotivated to preserve any core record of his story.

    You seem to assume that Seth, Methuselah, and Noah were nothing more than ‘God-believing’ versions of the isolated tribes in the Amazon.

    You seem to take as granted that the confusion of languages at the tower of Babel involved not merely the unbelieving world, but those who then lived who were of the line from Shem to Abraham. Did Shem loose his ability to speak or think in his native Noahic language? Did Noah himself get his own language changed?

    Even assuming that Abe had been born into one of those non-Adamic languages, surely Shem would be inclined to teach Abe the original.

    So there are a lot of naïve, modern secularistic, assumptions or intuitions that you seem to have about the relation between the text and the Patriarchs it describes.

    Assuming that Shem’s language remained that of Noah before the Flood, and that Noah’s pre-Flood language was essentially that Adam’s, the only way for Moses not to be able to read the tablets is if somehow some segment along the Patriarchal line were absolute idiots with no sense of their history and its records. You seem willing to believe that the book of Genesis is a mere description of events utterly independent, movie-cameraman style, of those it describes! This is ridiculous! It is not a fairy tale! It is not a work of fiction by some removed author! If God had to dictate the whole it to Moses because there was no accurate record, then why do you now assume that the Gospels are true and accurate?!

    Your sole answer is to quote the scripture that says that it was by ‘inspiration’! But what *you* mean by that is something which is, in fact, utterly naive superstition. You are not very different from the ancient pagans who surely quoted their false scripture. They had false creation stories, and false gods, because they already refused to humbly keep the record of the truth!

    So, it is one thing to *learn* the truth, and quite another mainly to *assent* to its verbatim! Had you been without the NT scriptures (such as Hebrews 11:17-19), you would have insisted that the verbatim of Gen 22 is constitutes the lesson therein!: Obey God’s verbatim, end of story!

    But Abe did not obey God’s verbatim of that test. Abe obeyed God: God’s promises. Big difference. God is not reduced to His own verbatim and more than you are to yours. God forbid that we take you too narrowly therein! Yet you would that the verbatim of the Bible be taken so narrowly: that the Bible is some kind of Complete Idiot’s Guide!

    • Hi Daniel,

      I must say that I find your charges to be quite absurd and baseless. I stated that God inspired Moses to write Genesis, and you think this means that I read the Bible as if it were a work of fiction? Should I assume that you don’t understand what “inspiration” refers to from a theological perspective?
      You say that I assume Adam was either incompetent or unmotivated to preserve his story, yet I never said anything of the sort. If you knew anything about me, you would know my thoughts on Adam’s intellectual capabilities—I believe they far exceeded our own.
      Actually, I don’t assume anything about Methuselah being a believer in God since the Bible tells us nothing about his faith or lack thereof. You are the one making the assumption here. I’d like to think he was a faithful follower of God and don’t think it is a stretch at all to think he may have been, given the identity of his father (Enoch) and grandson (Noah).
      We don’t have any idea whether Noah or Shem were involved in the Babel event. Again, it is nice to think of them as being separate from it, but the Bible simply does not tell us where they were at this time.
      You assume that Shem knew his great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandson, Abraham. Just because their lives overlapped does not mean they knew each other. Shem likely had tens of thousands of descendants by the time Abraham was born. Why should we assume he knew Abraham? You also seem to assume that the line from Shem to Abraham was godly, but we know that Abraham’s more immediate ancestors were part of the pagan culture in Mesopotamia. Joshua 24:14–15 tells us that the Israelites’ “fathers” served other gods on the other side of the Euphrates. Joshua 24:2 states, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel: Your fathers, including Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, dwelt on the other side of the River in old times; and they served other gods.”
      You claim that I hold “a lot of naïve, modern secularistic, assumptions or intuitions” about the relation of the text and the Patriarchs, but as I’ve just shown, you are the one imposing your assumptions on the text. Our goal should be to discover, to the best of our ability, what the text actually says. Anything beyond that, we must recognize as our own view and hold tentatively.
      Nothing in my statement implied that the patriarchs were “idiots.” In fact, one of the (minor) reasons I don’t hold the tablet model is that I find it unnecessary since I believe the individuals were smart enough to remember the things passed on to them. Nothing in Scripture states that the various patriarchs wrote parts of Genesis. I said that I consider it a possibility that they did, and you accuse me of holding secular ideas about the text. Ironically, it was the liberal theologians of the past few centuries who first divided Genesis up into different authors.
      One does not need to be an eyewitness of events to faithfully record what happened. Luke was not an eyewitness, but he spoke to those who were. Plus, his writing of Luke and Acts was inspired by the Holy Spirit to be without error. I believe the gospels are true and accurate, but not because they were written by people close to the events, but because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit.
      Um, Abraham did obey “verbatim” God in Genesis 22. He went to the mountains of Moriah fully intent on sacrificing Isaac, just as God said. He only stopped because the Angel of the Lord told him to. I fail to see a distinction between the lesson learned in Genesis 22 and what we are told in Hebrews 11:17–19. Both show that Abraham was faithful to follow the Lord. Hebrews 11 helps us understand more about why Abraham was willing to follow through with it—He knew that God kept His promises and that Isaac was the child of promise. So even if he killed Isaac, God would have to bring him back from the dead to fulfill His promises.
      Finally, I find it quite astonishing that you seem to think that God inspiring the writing of Scripture turns the Bible into some sort of “Complete Idiot’s Guide.” I find that to be a rather blasphemous statement. Do you have such a low view of inspiration? Do you think everything must have been written by eyewitnesses? If so, who wrote the bulk of Genesis 1? Surely not Adam, since he wasn’t an eyewitness to most of the events. If you do think it’s Adam, then are you must believe God told Adam what happened for the first five days. So how would that be different than God guiding Moses? And if you think God wrote that part, then I still ask, how is that different in the end result of having God guide Moses? Either way, it is still God providing the instruction.
      You need to be very careful about imposing an interesting idea (tablet model) on the text. It helps answer some questions, but it also opens up new cans of worms. Most importantly, it is not spelled out in the text of Scripture that Genesis was written by different authors, so why should you be so uptight about someone who doesn’t share the view? You know very little about my many reasons for not favoring the tablet model, yet you made numerous false accusations about my view of Scripture.
      Readers of this blog know I have a very high view of Scripture—that God inspired the writing of Scripture, from the very first verse to the very last, making it inerrant and infallible. I have spent the better part of the past 20 years writing and teaching on this truth and since I don’t hold the tablet model, I somehow deny Scripture’s accuracy. That’s why I said your charges were absurd.

