The account of the Great Flood (Genesis 6:1-8:22) is preceded by the genealogies of two of Adam’s sons, Cain (Genesis 4:17-24) and Seth (Genesis 5:1-32). The latter genealogy spans 1556 years from birth to birth and serves to bridge the gap between Adam (Genesis 5:1-5) and Noah (Genesis 5:28-32). Though the text never explicitly compares the two families, the biblical story will abandon Cain and follow Seth’s line. W. Sibley Towner (b. 1933) concludes, “By making all subsequent descendants not of Cain but of Seth, the Priestly writers free us from the onus of Cain’s fratricide and his mark (Towner, Genesis (Westminster Bible Companion), 73).”
Despite there being virtually no narrative included in the genealogy of Seth (with the possible exception of Enoch in Genesis 5:21-24), it has long intrigued readers due to the long life cycles involved. The average life span of the genealogy’s ten antediluvians (people who lived prior to the Flood) is 857.5 years; 912.2 if you eliminate the outlier (Genesis 5:21-24) and limit the data to those who died of natural causes. Adam was still alive to meet Noah’s father, Lamech, eight generations later. Methuselah represents the apex of longevity, living a whopping 969 years (Genesis 5:27)!
So all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred and sixty-nine years, and he died. (Genesis 5:27 NASB)Though today Methuselah is synonymous with agedness, he does not stand out amidst his family. No note is made of his age being exceptional and he eclipsed his grandfather, Jared, the second oldest man ever, by a mere seven years (Genesis 5:20). Almost everyone from his gene pool lived the better part of a millennia.
With the exception of fathering and naming his son (Lamech) no word or deed of Methuselah is recorded (Genesis 5:21-27). His name appears seven times in the Bible, always in genealogies (Genesis 5:21, 22, 25, 26, 27; I Chronicles 1:3; Luke 3:37). Perhaps because he did nothing else, Methuselah became the icon of the period’s longevity.
There is some debate as to the etymology of the name “Methuselah”. The name’s meaning is most commonly rendered “man of the dart (or spear)”. David Lyle Jeffrey (b. 1941) writes:
The meaning of the Hebrew name has been interpreted variously as “a man of the javelin,” “a man of Selah or Sin (the god of Ur Casdim),” or as a corruption of the Bab. Mutu-sa-ili into Mutu-sa-ilati, meaning “husband of the goddess.” (Jeffrey, A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, 503)
Kenneth A. Mathews (b. 1950) dissects:
The name “Methuselah” is a combination of mětû, “man of,” and šelah, “Shelah.” The former is related to West Semitic mutu (“person, man, husband”), but “Shelah” is uncertain. Shelah also occurs in Genesis 10:24 and Genesis 11:12-15. “Shelah” is taken either as a weapon (“man of the weapon,” cf. Nehemiah 4:17), a place name, or deity. (Mathews, The New American Commentary: Genesis 1- 11:26, 315-16)An ominous alternate reading is less likely, but far more interesting. Some conjecture that the first word of the compound “Methuselah” is not math (“male, man”) but rather is derived from muwth (“to die, kill, have one executed”) and depending upon the uncertain vowel pointing, could read “his death”. The second component, shelach (“weapon, missile, sprout”), is the noun form of the verb shalach, meaning “to send, send away, let go, stretch out”. As such, some speculate that “Methuselah” is actually the incomplete sentence “His death shall bring” or “When he dies, it shall come”. The genealogy does attest that Methuselah’s death corresponded to the year of the Flood (Genesis 7:1-24). If this reading is correct, Methuselah’s name and life were a testament to God’s grace as the deity allowed humanity the longest possible time to repent before sending the deluge.
Though none of his oracles are recorded in the Old Testament, Methuselah’s father, Enoch, is said to be a prophet (Genesis 5:21-24, Jude 1:14-15). Many have seen his son’s name as Enoch’s one documented Old Testament prophecy - Methuselah’s death would mark the end of an era.
John Phillips (b. 1927) is representative of this opinion when he writes:
His father, Enoch, embedded one of his prophecies in Methuselah’s name: “When he dies, it shall come.” throughout all of Methuselah’s long life, conditions on earth went from bad to worse; but still God held His hand for He is of great patience, “not willing that any should perish” (II Peter 3:9). The antediluvians took God’s inaction as proof either of His non-existence or indifference. (Phillips, Exploring Genesis: An Expository Commentary, 78)What cannot be denied is that when Methuselah died, the Flood came. There is a week long delay before the Flood that has been interpreted as a mourning period for Methuselah (Genesis 7:10). R. Kent Hughes (b. 1942) informs, “The seven-day pause recorded in Genesis 7:10 was, according to the Jewish midrash, a period of mourning for the death of Methuselah who died in the year of the flood (Hughes, Genesis: Beginning and Blessing (Preaching the Word), 138).”
