“Methuselah was 187 years old when he fathered Lamech. Methuselah lived 782 years after the birth of Lamech, and he fathered sons and daughters. So Methuselah’s life lasted 969 years; then he died.”
It seems well beyond belief, doesn’t it? Humans living for centuries rather than merely decades is a concept far removed from our sphere of experience. The long lifespans, recorded in Genesis 5, have often been the subject of skeptics’ ridicule, theologians’ discomfort, and average believers’ head-scratching. Did people really live that long? How is that even possible?
Before getting into the scientific discussion, I’d like to point out that the Genesis genealogies are not the only ancient record of long lifespans prior to a great deluge, followed by shorter post-flood lifespans. Archaeology has revealed non-biblical texts that echo Genesis 5. For instance, The Weld-Blundell Prism (circa 3000 B.C), is just one of several artifacts that bears striking parallels to the biblical account. It is a clay cuneiform prism inscribed with records of eight ancient Sumerian kings leading up to a flood, and a succession of kings thereafter. Here is an excerpt that begins with the last pre-flood king:
“Then Sippar fell and the kingship was taken to Suruppak. In Suruppak, Ubara-Tutu became king; he ruled for 18,600 years. One king; he ruled for 18,600 years.
Five cities; eight kings ruled for 385,200 years. Then the Flood swept over.
After the Flood had swept over, and the kingship had descended from heaven, the kingship was in Kis. In Kis, Gisur became king; he ruled for 1200 years.”
Obviously, the lifespans recorded in this list are much longer than those in the Genesis records. I offer this example because it is quite striking that another ancient culture documented the same trend: long life spans–a great flood–shorter life spans. Skeptics have alleged that Scripture simply borrowed from ancient mythology, but that inference is very poorly substantiated. (I’ll have to save that for a future post. In the meantime, I refer you to the work of Dr. Edwin Yamauchi.)
In addition to archaeological corroboration, there is evidence from science that lends credibility to the concept of extremely long lifespans. The scientific details related to aging are still not fully understood and in fact, the more insight researchers gain in the area of senescence (the science of aging), the more plausible the Genesis 5 lifespans become.
The least speculative evidence comes from the field of biochemistry. Although researchers do not have comprehensive knowledge of senescence, they have discovered that certain biochemical processes in living cells apparently contribute to the aging process. One example is the mechanism our cells use for converting oxygen from its highly reactive, toxic form to a harmless form. During this process, the oxygen goes through intermediate forms called reactive oxygen species (ROS), which are actually more toxic than the preliminary form of oxygen. Enzymes and other compounds within the cell act as buffers to protect the cell from the damaging effects of the ROS, but these enzymes are not expressed at high enough levels to protect the cells for a long period of time. Therefore, cell contents are eventually damaged, and the cell begins to age. Experiments on organisms such as nematodes (roundworms), in which the cell’s antioxidant defenses were artificially fortified, have resulted in a 40% increase in nematode life expectancy. Researchers believe that the human life span could be augmented by similar pharmacological intervention.
Another example from biochemistry is the discovery that caloric restriction promotes longevity. Studies have shown a 40% extension of life expectancy for a broad range of organisms whenever calorie intake is reduced by 30-70%, as long as a nutritious diet is maintained. It turns out that caloric restriction increases the activity of an enzyme called sirtuin. Whenever food intake is reduced, the cell enters an energy-poor state, causing an increase in sirtuin activity. Through a subsequent series of biochemical processes, the organism’s genome is stabilized, which limits the wear and tear that happens to DNA during metabolism; thus, aging is delayed. Incidentally, it has been found that a compound found in grapes and red wine–resveratrol–is an effective sirtuin activator.
It is not yet known whether or not these and other biochemical manipulations for extending the cell’s lifespan could have a synergistic effect and eventually be combined to produce an even more dramatic impact on life expectancy. However, increasing knowledge about the chemical activities in the cell that play a significant role in senescence makes the alteration of lifespans scientifically plausible. If human intervention can make an appreciable impact upon the aging process, to be sure an omnipotent Creator has ultimate control over mankind’s biochemistry.