Patriarchal Chronology, Longevity, and Numeracy

Here is the kind of thing you ponder when you’re a biblical chronology geek:

Esau married his Hittite wives when he was 40 years old (Gen 26:34). Since he and Jacob were twins, Jacob would have been 40 years old as well.

It didn’t sit well with Rebekah that Esau had married outside the clan. You get the impression she was dead-set against it from the start. So, apparently shortly thereafter, she sent Jacob off to Mesopotamia to find a wife from among his extended family there (Gen 27:46; 28:2). How long was this after Esau’s marriages? The Bible doesn’t say, but what impression do you get from reading the text? For the sake of argument, let’s say three years passed in which this big, unhappy, dysfunctional family stayed together. Jacob is now 43.

In Mesopotamia, Jacob worked a sum total of twenty years for his uncle, Laban (Gen 31:38). He married Leah and Rachel after seven years (Gen 29:20), when he was 50. He, his wives and concubines, and his many children went back to Canaan shortly after the birth of Joseph (Gen 30:25). So Joseph was born when Jacob was 63 years old.

When Joseph was 17, his brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt (Gen 37:2). Jacob was 80.

When Joseph was 30 years old, he he entered Pharaoh’s service (Gen 41:46). Jacob was 93.

There were seven years of bountiful harvest in Egypt (Gen 41:53), then the years of famine began. When the famine had been in the land for two years (Gen 45:6), Joseph sent for his family to immigrate to Egypt. This would have been in the ninth year of Joseph’s tenure. Jacob would have been 101.

Finally, Jacob appears before Pharaoh (Gen 47:7). Pharaoh asks Jacob how old he is, and Jacob replies:

“The years of my earthly sojourn are one hundred thirty; few and hard have been the days of my life. (Gen 47:9)

How are we to account for the 29-year discrepancy? The easiest way may be to revisit the duration of the interval between Esau getting married and Jacob leaving for Mesopotamia. If my guesstimate of three years is off—by a factor of 11 or 12!—the chronology once again slips into place. But is this realistic? Would Jacob really have procrastinated another 35 years before trying to find a wife? Would he be living at home at age 75 with his supercentenarian parents? Would Isaac have sent his 75-year old son Esau out hunting for game rather than one of the great-grandkids? Of course, if Jacob were really 82 years old on his wedding night, that may well explain why he didn’t realize that it was Leah, not Rachel, in his bed (Gen 29:24-25)!

Another option is that Jacob’s age is being intentionally exaggerated, either by the narrator or by Jacob himself. There are, in fact, certain regions of the world that boast of amazing longevity, especially the Caucasus (see also here), Okinawa, the Xinjiang region of China, the Vilcabamba region of Ecuador (see also here), and the Hunza region of Pakistan. By far, the most astounding claim of the twentieth century involved China’s Li Chung-yun, born—it is claimed—in 1677 and dying May 5, 1933 at the ripe old age of 256! In comparison, Shirali Muslimov of Azerbaijan was practically a child when he died September 4, 1973, purportedly at 168 years of age.

In the twenty-first century, Zabani Khakimova of Chechnya died in 2003, purportedly at the age of 124. If confirmed, Mrs. Khakimova would beat the oldest documented supercentenarian, Jeanne Calment of France (d. 4 Aug 1997), by two years.

Most of these claims have been contested, however, by further research (see also here and here). Further, more rigorous investigation has generally found widespread age exaggeration, although some regions do credibly report a higher than expected number of people living past 100.

A number of factors contribute to the modern phenomenon of age exaggeration, including:

  • The profound respect for the elderly exhibited among the cultures where all of these reports originate, including the prestige that comes with being the oldest person in a village or tribe.
  • The general tendency noted among many elderly to inflate their ages.
  • The desire to avoid military service while young by assuming the identity of a deceased elder. Similarly, some of the originally reported Vilcabamban centenarians were found to have adopted the baptismal records and other documentation of older siblings or parents. The practice of “recycling” the names of deceased older relatives, called “necronomy,” is known to many cultures.
  • In the former USSR, amazing longevity was sometimes touted as proof of the superiority of the communist system. Furthermore, Josef Stalin (an ethnic Georgian) manipulated claims for long-lived inhabitants of the Caucasus in the service of his own ambitions.
  • Finally, Wang et al. have observed that in China, ethnic minorities such as the Uygurs of Xinjiang were more likely to exaggerate their ages than the predominant Han population.

Some of these reasons find parallels with the patriarchal narratives of Genesis. The ancient Israelites, like all the cultures of the Ancient Near East, considered a long life to be humankind’s greatest blessing and demonstrated great reverence toward the elderly. As perennial outsiders, the sociological factors that lead to age inflation among the Uygurs and others may also have figured into the reporting of the ages of the patriarchs. Perhaps Jacob wished to command greater respect from Pharaoh by exaggerating his age. It would not have been the first time Jacob bent the truth for his own advantage!

