Could Terah Have Been 130 When Abraham Was Born?
by Eric Lyons, M.Min.
When calculating the age of Terah at the time that Abraham (his son) was born, one is compelled to conclude that he was around 130. Considering that Terah died at age 205 (Genesis 11:32), that Abraham moved to the land of Palestine after Terah’s death (Acts 7:4), and that Abraham was 75 when he departed Haran and moved to the land of Palestine (Genesis 12:4), the clear implication is that Terah was at least 130 at Abraham’s birth. [For more information on the age of Terah when Abraham was born see: “How Old Was Terah When Abraham Was Born?”] The “problem” with Terah being 130 when Abraham was born has to do with why Abraham regarded his own ability to beget a son at age 100 as somewhat incredible (Genesis 17:1,17). Curious and diligent Bible students want to know why the apostle Paul described Abraham’s body as being “already dead (since he was about 100 years old)” [Romans 4:19; cf. Hebrews 11:12], if Abraham was born when his father was 130? Why would Abraham have staggered at the thought of a 100-year-old-man begetting a son if the above calculations are correct? [“Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is one hundred years old?’ ” (Genesis 17:17).]
First, it should be remembered that Abraham did not think it impossible to sire a child by Hagar at age 85 (Genesis 16). In fact, by insisting that Abraham engage in conjugal relations with her maid, Sarah exhibited confidence in his ability to raise up an heir. In modern times, one only rarely hears of a man in his mid-seventies begetting children. Abraham, on the other hand, begot his first son at 86 years of age. Although during Abraham’s day the longevity of man was not what it once was (e.g., Noah begot sons at 500 years of age—Genesis 5:32), it still was greater than it is today. Thus, we must refrain from comparing the ages of those who sired children thousands of years ago by today’s standards.
Another detail often overlooked in Abraham’s life is that he had more children than just Ishmael and Isaac. He actually obtained six heirs through a woman he married by the name of Keturah (Genesis 25:1-6; cf.1 Chronicles 1:32). Because nothing is mentioned about Keturah until after the death of Sarah, it is reasonable to presume that the children she bore to Abraham came along well after Isaac was born. Genesis 23:1-2 states that “Sarah lived one hundred and twenty-seven years” and “died.” After reading about Isaac’s marriage to Rebekah recorded in Genesis 24, the text says, “Abraham again took a wife, and her name was Keturah. And she bore him Zimran, Joktan, Medan, Midian, Ishback, and Shuah” (25:1-2, emp. added). If these events are to be understood as occurring in chronological order, it means Abraham was more than 140 when Keturah bore him six sons. [Abraham was ten years older than Sarah (17:17), and thus when Sarah died at 127, Abraham would have been 137. Also, since Isaac was born when Abraham was 100, and he (Isaac) married Rebekah at the age of 40 (25:20), then this would make Abraham at least 140 when he married Keturah.]
It must be admitted, however, that just because the events regarding Abraham’s marriage to Keturah are recorded after the death of Sarah, it does not necessarily mean this is the exact order. There are events recorded, and stories told, throughout the Bible that are not written in a chronological format (cf. Genesis 10 and 11; and Matthew 4:1-11 with Luke 4:1-13). As the respected commentators Keil and Delitzch mentioned, “it is not stated anywhere, that Abraham did not take Keturah as his wife till after Sarah’s death. It is merely an inference drawn from the fact, that it is not mentioned till afterwards; and it is taken for granted that the history is written in strictly chronological order” (1996). Adam Clarke agreed by stating: “When Abraham took Keturah we are not informed; it might have been in the lifetime of Sarah” (1996, emp. added). According to some, “this must have occurred many years before the death of Sarah, for several sons are listed” (Wycliffe Bible Commentary, 1962). However, based on the wording of Genesis 25:1, and the fact that neither Keturah nor any of her sons is ever mentioned before this time, it seems more likely that Abraham took Keturah as his wife after Sarah died. But, even if it were during his marriage to Sarah, he still would have been close to (if not more than) a century old. Why? Because we read that well after entering the land of Canaan at the age of 75 Abraham was “childless” with “no offspring” (Genesis 15:2-3). Ishmael, Abraham’s first child, was not born until he was 86. The “best” scenario (for those who believe Keturah bore Abraham six sons while Sarah was still living) is that Zimran, Joktan, Medan, Midian, Ishback, and Shuah were born sometime after Abraham was 86. Therefore, even the most conservative estimates put Abraham in his nineties during this time—a time when he was still begetting sons.
