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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Breaks in the Pattern

I was talking to my son the other morning about the parts of the Bible that are hard to wade through. You know, the repetitive bits, or the ones that contain such an excess of specific detail that they should by all rights be of interest to few people other than architects and historians.

The chapters you find yourself skimming rather than reading carefully.

I reminded him that while “All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable …” it is not all equally profitable. It is also not all equally relevant to your current circumstances or mine.

No Wasted Space

Now I should be clear that nothing in scripture is useless or irrelevant. It all has a purpose, and there is something to be learned from every chapter in it. That said, it was not all originally written to Christians, and we cannot expect every word of the Bible to be as easily understood at our moment in human history as it was to those who read or heard it when it had just been written.

It’s why I read the New Testament two to three times more often than I read the Old Testament. Sure, it’s important to know the historical and spiritual context of the gospels and epistles. We find that context in the first 39 books of the Bible. It’s very important to see the work of God throughout history and the foreshadowing of his provision in those pages of the Lamb of God who by a single offering has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. But to me, it’s of first importance to observe Christ himself as he walked this earth, to meditate on his words and actions, and to reflect on the practical consequences that follow from his life, death and resurrection as laid out by the apostles. And, in the end, what my obligations are today in view of who he is and what he has done.

Trying to keep it practical and all that.

Fighting With the Text

Still, if a passage now and then seems to hold little or nothing relevant to me, I tend to fight with it a bit. I’m going to read it anyway because it’s God’s word, so I don’t want to be lazy about it and miss something important. Because there’s always something there.

One of the things people tend to gloss over is a genealogy. Genealogies tend to be brutally formulaic. If you need something to fall asleep to, tuck yourself in at bedtime with Genesis 5:
“When Seth had lived 105 years, he fathered Enosh. Seth lived after he fathered Enosh 807 years and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Seth were 912 years, and he died.

When Enosh had lived 90 years, he fathered Kenan. Enosh lived after he fathered Kenan 815 years and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Enosh were 905 years, and he died.”
Zzzzzz. Same words, same order. Even the commas and periods are in the same place in English. Only the names have been changed and they’re a pain to pronounce and when you do, your preferred pronunciation is almost surely wrong. Jews would mock us severely if they heard us.

Do we really need to read the next few entries?

I think so.

Parsing for the Metamessage

First, there’s a metamessage in the repetition itself, isn’t there: And he died. And he died. And he died. So will you and so will I. It is the condition of man. Better make sure we’re ready when it happens. Better make sure our wives and husbands and children and friends and neighbours and loved ones are ready if we can. We’re all going the same way fast, whether we live 969 years like Methuselah or a very short time like the first son of David and Bathsheba.

I know people who spend their lives pushing the inevitability of death as far away from their thought processes as they possibly can. This passage does not. There’s plenty of pre-gospel mental frame adjustment in that, and plenty for the Christian to reflect on as well.

One of These Things is Not Like the Others

But second, when you encounter this sort of repetitive pattern, the differences kind of jump out at you on the rare occasions they occur. If a genealogist in scripture adds a note about one of his subjects, you can bet it matters for one reason or another.

So what breaks the pattern in Genesis 5? The first thing is Enoch, and that’s a study in itself: “And he died. And he died. And he died.”

And then Enoch didn’t.

Examining Enoch

Wait, what? It doesn’t just say “God took him”. It says “Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him”. The two things are surely related, but the writer of Genesis has nothing more to say about it. You have to read all the way to the other end of your Bible to get any sort of explanation, and it comes from the writer to the Hebrews, who says:
“By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”
Here Enoch is used to make a point so crucial it cannot be restated enough: Without faith it is impossible to please God. Those who want to know him must believe that God exists in the first place, and that there is some benefit in pursuing his favor. It might be one of the most basic and significant truths in all of scripture.

Jude’s Contribution

There is also a fairly important reference to Enoch in Jude, where a prophecy made by Enoch is applied to false teachers in the church:
“It was also about these that Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied, saying, ‘Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment on all and to convict all the ungodly of all their deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.’ ”
The inevitability of judgment upon all those who speak against God and do “deeds of ungodliness” is an equally critical revelation.