  2. Hi Tim,

    Your article has got me thinking. I initially held to this view espoused in this article but due to various articles from AiG and ICR, I changed my view to the one that the 120 years was God’s longsuffering towards man before the flood. Even if they didn’t know that it will take 120 years for them to be destroyed as you have rightly pointed out by citing Jesus Christ’s statements. Anyways, so basically, this blog post of yours goes against the views of AiG? Since they have even published a book about it: https://answersingenesis.org/contradictions-in-the-bible/longevity-or-countdown/

    • Hi Tebong,
      Thanks for taking the time to read the post and leave a reply. I was actually the main editor for the book that you mentioned (Demolishing Supposed Bible Contradictions, Vol. 2), but due to a shortened deadline at the last minute I was not able to thoroughly review every chapter (others helped with that process). The goal of that book was to simply give a plausible explanation to show that two passages are not in contradiction to each other. In this case it would be Genesis 6:3 and Psalm 90:10. The answer given in the book would accomplish that goal, but I don’t think it is the best answer that we could have given. I believe the explanation given in this post makes far better sense of the text of the passage and it does a better job with the context. I wouldn’t rule out the view mentioned in the book, but I just don’t find good support for it in the text. This passage isn’t part of the ministry’s statement of faith and it certainly isn’t an area we focus on, so there is room for disagreement.
      I hope this helps.

  3. OK, I hear you, Tim. Just one last thing (until next time!). You said, “Rather than creating confusion, as you suggest, these words given to Moses would address a question that people in his day surely wondered about: How come we don’t we live as long as our ancestors? This drop in age could easily be seen in Moses’ own family: his father Amram (137), grandfather Kohath (133), Levi (137), Jacob (147), Isaac (180), Abraham (175). It answers the same question we have today: If people really lived so long before the Flood, how come we don’t live that long anymore?”

    I see your point, but does Gen 6:3 really answer the question? It may address the question, but doesn’t really answer it. Simply stating that people would eventually have much shorter lifespans(IF that is what the verse says, which it does not) does not in any way explain why. And why, of all places, insert the verse there between the references to the sons of God and the Nephilim, at the beginning of the Flood account, right before God speaks of coming judgment, unnecessarily creating the possibility of multiple interpretations, instead of placing it in His lengthy discourse AFTER the Flood, where it probably could have had only one possible interpretation?

