Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Was Methuselah a Wash-out?

The Geezer
When I was a kid, the saying "old as Methuselah" was commonplace.  Even people who never went to church or read their Bibles knew that Methuselah holds the record for the longest tenure on planet earth: 969 years, to be precise (see Genesis 5:27).  I used Methuselah as a joke in one of my novels (Brothers) and have been surprised at the number of people who don't get it because they've never heard of him.

The Bible doesn't really have much to say about the man, except that he lived 969 years and that he was the father of Lamech.  The rest of his story has to be deciphered by mathematicians.

I don't know why, but I always assumed that Methuselah was a good man.  Maybe I made that assumption because of his age.  Surely in that many years, the geezer managed to acquire more than the usual amount of wisdom, right?  (I apologize to anyone who is offended by my use of the term "geezer." I have great respect for geezers, so much that I will even refer you to their official web page: http://geezer.org.  At his age, Methuselah should be referred to as The Geezer; if anyone ever earned the right, he did!)  Or perhaps I figured that his longevity  was a reward for a life well-lived and pleasing to God.  Maybe his God-fearing father (Enoch) had a positive influence on him.  Or maybe he learned a lot about God by listening to Great-great-great-great-great-grandpa Adam, who was only 627 when little Methy was born. (Adam lived to be 930, so the two of them had 303 years to get to know one another.)

Today, however, I am forced to question some of those assumptions.  You see, I've done the math.

According to the fifth chapter of Genesis, Methuselah was the father of Lamech, who was the father of Noah.  Lamech was born when Methuselah was 187.  According to Genesis, Methuselah lived 782 years after Lamech was born (Genesis 5:26), and Lamech lived 777 years (Genesis 5:31).  Doing the math, that means that Methuselah lived five years longer than his son.

Noah was born when Lamech was 182, which would make Grandpa Methuselah 369 at the time (Genesis 5:28-29).  In case you were curious, Noah never knew Great-(times-seven)-grandpa Adam.  His was the first generation to be born after Adam's death. 

Noah's Ark
Maybe a lot of people have forgotten Methuselah, but everyone has heard of Noah.  He was the Flood guy, the one who built the cute little ark that gets painted on nursery walls.  (This is a real strange choice for decor, in my opinion, since we are surrounding our babies with pictures of a catastrophic event that wiped out 99.999999% of earth's population, but that's not really the point of this blog.) (And actually, the ark was neither little nor cute.  Check out  http://www.answersingenesis.org/get-answers/topic/noahs-ark for a much more realistic picture of Noah's Ark.)

Anyway, back to Methuselah.  Can you guess how old he was when the Flood struck?  Do the math: Noah was 600 at the time (Genesis 7:11) and we've already established that Methuselah was 369 when Noah was born, so 369 + 600 = 969. 

Which raises the question: Exactly when and how did Methuselah die?  He was 969, we know that much.  Did he die earlier that year, and THEN God sent the Flood?  Or was The Geezer swept away like everyone else? 

Jewish tradition holds to the former explanation, citing the Book of Enoch and the Book of Jashar as evidence that Methuselah was a righteous man and so God delayed the Flood until after Methuselah had died a natural death.  Neither of these books, however, were (or are) considered part of the Tanakh (the Hebrew bible) and so they do not have the authority accorded to the rest of Scripture, which is totally silent as to the precise manner of Methuselah's demise. 

So what?  Does it really matter?

I think it does.  Genesis 6 makes it clear that the earth of Noah's day was filled with evil people.  The exact language used is, "The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time" (Genesis 6:5) and also, "God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways" (Genesis 6:12).  But it also adds, "But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD" (Genesis 6:8).

I confess, my knowledge of Hebrew is limited.  However, studying this passage I find the words "all," "only," and "every" used by the translators to describe the prevalence of evil in the pre-Flood culture.  The Hebrew words used for these concepts were "kol" ( כל ) and "raq" ( רק ).  "Kol" means all, the whole, the totality, everything.  "Raq" is an adjective of limitation or restriction, meaning (in this context) that their thoughts were limited or restricted to evil thoughts -- no other thoughts were possible for them. 

I would suggest that "all" in this case means "all" and that "all" includes old Methuselah.  I don't buy into the Jewish tradition that he was given special, preferential treatment just because he had known Adam.  I think The Geezer was just as bad as everyone else.  And THAT matters.


It matters because it means that age alone is NOT sufficient to make a person wise . . . that hanging around spiritual people is NOT enough to make a person spiritual.  Methuselah, for all his longevity, didn't make the cut.  He was a wash-out . . . literally.  The author of Genesis doesn't mention Methuselah's righteousness, doesn't mention God's special favor toward him, doesn't mention Methuselah being taken by God before the Flood, and it is only logical to assume that these things aren't mentioned because they weren't true.  One could argue that the Bible also doesn't mention Methuselah's death in the Flood, but neither does it mention the names of the other people who died; it simply says every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out, except Noah and those who were with him on the ark (Genesis 7:23). 

Methuselah's demise is a warning to me as I grow older.  I don't expect to live to 969 . . . I don't expect to live to 96, for that matter . . . but I have passed the half-century mark and am in danger of succumbing to the temptation to rest on my laurels.  Nor am I the only one.  In his book In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen reflects on this same issue, asking the question, "Did becoming older bring me closer to Jesus?"  His answer is a sobering one:
As I entered into my fifties . . . after twenty-five years of priesthood, I found myself praying poorly, living somewhat isolated from other people, and very much preoccupied with burning issues. Everyone was saying that I was doing really well, but something inside was telling me that my success was putting my own soul in danger.
Noah found favor in God's sight, and so God warned him of the coming Flood and told him how to build the ark.  Noah believed God and took action, and so God called him "righteous" (Genesis 7:1).  This, by the way, is the same spiritual principle at work throughout the Bible, Old Testament and New: God doesn't call the righteous, but the UNrighteous.  It is when we heed His call and believe Him that He declares us to be righteous (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3, 10:4-10; Galatians 3:6; James 2:23).

Jesus warned that there is a future judgment coming upon the earth "as it was in the days of Noah" (Matthew 24:37-39) and that we need to be ready for it.  Don't be a wash-out . . . don't make the same mistake Methuselah made and assume that you are safe because you've been around for a while and know the right people.  While the sentimental side of me likes the story in the Book of Jashar that shows Noah and Methuselah working side by side to warn their neighbors of the coming disaster, the scholar in me shakes her head and reminds me that Methuselah probably watched Noah building that boat for 100 years and scoffed along with the rest of them until it was too late for the old geezer to get on board.

One final thought: "Geezer" was once spelled "guiser" and meant someone who wore a disguise, someone who went about in the guise of someone or something he was not.  You can't fool God by wearing a mask.  Not even The Geezer could do that.

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