Contradictions: Did Abraham Really Live to a “Good Old Age”?

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After reading Genesis 11:10–26 and the genealogy of Shem and his descendants, there appears to be a contradiction in Genesis 25:8, which states that Abraham lived to a “good old age.” Considering that Shem, his great-grandfather of nine generations earlier, lived to within a few decades of Abraham’s death and Eber, Abraham’s great-grandfather of six generations earlier, actually outlived him, how can we reconcile this seeming contradiction? How can Abraham be said to have lived to a good old age when there were people much older than him still alive at the time of his death?

Now we know that there are no real contradictions in Scripture, which is inspired by God and therefore inerrant in the original manuscripts. And indeed when we closely examine the passage; the lifespan of Abraham with his contemporaries; and also the lifespan of Moses, the author of Genesis, we see that there is no contradiction in this statement.

There are a few ways to approach this, but first let’s consider what the text of Genesis 25:8 actually says. Here are several different English versions of this verse:

Then Abraham gave up the ghost, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people. (KJV)
Then Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people. (NKJV)
Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people. (NIV)
And Abraham breathed his last and died in a ripe old age, an old man and satisfied with life; and he was gathered to his people. (NASB)

Was Abraham “Full of Years” or “Satisfied”?

Notice that some words appear in italics in the above versions. This signifies that the English words don’t exist in the original Hebrew text but have been supplied by the translators for clarity.1 Young’s Literal Translation (YLT) is a version which almost never includes these translator-supplied words and instead translates word-for-word literally. That version (with verbs modernized by the author) reads as follows:

And Abraham expired, and died in a good old age, aged and satisfied, and is gathered unto his people. (YLT)

So to begin with, it appears that this translation is more straightforward and in accord with what Moses was actually saying, and that the other versions have added words for clarity but instead may have lost some of the intended thought of the Hebrew text.

The authoritative Hebrew lexicon of Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner indicates that the basic meaning of the Hebrew word sabeaʿ שָׂבַע (“satisfied” in YLT) is satiated or satisfied.2

Translators have two basic interpretations of what this שָׂבַע Hebrew word sabeaʿ is conveying here. One is that Abraham was full of days or satisfied with his length of life. The other interpretation is that Abraham was satisfied with the quality of his life.

According to The JPS Torah Commentary on Genesis, the meaning of this phrase in Genesis 25:8 is “old and contented.” The commentary continues, “Such a summation of a life is found with no other personality in biblical literature. The phrase describes not his longevity, which is otherwise mentioned, but the quality of his earthly existence.”3

Abraham died and was “full,” “contented,” or “satisfied.” Why was he satisfied?

Abraham died and was “full,” “contented,” or “satisfied.” Why was he satisfied? At the time of his death, Abraham had indeed been materially blessed by God (Genesis 13:2); and more importantly he had been given three great promises by God. Although the full extent of the promises was never realized during his lifetime, Abraham nevertheless saw the beginning of the fulfilment of each promise. In Genesis 12:2–3 God promised: “I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Later in Genesis 14:14–17, 15:4–5, and 17:4–7, God promised Abraham many descendants and a homeland for them, as well as a future kingly line. So Abraham (then called Abram) was promised physical descendants, which would come from him and his wife, Sarah (Genesis 17:15–21); land in Canaan; and blessing for those who blessed Abraham. Abraham lived to see Isaac born, purchased a small plot of land in Machpelah as a burial site for Sarah and himself, and lived through countless examples of being blessed or protected and seeing those about to do him harm being threatened with curses from God (Genesis 12 and 20). Abraham also remembered that God had said He would cause kings to come forth from him and that he would be a blessing to all peoples (Genesis 17:6 and 12:2–3, respectively).

While we don’t know the full extent of what Abraham foresaw regarding how these promises would ultimately be fulfilled, it is clear that he had faith in God’s promises. Scripture tells us that somehow Abraham spiritually looked forward to the day the Messiah would come from his seed and also to the heavenly city that God would give him a portion in.

Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad. (John 8:56)
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. (Hebrews 11:8–10)

Abraham definitely rested in God’s promises to him, was satisfied with his life, and looked forward to the future fulfillment of God’s promises to his descendants. Abraham was most certainly “full,” “contented,” and “satisfied” when he died. Whether he considered this “fullness” to be his length of time on earth or the satisfaction he had in the many and great promises of God is a matter of scholarly debate; but quite possibly both are in view here. Unlike his grandson Jacob who opined that his days were few and difficult compared with his grandfather and father, Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 47:9), Abraham knew that he had lived a long and good life and that God had providentially provided for all of his needs and blessed him immensely.

