“I am confused about some of the numbers found in Genesis 5-7. What exactly does the 120 years refer to in Genesis 6:3? I’ve heard some say that it refers to the limit of one’s lifespan on Earth, but that can’t be true because people lived longer than 120 years after the Flood. I also don’t understand how, as some have concluded, it could refer to there only being 120 years left before God flooded the Earth. That seems impossible since Noah was 500+ years old when he learned about the Flood (Genesis 5:32-6:13), and the Flood occurred when he was 600 (Genesis 7:6). It seems that either the 120 years does not refer to the time just before the Flood or the “120 years” should have been “100 years” (otherwise the Flood would have come in the 620th year of Noah and not the 600th year). Can you help explain this conundrum?”
You have correctly concluded that the “120 years” reference in Genesis 6:3 does not allude to the limit of a person’s lifespan on Earth. A number of people have lived longer than 120 since the Flood. Just five chapters after the “120 years” reference, we learn that after Noah’s son Shem begot Arphaxad, “Shem lived five hundreds years” (11:11). Then, each patriarch listed after Arphaxad (for about the next 500 years) lived to be over 120 years old (and in most cases well over 120—Genesis 6:12-25). Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, and Jacob all lived to be older than 120 (Genesis 25:7; 25:17; 35:28; 47:28). Even Aaron, the first high priest of Israel, who lived approximately 1,000 years after the Flood, lived to be 123 (Numbers 33:39). What’s more, according to the Encyclopedia of Genetics, Jeanne Calment of France “died in 1998 at the age of 122.”1
Furthermore, immediate and remote Bible verses suggest the 120 years is a reference to something very different than the limit of a person’s lifespan. The people on Earth during Noah’s pre-Flood life were extremely wicked. In fact, “the wickedness of man” was so “great,” that “every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). The Earth had become so depraved and filled with so much violence by the time Noah was 500 that God decided to bring destruction upon the Earth, the likes of which the world had never seen (6:13; 7:6). However, since God is perfect in His patience and desires to see sinners repent rather than perish (whether in the Flood or in eternal hell—2 Peter 3:9; cf. Romans 15:4-5; 1 Timothy 2:4), “the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah” (1 Peter 3:20). Similar to how God patiently waited hundreds of years before bringing judgment upon the increasingly wicked Canaanites (since at the time of Abraham their sin had “not yet reached its full measure”—Genesis 15:16, NIV), God waited year after year, and decade after decade “while the ark was being prepared” (1 Peter 3:20).
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