Even so, the reporting of these year-counts may be entirely the product of oral storytelling. It is important to realize that ancient peoples, especially those outside the major urban centers, did not handle numbers like moderns do.

Numeracy developed in the world at about the same time (and in the same place: ancient Sumer) as literacy. For many centuries, numbers belonged strictly to the realm of business transactions. Outside that sphere, they functioned more like adjectives than precise enumerations. Thus, the number 7 came to signify totality or completeness. (You can count to five on the fingers of one hand, then push it an extra two by using your memory.) Anthropologists have noted even in recent times that most preliterate peoples simply have no use for numbers and counting, even when they are exposed to the concepts. Numbers may be suggestive of certain qualities, but for the most part are not used to indicate precise figures.

In this context, it is not surprising that round numbers, particularly where 10′s and 7′s figure prominently, are abundant in the Genesis narratives. Both Jacob and Isaac, for example, married at age 40. Is this meant to be a literal number or does it simply mean something like “suitable maturity”? Likewise, Jacob worked 20 years for Laban and Sarai waited 10 years before offering Hagar to Abram. All of these could be round figures rather than strict chronological data.

Let me quickly point out that none of this is meant to cast doubt on the basic historicity of the patriarchs! I’m simply trying to understand the stories told about them in the appropriate cultural and sociological terms. For the book of Genesis, those terms involve a way of using numbers that is quite different from what we would expect in our scientific age.

The first character to appear in the Bible who could actually read was probably Nimrod, if he is to be equated with the eerily similar Sumerian king Enmerkar, whom legend had it was the first king to write a message on clay. This was about the beginning of the Uruk IV period, when writing was just being invented.

The first Bible character who used numbers as something other than adjectives describing qualities rather than quantities may well have been Eliezer, Abraham’s steward (Gen 15:2). Leaders in pre-numerate societies would have had such an “expert” in their employ to handle the accounting. Perhaps it was Eliezer who kept track of the 318 fighting men at Abram’s command (Gen 14:14). I doubt that Abraham or Isaac could either read or handle numbers, although perhaps Jacob could do both at a rudimentary level. Only with Moses, with his first-rate Egyptian education, do literate and numerate characters take center stage in the Bible. Even after that, however, it is likely that most ancient Israelites used numbers more for their symbolism than for anything else.

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3 Responses to Patriarchal Chronology, Longevity, and Numeracy

  1. Rachel says:

    This is very interesting. Genesis is my favourite part of the Bible, and the characters’ lifespans have aroused my curiosity, too, as their given ages obviously can’t always be taken literally. I didn’t know that numbers were used as adjectives; I still can’t quite grasp that concept! I guessed that the characters must age incredibly slowly; perhaps in the time of Methuselah, 900 was the equivalent of 90 nowadays.

    By Abraham’s time, I reckoned the characters aged approx. twice as slowly as we do now. Thus, when Sarah gave birth to Isaac at 90, she was actually like a 45-year-old, which would make sense: old enough to raise eyebrows, especially as she had always previously been barren, but still feasible. When Isaac himself died at 180 (a great age), that would be the equivalent of 90. And Esau marrying at 40, would have physically been like a 20-year-old. That may be wishful thinking on my part, because Jacob is one of my literary crushes, and I desperately want him to have been a gorgeous youth when he married my namesake! Well, as he managed to move the well’s stone single-handed, he must have been quite young and fit at that time, anyway.

    Whatever, this has been a good insight into ancient mathematics.

  2. D. P. says:

    Welcome, Rachel. As for numbers being used as adjectives, this might not be too surprising if you’re familiar with languages other than English. In ancient Greek, for example, the numbers one, two, and three are declined like any other adjectives to denote the gender, number, and case of the nouns they modify. Higher numbers (implying a greater sense of numeracy) are not. Importance tended to get attached to numbers that were just beyond ancient peoples’ ability to handle easily. Thus, seven (two more than the five fingers of one hand) and twelve (two more than the ten fingers of both hands) early on became significant in many cultures as ways of describing completeness or perfection. (The “seven Spirits of God” in Revelation is probably an example of this as well.)

    There may also be some scribal corruptions involved in the transmission of some of these numbers, but that is a subject for another post…

  3. Adam says:

    Sorry to necro-post, but this is an interest of mine, from time to time. One suggestion is that the Abramic Patriarchal ages are correct, but meant 1/2 years not full years. Thus Abra(ha)m lived to ~87.5, Isaac ~90 and Jacob ~70. Or something like that.

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