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Rowing With Michael

Verse 4, Very Old Folks

 How many years before you’re dead? Alleluia.

A few score and ten years, somebody said. Alleluia.

Folks of old lived a whole lot longer. Alleluia.

Was the world so much nicer or the people stronger? Alleluia.

 

Who was the world’s oldest person, according to the Bible, and how many years did he live?


Methuselah lived 969 years.

 

A second grader asked a religion teacher how people in the Bible like Methuselah could live so long. You had to feel sorry for the teacher. He answered, “Well, people lived longer in those days.” I think I heard the same answer in my childhood. I may have believed it then, but I don’t today.

 

What are these names doing on the pages of the Bible, anyway? Many of them are actually names of places. They tell us about some ancient writer’s knowledge of geography. Many of the names were taken from much older stories told by other people in Israel’s neighborhood. In these stories the people lived for thousands of years instead of just hundreds. The Hebrew storytellers must have found those ages too much to believe!

 

The Israelites absorbed some of the mythology of these people. It went like this: The world starts with an Age of Gold, when the world was a lot nicer and people stronger. In one far Eastern version people were taller, too—by about a mile. We’ve been going downhill through various ages since then. In the process the human lifespan (and stature) has been getting shorter. Eventually, according to this myth, there will be a reversal of this downward trend and a restoration of the Golden Age, and a new cycle of ages will begin, and always more cycles after that.

 

You can see the influence of this idea in the Bible. The people who are listed before the Flood story lived much longer than the ones listed after, and within each of the two lists there is a general, though not consistent, downhill progression.

 

The Bible makes two huge improvements on this myth, other than the slightly less unreasonable ages. First is the reason for the downward slide. It’s not that the world is wearing out. It’s not the fault of the cosmos but of people. Sin is increasing and making life more and more miserable.

 

You can almost see God at the controls, experimenting to arrive at the appropriate lifespan for these creatures. When he finally decides to top it out at 120 years (pretty close to the age of the oldest people these days), it seems like a kindness. Imagine if you might live anywhere from 100 years to 1000! How would you decide what to plan for? Bucket lists would be tricky. 

 

From this world of joy and woe, alleluia,

It’s nice to know when it’s time to go. Alleluia.

 

The second change the Israelites made was to reject the cyclical worldview that practically every ancient culture held. This world is not a spinning wheel with every age and every event in each age repeating itself innumerable times. Instead it’s a story with a beginning, middle, and climax yet to come.

 

Today we have something philosophers call “historical consciousness,” an appreciation of unique events—and unique individuals—as opposed to repeating patterns; and we owe it to these Jews. Creation in the Bible was unique, something new. Since then the Bible records not cycles but maybe spirals sinking lower and lower. But God would do something new again, a new creation that would not be a repetition of the first. The Jews, with a history more tragic than comic, may have been the world’s first hopeful people.

 

On to Rowing 5, The Flood

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