Limiting Human Life-Spans

Limit Human Life spans (3)

f) Gen 6:3: As a consequence of the behavior of the sons of the gods (Gen 6:1–2), “The Lord said, ‘My spirit shall not strive with humanity forever because he is flesh. And it shall be that his days will be 120 years.’”

While many words of this sentence have been controversial, in recent years Hebrew scholars are developing a consensus.[1]

Since God’s spirit produces life,[2] Moses emphasized the Lord’s life-giving power. He did not refer to the Holy Spirit in this instance (Cf. Gen 2:7; Ps 104:27–30).

Although one can translate the verb din as “abide” instead of “strive,”[3] many modern scholars conclude that God said he would not contend with humans forever (Cf. Prov 22:10; 2 Sam 19:9).[4]

In either case, the same result ensued.

In Hebrew, the word translated as “flesh” (basar) has multiple meanings. Usually it refers to physicality, such as of an animal or human body (Gen 2:21; Exod 21:28).[5]

Since weakness, inadequacy, and a transitory nature all characterize flesh, basar also conveys the necessity of a total dependence upon the Lord for strength and life itself (Ps 56:4; Isa 40:6–8).

An ethical aspect to the word also occurs in connection with the human tendency to commit sin (Ps 78:37–41; Jer 17:5; 2 Chron 32:7–8).[6]

God’s judgment in Gen 6 indicates that both human frailty and sinfulness result from our existence as fleshly creatures.[7] We cannot survive without God sustaining us (Job 34:12–15; Luke 12:16–21).[8]

By calling even powerful kings “flesh,” the Lord not only emphasized their mortality but mocked their divine aspirations.[9]

Noah lived for 500 years old by the time he fathered his three sons (Gen 5:32). The flood occurred when he reached 600 years old (Gen 7:6).

Therefore, some commentators hold that the phrase “his days shall be 120 years” reflects a period of grace before the flood would begin,[10] giving people time to repent, just as in the days of Jonah (Jon 3:4–6).[11]

They conclude that Noah spent that 120 years building the ark to warn people of the impeding judgment (2 Pet 3:3–9).[12]

However, we have no indication that Noah built the ark over a period of 120 years.[13]

It appears that Noah’s sons were born before he received the Lord’s command (Gen 6:10–13). That would leave a maximum of 100 years between God’s command to build the ark and the flood.

By limiting human life-spans, individuals had less time to accrue power and foist their corrupt practices upon others.[14]

We should probably take the meaning of “his days shall be 120 years” at face value. God would no longer permit extraordinarily long lives.[15]

Tyrants could no longer oppress and terrorize others for hundreds of years.[16]

With this interpretation, we immediately run into a problem. Several biblical patriarchs who lived after the flood survived for more than 120 years. For example, Abraham survived for 175 years; Isaac for 180; and Jacob for 147 years (Gen 25:7; Gen 35:28; Gen 47:28).[17]

As God’s chosen men, the Lord may have blessed these patriarchs with life-spans beyond what he promised to others.[18]

On the other hand, God may have gradually implemented this edict, just as Adam did not physically die on the day he ate of the forbidden fruit (Gen 2:16–17; Gen 3:19; Gen 5:3–5).[19]

In the generations after Jacob, the bible records only Aaron exceeding 120 years (Num 33:39). Even Moses lived for only the maximum set by God (Deut 34:7).[20]

Parallels also exist in Ancient Near Eastern texts. A tablet from Emar recounts this conversation between the god Enlil and a man named Namzitarra:

[Enlil says,] “Your fate will be allotted to you [like your name]…you will have silver, you will have lapis lazuli gems, you will have cattle, you will have sheep.”

[To which Namzitarra replies, “Whe]re will I have taken your silver, your lapis lazuli, your sheep? The days of mankind are declining, day after day they are diminishing. Month after month they are diminishing. Year after year they are diminishing.

[The days of mankind]—they are diminishing. 120 years—that is the limit of mankind’s life, its term, from that day till now, as long as mankind has existed. So, I am going home. Do not stop me.”[21]

This ancient Syrian text affirms the decrease in the limit to human life spans reported by Moses: 120 years.[22]

Image via Wikimedia Commons


Read Gen 6:3. Do you think that the 120 years refers to a limit of people’s life-spans or a period of grace before the flood? Why?




Go to Nephilim in the Land


[Related posts include It is Good Not to Touch (1 Cor 7:1‒5); Sons of God or Sons of the Gods? (Gen 6:1–2); Descendants of Seth as the Sons of God (Gen 6:1–2 cont.); Fallen Angels as the Sons of God (Gen 6:1–2 cont.); Kings as Sons of the Gods (Gen 6:1–2 cont.); Taking Wives for Themselves (Gen 6:1–2 cont.); Nephilim in the Land (Gen 6:4); The Lord Breathes Life (Gen 2:7); An Equal and Adequate Partner (Gen 2:21–23); Forbidden Fruit (Gen 2:16–17); A Return to the Ground (Gen 3:19); and In Adam’s Likeness and Image (Gen 5:3–5)]

[Click here to go to Women and Marriage Throughout Redemptive History; or to Chapter 5: Groaning and Grieving (Genesis 5:28–6:8)]


[1]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 141.

[2]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 117.

[3] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 141–2.

[4]V. Hamp, “דִּינ” (din), TDOT 3:187–8. This is contra BDB.

[5]Brown, Driver, and Briggs, “דִּינ” (din), BDB, 192,

[6]N. P. Bratsiotis, “בָּשָׂר” (basar), TDOT 2:328–9.

[7]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 268.

[8]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 142.

[9]Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview, 188.

[10]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 142.

[11]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 269.

[12]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 117.

[13]Walton, Genesis, 296.

[14]Walton, Genesis, 298.

[15]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 142.

[16]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 118.

[17]Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 142.

[18]Walton, Genesis, 296.

[19]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 269.

[20]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 142.

[21]Yoram Cohen, “‘Enlil and Namzitarra’: The Emar and Ugarit Manuscripts and A New Understanding of the ‘Vanity Theme’ Speech,” RA 1, no. 104 (2010): lines 11–28, 87–97,

[22]Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVPBBCOT, Gen 6:3.