As Richard Hess, Ephraim Speiser, and others have demonstrated, the names on the genealogies in Genesis 4-5 are far older than even the names dating to the patriarchal age. One name worthy of investigation is the name of the longest living man in Genesis.
Methuselah (Gen 5:25-27) is generally reckoned to be traceable to an Akkadian (Assyro-Babylonian) original Mutu-she-lah, “Man of Lah”. But what do we do with that mystery word on the end? It has been suggested that the name should be translated “Man of the Spear.” But I have a better suggestion, based on a rare Hebrew word found in Deuteronomy 34:7.
We are told in the postscript to Moses’ life that Moses lived to be 120 years old, yet at the time he died, his lah was not diminished. The Greek and Latin translate the word as if it were lehi or “jaw,” leading the Greek version to read “his jaw was not deteriorated,” and the Latin to read “he had not lost his teeth.”
Our Bibles translate this word as “vigor” or “life force.” The word lah literally means “sap,” that is, the moisture that characterizes a living tree as opposed to a dead one. The related adjective is used for “fresh” bowstrings to tie up Samson (Judg 16:7-8), “fresh” grapes (Num 6:3), “fresh” wooden rods (Gen 30:37), and “green” (as opposed to dry) trees (Ezek 17:24, 21:3).
Used here at the end of the Torah to describe what Moses (a human being rather than a plant or a tree) still had, “vitality” seems to be a good word to translate this word. And herein, I believe, lies the clue to the meaning of Methuselah’s name.
Methuselah = Mutu-she-lah = “Man of Vitality”. What better name for a man who lives longer than anyone in historic or prehistoric times? Yet Isaiah 65:22 promises that when God creates a new heaven and a new earth, our days will be “like the days of a tree” (presumably a bristlecone pine rather than a Bradford pear!). And because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have reason to believe that this promise is a huge understatement, aimed at an audience who could barely conceive of life in all its fullness that will last forever.
NEXT WEEK: “TANNIN – NARWHAL OR GIANT SQUID?”
Rev. Tom Hobson, Ph.D., is Assistant Pastor at Bonhomme Presbyterian Church (ECO), Chesterfield, MO, and author of What’s on God’s Sin List for Today?