Old Age in Genesis

Genesis reports that the first several generations of humans lived for many centuries.    I’ve heard people before notice that each generation lives a few years shorter than the generation before.  The idea is that Adam was nearly genetically perfect and each generation after got further and further and further from his genetic near-perfection.

The thing that strikes me as a little odd about this idea is that it seems to suggest that the fall gets progressively worse over time.  I have no particular reason to think that we ought to be able to recover from the fall on our own: there’s no good reason to think things ought to get better.  But it’s a little strange to ponder the idea that things are slowly getting worse. 

It would seem like Adam and Eve– who after all made that fateful decision– ought to experience the effects at least as much as the rest of us.

I suppose somebody could argue that in the Garden they had some sort of advantages that lead to them later in life living longer than everybody else.  The problem with this idea is that every single generation lives shorter than the life before.  It’s not like there’s a sudden drop off.  It’s this gradual shortening of life spans, across dozens of generations.

It’s almost like the fall set loose some sort of symbolic toxin or radiation or cancer.  It’s progressing, getting worse with each generation.  On a literal and practical level, perhaps the shortening life spans are a result of increasing human foolishness, greed, and selfishness.  Each generation honored its elders less and took increasingly poor care of them.  Or each generation was marred by increasing violence making it increasingly likely that people would die at increasingly young ages.  Or each generation simply made less healthy decisions.

These don’t seem all that likely either, though, because the bible does not report these specific things (not taking care of the elderly or increasing violence) and because the drop off is so steady.

An interesting thing is that all these guys are (by our standards) incredibly old when they have our first children.  Like nearly a century old in most cases.  Presumably they aged slower as adults or simply stopped aging at some point  (Otherwise, can you imagine what it would be like to be 200?)  I wonder if they aged slower into adult hood.  If they lived five times as long as us, did it take five times as long to reach adolesence?  Would they emerge from puberty at age 90?

I feel so not up to the task of parenting sometimes.  How awesome would it be if I was able to have five times as much life experience under my belt before I became a dad?!?  This is again, assuming that I don’t get the other less-fun symptoms of being that age.  And sometimes I mourn for all those ages that are behind me.  It’d be awesome to get to spend more time in some of those ages.  (Allthough, junior high was the deepest pit of hell.  I wouldn’t want to extend that by a factor of 5)

I make no secret of the fact that I’m ambivalent on the question of whether or not these stories literally happened.  But I do notice that there is something interesting on a more symbolic level.  (This does not contradict a literal reading, it might complement it.)

One of the ways I make sense of the bible’s talk about sons inheriting the sins of the father is by adressing the fact that we see this all the time anyway.  It seems unfair, but it’s undeniable that if I make a lousy decision in many cases my kids will pay the price for it, too.  I break a law and go to jail, they end up growing up with out a dad.  I become addicted to drugs they have to deal with all the stupid things I did under the influence.  I get a divorce and they grow up with all the challenges a divorce brings.

The question I never considered before this morning was this: who pays more, the father or the son?

Perhaps the idea that is illustrated in these shrinking life spans is that sometimes the sons will pay a much higher price than the father.  Maybe it’s more difficult to grow up without a dad than it is to go to jail.  Maybe some sin has a snow ball effect, and we start just a little ball of the stuff rolling down hill.  It’s a knee-high ball for our kids.  Our grand kids cope with a snow ball the size of a house.  Our great grand kids face a full blown avalanche.


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The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

2 thoughts on “Old Age in Genesis”

  1. I had a similar question come to mind when listening to the story of Abraham and the “fathering” of his son Isaac at the age of 100. I’ve heard this story since I was a kid and often applied child-like logic when listening to it. But on Sunday I thought to myself, “What if the people of the time had a different concept of aging or a different way of counting years?” While it may be true that Methuselah lived for 969 years, it is highly unlikely and more importantly… unimportant to the stories of God’s work with the Israelite people. While wikipedia is not a great source for theology, I’ve looked up Methuselah and at least got some more questions to ponder about the long lifespan of the people of Genesis. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methuselah


  2. Thanks Jason, I’ll check the link. I appreciate your comments and insight. I’ve been wrestling for a while with that very question: what details is it important that they be literally true? What details does it not matter for? Is there some sort of logical criteria that I ought to use?


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