What are the 120 years of Genesis 6:3?

     When we read the accounts of our antediluvian (before the Flood) ancestors, we 120 yearsmay be shocked by how long these men lived.

  • Adam — 930-years-old
  • Seth — 912-years-old
  • Enosh — 905-years-old
  • Kenan — 910-years-old
  • Mahalalel — 895-years-old
  • Jared — 962-years-old
  • Enoch — 365-years-old
  • Methuselah — 969-years-old
  • Lamech — 777-years-old

These ages are found in Genesis 5, and, yes, they are “real” years. How was it possible for a person to live multiple centuries? They were able to live multiple centuries not because they had better genes than we have, but because God’s Spirit abode with them (Genesis 6:3).

But then in Genesis 6:3 we read,

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

There are a couple of different prominent positions about what these 120 years mean.

First, theologians as prominent as Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Calvin have argued that these 120 years refer to a reprieve of sorts. In other words, the Lord was granting mankind a reprieve of 120 years before he would send the Flood. This is certainly a possible interpretation of this passage.

A second interpretation of this passage, however, is that the 120 years refers to the length of time God was going to allow individuals to live. In other words, individuals would no longer live for centuries (as above), but their lifespan would no longer exceed 120 years.

But, one might object, do we not have accounts of people living more than 120 years even after the Flood? And, yes, we do have such accounts. Noah, for example, lived to be 950-years-old (Genesis 9:29) — and 350 of those years were after the Flood (Genesis 9:28)! And Genesis 11 is full of men who lived multiple centuries. So, can the 120 years possibly refer to the length of an individual’s life? Yes, it can. Let’s keep a couple of important points in mind.

First, just because individuals didn’t immediately start living only 120 years, it doesn’t mean that the process of the shortening of an individual’s lifespan wasn’t in place. Consider, for example, what happened in the Fall. God told Adam and Eve that in the day they ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil they would surely die (Genesis 2:17, emphasis added). But we learn in Genesis 3:6 that when they in fact ate from the tree, they did not drop dead. Certainly they experienced spiritual death immediately, but physical death proved to be a process. As we saw above, Adam would live to ripe old age of 930-years-old.

And, second, we also need to keep in mind that the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) was written as one piece of literature. God’s statement in Genesis 6:3, “his days shall be 120 years,” isn’t brought to fulfillment until the conclusion of the Pentateuch.

John Sailhamer writes,

“In keeping with this point, the author continues to show the ages of the men of the book and notes that generally their ages grow increasingly shorter (cf. 11:10-26). It is only at the close of the Pentateuch that we finally reach an individual who is specifically mentioned as dying at the age of 120 years, Moses, who was in the wilderness and who died as a result of unbelief and divine punishment (Num 20) — he died though he was still in good strength (Deut 34:7)” (page 77).

With the Flood, the process of the shortening of an individual’s lifespan had begun. One hundred twenty years would be the limit.

For His Glory,

Pastor Brian