In Genesis 5, the first humans start dying off.
Adam is the first to go. Then his son Seth passes. Soon, the chapter begins to read like a rapid-fire succession of birth and death notices as the dreadful reality sinks in: no one, it seems can escape the death of which God had warned Adam and Eve before excommunicating them from the Garden of Eden for sinning.
And then, one does not.
In Genesis 5:18, we meet a man named Enoch. At first, there is little to set him apart from the others—here is just another antediluvian with an unfamiliar name. (If anything, his son Methuselah is more famous to modern readers, being idiomatic for anyone who has lived a long time.) As we near the close of Enoch’s short story, we expect him to meet the same end as the other men of his times: “… and then he died.”
But something changes with Enoch. He meets with a different fate: “Enoch walked with God, and he was no longer here, for God took him” (verse 24).
Church tradition has never really been certain about where Enoch ended up—although the usual assumption is that he was taken to heaven. One thing is certain: Enoch was spared the death that seemed to be breaking out everywhere in the antediluvian world, as St. Paul confirms in Hebrews 11.
What set Enoch apart?
The first clue comes after the birth of Methuselah. Normally, the genealogical formula would read about how his father lived on for a certain number of years after the birth. But Genesis 5 does not say that Enoch lived on. Instead, we read: “Enoch walked with God after he begot Methuselah. …” (verse 22). The phrase, walking with God, is then repeated two verses later, right before we learn of Enoch’s enigmatic departure from this earth (as quoted above).
So we can modify our question accordingly, what does it mean to “walk with God?”
Of course, in our time, walking as a metaphor for living one’s life in company with God readily suggests itself, but we should not be so quick to read this into the Genesis text. After all, this was an era when lifespans stretched out into hundreds of years: life in the antediluvian world was hardly ordinary. And the kind of walk Enoch was leading with God must have been quite extraordinary as it ended with him departing this earth before experiencing death.
Indeed, the Hebrew word for walking does not simply mean just ‘walking.’ (The verb is hâlak, phonetically spelled as haw-lak’). In a metaphorical sense, it is comparable to the modern idiom “to go along with,” suggesting that a person is in agreement with another or accepts their company, according to the Hebrew Thoughts dictionary. When used in the context of human-divine relationships it indicates that one is living righteously and obeying God (as in Psalm 81:14), according to the dictionary.
But the word has more meanings that this: “Hâlak could be used as an intensifying verb to add duration, continuation, or weight to another verb. For example, in Jonah 1:11 the sea ‘grew more and more tempestuous’ whilst in Genesis 8:3,5 the waters of the Flood receded ‘more and more’ or ‘continually,’ This may come from the verb’s idea of walking continually rather than walking just the once, to ‘go on going,’” Hebrew Thoughts states.
We can now begin to flesh out some of the meaning of the phrase walking with God in Genesis 5. Based on how it is used elsewhere, the verb suggests that Enoch lived a righteously obedient life in accord with God. This reading is reflected in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, which renders walking with God as was pleasing to God. This is also how St. Paul describes Enoch’s walk in Hebrews 11. Based on the other uses of the verb, we also can surmise that Enoch’s walk with God also was a continuous process that intensified over time.
Walking can also refer to one’s death. “Curiously, the ultimate walk in Hebrew is death. Hâlak can express the idea of ‘walking away’ in the sense of passing on in death,” as Hebrew Thoughts puts it. This notion of walking as a final passage occurs in Genesis 15:2, where in English we read: “But Abram said, ‘Lord GOD, what can you give me, if I die childless and have only a servant of my household, Eliezer of Damascus?’” But, in Hebrew, the word translated as die is the same word for walking.
In the case of Enoch, the implication is that walking with God—living a righteous life in company with Him—is an alternative to the normal walk that men must lead into the grave. In this context, it’s quite fitting that we read that he walked with God just before we learn that God took him from this earth.
But, as noted earlier, Genesis 5 mentions Enoch’s walk with God twice. The first time is right after the birth of his eventually superannuated son, in Genesis 5:22. Usually, right after a birth notice, the genealogical formula would read something like…. and he lived so many hundreds of years after he begot his son. But Genesis 5:22 does not say that Enoch lived after his son was born. Instead, it says he “walked with God after he begot Methuselah.”
Thus, for Enoch, to live was to walk with God. Such walking with God is what frames his abbreviated, four-verse biography in Genesis 5. We read of it soon after Enoch is introduced and begins his life, in verse 22, and we are reminding of it in verse 24, when his life on this earth comes to a close. This sense of a complete life lived in continuous communion with God is reinforced by his lifespan of 365 years—“a year of years,” as one commentator puts it.
By the terms of Genesis 5, Enoch’s life was short. In those days, lifetimes lengthened to nearly a millennium. Some fell short, but Enoch still was the shortest-lived of all the men in Genesis 5, his 365 years (even admitting the possible symbolism of the number) coming in at roughly half of the 777 years of the next shortest-lived person, Lamech. Of course, for Enoch, mere lengthening of days was no substitute for time with God.
Today, the story of Enoch is striking because of how it ended. But, in the immediate context of the Genesis story, perhaps what is most shocking is not where Enoch ended up, but how he got there. The idea that one could walk with God, after all, had been a possible reality only once before, in Genesis 3:8, where Adam and Eve hear “the sound of the Lord God walking about in the garden.” Adam and Eve were called to a radical intimacy with God, one that they forfeited through their sin, which resulted in their expulsion from Eden and the punishment of mortality.
For a time, it must have seemed that intimacy with God was lost. The magnitude of this catastrophe soon became apparent: in Genesis 4, we witness the world’s first murder, at the behest of Cain, who heads a line of murderous descendants and, in the next chapter, the third son on which Adam and Eve pinned their hopes for a more peaceful humanity, Seth, died a natural death, as did Adam.
In this age of paradise lost, mankind seemed destined for the dust. Enoch then appears and offers hope still might be a way to get there. But the path to paradise was no longer a physical one. One could no longer ‘walk’ to Eden. Rather, one got there by ‘walking’ with God.