Understanding biblical numbers and stories

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Understanding biblical numbers and stories

Question: How did the authors of the Bible view the earth and the universe?

The authors of the Bible believed that the moon, sun, and other luminaries are fixed in a curved structure which arches over the earth

The standard reference work, the Anchor Bible Dictionary writes:

The variety in date, origin, and scope of the Hebrew Bible's cosmological materials means that achieving a single, uniform picture of the physical universe is hardly possible. Still, sufficient overlap does obtain between the many accounts of the universe, however these may vary in their details, to allow for a few generalizations. The earth on which humanity dwells is seen as a round, solid object, perhaps a disk, floating upon a limitless expanse of water. Paralleling this lower body of water is a second, similarly limitless, above, from which water descends in the form of rain through holes and channels piercing the heavenly reservoir. The moon, sun, and other luminaries are fixed in a curved structure which arches over the earth. This structure is the familiar "firmament" (raqiya) of the priestly account, perhaps envisioned as a solid but very thin substance on the analogy of beaten and stretched metal. Though some texts appear to convey a picture of a four-storied universe (Job 11:8-9 or Psalms 139:8-9), the great majority of biblical texts assume the three-storied universe so clearly assumed in other, ancient traditions. Thus, the Decalog's prohibition of images specifies "heaven above," "earth below," and "water under the earth" as the possible models for any such forbidden images (Exodus 20:4). If we understand the common term "earth" (erets) as designating at times the "underworld," then the combined references in Psalms 77:19 to heaven, the "world" (tebel), and the "earth" ('erets) are another appeal to the universe as a three-storied structure (for other texts where 'erets may refer to the underworld, see Stadelmann 1970: 128, n. 678). Clearer reference still to the same structure is to be found in Psalms 115:15-17, where we find grouped together "the heaven of heavens," "the earth," and the realm of "the dead" (cf. Psalms 33:6-8 snf Proverbs 8:27-29).

The curving, solid structure which arches over the realm of humanity is sometimes called a "disk" or "vault" (hug; Isaiah 40:22, Proverbs 8:27). That which allows the heavenly abyss to water the earth are occasional interruptions in this solid structure, openings called variously windows, doors, or channels. In some texts, that which suspends the habitable earth above the underworld's waters (see 1 Samuel 2:8 for another reference to these rivers) are pillars or some such foundational structures. These seem envisioned in Job 38:4-5; Psalms 24:2; 104:5; Proverbs 8:29, and elsewhere. Finally, the realm beneath the arena of human activity is not only imagined as one of watery chaos but also given the specific designation "Sheol" (she'ol), usually translated "the underworld." In the different elaborations upon just what one should imagine Sheol as including, again there is little consistency. At times, Sheol is personified, with a belly or womb and a mouth (Jonah 2:3-Eng 2:2); Proverbs 1:23; Proverbs 30:16; and Psalms 141:7), while at others Sheol is rather more architecturally portrayed (Isaiah 38:10; Job 7:9-10; Job 14:20-22; Job 17:13; Job 18:17-18), as a dark and forgetful land or city (Stadlmann 1970: 1666-76).[1]


  1. Anchor Bible Dictionary, at 1:1167-68, s.v. "Cosmogony, Cosmology."

Question: Does the biblical story of Peleg describe the separation of the continents?

Some Latter-day Saint thinkers have understood the matter as referring to the sudden separation of the continents in a catastrophic event. Others have regarded this as a misunderstanding of the text

Does the biblical story of Peleg describe the separation of the continents? There is a reference to this event in DC 133:.

Some Latter-day Saint thinkers have understood the matter as referring to the sudden separation of the continents in a catastrophic event. Others have regarded this as a misunderstanding of the text. The Church has no official position on the matter, and it does not play much of a role in LDS thought or discourse.

Genesis 10:25 contains a passing reference to man called Peleg, who received his name because "in his days was the earth divided". The Hebrew verb פלג (palag) means "separate" or "divide."

Some Latter-day Saints have interpreted this passage with extreme literalness

Some Latter-day Saints have interpreted this passage with extreme literalness, believing that the earth's tectonic plates, which were once a single land mass, all separated into the continents we know today during the life of a single mortal, instead of over hundreds of millions of years as scientists have theorized. Two of these were Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie.

It is more likely that Peleg's name anticipates the division of languages at Babel in the following chapter

But the scripture doesn't require such an extraordinary conclusion: It is more likely that Peleg's name anticipates the division of languages at Babel in the following chapter. (Note that palag appears in Psalms 55:9 to refer to a division of languages.)

In the December 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, 1,000 miles of fault line slipped 50 feet, resulting in a 9.3-magnitude earthquake that created seismic sea waves up to 100 feet high. These tsunamis caused the deaths of nearly 230,000 people. The amount of force required to move the major continents thousands of miles apart in the lifetime of a single individual would cause much worse devastation, a global catastrophe on an unimaginable scale. Thus, to accomplish this without a divine miracle which hid all trace of such an event would be extraordinarily unlikely. But, such a miracle cannot be proven or identified by science or observation. Those who choose to believe that this is what happen can only rely on faith.

