Let us turn to the other major source of information about primitive times that is found in “Genesis”: the connective tissue of genealogy. There is, first of all, a very brief story associated with the name “Lemach”. The story acts as a commentary on the Cain story, showing that the message of God’s forbearance with the first murderer will be lost on generations of people more intent on revenge than on anything else, and so the Cain story is also a false start, because its message does not become part of human consciousness, only a message within the “consciousness” of “Genesis”, as that can be misread by the countless people who will read “Genesis” and claim to take it seriously.
But the other names listed in the “Genesis” genealogies do not have stories associated with them. These people are described only by their lineage and their longevity. The genealogies would seem to say that in those distant times men were indeed titans. How are they titans? “Genesis” says it is not a matter of size or of wisdom or of language or of power but a matter of age. Descent simply ties together people noteworthy for how long they lived.
It is easy to make fun of this homespun exaggeration of old age, a legend making more becoming to the American than the Middle Eastern frontier. But there is also something remarkable and profound in the choice of the descriptor used to depict the magnificence of the ancestors. Evolutionists describe a primitive simplicity made up of elemental qualities such as brute strength and cunning. Here the redactors describe the simple and natural lives of the old ones as containing a very long life span. That is what is crucial about them. These ancients, mind you, were not immortals; they just went on significantly longer than you and I do.
The Greeks do not do it this way. Their gods are immortal, and it is better never to have been born a mortal than to live at all in this vale of tears. The best that can be hoped for, as demonstrated in the life of Achilles, who was fated to know much too much about death, is to trade a good many of those precious years of life for fame, which is a faux kind of immortality, and so perhaps not worth the bother. The immortality of the soul is discovered by Socrates not as a solution to the problem of death, a matter to which he is indifferent, but as a way of explaining how subjective consciousnesses can be distinct entities, how souls can be at all. That the looming of death is to be feared or serves as the springboard for the actions taken in life, as occurs in Christianity, is not there.
Fame is not to be considered, in “Genesis” as it was in “The Iliad”, a kind of equivalence to long life. The ancients in “Genesis” lived longer than we do and that is of singular importance, as if what is important about a life is how long it lasts. The one who lasts longest is the one who wins; that person had a few more years than most of his or her cohort, and that is all that need be said. Moreover, longevity is a demographic quality and so something that can be dispensed to any number of people if the tools for making it so become available. You or I may die from an infectious disease or from the deterioration of a vital organ, but progress can be made, as that is measured by average life span, in reducing the incidence or mortality of these conditions. That is a fresh take on life and death, even if its redactors did not available to them the imagination of technologies that would extend the lives of nearly anyone who came in contact with them.
The longevity of those in “Genesis” who live in primitive times is compatible with the Eden story. Adam and Eve would have been like God if they had eaten of the tree of life. They would have been immortal as well as all knowing, while even the angels are only immortal. God can be understood as jealous of His distinctiveness and so does not want Adam and Eve to be like Him. But then He would have been like a Greek god, driven by all too human emotions. Consider, instead, that God was simply trying not to sow confusion. People were the created, not the creator, and so could not really be gods even if they became god-like. God is simply sustaining the natural order of things-- that the powers of creatures are in accord with their place in nature. As God was out to keep language clear, as the story of Babel shows, so that it could provide distinctive designations for different kinds of people, there is no problem with people dreaming of or even living to a ripe old age, so long as they do not think themselves immortal or become immortal.
That the ancients in “Genesis” are made remarkable because of their age is a deep insight. Dinosaurs, another primitive species, is made heroic by its size, at least to small boys. Homeric gods are made remarkable by their passions and the knights of the Round Table, who also inhabit a primitive past, are renowned for their chivalric deeds, and the modern heroes of Thomas Eakins, his doctors and athletes, are known for their prowess. The ancients in the “Genesis” genealogy have only the achievement of age, nothing else matters, as sometimes seem the case when contemporary newscasters take note of the fact that someone has reached the age of 110. Nothing else matters anymore because everyone winds up dead and takes nothing with them into the grave, not trinkets nor medals nor old diplomas.
The redactors do not go back to or try to create a new Methuselah once they get on with history. Abraham importunes God on other issues, though one could imagine him asking God to allow man a somewhat longer lifespan, and then beseeching him for one slightly longer than that, on the grounds that it means so little to God and so much to man, and that if God could be switched from a concern to punish a group for the infractions of some to a concern to save a group because of the virtues of a few, then it is much less to ask that He provide with somewhat extended life those creatures He has created to be aware of their frailty as a partial compensation for their inevitable doom. Abraham, in his time, knows that God abolishes peoples and exiles them but God does not engage in capital punishment. Abraham himself exiled Hagar and Ishmael; he did not kill them. And God sends an angel to look out for them. Abraham had the standing, therefore, to have said to God: if you gave us each but one hundred years more years to live that would be enough, oh Lord, but if you grant us that, could you not grant to each of us two hundred years beyond that?
