I am reading through the Pentateuch with my seminary students. Each week, we complete the reading on our own and then meet for one hour on Monday evenings to discuss what we consider to be the important, meaningful, or surprising things in our readings. Our findings are so often dependent on our age. Since I am the septuagenarian patriarch and they are the kids (usually in their twenties and thirties), the genealogies of Genesis sparked an interesting discussion about Enoch.
While reading Genesis, people are amazed at the age of Methuselah. Genesis 5:27 concludes with these words: Methuselah lived 969 years and then he died. The patriarchs that lived before the Flood often lived into their 900s – Adam finished at 930, Seth at 912, Enos at 905, Kenan at 910, Mahalalel at 895, Jared at 962, Enoch at 365, Methuselah at 969, Lamech at 777, and Noah at 950. It’s also interesting to compile the data to see when the patriarchs became fathers. The youthful ones are Mahalalel and Enoch who become fathers at 65. At a more advanced age is Noah, who does not become a father until he is 500 years old. I guess it took him some time to find the perfect bride!
The Scripture establishes that death is the natural order after Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden. God tells Adam, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:21) Adam names his wife Eve, or the mother of all the living. It is also interesting that Genesis, which introduces us to the life creating God, ends with a dead man in a coffin: “So Joseph died at the age of a hundred and ten. And after they had embalmed him, he was placed in a coffin in Egypt.” Even in the 21st century, we cannot escape the reality of death. When I came to the First Baptist Church of Hightstown in my upper twenties, one highly respected octogenarian said that he avoids celebrating his birthday because it reminds him that he is moving towards the end of his earthly pilgrimage.
In contrast with the verses that tell us that a patriarch lived for so many years and then died, Enoch has a very different conclusion. We read: Altogether Enoch lived 365 years. Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away. (Genesis 5:24) So how did Enoch escape the end for all humanity?
Jude and Peter take passages from the apocryphal Book of Enoch, and he is mentioned by name in Jude 1:14 as Enoch the 7th from Adam. His name also appears in the genealogies of Jesus in the New Testament. However, the greatest description of Enoch is found in Hebrews chapter 11, the chapter about the heroes of faith. “By faith, Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death; he could not be found because God had taken him away. For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. And without it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him, must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (11:5-6). In contrast, as the author of Hebrews is describing the faith of Abraham, he wrote, “All these were living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth.”
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Even among these heroes of the faith, Enoch is the odd person or the exception. How awesome his faith must have been to be exempt from the rule that applies for all humanity! During his earthly ministry, Jesus is astonished by people who exhibit this kind of great faith. When the Roman centurion asks Jesus to heal his servant and tells him that he does not have to come to his house because a single word is all that is needed, Jesus declares, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” (Matthew 8:10, Luke 7:9) The same thing happens with the Canaanite woman who pleads with him to heal her daughter. Jesus tells her, “Woman, you have great faith. Your request is granted.” (Matthew 15:28)
Faith opens our eyes to the vastness of possibilities. Jesus says in Mark 9:23 and again in 11:23 that everything is possible for him who believes. Did Enoch’s enormous faith override something that was prescribed for all humans because of sin? When we assess our faith in comparison with Enoch’s, we can only cry out with the apostles: Increase our faith! (Luke 17:5)
The only other person who is extraordinarily allowed to escape death is Elijah, who had a chariot ride into heaven. (2 Kings 2:1-18) In the section entitled The Prayer of Faith, James writes: Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again, he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced the crops. (James 5:17-18) That type of faith is beyond our imagination, but it did happen.
John 5:24 tells us: I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes in him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed from death to life. Each of us stands condemned by original sin and our own sin; it is important to ask when this eternal life started in us. An old hymn tells us that eternity came since Jesus came into our hearts. Yet we must admit that we do not possess that strength and clarity of Enoch and Elijah, who did not taste death. In my knowledge of the Bible and Church history I do not know of anyone after the resurrection of Christ who did not taste death because of their exemplary faith. I do know of many people in church history and in my lifetime who approached their end on this earth with joy, claiming that Jesus had tasted death and would be with them when they transitioned to eternal life. But I wish that someone in the history of the church had this enormous faith to move into the presence of God without having tasted death. At least one!