Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Aging in History and Scripture

There's a peculiar dissonance between aging in the world of human history and aging in the narratives of Torah.

We know, because we do, that in both the ancient world and in prehistory aging wasn't something most of us did.  What most of us did was die young.  Get a childhood illness?  You died.  Have a complicated birth?  You died.  Get an infected wound?  You died.  By the time most human beings were in their mid-thirties, they weren't finally getting established in their career.  They were dead.  

As a species, we got around this the way that all other animals get around that basic existential challenge: we reproduced in large numbers, spamming ourselves into the world.

Age wasn't something that most people did.  The idea that most human beings would make it into their seventies would have seemed impossible.

Yet the tales of Torah lay out an entirely different spin on aging.  The farther back you go, the longer people live.  In Genesis, we hear that Adam, literally "the creature of earth?"  Adam lived nine hundred and thirty years.  Nine hundred and thirty.  Methuselah, whose name was once synonymous with "very old dude?"  He lived the longest, at nine hundred and sixty nine years. 

Noah had his kids at five hundred, which sounds...exhausting.   

All of the antediluvian...meaning "before the flood"...folks in Genesis lived preposterously long lives.  If one was a literalist, which I am not, there'd be all sorts of reasons one could present.

For instance, one might argue that so close to the exile from the Garden, the first humans were closer to immortality and agelessness, a lingering echo of the deathless perfection of unmediated connection with YHWH.  That works theologically and within the text, but it's a little hard to jibe with the way the human body actually functions.  If you have any engagement with Creation as it actually and observably exists, that sort of argument isn't particularly satisfying.  

When I was a kid reading the Bible for the first time on my own, I just kinda assumed the authors of that section were using a lunar calendar, and where they said "years," they meant "months."  That breaks down when you get further in, but hey, I was nine.

Or perhaps it's a factor of the peculiar subjectivity of time, in which days seem longer when you're younger.  

Or perhaps, as historical critical scholarship suggests, the great age of the antediluvian patriarchs is a conceit of the storytelling of the Ancient Near East, where the archetypal heroes lived in a time beyond time.  In Mesopotamian literature, for instance, the legendary figures in their pre-flood narratives typically lived for thousands of years.  This directly parallels ancient Hebrew storytelling, because of course it does.  

No matter what your interpretive framework, what is clear is that age in the ancient world was viewed as a thing of great worth, something fundamentally positive.  Aging was a rarity, and those who did reach their seventies or eighties were viewed with reverence and honor.  Their lives would have spanned the equivalent of several normal lifetimes, and they would be valuable repositories of collective memory, living relationships, and experience.

In the ancient world, the old were rare and precious and valued, because so few human beings attained great age.  

What a strange and different world that must have been.