But without what appears at first glance to be a throwaway line in Genesis, we don’t get either of these important truths revealed. At least not in the same way.

The Second Break in the Pattern

What else breaks the pattern? Well, there’s Lamech, isn’t there:
“When Lamech had lived 182 years, he fathered a son and called his name Noah, saying, ‘Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands.’ Lamech lived after he fathered Noah 595 years and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Lamech were 777 years, and he died.”
Here we get a little extra information about Noah, who is a fairly important figure. Noah, his father declares, “shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands”.

Perhaps all Lamech means by this is that now that he has a son, he will be able to kick back for the next 595 years in the knowledge that Noah will take care of the family farming responsibilities. As in many ancient societies, children were your retirement plan. The more the better. There were no 401Ks or RSPs in those days.

What Kind of Relief?

Or perhaps Lamech is inadvertently prophesying about a sort of “relief” that is significantly greater.

If so, Lamech never saw that relief. If you do the easy math facilitated by the presence of all these ages conveniently listed here, you’ll see that Lamech died five years before the flood that wiped out the world order of its day and effectively rebooted our race. The human family tree had every single branch chopped off except for the one that grew out of Noah.

So maybe Lamech missed the import of his own words entirely. That happens from time to time to people who prophesy.

The Assumptions We Bring With Us

How we understand what Lamech said probably depends on the assumptions we bring to the verse. The fact that Noah was a righteous man may lead us to conclude that he had a righteous father. Alternatively, the fact that Noah lived in evil times full of evil people may lead us to conclude that he was exceptional in his family in his devotion to God, and that Lamech, like Caiaphas, was neither in tune with the times nor with the Spirit of God speaking through him. On the face of it, Lamech seems more concerned with the hardness of his life under the curse than with the wickedness of man and how God must feel about it.

But like the Enoch story, too little is told us to be dogmatic, and unlike Enoch, Lamech doesn’t get an explanatory write-up in Hebrews.

When Did Wickedness Become Great?

The question of when wickedness became mankind’s most remarkable feature and the level of violence on earth became intolerable to God may be settled by language found early in Genesis 6. When God pronounces judgment on them, he says “My Spirit shall not contend with man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years”. I take that to mean God, as he has often done, gave a timeline for repentance, after which judgment became inevitable. If God made this pronouncement 120 years before the flood, it is possible that the condition of human society was not quite so bad when Noah was born, and that it worsened considerably during his lifetime.

If that is the case, Lamech’s concern for relief from work and painful toil may seem less oblivious and self-serving.

The Other Level

Ironically, in the original language there seems to be a bit of a double entendre in Lamech’s statement about his son. The Hebrew word translated as “relief” in the ESV is more frequently rendered “comfort”. But even more frequently, it is translated “repent”.

Noah, we’re told, was a “herald of righteousness”. In other words, he preached repentance. That was his job from the moment God called him. How he carried out his mandate is not clear from the Genesis account. It may be that, like Enoch, he cried aloud, “Behold, the Lord comes!” But whether he did or didn’t cry out in the streets, his testimony was impeccable. Nobody could have been in any doubt what Noah was up to. I mean, accumulating enough gopher wood to build a boat roughly 450 feet long is not something you can do without the neighbourhood being well aware what is going on. Collecting animals of all sorts is fairly hard to overlook. In following the instructions God had given him, Noah heralded righteousness whether or not he ever said a word out loud.

There may be a message for us in that too.

Complete and Total Relief

Either way, when the flood came, with the exception of eight people, men experienced complete and total “relief from work and from the painful toil of their hands”, though I’m not sure that’s exactly what Lamech had in mind when he named Noah.

Now to be fair, there’s a lot more supposition in my reconstruction than hard facts. Interpret as you will.

I still think when you observe the breaks in the pattern, there’s a lot more to a boring old genealogy than first appears.

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