The age of Abraham

I use to accept the fact that the ages attributed to the patriarchs of the Old Testament could have a simbolical purpose, and thus we don’t need to take the numbers literally. However, I’m having a problem with this interpretation: in Genesis 17:17, Abraham seems to say that he was literally almost 100 years old at that time, and also Saint Paul seems to take the age as literal in Romans 4:19. Can we solve this difficulty without descending into strict biblical literalism?

Genesis 17:1 says:

and then Genesis 17:17 says:

So clearly, Abram is engaging in mild hyperbole. He is not 100 years old here, but he’s making a particular claim – the thrust of his statement is “do you seriously want me to believe that a really, really old guy can become a dad?”

Sarah has similar doubts in Genesis 18, but she expresses them more literally and without hyperbole:

The issues that Sarah raises are the literal ones:

  • her ability as a post-menopausal woman to conceive naturally
  • her husband’s ability to (ahem, umm…) perform the marital act

I think this is what we should take from Abram’s comments in Genesis 17, rather than focusing on Abram’s literal age.

Let’s look at Paul’s assertion:

Paul is asserting what Sarah has asserted in Gen 18:

  • Abraham considered his ability to function sexually as “already dead”
  • Sarah’s womb was ‘dead’ (i.e., infertile)

This stands in concert with Hebrews 11:11, which asserts:

Paul’s aside that Abraham was “almost 100 years old” merely quotes Genesis 17.

From time to time, beginning in the Renaissance era, there have been attempts to find a precise meaning of what Genesis says about the age of Abraham, Methuselah, and others. Someone came up with the idea that the word “year” really meant, at that time, a shorter period, possibly only a month. Someone else thought it meant the number of years a patriarch and his sons and grandsons, and all his known descendants, lived until their bloodline died out. All this fiddling around with the numbers is pointless. It won’t bring you a meaningful answer. As @Gorgias said, it just means they lived to a ripe old age, or that — in this specific case — Abraham and Sarah thought they were too old to have children.

I don’t see a problem with someone making it to 100 years old back then. While life expectancy was certainly less, it is also a fact that the numbers are distorted because of high infant mortality. The field of medicine only became effective very recently in extending lives. We are not the first generation with centenarions. Personally, I think the 900+ years of some other patriarchs is a pretty small miracle if we believe God became man or in the gift of eternal life.

There is a pattern in Genesis: From Adam until the Flood, lifespans were 10-12 times their current level. From the Flood until Babel, they were about 5 times their current level. From Babel until Abraham, they were about 3 times their current level. From Abraham to the sons of Jacob, they were about double their current level. Even in Moses and Joshua’s day, lifespans were about 150% of their current level. What’s the pattern? Bottlenecks and inbreeding. Genetic entropy had built up by the time of Noah’s sons and their wives, and the first generation born after the flood had only siblings and first cousins to marry. After Babel, the nations became more isolated, causing people to marry within their nation, rather than throughout the world. As nations and tribes splintered off, they became more and more inbred.

The things ois Abraham fell prostrate and laughed, This isn’t disbelief; this is happiness.

Wait – are you asserting that Abram expressed joy that he thought God was being silly? :thinking: :frowning:

It’s neither difficulty nor problem - so there’s no need to solve anything.

Beyond just how long some people lived?

Consider - all Miracles in Sacred Scriptures are intended to be literally taken!

It is not just the Bible that points to very long life expectancy for humans near the beginning and which decreased over time. The Sumerians in their records point to the same, especially a marked difference between pre- and post-flood.

That isn’t disbelief; it’s amazement. Notice that he bowed before the LORD. Ambrose says as much.

So… which is it? :thinking:

Joyful amazement.

This topic was automatically closed 14 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit