Table of contents for Biblical perspectives on aging : God and the elderly / J. Gordon Harris.

Bibliographic record and links to related information available from the Library of Congress catalog.

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CONTENTS
Foreword vii
Editor¿s Foreword to First Edition vii
Preface to the First Edition ix
Preface to Second Edition xi
I. Hermeneutics, Aging and the Biblexii
II. Spirituality and Aging in the Bible xxviii
Methods for Discovering Biblical Spirituality xxx
Biblical Narratives as Spirituality Case Studies xxxiii
Spirituality and Lot, A Case Study xxxiv
Implications xxxix
Models for Utiliziing the Old Age Paradigm xv
III. Cross-Generational Relationships and Mentoringxl
IV. Implications for Biblical Perspectives on Aging lii
Introduction 
1
The Nature of God and Aging Issues 
3
The Bible and Aging Issues: A Cross-Disciplinary Approach 
6
Biblical Theology and Aging Issues 
8
Chapter 1. Aging Experiences and the Bible 11
Physical Characteristics of Old Age 11
Chronological Age and Old Age 12
Transitions Of Life and Old Age 13
Physical Loss and Old Age 14
Summary 16
Chapter 2. Attitudes Toward the Elderly
in the Ancient Near East 17
Mesopotamia: Respect Reinforces Authority 18
Egypt: The Value of Aging Reinforces Respect 21
Canaan: Shifts in Values Undermine Respect 24
Conclusion 27
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Chapter 3. God and the Elderly in Israel 29
Legal Traditions, the Elderly, and Social Structures 29
Prophetic Communities and Support for Social Structures 32
Wisdom Literature, the Elderly, and Social Structures 34
Conclusion 38
Chapter 4. Threats to the Common Theology of Aging 41
Aging Stereotypes and the Aging Process 42
Monarchy and Declining Leadership of the Elderly 49
Postexilic Pessimism, Death, and Aging 54
Conclusion 56
Chapter 5. Israel¿s Variations on the Common Theology 57
Care for the Elderly and the God of Justice 58
Care for the Elderly and Honoring Parents 61
Unconditional Mandate for Honoring Parents and Elders 64
Eschatology and Respect for the Aging 71
Creation, Eschatology, and Aging 74
Conclusion 75
Chapter 6. Two Responses to Respect for the Elderly 77
Early Christianity and Filial Obedience 77
Response of Early Judaism to Common Aging Values 97
Chapter 7. Biblical Theology and a Modern Response 105
Biblical Theology and Stereotypes 105
Biblical Theology Affirms Social Support 108
Biblical Theology Challenges the Elderly to Grow 113
Conclusion 115
Abbreviations 117
Scripture Index 119
Author Index 129
Notes 131
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Introduction 
Why write a book about God and the elderly? Sociologists study 
the structural effects of an aging America, but should theologians? 
Gerontologists evaluate problems and seek solutions to the dilemmas 
of aging, but should the church? Politicians consider financial options 
for future Social Security programs, but what have these concerns 
to do with the Bible? Psychologists and medical doctors treat 
the mental and physical problems of the elderly, but in these matters 
what role can biblical theology play? Until now, many secular groups 
have acted as advocates for the elderly and opposed ageism. Why 
change? 
First, despite many advocacy efforts of concerned citizens, the 
public is still generally indifferent toward aging issues. Society needs 
additional pressure to facilitate change. Religion appears to be a 
proper vehicle for enlightening public opinion, confronting society¿s 
attitudes, and encouraging the elderly themselves.1 ¿ The Bible could 
and should assume a pivotal role in influencing future trends. Unfortunately, 
some religious leaders unconsciously encourage ageism by 
misinterpreting difficult passages and by overlooking elderly heroes 
in certain biblical events. It is important that biblical theology begin 
to clarify such unfortunate distortions. 
A second reason for writing a book on God and the elderly comes 
from a concern for that growing percentage of the population¿the 
aging¿who daily encounter increasing hostility. For instance, the 
population of North America and Europe continues to age. In 1879 
about 1.2 million people in the United States, comprising about 3 percent 
of the population, were over sixty-five years old. By 1900 3.1 
million elderly made up 4.1 percent of the nation. By 1960 the number 
of elderly had reached 16.7 million, 1970, 20 million, and by 
1980, 25.5 million.2 This final figure represents 11.3 percent of the 
population or approximately one in every nine persons. The percentage 
of older persons increased between 1970 and 1980 by 28 percent. 
