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Intimacy or faithfulness ::

Mike Fischer ponders some popular Old Testament piety as he asks what it means to “walk with God.”
Source: Perspective Vo4 No1 ©Perspective 1999

It’s not often I get nervous when the sermon text is announced and read in church. But there’s one text that does it to me every time. It’s Genesis 5 – and I’ve heard enough dodgy sermons on it to wonder if anyone’s ever preached a good one.

Usually the whole chapter is read out – probably just token homage to the idea of the importance of context – but I know by now that the preacher is going to jettison all but a meagre three verses: 22-24:

And after he became the father of Methuselah, Enoch walked with God 300 years, and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Enoch lived 365 years. Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away”. (NIV)

It’s easy to see why many a preacher gravitates to these verses like a moth to a candle. I mean, look at the rest of the chapter. For the most part, it’s pretty barren stuff – nothing but a barrage of father’s names, son’s names, and the rather incredible ages attained by all these people.

Ah, but it’s different with Enoch, isn’t it. Here’s some material for the budding devotional preacher. Firstly, there’s all the intimacy which this language seems to point to. It’s easy to paint a moving picture of Enoch and God walking down a garden path arm in arm, chatting away like real buddies. You can just see them laughing and smiling together, their friendship glowing like the embers of an evening fire. Yes, the preacher assures us, personal intimacy with God is what these verses are all about.

We’re told that Enoch’s relationship with God provides us with a model for the intimacy and warm experience which can be attained by every Christian in his or her walk with God. And then, to top it off, there’s that profound reference to Enoch being `taken away’ by God. The language just bristles with mystery and intrigue. When all is said and done, it’s quite a text, guaranteed to get the person in the pew feeling both fascinated and warmed – a winning combination.

But is this the most honest way to handle the text? Was the writer of Genesis really talking about intimacy with God when he said that Enoch `walked with God’? And is the statement that Enoch was `taken’ really that mysterious, anyway?

The first thing we should notice is that the idea of walking with God isn’t restricted to Genesis 5. It occurs in a number of other places in Genesis:

Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.” (6:9)

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.” (17:1,2)

”[Abraham] replied, ‘The LORD, before whom I have walked, will send his angel with you and make your journey a success, so that you can get a wife for my son from my own clan and from my father’s family.” (24:40)

Then [Israel] blessed Joseph and said, “May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked… may he bless these boys… and may they increase greatly upon the earth.” (48:15,16)

Of course, the term ‘to walk with God’ is used frequently throughout the rest of the Old Testament. Yet even in the few references in Genesis listed above, it’s not at all difficult to see what `walking’ with God is all about. It’s all about being faithful to God’s commandments, being true to the terms of God’s covenant. Each of the references above have covenant faithfulness and the terms of the covenant in view. To put things plainly, `walking’ in God’s ways means that we do things God’s way instead of ours, a note the New Testament picks up enthusiastically.

Genesis 5 is all about making the transition from Adam to Noah. But in arriving at Enoch on his genealogical journey from Adam to Noah, it seems the writer of Genesis couldn’t pass up the opportunity to mention a man who epitomised what relating to God is all about. The writer has made it plain that God wants people who are true to his words, faithful to his covenant – an idea which, as we have seen, the rest of Scripture takes up with gusto.

So what are we to say about the idea of intimacy which seems so apparent to the devotionally-minded? Well, at best the whole idea of intimacy is by no means prominent in the idea of walking with God. And if we’re going to be honest to our Bibles, we should give it the same treatment.

But there’s one stone we’ve left unturned – the mysterious `taking’ of Enoch by God. Two points should be made here.

First, Genesis 5:22-24 makes it clear that this `taking’ of Enoch by God is directly related to Enoch’s `walking’ with God, his faithfulness to God’s covenant. In other words, it was BECAUSE he’d been faithful to the covenant that God ‘took’ him. The writer of Hebrews, commenting on Enoch’s faith (11:5), picks up on the same point:

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.

It’s important to notice here the function of the connecting word, ‘for’. God took Enoch because he had PLEASED God – in other words, the writer of Hebrews saw covenant fidelity or faithfulness as being to the fore in Enoch’s life. So, however we might like to speculate as to the nature of this `taking’ of Enoch, the Bible seems keen to keep us well and truly tethered to the main point – namely, that faithfulness to God is the most important thing.

Second, maybe the idea of being `taken’ by God isn’t so mysterious after all. The Hebrew word for `take’ is used over a thousand times in the Old Testament, in a variety of senses (as in English). But there are a couple of instances in the Psalms where it appears that the word is used in a way identical to Genesis 5:24.

But God will redeem my life from the grave; he will surely take me to himself.” (49:15)

You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.” (73:24)

To be `taken’ by God, then, isn’t just something which the Bible writers necessarily saw as a privilege restricted to the likes of Enoch and Elijah. True, while Enoch and Elijah apparently didn’t die before they were `taken’, the point remains that being `taken’ came to be seen as an event which would happen to anyone who had been faithful to God. Again, covenant fidelity is the key.

In conclusion, it must be said that any attempt to understand Genesis 5 apart from its Old Testament context (and indeed the rest of the Bible) will often result in what may be labelled as a ‘devotional’ context being imposed upon the text instead. But as we have seen, this approach doesn’t do justice to the broader Biblical concepts of `walking’ and `taking’. The ‘devotional’ preacher wants intimacy to become the emphasis of Genesis 5 – but the text itself is calling for faithfulness to the covenant, which is an entirely different thing.

So the story of Enoch is not the occasion to pedal a pet devotional agenda – rather, it’s a prime opportunity for the preacher to present one of the great themes which run between the Testaments: faithfulness to God.

Mike Fischer

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