Question: Why are there so many exceptions to the 120 year age limit in Genesis 6:3?
Genesis 6: 3 (NIV) reads: Then the LORD said, “My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years.” Exceptions in the Bible of people who lived beyond that “ceiling” include Noah (Gen. 9:28); Sarah (Gen. 23:1); Abraham (Gen. 25:7); Ishmael (Gen. 25:17); and Levi, Koath and Amram (Ex. 6:16-20).
Several Bible interpreters have understood this 120-year limit as referring not to the number of years a person would live, but to God granting the human race 120 years to repent before the Flood. This was the position held by Luther, Calvin, Schofield and, more recently, Henry M. Morris (The Genesis Record). The primary reason behind this interpretation seems to be the very concern raised by the question above. If God put a 120-year age limit on mankind, how can the exceptions to that limit be explained?
Good principles of biblical interpretation, however, eliminate the problem. The two most applicable principles are 1) Context, and 2) the most Natural Sense of the wording.
The context preceding Genesis 6:3 reveals that the average life span of mankind in the pre-Flood world extended to nearly 1,000 years. This was not an exception but the rule. The context following the Genesis 6:3 statement reveals that mankind’s average lifespan in the post-Flood world dropped immediately and dramatically to less than a150 years, followed by a steady decline to an average of 120 or less by the time of the Exodus.
Deut. 34:7 Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone.
That steady decline continued to where a person living to 120 years is considered extremely old.
This broad context telling the story of the decline of the human lifespan as a direct result of God’s judgment shows the plain meaning, the “Natural Sense” of Genesis 6:3 to refer to an imposed limit on human lifespan, not to a 120 year pre-Flood window for repentance.
God’s 120-year lifespan limit is not a prophecy; neither is it a commandment or a decree, so it is not to be interpreted as a binding law of the universe. If “his days will be a hundred and twenty years” was meant to be understood as a new, inviolable law of nature, then all people would have to live all the way up to 120 as well as not exceed 120 years. Rather, the “natural sense” of the text is that 120 years is the maximum norm. Exceptions are simply that—exceptions, and only serve to highlight what is normal.
By the time of King David, even 120 years seemed nearly out of reach for most people, as it is in our own day:
Ps. 90:10 The length of our days is seventy years—or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.