In the year 2002, persons sixty-five and older were one in eight or 
12.3 percent. By 2030 approximately 71.5 million seniors will repre-
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BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVES ON AGING 
sent 20 percent of the population, an increase of 38 percent in a de-
cade.3 The percentage of persons sixty-five and older in many countries 
in Europe is already surpassing that of the United States.4 This 
increase is a worldwide phenomenon. A growing older population 
demands that people of faith marshal the resources of theology. 
What makes society feel uncomfortable with aging issues is that 
every member of the human race ages daily. That feeling remains despite 
dramatic medical advances that increase everyone¿s chances for 
living past sixty-five. Infants born today generally will live about 
twenty-six years longer than a child born in 1900. A child born in 
1980 in the United States on the average will live 73.6 years. Persons 
reaching age sixty-five in 1980 may expect an additional 16.4 years. 
Physical and social problems caused by longevity reach beyond the 
capabilities of current social remedies: social security, medicaid, 
medicare, or any other government program. No new meaningful role 
or social structure in the Western world has emerged capable of 
carrying the weight of an aging population. 
Competition between generations compounds aging dilemmas and 
threatens existing social structures. For instance, governmental debate 
of new tax programs brings out hostility and fear. Younger employed 
persons oppose increases in pensions and social security payments 
because they fear increased taxes. In the dispute, the elderly 
feel targeted as political scapegoats. Intergenerational debate heats 
up as people realize the limitations placed on resources.5 
Adequate medical care for the elderly also remains a difficult and 
emotional issue to solve. Extremes in medical treatment further complicate 
the discussion. At times good medical care may be denied 
older patients who ¿might die anyway.¿ In other situations physicians 
over-utilize hospitals and the most expensive components of medical 
care. The magnitude of medical costs associated with the last year of 
life and long-term health care may become catastrophic. The absence 
of a program to finance long-term maintenance of persons with 
chronic functional impairments penalizes elderly living near the poverty 
line and those who have adequate financial resources. The elderly 
themselves ultimately suffer most as victims of negative stereotypes 
about old age. When society demeans them because they are 
old or shows ¿ageism,¿ it robs them of a sense of worth. When older 
are businesses gauge productivity by long work weeks and subsequent 
financial contributions, the retired obviously feel discriminated 
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Introduction 
against. Mandatory retirement policies and government regulations 
allow few healthy retirees to supplement inadequate pensions or to 
continue working if they so choose. Many retire to experience 
uselessness and, finally, death. 
Religion offers a legitimate context for dialogue between the theological 
tenets of biblical materials and current sociological structures. 
As prophets addressed crises of their society, so their messages remain 
capable of dialoguing anew with current abuses. Theologians 
must challenge the presuppositions of ageism on biblical grounds; 
then members of churches and synagogues may listen sympathetically 
to descriptions of the elderly¿s plight. Ancient, family-oriented 
societies offer helpful correctives for a throwaway, futuristic culture. 
THE NATURE OF GOD AND AGING ISSUES 
Before constructive dialogue can occur between biblical theology 
and current attitudes toward growing older, religious leaders need to 
examine the nature of God in light of aging experiences. A careful 
analysis of the divine being in light of previously noted aging concerns 
presents a somewhat distinctive picture of God. ¿Aging¿ emphases 
do not replace other aspects of the divine nature; rather, they 
isolate those that would be most meaningful to older persons. Though 
no absolute order can be established, three important biblical aspects 
of God might be stated as: 
1. God the agent of blessing 
2. God the protector of social structures 
3. God the proponent of justice 
God the Agent of Blessing 
Biblical theology and teaching remain dominated by an event centered 
image of God as deliverer. Such an emphasis neglects the 
equally important contiguous activity of God as the one who blesses. 
