AGAIN AND AGAIN IN THE FIFTH CHAPTER OF GENESIS, one finds the refrain, “and then he died.” So-and-so lived so many years, and then he died… and then he died… and then he died… Why the repetition?
From the beginning, God’s intention had been that the intercourse between himself and his image-bearers would be eternal: Adam and Eve were to experience eternal life with God. Their rebellion put an end to this trajectory (Gen. 3:21-22). Even if death did not fall on them immediately (Adam lived to the age of 930, according to Gen. 5:5), it was inevitable. The chapter before this table of deaths records the first murder — another death. And the three succeeding chapters (Gen. 6-8) record the Flood, in which the human race dies, save only Noah and his family. Whether by murder or by immediate divine judgment or by old age, the result is always the same: “and then he died.” As the wry contemporary expression puts it, “Life is hard, and then you die.”
In fact, by God’s just decree, death is taking hold of the human race. The life spans in Genesis 5 are extraordinary. They cannot last: more years means more evil. By Genesis 6:3, God determines to cut short the life span of his rebellious image-bearers. This decision is implemented gradually but firmly, so that by Genesis 11 the recorded ages have declined considerably, and in later records very few live longer than 120 years. But whatever the age, the final result is the same: “and then he died.”
Contemporary Western thought finds death so frightening that in polite conversation it is the last taboo. Nowadays one can chatter on about sex and finances, and never raise an eyebrow; mention death, and most people are uncomfortable at best. Even many Christians think of their faith almost exclusively in terms of what it does for them now, rather than in terms of preparing them for eternity such that it transforms how they live now.
God does not want us to shut our eyes to the effects of our sin, to the inevitability of death. Nevertheless, this chapter includes one bright exception: “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away” (Gen. 5:24). It is almost as if God is showing that death is not ontologically necessary; that those who walk with God one day escape death; that even for those who die, there is hope — in God’s grace — of life beyond our inevitable death. But it is tied to a walk with God. It will take the rest of the Bible to unpack what that means.