    God didn’t say that lifespans would gradually decrease over the centuries until they eventually reached a maximum of 120 years. He didn’t say they “could be” as much as 120 years, but no longer (with a few exceptions). He said,”… his days SHALL BE an hundred and twenty years.” If Moses’ people were to take God at His word, and ignore the possibility that God is speaking of the length of time pre-Flood mankind as a whole had left before world-wide judgment, wouldn’t it sound as if He is promising that people in general would live to be 120 years old, when obviously the vast majority since the time of Moses wouldn’t live anywhere near that long even in the best conditions? (Apparently only a few people were older than 60 when they arrived in the promised land according to Numbers 26:64,65. Every adult male – those who were already adults at the time they left Egypt – except Joshua and Caleb and Moses was dead by the end of the 40 years wandering.)

    Since when does “shall be” mean “could be, but probably won’t be”? For clarity’s sake, how hard would it have been for God to say, “… his days shall not exceed one hundred twenty years”? If it were worded like that and placed in the blessing God gave to Noah and his family in Gen 9:1-17, there would be nothing to debate. The very fact that you and are in such disagreement now about its interpretation proves that it could have been stated more clearly.

    OK, I’m done now. Thanks for putting up with me. If you respond to this here, and if I reply again, it will probably be in an e-mail. Please take care.
    Your friend,
    Tom

    • Hi Tom,
      My post explained that I think this verse does explain the “how” of the decreasing lifespan. It was because God withdrew His spirit from man. Apparently, His spirit is what sustained such long lives.
      To claim that the wording of this phrase (“his days shall be 120 years”) would require everyone to live to exactly 120 years would be a case of hyper-literalizing the text. You and I both know that much of the Bible is written to be understood in its plain sense. It is very natural to understand the phrase to mean that man will not outlive 120 years.
      I’m going to add this next comment into the post since I forgot to put it in originally. Isn’t it interesting that the Bible gives us the age for each person from Adam all the way down to Moses, and then it no longer gives us ages (for the most part — yes, Joshua reached 110 and Jehoiada 130)? I find it remarkable that Moses would record the ages all the way down to the time when that prophecy was fulfilled, and then the Bible no longer traces those ages for us. This is another good argument in favor of the position I’ve taken on the subject. Obviously, by itself it is not watertight, but combined with every other point, it makes the case even stronger.
      Thanks again for the “iron sharpening iron” discussion.
      Sincerely, Tim

  4. Tim! What is your take on the Jubilee theory for the 120 years. There are studies and books out now (forgive my lack of sources) that look at the Jubilee cycles as a symbolic “year” as well as a generation. 120 “years” or jubilee cycles multiplied by 50 years would bring us to 6000 years of man. These studies are implying that we are very near that number. They then say at the end of 6000 years Christ will reign the last 1000 to bring us to the complete 7000 years. Others count the true Jubilee years from when God instated the sabbath cycles in Leviticus; that brings us to a 70th Jubilee very soon as well. I am finding these theories fascinating to read and think about. Have you read any of these ideas, and if so what do you make of that symbolic generational application?

    • Hi Shannon! It’s great to hear from you. I have heard of this Jubilee idea a couple of times. I find it quite interesting. Many church fathers held to a similar idea in terms of the time humanity would be given. They believed that there would be 6000 years of history before Christ’s return, and then He would reign in Jerusalem for 1000 years. There are many things I like about these ideas and it would help make sense of some difficult passages, but there’s a problem that seems to invalidate them. That is, it seems like we have already moved well beyond the 6000 year mark.
      Ussher calculated the creation to be in 4004 BC, but he made several mistakes in his calculations. First, it seems obvious that we could add about half a year to each generation between Adam and Jacob’s sons to account for the average number of months that are unmentioned when their age is given at the birth of their son (Adam was 130 + how many months when Seth was born). That would add about 12 years that he didn’t account for. Second, he used a short sojourn in Egypt of about 215 years. But God specifically told Abram that his descendants would be in afflicted in a land that is not their own for 400 years (Genesis 15:13, Acts 7:6; Exodus 12:40 states that they were in Egypt for 430 years—this likely includes the time when they were there but not afflicted). That would add another 215 years to human history. So if creation was really around 4245 BC, then we would be well beyond 6000 years already.
      Maybe there is something that I’m missing when doing the chronology. There is a potential discrepancy in Terah’s age between various manuscripts (Samaritan Pentateuch) that could possibly move the bar about 60 years. So all that to say that I find the notion fascinating, but I think there is a big problem with it in that I think we’re already beyond the date. Also, nothing in the Bible tells us that there will be 6000 + 1000 years for man, even though it may be a reasonable inference that we can draw.
      Thanks for reading!

