Where the People Old Testament Really That Old?

This question came up in a recent Bible study on Abraham and Sarah, figures in the Old Testament who were known for their extreme old age. According to the book of Genesis, Abraham was 75 when he left his father’s holdings and set out on his own. His wife Sarah wasn’t far behind them. Add to that they they were many years wandering and bearing children and establishing themselves. Thus, they were extremely Old when they died – far beyond the imagination of people even today.
So, what’s the deal? Did people just live longer back then? Was it all the clean living and organic produce and grass-fed animal proteins that they were consuming? Or was it all just a lie, a fabrication of mythological tales meant to impress people?
In a word: probably not.
I once tried to figure whether or not the ages given for really old people in the Bible had any root in rational math. They didn’t. Whether you say that the ancient year was only half, or a quarter or 12/13 as long as the modern year the maths just never com out right. Moreover, there is no evidence that the ancients had an appreciatively different sense of how long it took for the Sun to do its annual thing. Things may have been off by as much as a month, but no longer.
What, then is the reason for all of this rapid aging? Could it be that folks actually did live that longer? Were the chosen people of God, or at least those that he chose to be in the official story just made of sterner stuff? I don’t think so either.
I think the epic ages of Old Testament characters are an artifact of the kind of story telling that defines the Old Testament itself. In the same way that spinstered women living alone on dilapidated houses become the witches of Girl Scout campfire stories. So also the oldest members of bygone generations in cultures where time itself is less accurately reckoned become epically old. Moreover, this type of distortion of the facts can often highlight the deeper truth that is trying to be conveyed. For ancient Israelites, advanced age was a sign of God’s favor. How better, then, could we describe someone who had been profoundly blessed than by remembering them as having reached super-advanced age?
To the average iron- and bronze- Israelite, the average ages to which modern people live would seem virtually unachievable. (Recall, that though murdered in his early 30’s Jesus was never said to have “died too young.”) I wonder whether or not we can learn to see our long lives as a blessing, even if we never make it to the age of Methuselah?

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