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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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Our First Parents & Biblical Longevity


My question is quick but I am assuming not simple. In Genesis they mention a lot of people who were born after Adam. Some of these people live 600 plus years. My question is this, was time measured differently back then? I am trying to rationalize how those numbers came to be.


How are we to interpret the many years of life attributed to the patriarchs of Genesis?  This question must be discussed in context with the story of creation.  It so challenges credulity, that there are authorities who would reject the inquiry as silly.  Giving preference to evolution over the Genesis narratives, they would argue the entire business is fiction and contend that the numbers only serve symbolic purposes and certainly cannot be real.  We take confidence in God’s sustaining creative power and that we would need a time machine to go back and see for sure about the longevity.  The Church does teach that because of the primordial fall, death enters the world.  This means either that Adam and Eve were initially immortal or that death as we know it did not exist, no more than opening a door and moving from one room to the next where they would continue to see and to live with God forever.  Certain fundamentalists contend that the human lifespan grew shorter after the fall, especially following the deluge that destroyed the known world.  

We must be careful in our approach to such questions, neither to allow our belief in the supernatural to unreservedly color our assumptions or the current atheism to infect and poison confidence that ours is the God of the miraculous. Truth must be upheld and one form of truth complements another:  scientific, religious and philosophical.  Today, many of us are persuaded given the fossil evidence and DNA markers, that God brought forth humanity from lower pre-existing forms of life.  When a proper body was prepared, God infused an immortal soul and we had the first man.  A maxim popular in Catholic circles comes to mind:  “The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”  While the Scriptures contain myth and even Genesis has two distinct creation narratives, there are important truths that must not be lost.  God creates everything freely from nothing. 

The creation of the first man and woman signified a decisive moment when self-reflective creatures with souls were called forth to respond in kind to the God who has made them in his own image.  As the stewards of creation they could rightly love God back. God held out to them preternatural gifts left unclaimed and some of the Church fathers believed that the incarnation was imminent where the Lord would join himself to creation.  However, our first parents rebelled against God. 

I often ponder that decisive moment that we call the fall. I can imagine Adam with his wife Eve by his side staring at the sunrise of what should be a new day. Suddenly they have a “eureka moment” and are filled with awe from a divine presence and clear sense of their high calling— seeing with the eyes of the soul something beyond this world.  All they have to do is say YES, just as Mary did at her Annunciation and Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane. But it all seems too much to bear.  The devil directs them to turn away— a distraction that breaks the vision. As with the cli·ché, they “cannot see the forest for the trees” or at least for one forbidden tree. They might ponder the gifts of food, drink, pleasure and comfort— but wrongly claim the gifts while neglecting the giver.  It is easier to play the part of the beast.  Eyes that once gazed upward now turn to the ground.  Arms and hands raised in priestly praise to heaven now fall to the earth.  They and their descendants will trod as animals and totter when they seek to stand as men.  Any prospect for the incarnation passes to the future and to a promise made to rebellious children.  God tells them, “You have forgotten me but I have not forgotten you, and I promise, one day I will come searching for you so to bring you home.” Yes, God will enter the human family, not just to unite us to himself but to save us from ourselves and from the devil.        

Did Adam live to be 930 years old?  Did Methuselah live to be 969?  I cannot say.  It is unlikely.  However, God can do as he pleases.  I have an aunt who passed away at 124.  Unless I show the newspaper clippings from when she turned 117, most refuse to believe me and think I am pulling their leg.  It must be admitted that the Semitic people liked playing with numbers and had an elaborate numerology. Even the letters of their alphabet had numeral values.

Whatever the actual ages, the ancient peoples lived long enough to have children and to pass on their stories and their faith.  God would call a people and prepare them for a Messiah who would mend the rift between heaven and earth.  Our Lord Jesus would only live thirty some odd years in this world and his ministry would last a mere three years.  However, in that short time he would accomplish his mission— redeeming us from the devil, raising the dignity of human nature by his participation, and bringing healing and the forgiveness of sins by grace.  After his resurrection, Jesus descends to the dead and drags Adam and Eve by the hair into heaven. 

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