  5. Tim,

    Thanks for more excellent writing. I always enjoy it.

    Looking at Genesis 5:32, Noah was 500 years old when his sons were born. Looking ahead to 7:11, Noah was only a little over 600 years old when the fountains of the great deep were broken up. Again, accounting for the time that his sons needed to grow to the age of marriage (6:18) somewhere in there, and it seems that it must have taken considerably less than 100 years to build it.

    Of course, this is a simple reading in my English Bible, without consulting a concordance or lexicon. Thanks for helping us all to dig a little deeper into God’s word!

    God bless you!

    • Thanks Joe. I completely agree that it would have taken considerably less than 100 years to build for the reasons you cited above.
      Also, I would imagine that constructing something out of wood over several decades could become highly problematic. Would some of the earliest pieces begin to warp and/or weaken before the newest pieces are even added? This would likely weaken the structure. I’m not an expert carpenter or shipwright, so I’m sure someone could correct me if I’m wrong.

  6. Hi Tim. Excellent article, but it seems to have failed to address the title’s actual question. Did Noah spend 120 years building the Ark? Even if God had somehow revealed to mankind (or Noah, or one of Noah’s relatives like Methuselah or Lamech) that the world would be destroyed in 120 years (by no means a certainty, as you well pointed out), that still would not indicate Noah spent that entire 120 year period building the Ark. My (admittedly unprovable) opinion is that God’s words in Gen 6:3 and His words in Gen 6:7 are all part of the same revelation. Verses 4-6 are (I believe) Noah’s or Moses’ inserted explanation of why God said what He did in verse 3. Even if His words were spoken only amongst angels before some Divine Council, somehow human beings had to have learned about them or they wouldn’t be in the Bible. While not certain, it is reasonable to suspect that Noah and his contemporaries knew about these words long before the command to build the Ark, with perhaps Noah being the only one on earth to take the warnings to heart. If that is true, for all Noah knew at that time, God simply planned to destroy the world, with NOBODY surviving. The later command to build the Ark probably didn’t come until after the births of Noah’s three sons, when at least two of them already had wives according to verse 18. (My opinion about miracles and prophetic utterings is that they should not be automatically assumed unless clearly indicated in the text or if there are no reasonable or plausible alternatives.) That means, it must have taken Noah less than 98 years to build the Ark (counting from the birth of Shem who was 100 years old two years after the Flood according to Gen 11:10) and probably less than 80 or so years if we start counting from when Shem was old enough to have gotten his wife.

    My question for you, Tim, is “Why would God choose a critical time before the Flood to announce (whether to angels or men) that most humans would no longer live beyond 120 years beginning long after the Flood?” Put yourself in Shem’s sandals. Shem learns somehow that “Mankind’s days shall be 120 years,” but then he observes throughout the rest of his life that most people are still living well beyond 120 years. Wouldn’t that make it appear that God was mistaken?

    Respectfully,
    Tom

    • Hi Tom,
      It’s good to hear from you again. I should have known that all I had to do to draw you out was write an article on this type of subject. 🙂 I hope all is well.
      I thought about including a statement that the 120 years could have encompassed both a countdown to the Flood and the reduction in lifespan, but I don’t see any reason for proposing that, even though I think it is possible.
      Your response is contingent upon the view that Noah, Shem, Abraham, et al. either wrote parts of Genesis or knew what was written about them. I don’t start with that assumption. Instead, I believe Moses was actually the author of the book and that God inspired the writing of Genesis through Moses. As such, there is no difficulty with Shem seeing people that live beyond 120 years since he would probably not know anything about such a declaration.
      I do agree with you about what seems to be the maximum amount of time to build the Ark based on the ages of Noah’s sons when they married.

      • Hi Tim. Thanks for the reply. It is probably impossible to speak of Genesis without making at least some assumptions. So the question is, which assumptions are more reasonable? Isn’t it just as much an assumption to say that Moses wrote Genesis as it is to say that some human eye-witness to the events (or their scribes or other contemporaries) wrote or passed on information from first hand knowledge, expressing themselves essentially the same way they would have spoken of other things, with human imperfection and lack of clarity?

