Did Genesis 6:3 get it wrong?

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(image courtesy Gustave Dore)

By Spencer D Gear

This verse reads, ‘Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not abide in[1] man for ever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years”’ (Gen 6:3 ESV).

These are the kinds of objections that sometimes come:

I was reading my bible earlier and finally finished Genesis.

Anyways there were a few bits in there that caught my eye; it`s to do with Jacob’s, and Joseph’s lifespan, and well I remember in the first few chapters of Genesis god said he would make man mortal and … found the quote: ‘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”’ (Gen 6:3 NLT).

And so then I found this quote: ‘Jacob replied, “I have traveled this earth for 130 hard years. But my life has been short compared to the lives of my ancestors”’ (Genesis 47:9 NLT).

And there`s, ‘Jehoiada lived to a very old age, finally dying at 130’ (2 Chron 24:15 NLT).

Also: ‘Job lived 140 years after that, living to see four generations of his children and grandchildren (Job 42:16 NLT).

There are probably more but I can`t be asked to look. Can a Christian please explain, why god said people won`t live more than 120 years, yet they’ve lived for 130+ years.

This to me makes the bible sound like one big story, I`m hoping someone can change my mind.

Please also can you quote from the bible or just say the passage that`s relevant.[2]

These were reasonable objections from Jahleel. On the surface, it does look like the Bible is contradicting itself.

How to deal with the apparent contradictions

H. C. Leupold Commentary Collection (7 vols.)

Courtesy Logos Bible Software

Hebrew exegete, H C Leupold (1942), in his commentary on Genesis translates Genesis 6:3 as,

And Yahweh said: My spirit shall not judge among mankind forever, because they also are flesh. Yet shall their days be one hundred and twenty years (1942:254).

He gives the Hebrew grammatical reasons for this translation and then his commentary states:

Entirely in harmony with our rendering is the concluding statement of the verse, which marks the setting of the time limit of divine grace. For these words, “yet shall their days be one hundred and twenty years,” are to be taken in the sense of the traditional interpretation: one last period of grace is fixed by God for the repentance of mankind. The previous word indicated (3a) that God might well have cut off all further opportunities of grace. This word (3b) shows that grace always does more than could be expected. Before disposing of the guilty ones a time of grace of no less than one hundred and twenty years is allowed for their repentance. This use of “days” (v3) is established by the use of the same word (v4) “those days.” Consequently, the modern interpretation that takes this word to mean that God here decreed that in the future the span of man’s life was not to exceed one hundred twenty years is quite unfounded. This view is proved untenable by the fact that quite a few after the Flood lived in excess of this limit: 11:11, 13, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23, 25; 25:7; 35:28; 47:9. The evasions of the critics in meeting this argument need not be mentioned, being too palpable (Leupold 1942:256-257).

Hebrew exegetes, Keil & Delitzsch (n d, 1:136) also reach the same conclusion:

Therefore his days shall be 120 years:” this means, not that human life should in future never attain a greater age than 120 years, but that a respite of 120 years should still be granted to the human race. This sentence, as we may gather from the context, was made known to Noah in his 480th year, to be published by him as “preacher of righteousness” (2 Pet. ii.5) to the degenerate race.

Conclusion

We know from the following context of Genesis 6:5-8 that God is preparing for the judgment of the Flood. So the 120 years has nothing to do with the longevity of a person’s life after that time, but the time given to the people until the judgment by destruction in Noah’s Flood will come.

Isn’t it amazing how people can come to the wrong conclusions of Genesis 6:3 when they don’t know how to carefully exegete the Hebrew text? To overcome a wrong interpretation of Genesis, we need three tools:

  • Knowledge of the Hebrew language so we can engage in exegesis of the text;
  • If such knowledge is not available to a Bible reader (which is the case for me), a sound commentary, based on the Hebrew, is needed. What do I mean by ‘sound’? I am referring to commentaries that accept and promote biblical authority and are not written by theological liberals who want to denigrate or destroy the Bible.
  • All verses must be read in context to obtain the best interpretation. By the way, verses were not included in the original Hebrew of the OT or Greek of the NT (see ‘Who divided the Bible into chapters and verses?’)

A sound commentary, based on the Hebrew language, helped me to overcome these difficulties.

(Noah preaches to the people, image courtesy Ultimate Bible Picture Collection)

References

Keil, C F & Delitzsch, F n d. Commentary on the Old Testament: The Pentateuch, vol 1. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Leupold H C 1942. Exposition of Genesis. 1942. The Wartburg Press, also London: Evangelical Press. Also available online at CCEL at: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/leupold/genesis.i.html (Accessed 19 October 2012).

Notes:


[1] Or My Spirit shall not contend with.

[2] Christian Forums, Christian Scriptures, ‘Can a Christian please explain this?’ Jahleel #1. Available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7695361/#post61587089 (Accessed 19 October 2012). Some grammatical and spelling corrections have been made to this quote.

 

Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 2 September 2015.

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