Claus Westermann terms this an ¿error that led Western theology 
to a number of further misinterpretations of and deviation from the 
message of the Bible.¿6 The reversal of this one-dimensional view of 
God bodes well for a biblical dialogue with aging issues. A broadening 
of the concept of God as one who performs mighty acts to a con-
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BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVES ON AGING 
cept including God as one who provides the elements of growth and 
happiness offers aging adults clear benefits.7 
Before the benefits of divine blessing can be analyzed, however, 
the meaning of blessing needs to be clarified. It needs to be separated 
from the earlier, magical form of the patriarchal blessings and 
Balaam¿s blessing of Israel (Numbers 23). This form relies on a charismatic 
person or power to determine the future. Such a blessing does 
not magically lead the aging into a blissful old age. 
Likewise, a divine blessing for the elderly may not depend upon 
the righteousness demanded in the contractual terminology of Deuteronomy 
or on the conditions set forth in wisdom literature. In a 
world of medical technology righteousness alone does not lengthen 
life. Also, lengthened life, success, and wealth do not automatically 
make old age a happy and fulfilling time of life. 
Even the priestly blessing does not adequately express the full 
meaning of divine blessing (e.g., Genesis 1, Numbers 6). While it is 
unconditional, it nevertheless meets institutional needs and can become 
an empty ritual. Divine blessing assumes these historical con 
texts and forms and yet represents much more. 
Divine blessing in its full significance provides all generations 
with the power and conditions to grow vertically: to move through 
child hood, maturation, and physical decline in a state of being 
blessed.8 Such a description of blessing opens for the elderly a new 
sense of worth and a propensity toward growth. 
Through divine blessing God provides the essential elements for 
growth. Recognition of these elements may restore hope and dignity 
to the aging. These conditions insure that an aging body holds the potential 
for self-fulfillment and happiness. Salvation represents more 
than deliverance. It includes also a state of being blessed. This sense 
of security and continuity calms fears associated with the mystery 
and unknowns of aging. 
God the Protector of Social Structures 
Biblical traditions about creation, election, and Royal-Zion theology 
teach that the structure of society finds its origins and continuity 
with the will of God. Such a view undergirds an ordered sense of living 
that affirms divine providence. God both establishes a system of 
relationships and asserts sovereignty over it. In this way the kingdom 
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Introduction 
of heaven legitimates and preserves worthy earthly structures and social 
arrangements.9 
Structural legitimation serves the ruling class, but it also provides a 
supportive system for the elderly. The granting of honor to otherwise 
vulnerable parents and aging leaders depends on the preservation of 
order and respect. In this way, the Lord (Yahweh) and Israel are 
yoked together in a ¿common theology¿ and walking toward common 
goals. When this system comes into jeopardy because of 
sociopolitical shifts as well as religious apathy, God acts to assert in 
stronger terms crucial elements of that social structure that need to be 
regained and solidified. 
Though God seems to promote a system as an acceptable solution, 
the powerful should not view this common theology as a legitimation 
of their particular sociopolitical point of view or methods. Israel¿s 
God retains a certain freedom to accept or reject such on the basis of 
contractual standards. God does not sanction unconditionally the 
practices of any particular ruler or structure. God acts as an enforcer 
of order and respect but at the same time expresses indignation when 
a structure falls short of its contractual ideals. 
Aging citizens may discover a measure of comfort in the support 
offered by their creator and sovereign. God promises continuity and 
does not abandon those who grow old (implied in the petition of an 
older worshiper in Ps 71:9, 18 and the assurance of being heard in vv. 
19-21). They retain worth as a result of an orderly creation and as recipients 
of honor and respect. Aging citizens within the people of 
God experience support and comfort by realizing that their God protects 
their status in an appropriate, consistent, and personal manner. 
God as Proponent of Justice 
A third statement about God seems to conflict with the first two 
characteristics. God as the proponent of justice often clashes with 
role of structure legitimation. Justice as a divine category suggests 
that God sides with a fragile minority against a blessed, powerful, but 
oppressive structure. In this sense God acts as deliverer of the weak, 
provides blessing for the neglected and protection for the powerless. 
These divine tenets seem to contradict those of the common theology. 