        Moses was not an eye-witness. That means, if Moses is the human recorder of the words we find in Genesis, he either copied or paraphrased what some other writer(s) wrote, or he recorded word for word what God dictated directly to him, and yet, for some reason, never makes any mention of that particular event in any of his writings. Doesn’t that seem odd to you?

        In the other four books of the Pentateuch, Moses goes into great detail telling us exactly what God says and the circumstances surrounding those communications. But where are the hints in Exodus or Deuteronomy or elsewhere that God took Moses aside and began teaching him about the history of man before the Flood? Where are the comments like, “And then God told Moses about Adam and Eve, and about Noah and the great Flood, and about the confounding of languages at Babel and the dividing of the nations, and about Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph, and about the Israelites’ early captivity in Egypt …”, or words to that effect? Where are there any references whatsoever to God explaining to Moses the early history of Israel? Indeed, where is any reference whatsoever to Moses writing any part of Genesis in either the Old or New Testaments? Unlike Noah or Shem or one of their scribes, God must have known the two different ways to interpret Genesis 6:3 (maximum eventual lifespan of individuals or a countdown to the judgment of mankind). He could have clearly given Moses the correct interpretation (had that been the source of Genesis) so that future generations would not now be debating this. But He doesn’t. He leaves us to guess what He means, when He could easily have been clearer and removed all doubt. There are dozens of other examples in Genesis where, if mere men had chosen the words, it is perfectly understandable how they could have been better chosen, but if God was the One Who had chosen the words, why knowingly and unnecessarily choose words that will inevitably lead to confusion?

        • Tom,
          I know you strongly believe in the tablet model of Genesis, but there are too many problems with it for me to jump on board. I wouldn’t rule it out completely, but I think it is far more likely that Moses wrote it under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit without having access to works written by Adam, Noah, Shem, et al. Would he even know how to read something written by folks prior to Babel?
          Did he have access to written traditions? Perhaps. I’m very confident he had access to their oral traditions, particularly about the latter half of Genesis. The Israelites surely knew about Jacob and his sons as well as Abraham and Isaac. Other cultures certainly had their oral traditions about creation, the sons of God, the Flood, and Babel, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the Israelites (prior to the writing of Genesis) understood something about these events. But I believe Moses was guided by the Holy Spirit to write what he did.
          You wonder where it says that God told Moses about Adam and Eve, and the Flood, etc. Why would the Bible need to say that? Where does it tell us who wrote Joshua and how that was done? What about Judges? Who wrote it and how did this person know what to write? We know that Moses spent plenty of time on Mt. Sinai and in the tabernacle with the Lord. There would have numerous opportunities for God to tell him about the beginning.
          Anyway, I don’t want to turn this thread into a discussion of the tablet model of Genesis. There is far too much to get into and it will only distract from the issue at hand. I’ll read what you sent me and get back to you about it.

          • OK, Tim, let’s set aside the question of who wrote down the words we find in Gen 6:3 and when they were written, and explore instead what the words actually mean. For example: Why is the Hebrew word ??????(“deen” translated “strive” in the KJV) translated as “reside” or “stay fully” or “abide” in the LXX and other translations when that same word is repeatedly translated as “judge” or “contend” (or similar words) wherever else it is found in all 24 verses in the KJV OT? Here we find a word that almost always means “judge” at the beginning of the Flood account (God’s judgment of the world). Shouldn’t the verse be translated, “And Yahweh is saying, “My Spirit will not judge mankind indefinitely (for eons) since they are flesh. Their days will be 120 years.” It seems God is not talking about individuals, but mankind, the human race, as a whole, and when it will be judged.

            My question for you is, if Noah or any of his family had heard these words before the Flood but after the command to build the Ark, wouldn’t they interpret them as meaning judgment would come 120 years after the words were first spoken? But if Noah had never heard the words, because they weren’t revealed to mankind until many centuries later through Moses, what possible purpose would they serve except to cause confusion and unresolvable debates like these? With the first interpretation the words (in effect) mean “Because of mankind’s gross sinfulness during this time, mankind’s days will be 120 years, and then judgment will come.” But with the second interpretation the words (in effect) should be understood to mean “Because of mankind’s gross sinfulness, people long after the Flood will begin to live much shorter lifespans until there will eventually come a time many centuries in the future when no one (with a few exceptions) will live beyond 120 years.”

            In the book of Jonah, after Jonah went through his ordeal, he announced to the corrupt people of Nineveh, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” No promise was given at that time that there would be any chance of escape if they repented. And yet in response to Jonah’s words they DID repent, and judgment was stayed. Is it not likely that God’s words in Gen 6:3 were like Jonah’s words to Nineveh in the sense that God was giving mankind 120 years to repent? That is why Peter writes, “Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.”(1 Peter 3:20)

            My view is, God clearly announced to mankind (through prophets) before the Flood that His Spirit would not put up with man’s sinfulness forever, or continuously plead his case, or judge him over and over again, but would instead bring worldwide judgment in 120 years from when the announcement was given. The antediluvian people had 120 years to repent, during which time God would be “longsuffering” as He “waited” until the 120 years had passed before sending His judgment.

            Does that mean Noah spent all 120 of those years building the Ark? No. My guess is, the command to build the Ark didn’t actually come until Noah’s sons were all grown and married, at most 70 or so years before the Flood.

            • Tom,
              Let me quickly go through each of your points in order.
              First, regarding the verb translated as “strive” or “reside” in Genesis 6:3. The is more complex than you imagine, particularly since the verb is a hapax legomenon (appears only once) and most likely does not come from the Hebrew word din. If it were as simple as what you suggest, the English Bibles wouldn’t have so many differences. In this case, it is extremely helpful to look at the LXX since this informs us how the Jews living two centuries before Christ understood their Bible, and they agree with the “reside” or “abide” wording. Here is what the translators of the NET Bible had to say about it:

              The verb form ?????? (yadon) only occurs here. Some derive it from the verbal root ????? (din, “to judge”) and translate “strive” or “contend with” (so NIV), but in this case one expects the form to be ?????? (yadin). The Old Greek has “remain with,” a rendering which may find support from an Arabic cognate (see C. Westermann, Genesis, 1:375). If one interprets the verb in this way, then it is possible to understand ????? (ruakh) as a reference to the divine life-giving spirit or breath, rather than the LORD’s personal Spirit. E. A. Speiser argues that the term is cognate with an Akkadian word meaning “protect” or “shield.” In this case, the LORD’s Spirit will not always protect humankind, for the race will suddenly be destroyed (E. A. Speiser, “YDWN, Gen. 6:3,” JBL 75 [1956]: 126–29). [Apologies for the question marks in place of foreign words. I really wish WordPress would do better in this area.]

              Citing how the KJV translates a word that is probably a different word altogether does not settle the matter.
              Second, once again, you are assuming that a human being in Noah’s day must have heard these words. For the sake of argument, if you were to adopt the view that I’ve proposed here, then you would find that there are no difficulties with this interpretation at all. No humans would have been confused by the announcement of the 120 years because no human being would have heard it. The verse sounds very much like other pronouncements God made to the divine council in Genesis 1–11 (see Genesis 1:26, 3:22, and 11:6–7).
              Rather than creating confusion, as you suggest, these words given to Moses would address a question that people in his day surely wondered about: How come we don’t we live as long as our ancestors? This drop in age could easily be seen in Moses’ own family: his father Amram (137), grandfather Kohath (133), Levi (137), Jacob (147), Isaac (180), Abraham (175). It answers the same question we have today: If people really lived so long before the Flood, how come we don’t live that long anymore?
              Third, regarding Jonah, we don’t know the entirety of the message he preached. We do know that he reluctantly went to Nineveh because he didn’t want God to be gracious to the Ninevite (Jonah 4:2). I think we can safely assume that he said more than “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4) during his time in Nineveh. Even if he didn’t, the “unless you repent” may be implied in his message. And even if that isn’t implied, you are still attempting to draw a connection between Jonah and Genesis 6:3 that the Bible doesn’t make. In fact, Jesus indicated that the people did not know that the flood was coming (Matthew 24:38–39), so why should we create theories about what might have been that contradict the Lord’s own words? Your view is that “God clearly announced to mankind (through prophets) before the Flood that His Spirit would not put up with man’s sinfulness forever…but would instead bring worldwide judgment in 120 years from when the announcement was given” but God (Jesus Christ) said that the people did not know. You could argue that the people may have forgotten, but if this announcement was so clear to so many people, surely they would have known about it when the Flood came.
              Again, the notion that God announced these words to people prior to the Flood is the view that introduces confusion and difficulties into the text. To understand it as a judgment on man’s lifespan clarifies the text, making sense of the immediate and distant contexts, and it matches what we have seen historically. I see it as a far better option.
              Thanks for the interesting discussion.

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