If the division is one of language, then DC 133:22–23 would refer to the return to a time when languages no longer divide humankind. This will take place during the 1,000 years of peace when the Savior reigns. Such a return to unity might also symbolize the passing of all the temporary, petty, and earthly matters which alienate humans from each other.


Question: What’s the best way to understand the ages of antediluvian patriarchs scientifically?

There is no consensus among biblical scholars as to how to interpret these ages.

Scholars have generally separated the interpretation of the ages into three camps: the literal view, the symbolic view, and the blended view. The literal view seeks to understand every age as literal historical, the symbolic view seeks to understand why the biblical authors might have used these ages to represent perhaps power or prestige, and the blended view seeks to find somewhere in the middle for their interpretation. All views are laid out in this article by Andrew P. Kvasnica from the Dallas Theological Seminary published in 2005.

Andrew P. Kvasnica: The Ages of the Antedeluvian Patriarchs in Genesis 5


Numbers command attention. Whether it's on a recipe, on a price tag, on a head count, or on a paycheck, numbers make us search for their meaning, and we trust that meaning to be dependable. We hope that number one means first place, and that having twins means there are two new babies rather than five. Numbers have inherent reliability.

Sometimes, though, when sweat is pouring down your face, you might venture a guess and say, "Man, it must be 500 degrees!" Also, why does the 13th floor contain more underlying meaning than just the floor on level 13? Some numbers have inherent meaning that varies from their stated value”numbers given for effect.

The numbers in Gen 5 appear to be actual long ages of the antediluvian patriarchs. However, many have taken note of their atypically extensive size. Living over 900 years?! This has caused many scholars and other curious people to plunge into finding out what these numbers actually mean.

This paper is designed to present the various major issues regarding the interpretation of the numbers in Gen 5. Realistically, the issue must essentially include numerical, literary, rhetorical, cultural, historical, chronological, grammatical, geographical, and authorial issues (besides many more, probably). To interpret Gen 5 without considering all of the factors listed above is simply an incomplete interpretation. So, this paper is meant to reach a conclusion on a small part of the vast whole. It covers the numerical aspect of Gen 5 followed by a brief evaluation of some noted literary factors.

On the Meaning of the Numbers

Contemporary and historical solutions to the numbers in Gen 5 show three categories of general interpretation: literal, symbolic, and fictional/symbolic. Among these solutions, there is also an interpretation that combines the literal and symbolic view. This view, as literal/symbolic, is discussed following the symbolic view.


Historically, the most prevalent way to take these numbers is as literal ages.[1]These numbers are called "conventional" by John J. Davis, Biblical Numerology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1968). Philo seems to accept their accuracy in his Questions and Answers on Genesis, 1:91, The Works of Philo: New Updated Edition, trans. C. D. Yonge (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993), 811. Josephus, in his Antiquities, even advises against speculation of these numbers because they are unlike ours, The New Complete Works of Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999), 1.3.9§105.</ref> The numbers mean what they appear at first sight to mean. This is reason enough for many. Some add reasons to this and hold that the patriarchs needed to personally pass on to future generations the wisdom and art that they learned”such a duty, it is said, could not have happened during a "normal" life span of 70 or 80 years.[2] Some also propose longevity based on the idea of a water vapor canopy that protected the earth from physically and genetically harmful solar radiation.[3]

Against this, though, factors are brought up opposing a literal reading of the numbers. First, the numbers don't appear to be random. Each number in Gen 5 (except Methuselah's 969 years) ends in either a 0, 5, 2, or 7, which can be thought of as a factor of 5 (0 or 5) and at times adding 7 (e.g. 5 + 7 = 12). Etz implies that the chance of this happening without deliberate alteration is essentially impossible.[4]Some feel that the definition of "year" was different in this context and should rather mean "month" or "day." For example, Methuselah at the age of 969 years would instead be only 969 months, or now, 81 years by the new figuring”a more reasonable age in today's standards. Using this definition, though, places the numbers into even more severe problems than at the outset.[5]This issue loses weight, too, just by the context of Gen 6. Wenham agrees that a year at that time was still about 360 days.[6] Westermann, though, asserts that the basic issue of "greater human vitality" is not reason enough to explain the ages.[7]

Taking these numbers literally would also require reconciling differences between them in the MT, LXX, and SP. The totals of the ages in these are 1,556 (MT), 2,142 (LXX), and 1,207 (SP) years. To solve this dilemma, some suggest that there was an artificial scheme that was developed for these texts.[8] Dealing with this difficulty, Larsson contends that those who redacted Genesis "did not look upon the ages of the patriarchs as historical data but used them to develop systems with different purposes."[9]What then is this system? Larsson proposes a varied use of chronology and different calendars by the scribes of the different text traditions.[10] This, however, doesn't solve any difficulty with the size of the numbers.

