Genesis 6:3: Man’s limited lifespan

This post is part of my biblical prophecy series.

Context and Prophecy

In Genesis 4, Cain famously slays Abel, and the remainder of that chapter, and the entirety of chapter 5, describe the many generations of his family that then pass, as well as generations of Adam and Eve’s offspring.

One of these offspring is Noah, and the beginning of Chapter 6 is a preface to the story of Noah’s ark. But before Noah is mentioned in this context, the chapter offers a few general remarks that appear somewhat out of place, and which involve “men of God”, “daughters of man”, and “giants”. Here are the first three verses of Genesis 6. The prophecy (verse 3) is italicized.

1 And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them,

2 That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.

3 And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years. (Genesis 6:1-3)

 Straightforward Interpretation

Given that God is just about to destroy humankind in a great flood, it seems pretty reasonable to assume that the prophecy refers to the time remaining for humankind on earth. It does not, for instance, seem to be referring to some sort of limit on people’s lifespans.

Following the prophecy in verse 3, Noah is introduced as the one man whom God does not regret creating. It has already been said, in Chapter 5, that Noah is 500 years old. Clearly, then, the years in this part of scripture are not normal calendar years as we know them, or they are exaggerations. It might therefore be assumed that the 120 years of the prophecy are not normal years either. Under this assumption, Noah could have lived for another 120 “years” from the time God made the prophecy to the time that the ark was built.

In the straightforward interpretation then, this prophecy appears to be plausible provided, of course, that the concept of “year” used in this part of the Bible is not what we are used to today, or that the author has greatly exaggerated the numbers.

Apologist Interpretation

One of the most common apologist interpretations is that the prophecy concerns people’s maximum lifespan. However, this is easily falsified, since the Bible reports several people of greater age than 120 years in the time following the prophecy (Genesis 9:29, 11:11-32, 23:1, 25:7, 25:17, 35:28, Exodus 6:16-20). The prophecy is therefore not fulfilled under this apologist interpretation.


Self-contained fabrication. Given that the prophecy and its fulfillment appear within a few verses of each other, and were likely written by the same author, this is quite clearly a possible self-contained fabrication.

There is certainly evidence of large flooding events having occurred in the vicinity of the Black Sea during ancient times, and these events may have spawned this, and other religions’ flood stories. However, while there may be a grain of geologic truth in the Noah’s flood story, there is no reason to believe that the prophecy made about it in Genesis 6:3 is real.

Return to the prophecy index.


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