That, however, was not the religion the redactors wanted to create or embellish or re-imagine. The redactors do not go back to Methuselah, I think, because history rightly told, they thought, does not begin with supplications or with philosophy but with violence and family intrigue, which can evolve, in time, into a contemplation of why God does not make a covenant to bar death as well as other evils from his dominion. The lack of reference to the extended longevity of the ancients is notable precisely because so many other stories are so carefully articulated to one another, back and forth, as variations and preparations and recapitulations.
It may be, of course, that the texts concerning the long living ancients was a distinct one juxtaposed in an approximate chronology with the more central story of Abraham. But that is only another way to say that the life before Abraham seems archaic, operating on concerns so broad and elemental that it is hard to get a grip of them while, beginning with Abraham, history has become comprehensible because it is not so very unlike our own. We all understand jealousy and courtship and issues of inheritance, and that, ripe in years, all of the patriarchs die. That gives the subsumed genealogies their tone of pathos because everything else that occurs in the Bible is to be understood in the light of that background radiation left over from the big bang: historical times are, among other things, times of limited mortality.
That is the case until the Bible enters modern times, when Job, with his Greco-Hebrew conscience, puts the pain and suffering of people into the foreground, as a problem fit for and demanding God’s ever so wandering attention. Job's suffers not only his own pain but the ordeal of waiting for God to deal with it, and so gives rise to a stoic consciousness similar to that of Marcus Aurelius, but also to those of Hume and Freud. We are still in modern times.
That longevity is a significant component of the spirit of secularism is made clear by the way we modernists deal with it. A nation is today measured by how long its people live. Russia we know to be in a stage of decline because, for a while there, in spite of its successful oil economy, the average lifespan was going down. Advanced nations spend great amounts of money to see to it that people live a little longer at the end of life. We measure a successful medical treatment as one which buys a bit more of life or even by whether it is so successful that, as the expression goes, the person will live long enough to die of something else. We reclassify diseases as chronic rather than fatal when we have therapies that can extend longevity. We engage in a calculus about how much pain and discomfort from chemotherapy is warranted for how many months it provides of extended life.The moral logic of life and death is a utilitarian calculus even though one could imagine a moral framework, such as the one espoused by the Nazis, and one which marked them for the rest of the world as “barbarian”, whereby certain categories and conditions, such as mental defect, was a reason to dispose of a life. A great war was fought to get rid of that point of view. Most moderns look forward to a few weeks at home when they can walk around the block and feel the breeze before returning to the hospital for a final confinement. The issue of an immortal soul does not even arise because that concerns only the essence of the person and not whether that soul will be able to feel a breeze.
Job’s call on God to do better is quite different from what happens in the New Testament. There, the Socrates story of a noble and philosophically motivated death had been transformed into the Jesus story, which is of a person who dies who is much troubled by death. Jesus complains bitterly about his suffering and his death, which would hardly matter if he is indeed the son of God, which is what the Gospel writers claim his followers know him to be, even if it is not so clear that they knew that to be the case before He was crucified. So death takes on a new stature, as an insult even to the immortal god Jesus while, to the Olympians, death was a fate natural to man and therefore not of their concern except when the gods wanted to manipulate people.
The heroic Jesus is not bereft of the poignancy and even the bathos of the early Roman Empire. His suffering is terrible only because it is painful and embarrassing for a god to have to undergo the pain and embarrassment to which any common criminal would be subject, while a different god might have suffered a grander or more distinctive pain and embarrassment as a symbol of a majestic sacrifice. The Greeks can imagine a king becoming incestuous; and another king, Agamemnon, as the murderer of one of his children as well as murdered by another of his children.
This king of the Jews, on the other hand, is given especial pain and embarrassment by ordinary pain and embarrassment, which humanizes him and transforms the understanding of sacrifice. It is no longer something extraordinary, fit for a king, but something ordinary in that it happens to someone who appears as if an ordinary people, and so a proper subject for regret. That makes death more accessible than are the misfortunes of kings that one hears about in the Greek theater and library. There is genocide in the Old Testament (as when King David inherits God’s blessing because he is willing to destroy the Amalekites, as King Saul was not). There is, however, as I have said, no capital punishment: no person is put to death for his individual crimes. That has to await the New Testament, when God allows his own son to be executed as if he were a common criminal perhaps, as is suggested here, just to show how bad a thing death is.
The Biblical stories are fresh to us, seem like just yesterday, because we can readily enough recognize the emotions portrayed there, such as jealousy, whether fraternal or sexual, and the attempt to control greed, as when Lot and Abraham separate their flocks, as well as the situations, such as the inability of fathers to control hothead sons, which is what happens at the time of the so called rape of Dinah as well as the literary features of the storytelling, such as drama and irony, as when Jacob, muted by the enormity of the slaughters carried out by his sons as a way to compensate when he was away for the wrong they believe to have been done to Dinah, merely declares that the family will have to move on, and so, for a considerable historical time, still remain nomads. But the essence of primitive times is that they are shrouded by death: the black plague, malaria in contemporary Africa, and a lifespan of all human beings that is far too short in that it is not difficult to imagine back to living in Shakespeare’s time, and with only a little more effort, to living in the Sixth Century B.C., which was the time when the redactors in Babylon put together the Five Books of Moses.
