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Episodes in the book of Genesis. Oil painting by a Spanish painter. Iconographic Collections.

Can the Babylonian Calendar Help Explain the Ages of Patriarchs Recounted in the Book of Genesis? - Part 1

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The ages of Adam and his descendants in the Book of Genesis appear incredulous when compared to the average lifespan of Man throughout history. Though there have been several attempts to justify the numbers mathematically, none can be applied to all cases equally. Can these outlandish figures be explained?

A Mixed-up Interpretation?

The problem is, not only does Genesis list the age of the patriarchs, it lists their age at the time of their firstborn child. For example, Methuselah was 187 when he had his first son and he died at the age of 969. Had the scribes incorrectly interpreted months as years in the source data, the figures would be exaggerated by a factor of 12, and Methuselah would have been a more believable 15 and 80 years respectively at each event. Unfortunately, that does not work so well for his father, Enoch, who was 65 when Methuselah was born, which equates to 5 years old, and less so for the generations after the flood, the majority of whom were less than 36 when the first son was born, which would imply they were only 3 years old.

Book of Genesis Chapter 21-2 (Bible Illustrations by Sweet Media). Image: Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

The Flood Story

The 19th century discovery and subsequent translation of 12 cuneiform clay tablets from the 7th century BC revealed the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’, a poem about a Mesopotamian king who is believed to have reigned around the middle of the 3rd millennium BC. The 11th tablet contains a Babylonian account of a great flood, which is similar to that described in the Book of Genesis, not only in its synopsis but also in the timing, the Biblical flood having occurred around 2348 BC when calculated using the dates of events and genealogy available in the Bible (the Ussher chronology).

Astronomical Diaries

Of the hundreds of tablets recovered from Mesopotamia, many contain astronomical diaries compiled from observers specifically trained and employed for keeping a regular watch on the location of the moon and planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) at various times each night. This involved recording the location of each of these objects as they approached one of 31 ‘Normal Stars’ close to the ecliptic (the apparent path of the Sun each year). Short diaries were filled with entries on a daily basis while the clay tablet was soft enough for an impression to be made. These were compiled into longer diaries to coincide with the beginning of the two half-years of the Babylonian calendar.

The diary contained not only astronomical observations but also phenomena - the solstices and equinoxes, the appearance of comets and meteors, weather conditions (mist, rain, cloud activity, winds and storms), commodity prices, river levels and notable events - the intention being the identification of patterns of behavior that could be used to interpret omens. Key to this principle was the proximity of one or more planets to one of the constellations, for example this omen from a 17th century BC tablet:

“If Venus comes close to Scorpius: winds which are not good will blow”

Observation of Haley's Comet, recorded in Cuneiform on a clay tablet between 22-28 September 164 BC, Babylon, Iraq. British Museum, London. ( Public Domain)

From this we might assume that, at some time in the past, abnormally strong winds were noted as the planet Venus was observed approaching the constellation of Scorpio. This developed into the wider interpretation of where planets would be in relation to the Babylonian zodiac, which divided the sky into 12 equal segments of 30°.

The initial process of observing when and for how long a planet occupied a sign or house (the transit) would have taken tens of years due to the orbit of the Earth relative to the other planets, which causes the planets to waltz across the sky, speeding up, slowing down, stopping and even reversing direction briefly, rather than simply passing from East to West like the Sun or Moon (the same effect from which Copernicus hypothesized it was the Sun, not the Earth, that was at the center of the universe). The transit time for Mercury, which takes a short 88 days to orbit the Sun, is around 14 to 30 days whereas Saturn, the farthest planet from Earth visible with the naked eye, takes over 29 years to complete an orbit and can stay anything from a few days to more than 3 years in a sign.

Saturn eclipsing the sun, seen from behind from the Cassini orbiter. The image is a composite assembled from images taken by the Cassini spacecraft on September 15, 2006. (Public Domain)

Saturn eclipsing the sun, seen from behind from the Cassini orbiter. The image is a composite assembled from images taken by the Cassini spacecraft on September 15, 2006 . ( Public Domain )

Comparing the Babylonian Saturn Calendar with Genesis Generations

In the table below, the entry and exit dates from a Saturn transit calendar have been used to reproduce half-year diaries. In keeping with the Babylonian calendar, the Entry Date was based on the number of days since the start of the first- or second-half of the year, which were around the time of the vernal and autumnal equinoxes respectively.

The Days before transit was then calculated as the difference in days between the Entry Date and the previous March 20th (the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere). Where this value exceeded 182 days (half a year), the same was subtracted to yield the number of days in the second half of the year. The Transit Days were calculated as the number of days between the Entry Date and Exit Date . Finally, the Transit Days value was added to the Days before transit value to give the Total days for each entry:

Half-year diaries for Saturn transiting through the signs. (Author provided)

Half-year diaries for Saturn transiting through the signs. (Author provided)

Compare the table above to the generations of Man (below) compiled from the book of Genesis.