Gathered to His People

One other fascinating thing about Genesis 25:8 is the phrase “and was gathered to his people.” Again quoting from the JPS Commentary, we read:

This phrase, peculiar to the Torah, is also used of Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Aaron, and Moses. An analysis of the contexts in which it is found reveals that it is to be distinguished from death itself because the action follows the demise. It is not the same as burial in an ancestral grave, because it is employed of Abraham, Aaron, and Moses, none of whom was buried with his forefathers. It is also not identical with interment in general because the report of burial follows this phrase, and the difference between the two is especially blatant in the case of Jacob, who was interred quite a while after being “gathered to his kin.” It would seem, therefore, that the existence of this idiom, as of the corresponding figure ”to lie down with one’s fathers,” testifies to a belief that, despite his mortality and perishability, man possesses an immortal element that survives the loss of life. Death is looked upon as a transition to an afterlife where one is united with one’s ancestors. This interpretation contradicts the widespread, but apparently erroneous, view that such a notion is unknown in Israel until later times.4

We can’t help but be reminded of what Jesus said of the Father when disputing with the Sadducees: “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22:32). Indeed faithful Abraham was gathered unto his people, and we also have this promise from Jesus that He (as God in the flesh and a member of the Trinity) is the God of the Living, that He has conquered death, that He will one day destroy it (1 Corinthians 15:22–26 and 53–57), and that we will one day be gathered with all the people of God.

But What About the “Good Old Age” Question?

So although the text does not say “full of years”5 in the original Hebrew, it does say “good old age;” so the question still remains: Is 175 years a good old age, when others from earlier generations lived much longer?

Is 175 years a good old age, when others from earlier generations lived much longer?

The first thing we need to consider is that the generation which lived to 600 years consisted of, at most, 6 people (Noah’s three sons and possibly their wives). Subsequent generations lived to approximately 400 years (for the next three generations), then down to about 230 years, then down to 205 years for Abraham’s father Terah (Genesis 11:32), but Abraham’s grandfather Nahor only lived to 148 (Genesis 11:24–25), so perhaps Terah was an exception and the generational age had declined to the 150 mark by this time. If so, then by the time Abraham died, he would have been considered old, based on the life expectancy of those around him. Even if Nahor was atypical and Terah’s generation lived to approximately 200 years, it seems likely that it was time for another generational drop. The 600 generation was singular, the 400s lasted for three generations, and the 230s lasted for three generations. Then came Nahor and Terah who lived 148 and 205 years respectively. Quite probably Abraham came from a further reduced generation, and his contemporaries would have had similar lifespans.

It must be remembered again that of the original Flood/post-Flood, long-lived generations, all but Shem (and possibly his wife, two brothers, and two sisters-in-law) had died by this time. People were aware that lifespans were declining. How could they not be when their great-grandfathers outlived them? But that time was rapidly closing, and in fact, Shem and the others (if still alive) were close to death themselves by the time Abraham was 150. So indeed, Abraham lived to a good old age of 175, in comparison with people around him of his generation, and with only the exception of, at most, a few people of Eber’s generation, who probably lived far away from Canaan where Abraham now lived. Eber died at 464 years old and only outlived Abraham by 4 years. It appears he was exceptionally long-lived for his time (living longer than both his father and grandfather who both died in their 430s). Eber may well have been the only one from his generation that outlived Abraham.

Secondly, we need to consider that Moses was the author of Genesis, and that even if he utilized preexisting documents, they were still not compiled and edited until after the Exodus. At this time almost 700 more years had passed, and Moses was considered to be old (although with no loss of strength or vigor) at 120 years (Deuteronomy 34:7). So again to those post-Exodus Israelites who first heard and read what Moses had recorded, 175 years old would have been considered a “good old age.” We can see now that there is no contradiction; Abraham lived to a good old age, just as Scripture states, both in regards to his contemporaries and also to the people of Moses’ time.

Footnotes

  1. A similar usage of these words ("old and full of days") appears with reference to Isaac (Genesis 35:29), Job (Job 42:17), and Jehoiada (2 Chronicles 24:15). However each of these passages has the Hebrew word yamim (days) in the text, whereas Genesis 25:8 does not. Also note the difference in word order in Genesis 25:8 where “gathered to his people” occurs in relation to where it occurs in Genesis 35:29.
  2. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, vol. 2, rev. Walter Baumgartner and Johann Jakob Stamm, trans. and ed. M. E. J. Richardson (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2001), 1304.
  3. Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 174.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Some manuscripts (e.g., the Samaritan Pentateuch) have "full of days" and the Vulgate and LXX of this verse also say "full of days." The Syriac and a Targum manuscript, which is from Onqelos, also contain the phrase “full of days.”

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