Death, as we all know, is a part of life. But it wasn’t so for the first humans. At least not for nearly a millennium of human existence.
It’s easy to forget this as we read the Genesis stories of the Garden of Eden, the Fall, and the subsequent expulsion of Adam and Eve. It’s easy because right there in the account of the temptation in the garden, Eve herself raises the possibility of death in her colloquy with Satan in Genesis 3. And, to modern readers and ancient alike, it seems that possibility is made a reality later in the chapter, when God decrees to Adam that “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
But when does Adam actually die? Not in Genesis 4, when, after the fratricide of Cain, Adam and Eve bear a third son, Seth. We can assume that this new birth came at least about two decades after the birth of their first children, as Cain and Abel are depicted as grown men at the time of Abel’s murder. And, in fact, Genesis 5:3, informs us exactly of when in Adam’s lifetime he beget his third son: age 130.
By this time, there had been enough humans for the founding of the first city by Cain (Genesis 4:17). Since that time, there had been five generations descended from Cain, which included the founders of the nomadic herders, the first player of the “lyre and the reed pipe,” and the first forgers of “instruments of bronze and iron” (Genesis 4:20-22).
The beginnings of human civilization were well underway. It had at least one city; it had the arts (the lyre and the reed pipe); it had ancient technology (“instruments of bronze and iron”); and it had already had economic variation, with some living as nomadic herders of lifestyle and others dwelling in cities. And Adam was still, in a sense, in the prime of his life: he was begetting children and had hundreds of years left to live.
The death sentence to which humanity had been subjected had yet to be executed. Of course, there had been one death—Abel’s. But this was an unnatural death, occurring at the treacherous hands of his brother, as Jewish philosopher Leon Kass notes in his philosophical rereading of Genesis, The Beginning of Wisdom. Moreover, the possibility of death by violence seemed “confined to the line of Cain,” whose descendent, Lamech kills a man for wounding him (Genesis 4:23), as Kass notes. If the line of Cain was doomed, perhaps Adam and Eve had reason to hope for a new beginning with Seth, Kass suggests.
The first humans did not yet have any experience with death from natural causes.
Perhaps the dire prophecy uttered by God lurked in the back of Adam and Eve’s minds, but they would not have really understood it. “As I have pictured him, the original human being … lacks sufficient self-consciousness truly to understand this prophecy; a simple-minded soul could not know death. At most, ‘dying’ to him would convey some vague kind of badness, or perhaps just the absence or loss of everything present,” Kass writes.
Adam would go on to live another 800 years after the begetting of Seth—presumably more than sufficient time to see a new line of descendants blossom, absent the murderous tendencies of those descendants of Cain, as Genesis records no murders from those descended from Seth.
Then, the unimaginable happened. Genesis 5:4 records the event: “The whole lifetime of Adam was nine hundred and thirty years; then he died.”
This detail hardly surprises readers today. But, at the time, it must have sent shock waves throughout human civilization: this was the world’s first death by natural causes. And, incredibly, it happened nearly a millennium into human history. Moreover, anyone who thought this a freak accident of nature was soon disabused of such notions. Within a century of Adam’s death, his favored son Seth also died. (Based on the chronology of Genesis 5:6-7, Seth was 912 years old). “The deaths of Adam and Seth must have shattered men’s expectations and sent them reeling,” Kass writes.
Then, suddenly, death is everywhere. It’s easy to miss it because what follows in Genesis 5 is a series of genealogies—the kind of sleep-inducing phonebook reading that usually makes one’s eyes glaze over. But each mini genealogy abruptly ends with a harsh reminder of the new reality that has sunk in:
When Enosh [son of Seth] was ninety years old, he begot Kenan. Enosh lived eight hundred and fifteen years after he begot Kenan, and he had other sons and daughters. The whole lifetime of Enosh was nine hundred and five years; then he died (Genesis 5:9-11).
In fact, the phrase “then he died” punctuates the genealogies of Genesis 5 six more times. As one Scripture scholar has written: “No reader of Genesis 5 … fails to be impressed by the recurrent phrase ‘And he died;’ which baldly and emphatically concludes the entry for each of these antediluvians. The whole movement of the regular form of these notices is toward death” (David Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch, as cited in Bibliotheca Sacra in July-Sept. 1991).
Life now has an end point. And, notably, that end point is drawing nearer and nearer, adding a note of urgency to this “genealogy of death,” as it has been called. Adam lived 930 years. Seth missed that by almost two decades and his son, Enosh, lived 905 years, falling short of his father’s 912. Although some of the lifespans bounce back, the trend is downwards: by the time we get to Lamech, lifespans have been reduced to 777 years.
The message of Genesis 5—one that can be easily missed amid the genealogies—is the reality of death that is a result of the first sin. But this isn’t the end of the story in these early chapters. The darkness that broods over these genealogies is broken by one ray of hope. It occurs during the fifth generation from Seth and it involves an antediluvian named Enoch:
When Enoch was sixty-five years old, he begot Methuselah. Enoch walked with God after he begot Methuselah for three hundred years, and he had other sons and daughters. The whole lifetime of Enoch was three hundred and sixty-five years. Enoch walked with God, and he was no longer here, for God took him (Genesis 5:21-24).
As one Scripture scholar has noted, this genealogy does not end with the familiar obituary “…then he died.” Instead, we are told Enoch, who “walked with God” had a different fate allotted to him: “God took him.” Traditionally, these verses have been understood to mean that Enoch was removed from this earth by God before experienced death, presumably to put him in paradise.
But the reign of death continues. Enoch’s son dies, as does his grandson. There is hope amid all this but it will take another, far more shocking death to end its reign and extend the hope of Enoch to all of us: the death of God Incarnate, Jesus Christ.