Although taking the numbers at face value seems most appropriate (as in our present culture), the general size of the ages leads many to reconsider their validity as actual ages. The solving of the MT/LXX/SP number differences seems to contribute to the difficulty of seeing these numbers as actual ages. However, there are still many proponents of the literal interpretation of these numbers.


Many also propose a symbolic use of the numbers. To lay the foundation, Waltke states that there is enough evidence for this in the Scripture that it couldn't have been coincidence,[11] and Plaut states that there is a "biblical predilection for number symbolism."[12] Some of these matters are in relation to the prevalence of the numbers seven and ten, known respectively in diverse ancient Near Eastern texts for their perfection and completeness. The list of ten names in Gen 5 has caused many to see an "undoubtedly" deliberate construction of the names to fit the scheme of an "optimal ten-generation pattern" which would then "lend an authentic ring" to this genealogy.[13]

Larsson supports the symbolic use of numbers stating that playing with numbers, the magic of certain figures, and the symbolism of certain dates was "nothing new in the chronology of the Bible."[14]However, Hasel contends that some of the foundations of this system are weak. He cites the missing connection between the strength of the historical content of the OT and the use of this system that seems to take that history lightly.[15]

Barnouin suggests a different symbolic use of the numbers. He proposes the scribal use of synodic periods of the planets for some of the numbers in Gen 5. For example, 777 (the years of Lamech) would be related to the cumulative synodic periods of Jupiter and Saturn; 962 (of Jared) would be related in the same way to Venus and Saturn.</ref> He suggests that, according to the Babylonians, there was a connection between age and astrologic periods. Wenham doubts this however, except that it might show the orderliness of life.[16]

There is plenty of literature that proposes number symbolism in the Bible, but the prospect of it being used for all numbers in Gen 5 still isn't convincing to some. The trouble with the symbolism is that among all of the conjectures, no one knows for certain what the numbers symbolize.[17]


Some suggest a system of figuring the numbers based on knowledge of ancient Near Eastern king lists and the use of a sexagesimal number system (i.e., base 60, rather than the decimal base 10). The figuring for this is essentially based on the Sumerian King List, which is a list of kings who reigned before and after the flood. In general, the numbers of some of the Sumerian texts show a predilection to the number 60.[18] Because of the age longevity comparisons between the SKL and the genealogy of Gen 5, scholars searched to find a way to link the Sumerian method of reckoning numbers to the biblical text. Using the number 60 as a starting point, proposals have been made on how the large numbers of Gen 5 were actually to be seen against the backdrop of the Sumerian number system.

Despite the interesting appearance of correlating the numbers between the two texts, heated disagreement exists as to whether or not this system of figuring can be adequately used to explain the numbers in Gen 5. The debate hinges not only on the validity of the math and possible Mesopotamian connection between the SKL and Gen 5, but also on the validity of comparing these two texts. Wenham finds the math interesting, but doubts its appropriate use in understanding Gen 5,[19] and Hasel contends that the whole comparison seems forced to fit together.[20] Bailey, though, has kept the connection alive,[21] also along with Walton.[22]

Because of the continuing debate on the alleged connection between the SKL and Gen 5, here is a basic look at some pros and cons to each position. Bailey sets forth five reasons why the parallel should be maintained,[23] but these are fairly simplistic and have little weight in many of the foundational matters concerning the SKL and Gen 5.[24] Cassuto states that there is "a similarity here than cannot be considered fortuitous." He also claims that there was "undoubted" Israelite knowledge of the Babylonian tradition of genealogies as well as a shared appreciation of the sexagesimal system, the number seven, and the span of five years (which is to be noted, 60 months).[25] Because of this, he feels that the writer of the Torah used the Babylonian tradition, but desired to "purify and refine" the generations and ages and "to harmonize them with its own spirit."[26] Walton states that, since the totals of the numbers in the two texts can be found in the same mathematical way, that there was a "common tradition;" and therefore, possibly there was a time when they were the same text”"coincidence [that these texts were never related] is out of the question."[27]

Against the SKL/Gen 5 correlation, Hasel counters with a diverse array of observations. Gen 5 is a history of mankind, whereas the SKL is a history of a people; Gen 5 is the creation of mankind, whereas the SKL is the establishment of a kingship; Gen 5 is a genealogy, whereas the SKL is a king list; Gen 5 has no hint of a "political ideology or ideal," whereas the SKL is political;[28] Gen 5 is the tracing of ancestors, whereas the SKL is the unification of the land; and, Gen 5 has ten listings, whereas the SKL (in different copies) has from seven to ten.[29] Hess continues the assault by observing that Gen 5 involves kinship relations, whereas the SKL deals with succession of rulership and office holders; Gen 5 numbers are to record lifespan, whereas the SKL's are for length of reign; Gen 5 moves the reader to look to the future, whereas the SKL looks to the past.[30]

Based on the arguments, it seems that to completely connect and interpret one of these texts by using the other appears to be incorrect. This is based on what seems to be the more foundational reasons behind each text. Still, though, as supported by Cassuto, Bailey, and Walton, the solution to understanding the numbers of Gen 5 by using the SKL method seems to amaze most who study the possible correlation.


Lastly, some suggest a completely fictional interpretation of the numbers of Gen 5. Although claiming that there is a good level of historicity with the names and people, Kitchen sees the numbers as "pure myth."[31]Jacobs concurs that these are only legendary numbers resulting from the "fictitious reduction of the enormous numbers" found in other cultures.[32] Others contend that these numbers were only meant to point the reader to a time in an "unimaginably distant past,"[33] or that they were meant to show the "progressive deterioration of everything,"[34] or that the numbers only are meant to signify that the patriarchs were "larger than life" and thus superior to their descendants.[35]

However, the numbers still refer to something. So, some propose solutions by using decimal mathematics. Etz states that the writer of Genesis began with "a set of [invented] plausible numbers." From there, "each lifespan (except Enoch's) was increased by 300 years," and Enoch's by only 100 years. Then all numbers were multiplied by 10, then divided by 4, and "rounded down to whole numbers if necessary."[36] He suggests that the patriarchs had life spans similar to today”these normal life spans make up his originating "plausible numbers."

Another computation is proposed by Young. His figuring is based on Babylonian sexagesimal algebra with which he states you can account for all but three figures in both genealogies of Gen 5 and 11: those figures being 777, 365, and 110, which, he states, have already been solved by other methods.[37]For example, Adam's lifespan could be found by using the formula x² + ax = b where (for Adam) x = 30 and, in this case, a = 1. After computing, the result is 930 years. Young states that this "basic type" of algebra is a "fitting manner" with which to begin a series of numbers regarding the patriarchs.[38] To calculate the ages of other patriarchs, one would use any of a number of different algebraic formulas. He states that his calculations were apparently "the classic examples taught in the classrooms over the centuries" and that, based on persisting cultural mathematical methods, "a Sumerian writer of the late third millennium and a Jewish priest of the sixth century would have been exposed to essentially the same mathematical education in a Mesopotamian school."[39]

Besides the general thought in the scholarly community that these methods are a little too involved, there is additional information shed regarding some views of the ancient Hebrews and math. It is mentioned that the rabbis had a lack of interest in theoretical math unless it applied to "practical applications that would help them to construct the Hebrew calendar."[40]In agreement with this is that there was also a general lack of interest in math within the community unless it helped the people to live better quality lives.[41] In light of this, it would seem difficult to imagine that the math problems above would be used in the chronologies or genealogies of the MT. However, the math does seem to amaze the observer.

A kaleidoscope of scholarly proposals have settled on the meaning of the numbers in Gen 5. Each proposal is met with an antagonistic view. The full meaning of these numbers, in the end, appears uncertain. Josephus (although supporting a literal view) comments on the number and longevity issue by stating, "let everyone look upon [these matters] as he thinks fit."[42]Sarna comments that what these numbers represent individually or collectively, symbolically or schematically, are "presently unknown...If any such exists, it has not yet yielded its secret."[43]

On the Purpose of Gen 5, and other Literary Factors

Aside from trying to figure out the numbers directly, many scholars look simply at the overarching purpose of the genealogy in Gen 5. Out of the majority views, there are two different purposes given. The first is that the numbers, and everything included, are a literary means of communicating the divine blessing directly from God through Adam to Noah. This is termed the theological purpose of Gen 5.[44] Others see the purpose of this genealogy as simply moving the narrative quickly from the story of Cain to the event of the flood.[45] However people think about this second purpose, it is difficult to miss the extensive length of time that passes relatively quickly through this genealogy. Aside from what the numbers mean directly, many propose these purposes as the themes that drive the entire genealogy.

In regard to the purpose of the Gen 5 genealogy, I would briefly like to note what I feel are some significant literary aspects in the text. Many major things happen in the first five chapters of Genesis. Upon reaching the record of the descendents of Cain in 4:16, rhetorically the story speeds through the family line of Cain. Although the details of this family are major, they come across as less-so because of a less structured literary presentation and the author's method of keeping the reader/listener moving. The details seem to have no felt depth, and the roles of the descendents of Cain come across almost as if the author felt obligated to put them in the text.

At Gen 4:25, the scene takes a dramatic shift, which is even heightened by some positive discourse from Adam's wife (directly contrasting the more negative feeling in discourse from Cain's family). The post-script in 4:26 about people beginning to worship the Lord draws the readers attention even more. In 5:1-2 there is a harkening back to the first creation of mankind in the Lord's image and likeness (which is lacking in 4:17), as if the Lord was doing something new again. Again, rhetorically, these things seem to slow down the reader/listener. Lastly, 5:3-31 seems long and deliberate (contrasted with the hurriedness and chaotic structure of 4:17-24) as if this was the place to sit and ponder. Enhancing this feeling, the multiple ages slow the pace of the text, and through its methodical rhythm, we learn about each descendant. The pace continues in a consistent way except when even more positive shifts in the pattern come (as with Enoch in 5:22-24). Then, after a while, the text lands at Noah, and it's on to another story.