In the justice of God, however, the aging also find comfort and 
hope. God the deliverer angrily rejects those who exploit those of di-
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BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVES ON AGING 
minished status. Since aging implies an eventual weakening of the 
physical, social, and economic powers of an older person, the 
elderlydepend increasingly on God¿s protection from enemies both 
within the family and from the outside. God¿s deliverance from self-
serving structures and persons may enable the elderly to assume their 
rightful role as elders or leaders. An exodus from a fate similar to 
slavery and uselessness on a personal and social scale may occur 
daily through divine commitment to justice. Such a commitment ultimately 
supplies the aging with the necessary confidence and hope to 
face death. 
All three aspects of God appear in complex traditions and forms, 
scattered throughout the Scriptures. Israel¿s common theology of divine 
blessing and protection of social structures does not remain 
static. The Bible describes appropriate variations, social interaction, 
and numerous reactions to changing historical situations. At times Is-
rael¿s relationship with God enriches in unique ways ancient Near 
Eastern views of the elderly. In most instances, the God of Israel promotes 
an environment of growth and freedom in which all generations 
can discover the joy of living in mutual respect and interdependence. 
These teachings need to dialogue with aging issues in a fresh 
way. 
THE BIBLE AND AGING ISSUES:
A CROSS-DISCIPLINARY APPROACH
Normally an investigation of social issues in the Bible confronts a 
serious shortage of data. The Bible lacks a systematic theology of aging 
and a comprehensive account of the treatment of elders. Instead 
clues about general attitudes and practices must be gleaned from a 
careful cross-disciplinary study of biblical literature itself. Such materials 
must be interpreted in the perspective of anthropological evidence 
from surrounding cultures and their related literatures. 
The Use of Anthropological Evidence 
Relative lack of biblical evidence makes a careful study of the anthropological 
and social materials from related cultures an important 
task. Comparative evidence demonstrates the complexity of ancient 
social institutions. It provides an extensive background for interpret-
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Introduction 
ing biblical evidence. It should not lead to simplistic conclusions or 
restrictive correlations between cultures. 
On the other hand, a systematic examination of literary data within 
its particular context can illumine the interpretation of limited biblical 
data. The work follows several guidelines to guard against methodological 
errors.10 (1) Anthropological data is collected from 
sources that generally are reliable even though they are secondary 
works. The collection of data attempts to be as systematic and as thorough 
as limitations allow. (2) Generalizations are based on interpreting 
comparative data within its own social and historical context. (3) 
Social data from the ancient Near East is interpreted in light of a survey 
of literatures from a wide range of societies. (4) Though data collected 
will never be complete and hence its conclusions will be somewhat 
tentative, it is selected for this work as that which relates best to 
aging issues in biblical evidence. (5) The biblical text ever remains 
the primary factor in utilizing comparative data. In instances where 
the Bible possesses insufficient corroborative evidence, the author 
will treat as tentative an interpretation based on comparative 
materials. 
Incorporating comparative anthropological evidence into the discussion 
enhances the recognition of biblical attitudes and establishes 
a basis for determining the nature of a common theology of aging in 
the ancient Near East. Likewise, the data provides grounds for isolating 
unique contributions of Israel¿s traditions. This evidence, there 
fore, supplements in a helpful way the paucity of social data in the 
Bible. 
Interpreting the Bible in Light of Aging Issues 
The study of biblical material has to take into account the complexity 
of Israel¿s traditions. Information about the elderly appears in a 
variety of literary forms and is the product of a long period of development. 
Though the nature of this work limits the number of linguistic, 
historical, and literary comments that can be included, it makes an 
effort to take into account the general literary contexts and historical 
milieu of passages. 
Only crucial passages are examined in detail. Others are surveyed. 
The survey method allows more of the evidence to be treated and allows 
certain texts which frequently are ignored or misunderstood to 
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BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVES ON AGING 
be reinterpreted. A general outline of the history of attitudes and 
practices toward the elderly emerges from the survey. The in-depth 
study of a few important passages allows the work to consider the 
complexity of tradition (e.g., the Ten Commandments). However, 
concentration on a few texts necessarily limits the conclusions that 
can be drawn about the materials. 
