Judi's Journal 09-30-2011

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Analyzing the ages of people in the Bible

By Judi Siegal

It arrived the other day. Very, innocuous looking white envelope, the kind we call a #10. Plain black block lettering with my name on in: Judith C. Siegal. It was official all right; nobody calls me Judith except doctors who don’t know me well. The contents struck a chord with me because it has to do with a landmark age-related rite of passage.
Speaking of age, the Torah has much to say on this subject. I am most gratified reading the fifth chapter of Genesis, the one with all the begets. Seems people in those days lived pretty long lives, this without benefit of baby aspirin, Crestor, high blood pressure pills, insulin and calcium supplements. Adam’s line, as the Torah relates, did pretty good in the longevity category. We have Adam living 930 years (this after begetting Seth and other sons and daughters), Seth living 912 years and Enoch, who was Seth’s son, living to 905.
Other notable men of longevity of Adam’s line include: Kenan with 910 years, Mahalalel, 895 years and Jared son of Mahalalel with 962 (Must have been all those Subway sandwiches!). Jared begat Enoch when he was 162 (that’s no big deal, Methuselah begat Lamech at 187 years!) Enoch lived for 365 and was evidently a righteous person because “God took him.” (Gen.5: 24) Methuselah’s legendary lifespan was 969 years. Lemach, Methuselah’s son begat the famous ark-builder, Noah, when he was 162 years of age and died at 777 years old.
Interesting that the Torah only names the male children, though each of the above mentioned people also had other sons and daughters. It would be my guess that the people mentioned were probably the scions of the families and the heirs of the clan. Since in Biblical times, the family name and inheritance came through the first-born male, it does not surprise me that the Torah records things as such. Of course, the years seem a bit long, if not exaggerated by today’s standards. Perhaps people counted time differently or the Biblical writers were trying to fill in the gaps in the Creation story. My other theory is that the people who lived long lives might have been very influential in their day and the number of years could be a metaphor for how much these people contributed to their clan and society at large.
Other age-related stories include the birth of Isaac. Sarah, according to the Bible, was beyond childbearing years. As women know, you can easily have a “change of life” baby. The rabbinical midrash (explanation) on this story also relates how youthful Sarah looked. Carrying a child can do this to a woman. Conversely, when Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac, Sarah dies, the rabbis say she “knew” what Abraham was about to do.
The Psalmist says (Psalms 90:10) “The span of our life is seventy years, or given the strength, eighty…Teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart.” This seems to fit in with modern life expectation and not at all like the line of Adam.
Still it is written that Moses died at 120 and to this day, Jews wish longevity to someone by blessing them to live to 120. I kind of like that one because that would mean I have a lot more years to go!
As Jews approach the holiday of Yom Kippur, the whole theme of repentance and human mortality take center stage. At the concluding service for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the actual deathbed confession is made. The holiday is very sobering, reminding us all of the limited time we have here on earth. We are exhorted to mend our ways and seek to follow the path of righteousness.
As for the contents of that envelope, I have secreted it away in a very safe place. I would not want to misplace my Medicare card.