Considering these literary factors, the overriding point of the Gen 5 genealogy seems to be a captivation for the reader/listener to see what God is doing. The rhetorical development before and during the genealogy lend to this purpose. In the genealogy, the size of the numbers (whatever they mean) add punch and cause the reader to take more notice of what's happening. To me, the purpose of the parts of the Gen 4 and 5 genealogies seem to contribute to this stark notice of what the Lord is recreating anew. Gen 5 tells of a line of mankind who will have the image and likeness of the Lord present in them to do a good work through the Lord's blessing. This overriding point must not be missed.


In regard to this foregoing glance at the purpose, it would seem that, as the numbers stand, they don't appear to be the point of the genealogy. In regard to their meaning, the field seems quite open. Each view of literal, symbolic, literal/symbolic, or fictional/symbolic interpretation of these numbers appears to carry enough strong evidence for and against each category. By looking at the evidence, it would appear that an assessment would yield inconclusive evidence to convincingly prefer one interpretation over another. However, a lack of determinative interpretation in this area does not cause the reader/listener to miss the point of the genealogy. Literary clues and the sheer presence of the numbers seem deliberately designed to lead us to sense the blessed work of the Lord through Adam and Seth. Levin notes a common view in regard to the structure of a genealogy: "form [of the genealogy] must always follow function" so that if the literary need is different, its presented form is different.[46] The literary and structural factors in the Gen 5 genealogy and surrounding context seem to strongly support a primary point: the Lord's work in blessing this lineage. In light of this, all factors of this genealogy would be subservient to that main point, i.e., all details, including the meaning of the numbers, serve the overriding primary purpose of the genealogy. The form of this genealogy, with all of its details, follows its ultimate function.


A look at the technical information regarding the numbers of Gen 5 yielded various main camps regarding interpretation. Assessment of the technical evidence leads to a lack of convincing conclusiveness on the exact meaning of the numbers, i.e., an interpretation that can explain all of the issues and that rings true with all aspects of the text. The purpose of the genealogy (whether it be a theological purpose or a literary way to speed through time) helps the reader/listener to get a more primary point and not to get hopelessly lost on the details of the presentation.

In light of all this, I don't feel that our lack of conclusiveness of the exact meaning of the text should cause anyone to despair about the truthfulness of Scripture. I think it's fair to state that what the Lord intended to mean by these numbers and this genealogy is still what he intends, whether or not we understand it fully. I hold that the text, even apart from full human understanding, remains completely reliable to give its intended meaning.[47]