The interpretation of texts from a hermeneutical viewpoint, taking 
into account aging concerns, assumes the validity of a theology of ag-
ing.11 It calls for taking into account the increased significance of aging 
in human experience. It recognizes in aging potential contributions 
to theological understanding. It opens the Scriptures to a more 
pluralistic and inclusive methodology which also probes into the 
aging experience. 
Such a methodology, however, must not be used uncritically. It 
must take into account the ancient context of a passage and its primary 
intent. Nevertheless, that passage may need to deal with new issues 
in light of current attitudes toward that which is old and toward 
aging in general. In this case secondary concerns may need to be examined 
before the primary thrust of a passage can be interpreted in an 
inclusive manner. The book does not call for a gray theology as much 
as it attempts to sensitize readers to take into account the aging experience 
when interpreting biblical materials. 
BIBLICAL THEOLOGY AND AGING ISSUES 
Recent publications indicate that religion and gerontology already 
are reuniting.12 This work attempts to broaden that dialogue to include 
biblical studies. Responsibility demands that these disciplines 
enter the dialogue with religion and gerontology. 
Biblical theology continues to seek a method that takes into ac 
count the diversity and unity of the Bible. This method must relate to 
social structures and concerns if it is to inquire into the aging experience. 
It also must allow for historical development and literary 
complexity. 
One such method is proposed by Walter Brueggemann.13 He recognizes 
within the work of the deity a certain amount of ¿structure legitimation.¿ 
Such concerns for legitimation of the social order are 
shared by Israel and its neighbors. One might call this a ¿common 
theology.¿ Divine power reinforces the structures of society, perpetu-
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Introduction 
ating order and security. This common theology provides the basic 
structure for respect of the elderly in the biblical data. Hence, this 
methodology is especially attractive to a study of the Bible and aging 
issues. 
On the other hand, determining when and how biblical instruction 
departs from social legitimation to describe God as one who uniquely 
relates to the experiences of the aging is more difficult than isolating 
the common theology. Yet the description of the unique relationship 
between God and the aging in the Bible allows Christians and Jews to 
understand better how their deity blesses and delivers those facing 
old age. 
Despite the tentative nature of choosing criteria for isolating different 
theologies, the method facilitates the organization of data into a 
history of Israel¿s instruction and practices relating to the elderly. It 
allows the author to deal with both the diversity and unity of biblical 
teachings concerning aging. It also takes into account social concerns 
that influence directly a theology of aging. The method clarifies how 
God can be the agent of blessing, the protector of social structures, 
and at the same time a proponent of justice. It helps explain how God 
challenges the elderly to growth and at the same time provides the basic 
elements for growth. It takes into account both continuity and 
change within the actions of God. 
As a prototype for a dialogue between biblical data and gerontology, 
this book examines biblical attitudes and practices that relate to 
current aging experiences. Without claiming to be comprehensive, 
the book presents representative elements of a dialogue on aging that 
developed within Israel¿s experiences and faith. Chapter 1 defines the 
issues of aging and how the Bible and its related literatures described 
old age. Chapter 2 outlines what the literatures of the ancient Near 
East teach about aging and intergenerational relationships. Chapter 3 
highlights values Israel shared with its neighbors, which may be 
termed a common theology on aging. 
Chapter 4 describes common tensions and seeds of ambiguity that 
limit the implementing of Israel¿s values and attitudes toward the elder 
generation. Discussions in chapter 5 present the unique emphases 
and concerns of Israel¿s variations on this common theology. Chapter 
6 covers the responses of two great faiths, Christianity and Judaism, 
to various mandates of respect for the elderly. Finally, Chapter 7 applies 
these biblical concerns to present Western attitudes and prac-
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BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVES ON AGING 
tices. Such an approach examines biblical data through the lenses of 
the experiences of aging. 
Adherents to Christianity and Judaism14 will journey in this book 
to the roots of their heritage and begin there to probe the significance 
of aging. Both faiths proclaim honor and respect for the elderly. An 
aging population in the Western world requires that both utilize their 
moral and religious resources to help shape the future. This work 
presents evidence and perspectives that may enable both to respond 
redemptively to crises attendant to that new age. 
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Library of Congress Subject Headings for this publication:

Older people in the Bible.
Older people -- Middle East.
Older people -- Palestine.