Aging in the bible

© istockphoto, hadynyah Growing old is described in the Bible as a blessing

One is always as old as one feels, it is said. Today frail like Methuselah, tomorrow silly like a teenager. The Bible does not know any fixed specifications as to how man and woman should be as old people. A brief tour of the Bible’s images of aging, a look at trends like "doing aging" and the question: do women and men age differently?

Biblical statements about old age are as diverse as old age and older people themselves. Growing old is described in the Bible as a blessing, because infant and child mortality was very high. In the biblical stories, too, some die old and full of life, others die much too early. Some texts describe the hardships of old age, others the beautiful aspects of it. It is striking that especially old women in the biblical stories are told in a more benevolent and appreciative way than in Greek art and non-biblical literature of the time.

Biblical age

In the prehistory, which tells of the beginning of the world on the first pages of the Bible, there is hardly any limit to the life of the people. Adam lived to be 960 years old. Methuselah, the oldest person in the Bible, did not die until 969 (1. Genesis 5). According to this story, God himself limited human life to 120 years before the Flood on the grounds that "My spirit shall not rule in man forever, for man is flesh." (1. Genesis 6:3) Abraham, Sarah, Ishmael, Isaac, and the other figures in the story of the fathers and mothers reached high ages within this range. Sarah becomes pregnant still as old woman and gives birth to the long desired son.

In Psalm 90, a lifespan is mentioned that most closely corresponds to our experience today: "Our life will last seventy years, and when it comes to the end, it will be eighty years.(Psalm 90:10) These ages coined the phrase "biblical age".

Care and nurture

In Israelite society there were no care institutions for the elderly. The care of the old was the task of the families. That is why the fourth of the Ten Commandments inculcates, "You shall honor your father and your mother." Meant are the parents who have become frail. The commandment is linked to a promise: "That you may live long."

Above all the diversity of statements about old age is God’s promise to accompany people in all phases of life: "I am the same until your old age, and I will carry you until you turn gray. I have done; I will lift and carry and save." (Isaiah 46:3-4)

Lifelong faith and a realization

A story of lifelong faith and trust is told in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 2:25-39). Two old people spent their whole life near the temple to be close to the eternal one. Although the prophetess Hannah and the God-fearing Simeon are already old and marked by fate, they live every day full of expectation.

And indeed, God shows himself to them. They recognize God in the infant Jesus whom Mary and Joseph bring to the temple. Hannah praises God, and Simeon rejoices: "Lord, now you let your servant go in peace, as you have said; for my eyes have seen your Savior."

Wise women in the Old Testament

In the birth story of the evangelist Luke, a total of four old people play an important role. In addition to Hannah and Simeon, there are Elizabeth and her husband Zacharias. No less than two old women have such an important function in the narrative here. Hannah and Elizabeth are thus in the tradition of wise old women in the Old Testament. In the prophetic book of Joel, it is said that God pours out his Spirit on men as well as women. "Your old people shall have dreams." (Joel 3:1-5)

Complaints are not hidden

Aging is not just a dream. There are numerous texts in the Bible that describe how troublesome old age can be. Ecclesiastes Solomon relentlessly lists signs of old age: "Remember your Maker while you are young, before the bad days come and the years that will not please you.

Then the sun, moon and stars darken for you and after every rain new clouds come again. Then your arms that have protected you will tremble and your legs that have carried you will grow weak.

Your teeth will fall out one by one; your eyes will become dim and your ears deaf. Your voice becomes thin and shaky. Climbing is difficult for you, and at every step you are in danger of falling. Outside the almond tree blossoms, the locust eats its fill, and the caper fruit bursts open; but you are carried to your last dwelling place. On the street they sing the dirge for you." (Ecclesiastes 12:1-7)

What the preacher Solomon describes thousands of years ago is still frightening today. Many perceive the last age as a threat and are afraid of it. Fear of loss of control and passivity.

Freer design possibilities

Much has changed since biblical times. People can shape their lives much more freely today. The socially (largely) accepted life plans are diverse and colorful. I can decide which relationship model I want to live, whether and whom I want to marry. Theoretically, I can also freely choose which profession I take up. Theoretically, because access to education and adequately paid work is still not distributed fairly in Germany today. Old-age poverty is a major issue.

Nevertheless. We are much freer in shaping our lives. Especially for women, a lot has happened in the past decades. This also applies to old age. Today, aging is understood as a process in which there is room to maneuver. Our body ages. Botox& can do that too Co. Only delay, not stop. Like youth, aging is also a task to be shaped.

Women and men age differently

Biologically, we all grow older every day – sociologically, we are all made different ages and also make ourselves different ages. Sociologists talk about "doing aging". Meant is that which society ascribes to the individual man in years. And it is about how the respective person deals with this attribution. Aging is an action and no longer a fate.

The journalist Bascha Mika presents in her book "Courage test. Women and the hellish game of aging" states: aging of men and women is still negotiated very differently in society. Shortened: "The man matures. The woman ages."Men are often considered more interesting as the years go by. Women, on the other hand, experience becoming invisible and less considered as actors in social processes.

This observation was described 40 years ago by the American publicist Susan Sontag. She calls it the "Double Standard of Aging". This double standard with which age is evaluated for men and women still puts women under considerable pressure in the third phase of their life.

Many describe it as the experience of being unnoticed, excluded, even invisible. Bascha Mika calls for a rethink. Because the social ignoring of women beyond the age of 50 does not only harm women. It impoverishes a society that thinks it can do without its competences.

Being visible

The Bible shows greater ingenuity: "Thus says Adonai, mighty over armies: There will yet sit old men and old women in the squares of Jerusalem, the walking stick in their hand, because of old age. And the city squares will be full of boys and girls playing in their places." (Zechariah 8:4-5) Old women and men equally visible and children playing around them. This is how the prophet Zechariah sees the future of the people.

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