  1. Quoted from the midrash by Radak in Meir Zlotowitz, Bereishis, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 1986), 168.
  2. Luther states that these patriarchs also had a better diet, more sound bodies, and experienced a less developed impact of sin on the physical creation. Martin Luther, The Creation: A Commentary on the First Five Chapters of the Book of Genesis, trans. Henry Cole (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1858), 449.
  3. John C. Whitcomb, Jr. and Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Flood (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1961), 399-404. The vapor canopy idea has met strong scientific resistance in recent years.
  4. Donald V. Etz, “The Numbers of Genesis V:3-31: A Suggested Conversion and Its Implications,” Vetus Testamentum 43 (1993): 178.
  5. Lloyd R. Bailey, “Biblical Math as Heilsgeschichte?” in A Gift of God in Due Season, ed. Richard D. Weis and David M. Carr (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press Ltd, 1996). By the new figuring, a Hebrew year would equal a lunar month. However, applying this idea to all of the numbers in Gen 5, Enoch would have been only 5 years old when his son Methuselah was born!
  6. Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987). cf. Gen 8:3-4.
  7. Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary, trans. John J. Scullion S.J. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1974), 353.
  8. Cf. J. B. Payne, “Antediluvian Patriarchs,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979).
  9. Gerhard Larsson, The Secret System: A Study in the Chronology of the Old Testament (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1973), 59. Hasel concludes that the LXX and SP show schematization, but only the MT has a "non-schematic presentation of figures," Gerhard F. Hasel, “Genesis 5 and 11: Chronogenealogies in the Biblical History of Beginnings,” Origins 7 (1980).
  10. Larsson, The Secret System: A Study in the Chronology of the Old Testament, 8. This includes a lunar year of 354 days, an Egyptian solar year of 365 days and a "standard" year of 365.25 years.
  11. Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 114.
  12. W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary: Genesis (New York: The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1974), 55. An example he includes is from Gen 6:3: 120 yrs = 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5. Bullinger attributes this symbolic use to divine interest as seen in Dan 8:13 with the transliterated "Palmoni," Bullinger's stated angel whose divine function was numbers, Ethelbert W. Bullinger, Number in Scripture: Its Supernatural Design and Spiritual Significance (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1894), 20. Christensen also follows such methods as Plaut. See Duane L. Christensen, “Did People Live to Be Hundreds of Years Old before the Flood? No,” in The Genesis Debate: Persistent Questions About Creation and the Flood, ed. Ronald Youngblood, ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986).
  13. Abraham Malamat, “King Lists of the Old Babylonian Period and Biblical Genealogies,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 88 (1968): 165. See also the discussion of "ten" in the Gen genealogies in M. Abot section 5, Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah: A New Translation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 685. Garrett also thinks this is deliberate, thus indicating redaction, Duane A. Garrett, Rethinking Genesis: The Sources and Authorship of the First Book of the Bible (Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2000), 99. Hasel, though, disagrees depending on Noah's role in the Gen 11 genealogy. Therefore, he states that these two lists (Gen 5 and 11) don't show a 10-10 pattern but rather a 10-9 or 11-10 pattern, Gerhard F. Hasel, “The Meaning of the Chronogenealogies of Genesis 5 and 11,” Origins 7 (1980): 60. Against his view would be a literary argument: Gen 11 is the line of Shem, as stated (Gen 11:10), therefore Noah does not need to be placed in the genealogy of Gen 11. What stands is ten genealogical names in both Gen 5 and 11.
  14. Larsson, The Secret System: A Study in the Chronology of the Old Testament, 16. He holds that there is support for this secret writing in the Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts, which contain astrological and chronological contents (17).
  15. Hasel, “The Meaning of the Chronogenealogies of Genesis 5 and 11,” 64.
  16. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 134. He states this while agreeing that Barnouin shows impressive math and striking coincidences.
  17. This is the summary of Wenham, Ibid. See also Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, vol. 1A, The New American Commentary, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 301-02.
  18. For example, some of the lengths of reign in the SKL are listed to be 28,800 yrs, 36,000 yrs, or 18,600 yrs. Basing these numbers off of 60, the solutions are as follows: 28,800 = 60² x 8; 36,000 = 60² x 10; and finally, 18,600 = (60² x 5) + (60 x 10). Bailey has a chart working out all of the calculations of three different texts of the SKL where he uses calculations based off of 60 and the symbolic number 7, in Bailey, “Biblical Math as Heilsgeschichte?” 90-91.
  19. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 133. See also Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, 301 ft13.
  20. Hasel, “The Meaning of the Chronogenealogies of Genesis 5 and 11,” 65. This writer agrees that the figuring does appear very forced with both authors' figuring.
  21. Bailey, “Biblical Math as Heilsgeschichte?” 94. He includes a chart calculating all of the numbers contained in Gen 5 (except the final ages of the patriarchs”the calculations shown could just be added together) by using combinations centered on the use of 60 and 7. All of the calculations yield their answers in months. He suggests that this is valid because 5 years (5 being another significant number) equals 60 months.
  22. John Walton, “The Antediluvian Section of the Sumerian King List and Genesis 5,” Biblical Archeologist 44 (1981): 207-08.
  23. Bailey, “Biblical Math as Heilsgeschichte?” 92-93. These include the divine activity at the outset, the same number of generations, the use of 60, the special 7th characters, and the similar age decrease and increase.
  24. This will be shown later in the presentation of those who don't see a parallel between these texts.
  25. U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part One: From Adam to Noah (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1961), 254-59. He sees "very frequent" sexagesimal system use in Talmudic, midrashic, and biblical literature.
  26. Ibid., 263. Also seeing Gen 5 as being influenced by the Mesopotamian tradition in the ten generations, the ages, and the last hero figure, is Robert R. Wilson, Genealogy and History in the Biblical World (London: Yale University Press, 1977), 166.
  27. Walton, “The Antediluvian Section of the Sumerian King List and Genesis 5,” 207-08. He details a potential scenario on how the texts were originally related and subsequently came to look rather different. Using unearthed tablets from Ebla, he sets forth a case that the number system at Ebla was "decimal in its operations but sexagesimal in its symbolic notation (208)." Through all further implications of this, the basic end of the scenario is that there was scribal confusion resulting in a misinterpreting of one system of numbers for another. At that point, the numbers appeared radically different though started the same.
  28. For comments on the political nature of the SKL, see William W. Hallo, “Royal Hymns and Mesopotamian Unity,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 17 (1963).
  29. Gerhard F. Hasel, “The Genealogies of Gen 5 and 11 and Their Alleged Babylonian Background,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 16 (1978): 365-70.
  30. Richard S. Hess, “The Genealogies of Genesis 1-11 and Comparative Literature,” Biblica 70 (1989): 247-53. See also Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary, 348.
  31. K. A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1966), 40.
  32. Joseph Jacobs, “Chronology,” in Jewish Encyclopedia, ed. Isidore Singer (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1903), 66-67.
  33. Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary, 354.
  34. K. Luke, “The Genealogies in Genesis 5,” Indian Theological Studies 18 (1981): 228.
  35. Etz, “The Numbers of Genesis V:3-31: A Suggested Conversion and Its Implications,” 176.
  36. Ibid.: 181. For example, Adam's figures would look like this if his "plausible" begetting age was 52 and there were 20 years left until his death: 52 + 20 + 300 = 372, then 372 x 2.5 = 930 years, as is found in Gen 5.
  37. Dwight Wayne Young, “On the Application of Numbers from Babylonian Mathematics to Biblical Life Spans and Epochs,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 100 (1988): 331, 60.
  38. Ibid.: 343.
  39. Ibid.: 322. (Note the late dating”he assumes the priestly writing of Gen 5.) He works through the problem of the number 800 in another article, Dwight Wayne Young, “The Influence of Babylonian Algebra on Longevity among the Antediluvians,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 102 (1990): 326-28. This pivotal number in figuring the ages of Gen 5 can be resolved by understanding the importance of the numbers 30 and 20, which were taught at the elementary level in Mesopotamia. This resolution, then is 800 = (30 + (30 “ 20)) x 20.
  40. Hyman Gabai, Judaism, Mathematics, and the Hebrew Calendar (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc., 2002), 67.
  41. Ronald H. Isaacs, The Jewish Book of Numbers (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1996), 1.
  42. The New Complete Works of Josephus. From Antiquities 1.3.9§108.
  43. Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 41.
  44. Cf. Ibid. Cf. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament, 35.; Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part One: From Adam to Noah, 253.; Wilson, Genealogy and History in the Biblical World, 164.; Hasel, “The Meaning of the Chronogenealogies of Genesis 5 and 11,” 69.; Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary, 354.; Luther, The Creation: A Commentary on the First Five Chapters of the Book of Genesis, 437.; Donald L. Fowler, “History and Chronology of the Old Testament,” in Foundations for Biblical Interpretation (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 237.
  45. Cf. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, 295.; John H. Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1989), 295.; Yigal Levin, “Understanding Biblical Genealogies,” Currents in Research: Biblical Studies 9 (2001): 33.
  46. Levin, “Understanding Biblical Genealogies,” 40. He also proposes that this idea was familiar to the intended readers so that there was no question about the use of a form of genealogy. See also Wilson, Genealogy and History in the Biblical World,166.
  47. Andrew P. Kvasnica, "The Ages of the Antediluvian Patriarchs" 2005 Student Academic Conference, Dallas Seminary <https://bible.org/article/ages-antediluvian-patriarchs-genesis-5. (accessed 19 July 2019)

