Alice C. Linsley
In his Homilies on the Psalms, St. Jerome notes: "I am reviewing carefully the places in Scripture where I might find old age mentioned for the first time. Adam lived for 930 years, yet he is not called an old man. Methuselah's life was 969 years, and he is not called an old man. I am coming down all the way to the flood, and after the flood for almost three thousand years, and I find no one who has been called old. Abraham is the first, and certainly he was much younger than Methuselah." (HP 21)
Jerome's observation is significant. Abraham was old, probably about 75 years at his dead. This was a long lifespan for people living about 5000 years ago. Paleopathology indicates that the lifespan of ancient peoples living in an area extending from North Africa to Turkey and Mesopotamia was about 34 years. This applies to peoples in the Late Paleolithic - 30,000 to 9,000 B.C., the Mesolithic - 9,000 to 7,000 B.C. and the Early Neolithic - 7,000 to 5,000 B.C. This would apply to all the rulers listed in Genesis, although rulers tended to live longer than the average people.
One might argue that the patriarchs enjoyed extraordinary longevity by divine providence. Were this the case we would want to know why God’s providence is limited to a specific time, people and place. In other words, the singularity of the extraordinary longevity of these patriarchs is a miracle and therefore beyond scientific explanation. While I believe in miracles, I find this explanation unlikely and without biblical support.
As St. Jerome noted, the only patriarch said to have died at an old age was Abraham (Gen. 24:1, 25:8). This means that the numbers are not to be taken as literal years. They represent ideas about these people and are symbolic. This is supported by the assignment of 930 years to Adam, an anti-type of Jesus Christ. Paul wrote: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the first fruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at his coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father…” (1 Corinthians 15:22-24a)
And this: “And so it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being.’ The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” (1 Corinthians 15:45) Paul was aware of the Semitic use of numbers. The 9 is the last number before beginning again. The 3 represents unity of body and soul, unity of the Godhead, or unity of heaven and earth. The use of the zero in Genesis indicates \
The number symbolism is certainly based on older lexemes pertaining to astronomical observations of the ancient Nilo-Saharan priests. Among them 0 would have been a sun symbol like the Canaanite Y, so that Seth's 600 years and Adam’s 930 years suggest divine overshadowing or divine appointment to rule.
In Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, zero is a solar symbol, the emblem of the Creator. It could signify the divine status of the ruler or it could indicate a solar year. It is fairly certain that the meaning of the extraordinary numbers in Genesis 4 and 5 is linked to astronomical observations of the ancient priests of the ancient Nile Valley, Egypt and Arabia. There is still much to discover about this.
As Abraham's people used base nine, the number 969 for Methuselah would indicate that Methuselah lived 2 full cycles plus 2/3 again. If the average lifespan was 34 years, this would mean that he lived about 85 years.
Related reading: The Genesis King Lists, Calculating the Dates of the Patriarchs