Happy Birthday dear Noah
... and happy birthday to me. Spent some of it with my son, whom I begat 25 years ago; not like Noah, who waited half a millenium before he got round to any begetting, so far as the Bible can tell us. He would appear to have started building the Ark early in his sixth century and completed it round about his 600th birthday.
One might wonder why the Lord did not entrust this gigantic construction job to a younger man, or even to Noah earlier in his life; though Noah was to live another three and half centuries after the Flood, so he clearly had a strong constitution and might be considered still in his prime.
Noah is one of several characters in Genesis who survived into their 900’s. Methusaleh (969 years old when he died) was famously the oldest of all, followed by Jared (962), Noah (950), Seth (912), Kenan (910) and Enosh (905) the latter not to be confused with Enoch, who did not die at all but was taken into heaven at the tender age of 365.
The precision of these numbers suggests that some kind of chronological scheme is in the writer’s mind, although scholarly enquiry as to its nature remains speculative. Other Middle Eastern cultures indulged in similar flights of fancy about ancestral figures, some of whom are said to have lived for tens of thousands of years. Common to such legends and the Genesis accounts is the idea that "these human beings of the unimaginably remote past were of a quite different order of vitality and durability from the puny men and women of the present age" (Oxford Bible Commentary). None of which will impress a fundamentalist, for whom the figures are accurate, revealed and beyond dispute. If the Bible says that Noah was 600 when he finished the Ark ...
In fundamentalist eyes, I’m a lousy uniformitarian. Few men today live beyond 100, by which time even they are physically clapped out, with no prospect of entering or re-entering the begetting stakes. So, I assume, it must have always been in the absence of strong evidence to the contrary, and the Bible does not provide evidence in that way. But fundamentalists denounce this as faithless; since the Bible reveals God’s truth to us, it follows that men did indeed live for centuries, but without losing their vigour. Noah could build the Ark having passed his 500th birthday because he still had the strength of a thirty-year old. It just goes to show how catastrophic the Fall was that we age so quickly now.
There will be no meeting of minds on this issue; you either realise the fundamentalist position is daft or you don’t. I would merely ask this question of those who maintain that Noah did live to be 950; while I accept that the Bible may see long years as a blessing, would you really want as many of them as that? Would you not get bored out of your skull? Would not the years, the decades, whole centuries, get mixed up in your memory, out of which whole tracts of time would fall into the void? Would your brain not accumulate more information than it could possibly process and start to crash?
Here once again, literalism stands in the way of sensible interpretation. The passages about ancient, incredibly long-lived patriarchs, may have some message for us along the lines of: years ago, men were close to God and he rewarded them with his gracious gift of longevity, whereas today people are fickle, rebellious, remote from God and don’t live for more than a fraction of the time. It’s nostalgic and hardly profound but it’s not absurd. Taking the figures literally makes it so: we might not want to die particularly, but living to be nine hundred? Call that a blessing? More like a punishment. If this is a miracle it’s one we desperately want not to be true.