Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Days of our lives

According to Breishit 5, various antediluvian figures lived for up to 969 years. Whether these are historical facts, or else just details of an allegorical story, we are in any case challenged to picture these incredibly long lifespans. There is one other important detail: these people had kids for the first time at ages 130, 105, 70, 162, 65, 187, 182, and 500. It seems clear that they did not age at the same rate we age. This would be medically impossible considering their times of death and the ages at which they had kids. Rather, their aging processes were spread out across their lifetime, with everything slowed down by a factor of 5 to 10.

A few chapters later (and now this is indisputably history not allegory), nobody lives to be 900 years old. But the Avot do live significantly longer than anyone today - up to age 180. And many events in their lives take place when they are much older than would seem normal. But imagine that the aging process of the Avot was slowed down by a factor of two, just as the aging process of their ancestors had been slowed down by a larger factor. Let's recalculate various events in "avot years", these being equal to exactly two normal years, and see how much of the chronology suddenly makes sense.
  • Avraham was 37 (75) when he made aliyah, young enough to walk several hundred miles.
  • Sarah was between 32 (65) and 45 (90) when Pharoah and Avimelech found her extremely beautiful.
  • Avraham was 50 (100) when Yitzchak was born. More importantly, Sarah was 45 (90), just past menopause, as she hints in her comments. If you object that birth at this age is not miraculous enough, remember that to outsiders the couple would simply have appeared as very healthy nonagenarians.
  • Yishmael was 6 (13) when he was kicked out of the house (Breishit 21) in a story which makes him seem dependent on his mother.
  • Avraham died at 87 (175), Sarah at 63 (127), Yishmael at 68 (137), Yitzchak at 90 (180), Yaakov at 73 (147).
  • Yitzchak married at age 20 (40) and had kids at age 30 (60). Esav married at 20 (40) too.
  • Yaakov and Esav were 31 (63) years old when Yaakov took the blessing and started the feud between them.

In the next generation, Yosef led his brothers at age 17 and died at age 110. The ages of his siblings are not clear, but there is already a problem of them being too young in the Dinah story (see here) and so it is hard to argue that they were physically even younger than their ages. I would therefore argue that Yaakov was the last to have an extended lifetime. Starting with Yaakov's kids, everyone aged at the rate we expect today.


Anonymous said...

A friend of mine has a theory that, from the time of the flood until the end of Devarim, what the Torah called a "year" was really 6 months. The time between Rosh Hashanah and the start of Aviv/Nissan was called a year, and so was the time from Aviv to R"H. He applies this theory much more broadly than you do (not only to all the Jewish leaders through Moshe, but also to everyone else of their time), but it's interesting that you independently reached similar conclusions.

Beisrunner said...

There's evidence against that, such as the occasional mention of the "seventh month" of the year, but quite possibly there is room to go further than I did.

Disclaimer: the conclusion may not be totally independent. I remember reading (long ago, not sure where) the suggestion that Sarah's giving birth would make more sense if she was 45 not 90. What I added was to make the connection with the antediluvians, and to go through Breishit and look up the all other dates and point out that they too made more sense if cut in two.

Beisrunner said...

Now that I think about it, the six-month thing seems like an awesome way to solve the chronology problems of the stay in Egypt (Sefer Shemot says 430 years, Chazal with the probably support of archaeologists say it was really 210) and the period of the Shoftim. There are still loose ends; I don't like it for Moshe's time or for Yosef's generation, but perhaps these details can be worked out. Perhaps only certain places, at certain times, had the custom of calling six months a "year".