A final detail that few have considered concerning Abraham’s age when Isaac was born, is how old Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, was when Joseph was born. According to Genesis 47:9, Jacob was 130 years old when he arrived in Egypt (cf. 47:28), which was at the end of the second year of the famine (45:6,11). Joseph was in his thirtieth year when he stood before Pharaoh nine years earlier at the beginning of the seven years of plenty (41:46). Thus, at the end of the second year of the famine (the year Jacob arrived in Egypt being 130), Joseph would have been 39 years old. This means that Jacob was 91 when Joseph was born.
If Jacob was 91 when Joseph (“the son of his old age”—37:3) was born, one is curious to know how old he was at the birth of his youngest son, Benjamin. In order to ascertain this figure, one must begin with Jacob’s twenty-year commitment to Laban in Padan Aram (Genesis 31:38). The first seven years Jacob was in Padan Aram serving Laban, he was not married and had no children (29:18-20). After his “marriages” to Leah and Rachel, the text indicates that all of Jacob’s sons, save Benjamin, were born sometime within the next few years (Genesis 29:30-30:25). It was after Joseph’s birth that Jacob began serving his final six years in Padan Aram (30:25; 31:38,41). We know that Benjamin was more than six years younger than Joseph, because he was not born until sometime after Jacob discontinued working for Laban. Jacob did not receive his twelfth son until after he: (1) departed Padan Aram (31:18); (2) crossed over the river (Euphrates—31:21); (3) met with his brother, Esau, near Penuel (32:22,31; 33:2); (4) built a house in Succoth (33:17); (5) pitched his tent in Shechem (33:18); and (6) built an altar to God at Bethel (35:1-19). Obviously, a considerable amount of time passed between Jacob’s separation from Laban in Padan Aram and the birth of Benjamin near Bethlehem. Biblical commentator Albert Barnes conservatively estimated that Benjamin was 13 years younger than Joseph (1997). Hebrew scholar John T. Willis said Benjamin was likely about 14 years younger than Joseph (1984, p. 433). Actually, if Benjamin was just ten years younger than Joseph (and few, if any, commentators have ever suggested there was less than 10 years between the two), that would mean Jacob was 101 when he begat Benjamin. The fact that Jacob could still beget children when he was 100 years old (with no indication of there being a miracle involved) supports the proposition that Terah, his great-grandfather (who begot Abraham 260 years earlier) could have begotten Abraham at 130 years of age.
The obvious question, then, is why it took a special miracle for Abraham to become a father when he was only 100 years old? Actually there are several factors that may come into play as to why Abraham was somewhat baffled at the idea of having a child at the age of 100. First, it seems likely that the emphasis of Genesis 17:17 is on the physical condition of Abraham at this particular period in his life, and not so much his actual age. It is possible that Abraham simply was failing in health. This would not be surprising, considering his son experienced a serious failing in health about 44 years before he (Isaac) died (Genesis 27:1). [Since Isaac was 60 years old when he begat Jacob (25:26), and since Jacob was about 91 when Joseph was born (as noted above), Isaac must have been about 151 when Joseph was born. Since Joseph was born after Jacob had been living in Padan Aram for about 14 years, Isaac would have been no more than 137 in Genesis 27:1.] Like Isaac, it may be that Abraham was failing in health at 100, even though he wouldn’t die for another 75 years. Considering that his father begot him at 130, and that his grandson sired a child at 100, Abraham’s statement about him being 100 years of age when Isaac was promised likely should be interpreted in light of his physical condition at the time rather than his actual age.
Even today, men use their age when describing their physical situation. For example, when most 45-year-old men are asked if they could play major league baseball at their current age, they often respond by saying, “I’m too old to play baseball.” But does this mean that it can’t be done? Obviously not, since Nolan Ryan was still throwing 100-mph fastballs when he was 45. Ricky Henderson is still hitting homeruns and stealing bases at 42 years of age. Michael Jordan is still playing professional basketball at the age of 39. Thus, even though we know it still is possible for certain people who are our same age (or older) to do something, we frequently use our age to describe our physical condition. My father begot me when he was 40. However, if someone asks me when I’m 40 if I want any more children, I’ll likely respond by saying, “I’m too old to be changing diapers.”
