Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

The Ages of the Patriarchs/matriarchs: A Preliminary Study

Academic journal article Jewish Bible Quarterly

The Ages of the Patriarchs/matriarchs: A Preliminary Study

Article excerpt

Where the Patriarchs and Matriarchs are concerned in Genesis, both at significant points in their lives and at the time of their deaths, the specific age credited to each appears to be exaggerated. Abraham leaving Haran for what will be the Promised Land at the age of 75 (Gen. 12:4), accompanied by Sarah at 65, may just be possible, but seems unlikely. Abraham siring a child at 86 and again, later, at 100 (Gen. 16:16; 21:5), as well as Sarah giving birth at the age of 90 (Gen. 17:17), defy and belie the experience of ordinary mortals. Likewise, Abraham's reported death at 175 (Gen. 25:7); Sarah's at 127 (Gen. 23:1-2); Ishmael's at 137 (Gen. 25:17); Isaac's death at 180 (Gen. 35:28); Jacob's at 147 (Gen. 47:28); and Joseph's at 110 (Gen. 50:26) are more than extraordinary. While some of these remarkable ages are noted in the Bible as miraculous (such as Abraham at Sarah's old age when Isaac is conceived), most are recorded without comment. This article proposes an alternative way of calculating the ages of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs that recasts them into numbers more reflective of the common human experience.

The present study does not seek to address the extended lifespan of several figures in the antediluvian generations, for which there are already at least two competing explanations, one based on the "Metonic Cycle" and one based on the "sexagesimal system augmented by seven." (1) Likewise, this study does not consider why or when this particular system ended and another began. Furthermore, in terms of the schema proposed here, there may be other possible explanations or different reasons that would support this concept.

Stated briefly, the premise for making the ages of these biblical figures more congruent with natural expectations is that in early Israel, or early in the Torah experience, the time frame of what would later be calculated as a full year, a shanah with twelve separate months, at least in terms of calculating people's ages, was at one point seen as a double year made up of two six month periods. (2) This would mean that the noun shanah had multiple definitions. (3) In some situations it meant a twelve-month period, in other situations it meant a six-month time frame. Shanah can mean "year" or else "repeat, do again" or "change." It is also connected to the words sheni, shenayim ("second", "two"). What we today refer to as a year was once composed of two periods, each called a shanah.

This proposed schema therefore suggests that when it came to people's ages, the word shanah meant a sixth-month period. Consequently, one's "years" were calculated at twice the rate they would be on later occasions in biblical history. According to this system, spring-summer constituted a single and full season/year while autumn-winter constituted a single and full season/year. In agrarian/agricultural thinking, planting-growing was one continuous and contiguous event, and harvesting-fallow time was likewise one continuous and contiguous event. The idea of a six month or "equinox year" was known in ancient Mesopotamia. (4)

This kind of either/or thinking regarding the two divisions of the twelvemonth agricultural year (it was either the planting-growing season or the harvesting-fallow season) may be reflected in the competing claims for the month that was the start of the year. The Bible knows of two systems, one beginning in autumn (which continues to be reflected in the date of Rosh Ha-Shanah, the "new year" commencing in the autumn) and one that begins in the spring. Exodus suggests a festival calendar where the "turn of the year" is in the autumn (Ex. 34:18-24, and especially v. 22). At the same time, there is a tradition that the first month, certainly in terms of counting (first month, seventh month), is the spring month Nisan (Ex. 12:2, Lev. 23:4-44, see vss. 5, 23, 26, etc.; Num. 29:1,7, etc.) Further support for counting the year from the beginning of spring is found in Jeremiah (36:9, 22), where it is stated that the ninth month occurs in winter. …

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