Are the genealogies of Cain and Seth intended to be compared and contrasted? Do you think Methuselah’s goal was to live to be 1000? How would Willard Scott (b. 1934) have acknowledged Methuselah? What would it be like to endure the better part a millennia? What would the ramifications be if people still lived as long as the antediluvians? Do you read the ages literally?
Many explanations have been given to account for the long life spans of the antedivluvians, most reducing them to correspond to more modern spans. Many read almost like theories on dog years, which for the record Methuselah lived 3889.
John H. Walton (b. 1952) summarizes:
Have the numbers been misrepresented or misunderstood? Are they symbolic? Did the antediluvians simply live longer? There have been many attempts to account for the numbers through mathematical gymnastics, but none of the proposals has been able to provide a solution that encompasses all of the data. It is impossible to understand the numbers in terms of something other than base ten, both because base ten is the norm for Semitic civilizations (except Sumerian-based Akkadian) as far back as records are available, and because any other system results in men fathering children at the age of six or seven years old. The latter consequence also makes it impossible that a “year” represents a cycle of the moon rather than a cycle of the sun...Those who are more inclined to take them as symbolic must provide an explanation of how the numbers are operating on the symbolic level and how genealogies were understood by the biblical authors that allow us to consider a symbolic view as representing the face value of the text. (Walton, Genesis (The NIV Application Commentary), 282-83)One thing is certain: something happened which considerably reduced life expectancy. Martin Kessler (b. 1927) and Karel Deurloo (b. 1936) interpret God’s words before the Flood as capping human life spans at 120 years (Genesis 6:2):
The giver of life (cf. Genesis 3:22) will not leave his spirit forever in humanity. His days will be no more than 120 years (the age of Moses, Deuteronomy 34:7). Methuselah would keep his record of longevity (969 years). The long lifespans of the early ancestors—a minimized version of ancient Oriental examples—are chosen so that “Methuselah” also, who appears to send death away, died before the flood. (Kessler & Deurloo, A Commentary on Genesis: The Book of Beginnings, 77)This interpretation is problematic in that some have lived past 120. In the Bible, Ishmael (137 years, Genesis 25:17), Isaac (180, Genesis 35:28) and Aaron (123, Numbers 33:39) exceeded 120 years long after the Flood. Believe it or not the number has even been surpassed in modern times. The longest unambiguously documented human lifespan is that of Jeanne Calment of France (1875–1997), who died at age 122 years, 164 days. It is worth noting that almost all of the people who have had extremely long lifespans in the post-Biblical era are women.
Thomas L. Brodie (b. 1940) identifies another turning point:
The generations that follow Shem dwindle. There are essentially only nine (nine begettings), not the standard ten (as in Genesis 5:1-32) and the numbers fall: 500, 403, 403, 430, 209 (Peleg), 207, 200, 119. In the Adam-Noah genealogy (Genesis 5:1-32) there was no such steady decline. Methuselah, with 969 years, was near the end. The overall impression of a generating process which, whatever its original energy, is now falling. (Brodie, Genesis As Dialogue: A Literary, Historical, and Theological Commentary, 204)Miguel A. De La Torre (b. 1958) concludes:
Human life, which had in the pre-deluge years reached 969 years (in the case of Methuselah, Genesis 5:27) was curtailed to only 120 years (further reduced post-deluge to “seventy years, or perhaps eighty,” Psalm 90:10), thus connecting longevity with the eventual falling away from godliness. (De La Torre, Genesis: Belief: a Theological Commentary on the Bible,107)The only Psalm of Moses (Psalm 90), to which De La Torre alludes, discusses life expectation:
As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years,Why do you think life expectancy was said to have reduced so dramatically? Who is the oldest person you know or have known? When is a person old? When, if ever, do you think Methuselah considered himself old? How long do you want to live? With technological advances, how long can we live?
Or if due to strength, eighty years,
Yet their pride is but labor and sorrow;
For soon it is gone and we fly away. (Psalm 90:10 NASB)
“A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.” - John Barrymore (1882-1942)