Genesis 5 – The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Big Round Years

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Today’s PassageGenesis 5

At some point in my early childhood, I came into possession of a set of Wildlife Treasury cards. Each oversized card on the front the animal’s name, a photograph, and extremely dope icons indicating the animal’s class, habitat, and geographic range. The back of the card gave additional information, but I was all about those icons, sorting and re-sorting my collection in all sorts of permutations. If I were just a little older, I probably would have devised a game by which the animals could battle each other, gaining terrain advantages in different ecosystems and so forth.

My dad, noting my budding fascination with taxonomy, one day decided to teach me about the magic of computer spreadsheets. He created a new spreadsheet in the MS-DOS-based Lotus Symphony, and together we came up with a list of ten different types of animals: cats, whales, crabs, and so on. We then started sorting them into their respective classes.

As we did so, I quickly saw a pattern emerging. We only had one of the first class (was it amphibians?), and we had two reptiles. Looking ahead, I saw that we had four mammals on the table, but Dad was about to put the spiders in their own category, as arachnids. I needed to group the remaining three animals together, so that the number of animals in each category would keep increasing: one, two, three, four! And I believed I had a category that would do that. Pointing to the crabs, I told my dad, “Arachnids and crustaceans are both arthropods.” At the time, I was four years old.

I tell that story not to brag…well, I tell that story less to brag and more to say that a similar phenomenon is going on with the genealogy here in Genesis 5. Notice that a lot of the ages here are big round numbers, multiples of five or ten. Five is the number of fingers on a hand, a “complete” number. And ten? Two hands. Double completeness. At the very least, there’s some rounding going on, making the numbers easier to think about and work with, making sure there’s enough years in the “Seth” category and the “Enosh” category and so forth. We aren’t meant to believe that Enosh died on his 905th birthday. Nor are we expected to believe he necessarily died in his 905th year.

But what about the unusual numbers, like Seth’s 912 years or Jared’s 962 years (6-8, 18-20)? You may note that they both contain a twelve, or to put it another way, they’re a nice round multiple of five (a group of complete hands) plus a seven. Seven, in ancient Judaism, indicates a different kind of completion than these easily-countable tens and fives. It’s a holy number, the number of days for God to complete the universe and rest from his work. And Seth and Jared both have big round numbers within their ages: Seth had a hundred five years before having his firstborn son, and Jared had eight hundred years after having his firstborn son.

Also, a lot of these numbers contain several 60s and 360s. As mathematics developed in ancient Mesopotamia, many cultures (most prominently the Babylonians) adopted what is called a “sexagesimal” system: base 360. To the ancient Mesopotamian eye, the numbers in these accounts would have stood out like a big round 400 or 2000. And couple that with Jewish numerology and the tradition of gematria, and it’s virtually certain that these numbers are in part selected for their symbolic significance. I’m not going to get into what the numbers mean, but I’m going to suggest that they don’t strictly mean 365-day years.

This doesn’t mean that the genealogy here can’t have historical significance as well. To go back to my childhood story: as it turns out, Arthropoda is indeed a class, the same as Mammalia, Reptilia, and so forth. My four-year-old self thought he was fudging the taxonomy to make the count of elements per set follow a pattern, but in the end, the call on the spiders and crabs was legit. Did Methuselah live nearly a thousand actual years? Some have hypothesized a lessened impact of sin and the fall on early human health, or a pre-Noahic canopy that provided a shield from physically and genetically damaging solar radiation. There’s a lot to consider in evaluating the family tree presented here. At the end of the day: read the passage, do the additional research you feel you need to, and make the call for yourself.

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