Question: How many years did Noah spend building the Ark? Hint: It wasn’t 120 years!
How do I know this? I read Genesis. I’m going to show you how to work out how long it actually took, according to the bible text, rather than Church tradition. Because everywhere, almost everyone repeats the myth that it took 120 years to build the Ark.
I don’t know who started that rumour, but I’m here to disprove it, biblically. And it’s EASY.
First go to Genesis 5:32 where the bible tells you Noah was 500 years old, and had three sons – Shem, Ham and Japheth. Now skip over to Gen 7:6 where it says that Noah was 600 years old when the Flood came. Already we are 20 years short of the target of 120 years. But that’s only the beginning.
When Were the Children Born?
Before the flood, the firstborn arrived when the parents were around 70-150 years old. If that seems outlandish, you have to realise that the lifespan before the Flood was a possible 1000 years! Conditions on earth were vastly different then, and God’s blessing was not wholly removed after Adam and Eve. Although people died, they had a much longer lifespan. Bear that in mind because it becomes important to the study a little later.
Now read Genesis 6:18 where God promises to save Noah and his wife in the Ark, but also his “sons and his son’s wives”. All three of Noah’s sons had wives, so they also must have attained the normal age for puberty and marriage before the Flood. We can in fact confirm that with another bible text, but beforehand, let’s see at what age the pre-flood earth-dwellers reached puberty and child-bearing:
First born son was born at age:
- Adam 130
- Seth 105
- Enosh 90
- Cainan 70
- Mahalalel 65
- Jared 162
- Enoch 65
- Methuselah 187
- Lamech 182
The Order of Birth
Noah’s sons were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the YOUNGER son according to Genesis 9:24.
Genesis 10:21 refers to relative ages of Japheth and his brother Shem, but with sufficient ambiguity to have given rise to different translations. The verse is translated in the King James Version as follows, “Unto Shem also, the father of all the children of Eber, the brother of Japheth the elder, even to him were children born”.
However, the Revised Standard Version reads, “To Shem also, the father of all the children of Eber, the elder brother of Japheth, children were born.” The differing interpretations depend on whether the Hebrew word ha-gadol (“the elder”) is taken as grammatically referring to Japheth, or Shem.
Further uncertainty about the birth-order is suggested by a passage in Genesis 9:24, which says Noah realized what his “younger” (or “youngest”?) son had done to him, referring to Ham.
They are listed in the order “Shem, Ham, and Japheth” in Genesis 5:32, 9:18 and 10:1. It is disputed whether or not this is a birth-order.
Frederick E. Greenspahn says that “Most moderns accept the common sequence of names as reflecting birth order and understand Genesis 10:21 as describing Shem as Japheth’s older brother. Although Ham is commonly listed in the middle position, Gen 9:24 identifies him as the youngest.” [Source ]
Age of Father at Birth of Firstborn
Given that, we could argue that Noah was 100 when he had his first son, Shem. But read on for a more accurate date for the birth of Shem. Of course, men did not cease to beget children after their firstborn. As the bible plainly states, each man “had other children” after the date of his first born, and Noah was no exception.
When was Puberty and the Age for Marriage?
How many years had to pass between the birth of Noah’s sons, and their marriages?
We can quite easily work out the age of puberty/marriage and the cessation of childbearing age for men in those days. One can compare all the genealogical passages of Genesis to work this out. To spare you, I did it myself, and reckoned puberty to be around age 100 give or take – i.e. around a tenth of their entire lifespan – and cessation of active fertility around 600 years old. (For example, from the Genesis list given above, the average age of the father at birth of the firstborn was 117.)
It’s no surprise to learn that it’s the same (proportionally) for modern man if you trust the bible’s estimate of our potential lifespan today, that is 120 years. A tenth of that would be age 12. Under those perfect circumstances, a modern man could have a fertile period of 60 years (that is, half his lifespan).
Scale up that figure to fit into the 1000-year lifespan, and it gives us a fertile period of 500 years.
In Genesis therefore, we would expect the first child around age 100 – as already seen – and the last child around age 600. Noah was nearing the end of his actively fertile years when God spoke to him about the coming flood. Perhaps that was a blessing in disguise. Indeed, Noah is not recorded as having had any more children despite living on for another 350 years after the flood, dying at age 950 (Genesis 9:29)
The Date of the Flood
How does this all help to date the Flood and work out how long Noah took to build the Ark? Unfortunately we cannot know these things EXACTLY, but we can certainly dismiss the timescale of 120 years.
