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Saturday, January 30, 2016

None Of This Needs To Be Permanent

A lot of people have spent an inordinate amount of time doing some really neat calculations with the ages of the ancients given to us in Genesis 11 and elsewhere. These numbers have been used to estimate the age of the earth, to speculate about the synchronization of human history to a 50 year Jubilee cycle, and so on.

Despite the fact that we don’t know anyone in our day who has lived to 600 (or especially to 969, like Methuselah), I take these rather strange accounts quite literally. If you don’t, and you can find another logically consistent explanation for the existence of such a careful and apparently historical record, good for you: I’m not looking for a debate about it.

I find it interesting to read and meditate on such things, though I don’t go to the lengths some do in analyzing them.

Long Life to You!

As mentioned, prior to the Flood detailed for us in Genesis 7 and 8, men and women appear to have lived a great deal longer than they do today (see Genesis 5), in many cases close to 1,000 years. Adam, for instance, lived to 930, and his son Seth lived to 912. While there is quite a bit of variation in length of life among early men, it does not appear that, on the whole, human life spans were diminishing prior to the flood. Methuselah, for instance, was eighth in descent from Adam, but he lived longer than Adam did.

So despite the fact that sin had entered the world (and death with it), mankind was given much greater opportunity to pursue its activities of choice prior to the Flood without any direct divine intervention. And for the most part, it seems they chose evil.

After the Flood

What changed with the Flood? Well, something surely did. There are all kinds of speculations about the mechanics of that (which I won’t detail here). Some are goofy and others may be close to the mark but in the end they are speculative. The Bible does not tell us what the Flood changed about man’s environment.

What we do know is that directly after the Flood, life spans began to drastically diminish until by the time of the Hebrew patriarchs they begin to approximate current human age expectations. These numbers are often discussed rather coldly and analytically, as is natural in scholarship generally.

I cannot do that with Shem. Whenever I’m feeling really miserable, I think about him.

The Story of Shem

Shem was a son of Noah and the forefather of the Hebrew and Arab nations. Shem lived to age 600. In Genesis 11 we read about his descendants who, by and large, did not.

So, for example, the year Shem celebrated his 438th birthday, his great-great-grandson Peleg passed away at a measly 239. The next year, Shem’s great-great-great-great-great grandson Nahor followed his ancestor into eternity at a trifling 148. Nineteen years later, Reu, the son of Peleg, died, and thirty-three years after that, Reu’s son Serug died too. And Shem lived on.

Bear in mind these are only his offspring mentioned in scripture (frequently only the firstborn son in any given family shows up in Bible records, unless there’s something special of note about another child). Shem surely had many, many more children, and each of them had many more children and grandchildren, most of whom, one way or another, packed it in long before Shem. Even if they had obituaries back then, the poor guy would never have needed to read them: all he would have had to do is take a regular stroll through his neighbourhood and inquire which of his near-innumerable descendants had preceded him into the graveyard this week.

All told, eight of the next nine firstborn males in Shem’s family, including the legendary Abraham, did the dust-to-dust thing — no doubt along with the vast majority of their brothers and sisters — before Shem himself finally succumbed. His life was an absolute litany of death after death after death, of loss upon loss.

On the bright side, Shem’s great-grandson Eber did manage to outlive him.

There’s Always Someone Worse Off

Those of us who live long enough to regularly experience the deaths of loved ones have enough difficulty saying goodbye to parents, friends and contemporaries without adding to that the pain and sorrow of losing generation after generation of children.

I get no satisfaction out of knowing that no matter what may happen to me, plenty of others have had it much worse. But it’s the truth, if we care to examine the suffering of others with the same magnifying glass through which we view our own pain.

When Paul tells the Romans, “Death reigned from Adam to Moses,” I suspect this is the sort of thing he means.

This is the bit we should never forget:
“For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.”
Or to put it another way, none of this needs to be permanent.

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