3 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." (Genesis 6:3 NIV)The direct meaning of this last clause seems clear to most. Yet upon further examination some have suggested it is "obscure at best. 1 Notice the last clause of 6:3. It seems God is suggesting that men will live an average of 120 years since he is mortal. Critics, such as the Skeptics Annoated Bible, point to this text as a contradiction. Especially since Psalms 90:10 states:
10 The length of our days is seventy years—The NET Bible Translator Notes suggest the time frame mentioned in 6:3 more likely "refers to the time remaining between this announcement of judgement and the coming of the flood."1
or eighty, if we have the strength;
yet their span is but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
The ancient Targum suggests it refers to it as an opportunity for repentance. There are at least two interpretations for the last clause in vs. 3. The interpretation of the NET Bible is one of them, along with a view that the 120 points to a newly established life span limit on mankind.
Everett Fox, from Clark University, holds to the latter view. He suggests, “Some early interpreters take this to specify a “grace period” for humanity before the Flood. The text seems to be setting the limits of the human life span.” 2 This is not likely when you note those who frequently lived much longer, Noah himself lived for 950 years and many other patriarchs lived to be much longer as well.
G. J. Wenham confirms a problem with this interpretation when he states: “within the wider setting of Genesis this interpretation is problematic”.3 Furthermore, In Psalms 90:10 David seemingly contradicts this second interpretation when he suggests that our life span is 70 years, yet suggests that with strength it can be 80. K.A. Matthews states that “Jewish tradition understood the 120 years as opportunity for repentance (cf. Tg. Onq.; Pirke Aboth 5:2; cf. 1 Pet 3:20).” 4
The reference to 1 Peter 3:20 squares nicely here since it refers to a diving waiting. I think this makes the most sense of the complete evidence and witness of Scripture. God’s threat of God’s judgment was anticipated by an approaching event, which is why the 120 years cans serve as a prologue to the deluge.
1Reyburn, W. D., & Fry, E. M. (1997). A handbook on Genesis. UBS handbook series (145). New York: United Bible Societies.
2Fox, E. (1995). Vol. 1: The five books of Moses : Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy ; a new translation with introductions, commentary, and notes. The Schocken Bible (Ge 1:1). New York: Schocken Books.
3Wenham, G. J. (2002). Vol. 1: Word Biblical Commentary : Genesis 1-15. Word Biblical Commentary (142). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
Tg. Onq.;Tg. Onq. Targum Onkelos, ed. B. Grossfield
4Mathews, K. A. (2001, c1995). Vol. 1A: Genesis 1-11:26 (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (335). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
Skeptics Annotated Bible: http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/gen/6.html