Question: What’s the best way to understand the Tower of Babel scientifically?

By all indications, we can believe that something happened. Though we should probably be aware that exaggerations very likely exist in the account

The science behind the Tower of Babel can be separated into two questions 1) Was there a tower that could reach the heavens? 2) Were tongues actually confused? Both of those questions are addressed in this excellent article by Michael Ash who cites Hugh Nibley:

Michael R. Ash - Is the Tower of Babel historical or mythological?

Last week I began discussing the Jaredites and the Tower of Babel, and how the story might be reconciled for those who believe that science and religion do not necessarily conflict. Some people, for instance, believe that the story of the Tower of Babel falls into the realm of fantasy rather than history. There are historical indicators, however, that suggest that the story is a myth in the scholarly sense.

While most people think of myths as fables (which is what the word actually means), scholars loosely define myths as culturally-shared narratives that bind, inspire or help delineate a particular culture. In the academic world, the word myth “is detached from popular associations with falsehood.” They equate to “legends,” which may or may not be based on actual truths. Myths are often pre-scientific stories used to explain why things are as they are. They may represent “types” or models, or they might exaggerate a real event. They may conflate multiple events into a single story, and they typically make erroneous assumptions based on an incomplete understanding of actual facts.

Anciently, oral and written traditions were not “histories” in the modern sense. While such accounts were often based on actual events, historical accuracy was not a high priority. The main purpose was to share cultural events, heroes and villains intentionally selected to relate specific points. Tales of real events could be molded to help convey the moral of the story. As detailed in a past issue, while I believe in actual Jaredites, Nephites and Lamanites, I also believe we can better appreciate the scriptures when we realize that ancient societies — including prophets — recorded their narratives according to their own understanding of the world around them.

When we shine the light of science and scholarship on the Tower of Babel, we find some interesting things. First, the word “Babel” comes from an Assyro-Babylonian word that means “Gate of God” and is related to a Hebrew word that means “confusion.” It appears that the author(s) of the Babel account are engaging in some word-play to make a particular point about the story. It’s also interesting to note that the book of Ether never mentions “Babel” but simply the “great tower.”

In the Bible, we learn that some time after the days of Noah the land of Shinar (modern Mesopotamia) was ruled by the wicked Nimrod. In Genesis 10:9 he’s referred to as a “mighty hunter before the Lord.” Early Judaic traditions, however, interpret this as a mighty hunter “in opposition to the Lord.” Nimrod’s name, in fact, comes from the Hebrew word verb “let us revolt.” Once again, we see Hebrew word-play utilized as a teaching tool. Nimrod was not a hunter of animals but of the souls of men. And according to ancient traditions, Nimrod was responsible for building the Tower of Babel.