It seems clear that the special miracle the Almighty worked on Abraham “depended on something else than his mere age” (McGarvey, n.d., p. 118). The miracle was not that He simply made it possible for a 100-year-old man to beget a child (for this was done by others both before and after Abraham begot Isaac), but rather that He miraculously endowed him with new vital and reproductive energy for begetting the son of the promise. As Whitcomb and Morris concluded, “In response to his renewed faith in God and in God’s promise (Rom. 4:19), his [Abraham’s—EL] body, which was ‘now as good as dead,’ must have been renewed by God to live out the remaining 75 years and to beget many more children (Gen. 25:1-7)” [1961, p. 480].
Another reason Abraham was so perplexed at the promise of a son (Genesis 17:17) had to do with his wife’s physical condition. Genesis 18:11 states: “It had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women” (ASV). Sarah’s “periods had ceased with the so-called change of life and with them the capacity to conceive…. Capacity for procreation and conception was extinct” (Luepold, 1942, p. 541). “From the human standpoint, it was impossible for a woman long after the onset of menopause to give birth to a child” (Coffman, 1985, p. 239). For this reason, J.W. McGarvey, one of the brightest biblical scholars of the nineteenth century, concluded: “The incredulity of Abraham…had reference chiefly to Sarah” (p. 118). Abraham knew it would take a miracle for her to conceive a child (cf. Hebrews 11:11).
A third reason Abraham expressed astonishment upon hearing Jehovah’s promise of a son through Sarah could have depended largely on the possibility “that he had now been living thirteen years with a young concubine, Hagar, since the birth of Ishmael, and she had not borne him another son (17:24,25)” [McGarvey, p. 118]. Although most people would disregard this option because Hagar “became despised” in Sarah’s eyes after she conceived Ishmael (16:4), nothing is said about Sarah’s feelings toward Hagar for the thirteen years after Hagar gave birth to Ishmael and before Isaac was born. It is more than possible that Abraham continued to “go in to her” during that time. If this was the situation, then certainly Abraham’s amazement upon hearing the Lord’s promise of a son (Genesis 17:17) could have been due (at least in part) to his inability to beget any more children with Hagar the past thirteen years.
The truth of matter is that Terah was 130 when Abraham was born. This fact is known because of the inspiration by which Stephen spoke and Luke wrote (Acts 7:4). As renowned commentator R.C.H. Lenski said, it is a “simple matter of adding a few figures” (1961, p. 263). It in no way contradicts the statement Moses’ recorded in Genesis 11:26 (that “Terah lived seventy years, and begot Abram, Nahor, and Haran”—see “How Old Was Terah When Abraham Was Born?”), or Abraham’s statement in Genesis 17:17. That Abraham thought it incredible for him to have a son at 100 years of age must be understood in light of other information given in Genesis.
Abraham had been able to “raise up an heir” at the age of 85 (Genesis 16).
He then had six other sons by Keturah sometime after he was 86 (likely it was “long after” this time; see McGarvey, p. 118).
Also, Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, was 91 when Joseph was born, and over 100 when he begot his youngest son, Benjamin.
All of this information leads us to believe that Abraham’s amazement at the pronouncement of Isaac at age 100 was due to some other factor than just his being 100 years of age.
Perhaps the emphasis is more on his physical condition, and not so much his actual age (with his age being used to “describe” his failing health).
Or maybe, as J.W. McGarvey suggested, Abraham expressed amazement because “he had now been living thirteen years with a young concubine, Hagar, since the birth of Ishmael, and she had not borne him another son (17:24,25)” [p. 118].
Likely, however, most of Abraham’s bewilderment was due largely to his wife’s inability to conceive since her onset of menopause (18:11).
Barnes, Albert (1997), Barnes’ Notes (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).
Clarke, Adam (1996), Adam Clarke’s Commentary (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).
Coffman, James Burton (1985), Commentary on Genesis (Abilene, TX: ACU Press).
Keil, C.F. and F. Delitzsch (1996), Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament (Electronic Database: Biblesoft), new updated edition.
Lenski, R.C.H. (1961), The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House).
Leupold, H.C. (1942), Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Lyons, Eric (2001), “How Old Was Terah When Abraham Was Born?” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/572 .
McGarvey, J.W. (no date), New Commentary on Acts of Apostles (Delight, AR: Gospel Light).
Whitcomb, John C. and Henry M. Morris (1961), The Genesis Flood (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Willis, John T. (1984), Genesis (Abilene, TX: ACU Press).
The Wycliffe Bible Commentary (1962), Electronic Database: Biblesoft.