Put this idea of primitive times in the context of other literary genres that have to do with time. The characteristics of the future are easily enough identified as the characteristics of life in some past Golden Age, as opposed to lives lived in some primitive time. In the future, people will have their health because of medical advances and will even be ever more beautiful because there will be no more smallpox or diseases that sap energy. People in the Golden Age, which some anthropologists identify with the Stone Age, will lead long lives, so it seemed to them, and have enough to eat, it seemed to them, because they cannot imagine there being a better way to live than by eating nuts and berries and an occasional animal. It is only modern people, somewhere hung between the Golden Age and the Future, who are always pining for a better world.
Those who live in a Golden Age, it is also imagined, will live by a simple ethic and partake of goodness born of naivete, and speak to one another in poetry, while those in the future will have arrived at a state of well being which allows them to be of good cheer as they confront one another’s non-neurotic selves, having basked all their lives in the approval of the people around them. It is H. G. Wells who undercuts that idea when he has the Eloi, in “The Time Machine”, inhabit a far future that is really not that far down the road, as the pampered child like creatures who have bad dreams because they fear the underground people (or robots or working class) who produce the comforts those who live on top enjoy. H. G. Wells also has the people of “Everytown” in the far future of 2050 full of Roman like grandiloquence and beauty and bravery of the sort associated with a Golden Age.
“Genesis”, for its part, and contrary to what a Golden Age portends, supplies a succinct description of what all primitive times are like. There are anonymous people living at a time when nothing much happens to transform the world and they live amidst giants and other sports (people of considerable old age) and there are monsters created by the interbreeding of species, and so constituting another kind of sport. This is before the time of family sagas, which is the story of particular families over the generations, something familiar as a part of ordinary time from ”the Odyssey” to “The Godfather”-- although, of course, there are already genealogies, and so people know who their parents are, and that, we may speculate, was a signal advance in human history, in that it allowed for the establishment of families, though not yet for ones that had distinctive histories.
Other times that are thought of as primitive have similar characteristics. The Middle Ages has anonymous peasants living short and brutal lives while unicorns and dragons are the next county over and miracles, according to Gerald of Wales, have taken place over the next hill. The primitive world discovered in the Nineteenth Century through geology and population dynamics has dinosaurs rivaling one another for primacy while small mammals scurry underfoot. Not just individuals, but species appear and disappear, some found out by their bones, but others doubtlessly to leave no record. Darwin sorts this out well enough so that the sports need not arise from some Ovid like transformation of one species into another; rather, every species is a sport and whether it reproduces and for how long is a matter of circumstances. Marxist primitive times, as has been suggested, makes the unit of competition a species of social class rather than biology, and here there is a bestiary of proto-capitalists, yeoman farmers, multiple brands of clergy, premature revolutionaries, minor and major aristocrats, tradesmen and other entrepreneurs, until things get flattened out, before every revolutionary age, into the opposition of two classes, from which springs an apocalypse, a shattering that makes things unlike they have ever been before.
The distinct characteristics of primitive times therefore make of it something other than the long ago, and different as well from a Golden Age, or an apocalypse, or ordinary times, those other ways of imagining types of eras. Some religious enthusiasts, of course, insist on blending the types so that any ordinary time can become regarded as on the brink of an apocalypse in that there are always “signs” such as floods and pestilence and political unrest that something big is afoot. And some secularists, no doubt, can be accused of thinking that utopia is around the corner because of the technological innovation of indoor plumbing (which, indeed, did transform the world into a far less disease infested place) or stem cell research (whose major impact has not yet appeared). And then there are the proponents of ordinary time, who think that the principles that describe both personal and collective life have barely changed in the course of recorded human history. Everyone has had lust in their hearts, a keen eye for personal advantage, and a sentimental attachment to groups larger than themselves. There is no need to fall back on primitive times as the lull in history out of which change is born.
The most important point, though, is that the redactors of the Five Books of Moses thought of the times when life was significantly longer than it is now as primitive times. That is because it was bereft of those qualities that rendered ordinary life as ordinary: a stability of the species not subject to miracles or biological transformations; a family based social structure, in which people tried to manage the lives of themselves and their families to their advantage; a stable agriculture and husbandry, neither of which are referred to outside the interpolated story of Noah; a large scale division of labor of the sort alluded to in Babel; and all the other accoutrements of civilization that will seem depleted or not yet completed until the law is given by God to Moses-- or the Atonement of Jesus takes place. Ordinary time can truly be said to begin with whatever event is crucial for the establishment of life as it is. And perhaps that will take place again in a few hundred years when there is significant extension of life expectancy and people can look back to now as primitive times and are awestruck at how brave were all those people who could contemplate just how short their lifespans were.