“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).
During this waiting period, God’s “Spirit” contended with a works-of-the-flesh-loving mankind for 120 years (Genesis 6:3; cf. Galatians 5:19-21). Notice that when Peter wrote about Noah, his disobedient contemporaries, and the patience of God (1 Peter 3:20), he remarked that “the Spirit” of Christ “went and preached to the spirits in prison” (3:18-19, emp. added).
When exactly did the Spirit of Christ do this? When “the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah” (3:20, emp. added).
How did God’s Spirit go about His work? We are not informed in all the ways He worked during the years leading up to the Flood, but we do know that Noah was “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5). It may be that Lamech and Methuselah (Noah’s father and grandfather) were also godly preachers through whom God’s Holy Spirit spoke.
To whom did the Spirit speak? Peter says, “To the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient” (3:19-20). How did the Spirit speak to spirits in prison? Dave Miller explained: “[A]t the time Peter was writing the words, that is where those people were situated. Those who were drowned in the Flood of Noah’s day descended into the hadean realm, where they continued to reside in Peter’s day. This realm is the same location where the rich man was placed (Luke 16:23), as were the sinning angels (“Tartarus”—2 Peter 2:4).”2
Indeed, in the days of Noah the Spirit of Christ spoke to disobedient souls (before they departed from their bodies in death for the hadean realm, i.e., “spirit prison”). Since God is longsuffering with mankind, He “waited patiently” (1 Peter 3:20, NIV). He did not bring judgment upon the world hastily. Our gracious God did not fail to give mankind ample time to repent. However, the Lord’s longsuffering is not eternal suffering. He did not wait forever. Rather, as the Lord said in Genesis, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years” (6:3). It seems biblically consistent and perfectly logical to conclude that this period of 120 years was the amount of time that the human race as a whole had to repent before the Flood waters destroyed the Earth.
To some, however, this conclusion seems impossible. After all, if, before we ever learn about the coming Flood, Genesis 5:32 indicates that Noah was 500 years old when he “begot Shem, Ham, and Japheth,” and Genesis 7:6 specifies that the Flood occurred when Noah was 600, then only 100 years of time is possible, not 120, right?
As with all perceived problems with the inspired Word of God, the difficulty is not with the inspired penmen, but with uninspired interpreters. There actually is no difficulty whatsoever if we take into account the fact that neither the book of Genesis nor the Bible as a whole was written in a strict chronological fashion.3 For example, Genesis 2:5-25 does not pick up where Genesis 1 left off. What’s more, Genesis 11 speaks of an event that actually occurred when some of the people mentioned in the previous chapter (Genesis 10) actually lived.4 Similarly, the 120 years of Genesis 6:3 could reasonably extend back to when Noah was 480 years old, not 500. Simply because the Bible reader learns that Noah was 500 when he began having sons (Genesis 5:32),5 does not mean that God could not have begun communicating at an earlier time about His impending judgment upon the world.
Finally, notice that Genesis 5:32 serves as the conclusion to the Adam-to-Noah genealogy. As with other Bible passages where one or more genealogies precede the mention of certain events that actually occurred during or before the lifetimes of some of those previously mentioned in the genealogies,6 some of the events in Genesis 6:1-9 (including God’s expressed warning in 6:3) took place before Noah actually began siring sons at age 500.
1 “Genetics of Ageing” (2001), Encyclopedia of Genetics, ed. Eric C.R. Reeve (New York: Routledge), p. 582, emp. added.
2 Dave Miller (2002), “Did Jesus Go to Hell? Did He Preach to Spirits in Prison?” Apologetics Press, http://apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=10&article=851&topic=71.
3 See Eric Lyons (2005), “Alleged Chronological Contradictions,” Reason & Revelation, 25:73-79, October, http://apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=6&article=1582.
5 Genesis 11:10, 7:6, and 8:13 seem to indicate that Shem was not the firstborn of Noah, but was born two years later. If so, the number 500 represents the year in which Noah began having sons. A comparison of Genesis 11:26, Acts 7:4, Genesis 11:32, and 12:4 suggests that Abraham was not the firstborn son in his family either. Likely, Shem, Abraham, Arphaxad (Genesis 11:10; 10:22) and others are all mentioned first for the same reason—because they are Messianic ancestors, not because they were necessarily the firstborn sons of their fathers.
Interestingly, numerous other Messianic ancestors, such as Seth, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, and Perez, were not firstborn sons. Lest someone accuse Moses of dishonesty when recording these genealogies, we must remember that “the year of begetting a first son, known in the Old Testament as ‘the beginning of strength,’ was an important year in the life of the Israelite (Gen. 49:3; Deut. 21:17; Psa. 78:51; and Psa. 105:36). It is this year…and not the year of the birth of the Messianic link, that is given in each case in Genesis 11” [John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris (1961), The Genesis Flood (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker), p. 480.]
6 See 1 Chronicles 1-11 where people are listed (e.g., the children and grandchildren ofZerubbabel—3:19ff.) who would likely not even be born until sometime after the close of the events recorded in 2 Chronicles; cf. Ezra 1-5. See also Genesis 10-11.