Generations of Man according to Genesis. Note: Ismael was Abraham’s first born but the Bible considers Isaac in the bloodline to Moses. (Author provided)

Generations of Man according to Genesis. Note: Ismael was Abraham’s first born but the Bible considers Isaac in the bloodline to Moses. (Author provided)

In each case Genesis states the age of the patriarch when the first son is born, the number of years until death and the age at death, for example:

“And Seth lived one hundred and five years, and he begot Enosh. And Seth lived after he had begotten Enosh eight hundred and seven years, and he begot sons and daughters. And all the days of Seth were nine hundred and twelve years, and he died.”

Source: Chabad.org

The list starts with Adam and continues through Noah in chapter 5 of Genesis. The process continues in chapter 11 of Genesis, i.e. after the flood story, starting with Noah’s son, Shem, and continues through Abram (Abraham) to provide a genealogy tracing Abraham’s sons, Ishmael and Isaac, to the first Man created by God.

Isaac and Ishmael bury their father Abraham in the cave, as in Genesis 25:9. (Public Domain)

Isaac and Ishmael bury their father Abraham in the cave, as in Genesis 25:9. ( Public Domain )

Ignoring the units used in each, the numerical similarities in the relationships, and the orders of magnitude, between the second and third columns for the ‘Half-year diaries’ and the ‘Generations of Man’ are undeniable.

To be correct, the values in the ‘Age at first born’ column should not exceed half-a-year. Although a value of 182 days was used to create the half-year diaries from the transit calendar, the Babylonian calendar was 12 lunar months, each month being 29 or 30 days depending on the sighting of a new crescent Moon, yielding a year of around 354 days as opposed to 365 in our (Gregorian) calendar. And whereas we insert one day every four years to compensate for the difference between our year and a solar year, the Babylonians inserted one month every 3 years after either the 6th or 12th month.

The maximum value for Age at first born could then be equal to seven lunar months, or 206. Indeed, only in the case of Noah is that value exceeded, that too as a prelude to the flood suggesting this particular diary contained references to heavy rainfall, high river levels and cloudy conditions that prevented Saturn from being observed for a period of around one year - an omen in the making. One possible explanation for this would be a large volcanic event.

‘The Deluge’ (1834) by John Martin. (Public Domain)

‘The Deluge’ (1834) by John Martin. ( Public Domain )

Another notable exception in the generations before the flood is Enoch, whose death at 365 years is significantly less than the others. Apart from Noah, Enoch is the only other patriarch to be afforded special consideration in Chapter 5 of Genesis:

“And Enoch lived sixty five years, and he begot Methuselah. And Enoch walked with God after he had begotten Methuselah, three hundred years, and he begot sons and daughters. And all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty five years. And Enoch walked with God, and he was no longer, for God had taken him.”

Source: Chabad.org

Genesis 5:24: "And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him." (KJV) illustration from the 1728 ‘Figures de la Bible’; illustrated by Gerard Hoet (1648–1733) and others and published by P. de Hondt in The Hague; image courtesy Bizzell Bible Collection, University of Oklahoma Libraries. (Public Domain)

Genesis 5:24: "And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him." (KJV) illustration from the 1728 ‘Figures de la Bible’; illustrated by Gerard Hoet (1648–1733) and others and published by P. de Hondt in The Hague; image courtesy Bizzell Bible Collection, University of Oklahoma Libraries. ( Public Domain )

This is in contrast to every other patriarch whose short eulogy always ends with ‘… and he died ’. The apologist’s explanation for Enoch’s unusually short life and unique relationship with God is that he constantly set God before himself - for which he was spared a natural death. It could also be that the author or scribe of Genesis has in this particular diary misinterpreted the reference to an astrological ‘exaltation’.

An exaltation in astrology occurs when a planet is in a sign of a similar nature, but which it does not rule, and embodies the planet with strength and energy (as opposed to the literal use of exaltation, which is a state of bliss or the action of elevating a person’s status). In late Babylonian sources the exaltations are referred to as the ‘secret houses’ or ‘secret places’, which the author could be forgiven for mistaking as a special place to which Enoch was taken some 500 years before he was expected to die.

In the second and concluding part, we take a more detailed look at values for Saturn’s transit through the houses and the possibility that the ages of Adam and his descendants have their origin in Babylonian astronomical diaries.

READ PART 2

Top image: Episodes in the book of Genesis. Oil painting by a Spanish painter. Iconographic Collections. Source:  CC BY 4.0

By Dean Talboys

Dean Talboys is the author of The Stonehenge Observatory .

Resources:

Propp, William, Origins of the Bible , 2015

Sachs, A. J., Astronomical Diaries and Related Texts from Babylonia , (completed and edited by H. Hunger), 1988

Ussher, Rev. J., The Annals of The World , 1658

White, Gavin, The Exaltation System in Babylonian Astrology , 2009

Comments

Dean Talboys's picture

Hi Laurent,

If the data in the Babylonian astronomical tablets was the source of the values assigned to the patriarchs in Genesis, it could be that the Jewish exiles presumed it to be a historical account of their patriarchs; they may have incorrectly assigned the content to a list of patriarchs from a different source; or there may have been deliberate intent to construct a history linking them to a respected deity. 

I don't get it. Do you mean the Jewish exiles saw the baylonian astronomical tablets and said, "hey this looks cool, let's use it to fake the story of our patriarchs" ??

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