In ancient Mesopotamia, from at least 3,000 B.C., we find the construction of ziggurats — stepped temple monuments. Ancient cultures believed that gods resided on the tops of mountains, and this belief was even incorporated into Greek mythology, which taught that Zeus lived atop Mount Olympus. Early prophets, including Abraham and Nephi, went up into the mountains to pray or commune with God. Likewise Moses met God on Mount Sinai. Temples were considered to be man-made cosmic mountains. As Dr. Nibley notes, they are the “‘binding-place of heaven and earth,’ where alone one could establish contact with the upper and lower worlds.” The ziggurats of Mesopotamia were temples or towers built to reach the heavens or intended “gates” to God. While Nimrod’s connection to the Tower of Babel can only be inferred from the Bible, other ancient traditions support this inference. According to some of these ancient traditions, Nimrod, the great-grandson of Noah, acquired (stole — in many legends) the skin garment that God gave to Adam in the Garden of Eden. The garment supposedly gave Nimrod great power — God-like power. Nibley wrote:

“Now I am not insisting for a minute that the legendary Nimrod ever existed. … I am only interested in the type of thing that happened, and after having examined hundreds of legends from all parts of the ancient world, all telling substantially the same story, I think that anyone would find it difficult, in view of the evidence, to deny that there was some common event behind them. It seems to have been a single event, moreover.”

In ancient Judaic thought, Babylon (the ancient city-state of Mesopotamia) represented the wicked while Zion represented the righteous. Since the “priesthood” is God’s power bestowed upon mankind, an imitation God-like power would be a false priesthood and a tower associated with this power would be a false temple. The Tower of Babel, therefore would represent — either historically or mythically — the false temples and priesthoods of wicked men who opposed the true priesthood and the living God.[1]

Further Reading

As further reading, the following is an even more detailed treatment of the issue:

The Ur Ziggurat. Many Biblical scholars have argued that these types of ziggurats could have been the Tower of Babel mentioned in the Bible. This is one proposed location.


  1. Michael R. Ash, "Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: Michael R. Ash: Is the Tower of Babel historical or mythological?" Deseret News, 27 September 2010. Accessed 29 March 2019. <https://www.deseretnews.com/article/700068940/Michael-R-Ash-Is-the-Tower-of-Babel-historical-or-mythological.html?pg=all>

Question: What’s the best way to understand the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and Lot turning into a pillar of salt scientifically?

There is no consensus as to how to understand the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and Lot’s wife scientifically.

There are a number of rock deposits located close to claimed locations of Sodom and Gomorrah. However, since we do not know the actual location of Sodom and Gomorrah, we cannot be sure about the rock/salt deposits that are formed in the shape of pillars at these claimed spots. Wikipedia offers valuable commentary on the historicity of the locations and of the story of Lot’s wife. [1]


  1. See Wikipedia “Sodom and Gomorrah” [1] and “Lot’s wife” [2]

Question: What is the best way to understand the story of Jonah and the Whale scientifically?

The story of Jonah and the big fish is best seen as a beautiful Hebrew poem—the main point of the story coming in the last four verses in the last chapter

From the Latter-day Saint Bible Dictionary:

The present book of Jonah does not claim to be from the hand of the prophet; it describes an episode in his life and is due to some later writer. The key to the book is to be found in Jonah 3:10–4:11 in the reasons the prophet gives for his flight and unwillingness to preach at Nineveh. The writer is opposing a narrowmindedness that would confine the love of God to a single nation. He shows that Jehovah reigns everywhere, over sea and land; even in the gentile world the minds of men are conscious of sin and prepared to acknowledge that Jehovah is God. The book is a beautiful poem, whether it paints the humanity of the gentile sailors; the mourning of the prophet over the decay of the grass of the field; or the divine tenderness in ministering to the prophet with his imperfect conceptions or in pitying the little children of Nineveh. The story of Jonah was referred to by our Lord on two occasions when He was asked for a sign from heaven. In each case He gave “the sign of the prophet Jonah,” the event in that prophet’s life being a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own death and resurrection (Matt. 12:39–41; 16:4; Luke 11:29–30).[1]

Latter-day Saint biblical scholar Ben Spackman elaborates:

Jonah is four short chapters. I’ve done a lot with Jonah in the past, addressing the short book several times, from several angles, including the history question. In brief, if you’re focused on the “whale” instead of the last four verses of chapter 4, you’re entirely missing the point.

[. . .]

Jonah strikes me as very much as a satirical parable, and I explain this in the podcast. But what is ultimately important is the last few verses of the last chapter.[2]


  1. See "Jonah" [3]
  2. See "Old Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson 33: Jonah and Micah" [4]