Using what we’ve already learned, Noah was aged 500, had three sons, and the Flood arrived 100 years later, in Noah’s 600th year. (Genesis 7:11) Into the Ark went Noah’s sons AND their three wives. Therefore all the sons had by then reached the conventional age for marriage, from 70-100 years old. They did not, however, have any children. We might assume they were newlyweds or (in their own terms) youngsters at that time.
One could argue that Noah began building the Ark while his children were either unborn or mere toddlers, thus extending the timespan to nearly 100 years. But remember that the instructions that God gave Noah included a mention of three sons and their three wives!
The Stumbling Block
But now, according to Genesis 11:10 Shem had his firstborn Arphaxad “two years after the flood”. He was then AGED 100. Read that again, Shem was aged one hundred years old, two years after the flood! So at the time of the flood, he’d be 98.
This fact seems to contradict Genesis 5:32 which mentions the three sons of Noah when aged 500 – “and Noah was five hundred years old, and Noah begot Shem, Ham and Japheth”. Plus 100 years to the Flood — oops. Shem would have been 102! Not 98.
But shall we say that statement was an approximation or a merely general statement, not pinpoint accurate as to timing? It would allow for Noah’s sons to be born AFTER his 500th birthday. There is no absolute requirement in that verse for Noah to have had all three sons before the age of 500. Therefore, we must once again shorten the timing for the building of the Ark.
Now putting these facts together, we can say:
- Noah’s firstborn, Shem, was born when Noah was aged 502.
- Two more sons were born thereafter, when Noah was aged 502+ (allow two years at least for this)
- Three sons reach puberty and marry, a period of about 70+ years (*see below)
- Flood when Noah aged 600, his sons and wives in the Ark, but childless (Gen 10:1)
- Arphaxad was born when Shem was 100, Noah was 602.
It’s an easy matter therefore to work out the longest possible time that Noah could have been building the Ark. It was 25 years at most, and probably much less. Only this allows for the marriage of the three sons to have taken place in the intervening period of time.
(*) The earliest recorded birthdate we have for a firstborn was when Enoch was 65, but the more normal age of the father was around age 100. Marriage MAY have taken place at an earlier age however, before puberty perhaps in some instances, so we cannot say for sure how old Noah’s sons were when they took wives – the only certainty is that none of them had any children.
Did Noah Start at Age 500?
In Genesis chapter 6, it is only revealed that God intended to wipe out all wickedness, and to establish his covenant with Noah and sons. The final verse of Chapter 5 tells us that Noah was 500 years old. But can we therefore assume that the instructions for the Ark came to Noah at exactly that date, or later? Especially as God makes reference to “you, your sons, your wife and your son’s wives with you” (Gen 6:18).
The ONLY way Noah could have spent 100 years, at most, building the Ark is that he heard the word of the Lord immediately on becoming age 500 and the Lord spoke only PROPHETICALLY about his three sons, and their future wives. Although that is possible, in my personal opinion it’s unlikely and unnecessary! It would only be suggested by some as a way out of the dilemma, an artificial ruse to make the Ark-building period longer than a few months or years.
How did the 120 Myth Arise?
The single verse that has caused so much confusion is found in Genesis 6:3 where God intends to limit the lifespan of man, because of wickedness, to a mere fraction of its pre-flood length.
Genesis 6:3 And the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.”
God says that he will not strive (some versions read ‘abide’) with man forever, but “yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years”. The fact that each man was living for a millennium meant that evil could spread and development of all kinds, both bad and good, could take place at a very rapid pace. (Genesis 11:6) In shortening the lifespan of man, God was putting the brake on all that.
Later on, God does a similar thing by dividing mankind into nations and languages so that they could not easily understand one another. The bible tells us this happened in the generation of Arphaxad’s great-grandchildren. Genesis 10:25.
This single verse has led to the belief that “Noah took 120 years to build the Ark” a supposed truth handed down from person to person for centuries. It demonstrates how some doctrine is based more on Chinese Whispers than the bible. How many other myths have we accepted just because they appeared in the books we read, or on the lips of our favourite bible teacher?