From Vulnerable to Venerable
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From Vulnerable to Venerable:
Scriptural Perspectives on Aging and the Elderly

Michael Knowles


The Anglican Church of Canada publishes a monthly newspaper called The Anglican Journal. Like many ministries today, it is always looking for ways to increase revenue. Accordingly, the Journal decided some years ago to solicit and accept commercial advertizing, beyond, that is, the usual small advertisements for religious goods, packaged holidays, and organ repairs. The first evidence of this new policy appeared in the form of a full page advertisement for — if I recall correctly — the Hudson’s Bay Company. There, spread across the entire back page of the paper, was an advertisement not for a new spring line of clothes, household furnishings, or children’s toys; but for "Seniors’ Day" at The Bay: 15% off for anyone over 65. The message was clear, if unintended. First, "church" equals "old people." Second, "old people" have less money, so we have to treat them differently. Undoubtedly, both messages were — and still are — to a certain extent depressingly true. But both messages also carried with them more implications than the advertisers could have intended.

I well remember feeling outraged at the tender age of 23 or 24 upon suddenly realizing that I was already older than most of the fashion models I saw in print and television advertizing. I was not ready to be considered obsolete or "over the hill." However, that was only an initial rude awakening to the ways in which a consumer culture constructs human identity and human worth. I begin my consideration of "Scriptural Perspectives on Aging and the Elderly" with this point on consumer culture because the perspective of Scripture on human identity emerges all the more clearly when set against the ethos of a consumer culture driven by economic considerations.

Specifically, a consumer culture requires "productive citizens," with "productivity" being measured in primarily economic terms. One is a "productive citizen" — literally — to the extent that one produces goods and services for the consumption of others, and to the extent that one consumes goods and services oneself. On such a view, mandatory retirement at 65 represents for most a loss both of productivity and of buying power. A quick glance at prevalent trends in advertizing will confirm the extent to which this is so: the kinds of products specifically marketed to seniors generally fall into the categories of nutritional supplements, vacation packages, health aids, and the like. In the eyes of a culture that articulates human identity and defines individual worth in economic terms, seniors appear to be consumers who are on their way out. Some may have ready cash (as will increasingly be the case with the retirement of Baby Boomers), but many others do not. While this is not the only definition of human worth and identity in Western culture, it is nonetheless both prevalent and persuasive. It is shockingly familiar. Even in disagreeing with such perspectives, we find ourselves arguing that retirees can be "productive citizens," thereby inadvertently affirming an economic model.

Such a vision of human worth is driven by the exponential acceleration of technological development, which we accept as a core feature of our economy, and also as a core value of our society. Economies are meant to grow, not to stagnate or shrink. We define the difference between "regressive" and "progressive" societies primarily in technological and economic terms. Personally, corporately, and culturally, no one wants to be "backward." Our materialist culture values "change" over "continuity," idolizing innovation and new vision at the expense of tradition, history, and cultural continuity. Perhaps we hope to escape the mistakes of the past by pursuing ever new solutions in the present.

But it is therefore ironic that Western culture seems to have no more confidence in the future than it does in the past. The almost universal Western emphasis on youth and youth culture(s) amounts to an expression not of hope for whatever future youth represent, but of cultural pessimism and a loss of cultural direction. We idolize the young not as an expression of confidence in the solutions they will bring, but as a projection of our own desire to escape the necessity of aging. Still, the problem will not go away. Increasing numbers of elderly in our midst are an uncomfortable reminder that despite our craving for youth and novelty, not all change is in the Olympian direction of "higher," "faster," or "stronger." Their presence constitutes a challenge to the human project, a reminder of mortality and death, realities which Western technological, materialist cultures, by and large, take great pains to avoid.

Scriptural Principles

These are only a few pertinent aspects of the cultural backdrop against which to articulate a biblical theology of aging and a biblical perspective with regard to the elderly. In turning our attention to Scriptural principles, however, a few cautions are in order, for the evidence must be treated with care. We cannot simply baptize everything in the cultural world of Scripture, or engage in nostalgic longing for the values of a pre-technological age. Rather, our task is to identify those values that are essential to a biblical world-view and then, as a second step, to seek ways of applying those values in our contemporary situation. Moreover, it would be a mistake to assume that the whole of the Jewish and Christian canons speak with a single, unified voice on this issue. Scripture offers us a variety of voices. But having said that, it is nonetheless true that certain core values and convictions are consistently present, as a result of which we can accurately speak of a Scriptural perspective or perspectives on aging and the elderly. Finally, we cannot be naive about the life either of Israel or of the early church. God’s people have not, do not, and will not always live up to the high standards of God’s call. On the other hand, neither their failure nor our own should prevent us from seeking to hear and obey what Scripture offers us.

The most basic principle that arises from Scripture is that its discussion of aging and the elderly is never abstract, conceptual, or theoretical. Scripture never asks, in purely philosophical terms, "What does it mean to grow old?" Its discussion is always concrete, relational, and covenantal. It is concrete in that it is rooted in the realities of human experience; relational, in that it addresses and reflects upon real social obligations and responsibilities; and covenantal in the sense that it places human relations in the context of Israel’s relationship to the covenant God. The following sections will expand briefly on each of these terms.


With regard to aging and the elderly, Scripture is strikingly concrete and practical. Proverbs 4 provides a good example, for this chapter relates a father’s instructions to his sons as he hands down the wisdom of experience from one generation to the next, just as his own father passed on the same admonitions to him: "When I was a son with my father, tender, and my mother's favourite, he taught me, and said to me, ‘Let your heart hold fast my words;

keep my commandments, and live’" (4:3-4).2 But in this case, the father in question is identified as "Solomon, son of David" (1:1). Even if this is no more than a literary convention, the reference invites us to read these chapters in light of Solomon’s own wisdom and experience. We recall that Solomon was conceived as a result of David’s murderous adultery with Bathsheba, and that toward the end of his life, Solomon himself turned away from Israel’s God, bringing judgement upon the nation as a result of too many marriages with too many political entanglements. The Book of Proverbs as a whole concerns sexual, social, and spiritual faithfulness, precisely the issues that brought both father and son to grief. So here in Proverbs 4, we see the older generation confessing — to their own children! — where they themselves have gone astray, urging the younger generation not to make the same mistakes. The father pleads with his children to hold fast the way of righteousness (4:10-13) and to avoid the path of wickedness, violence, and death (4:14-19). This is the hard-won wisdom of long, painful, and chastening experience. It is what elders and the elderly know best. All the same, this is not wisdom or experience of a generalized sort; it is the wisdom that comes only from a life lived — even if reluctantly at times — in the presence of God.

Of course, the wisdom of Scripture is not limited to warnings and prohibitions, for as can be seen from the example of the early church, the elderly have more to teach their heirs than what not to do. As an apocalyptic or "end-times" movement, the early Christian community in one sense rejected the "traditions of the elders" (e.g. Mark 7:1-13), and did not expect to have to deal with aging and the elderly before the world came to a glorious end. But as time passes, the expectation of Christ’s imminent return begins to fade. The community develops traditions of its own, and begins to honour those who can pass on its history to the next generation, particularly where such history and tradition concern Jesus and his followers. Accordingly, throughout the Pastoral and General Epistles (which are usually taken to be the literature of a maturing church) the term "elder" consistently appears as a title not only for the literally elderly, but also for the leaders and tradition-keepers of the congregation. Titus chapter 2 instructs older men and women alike to live in such a way as to be examples to the younger. According to the Book of Acts, there are "elders" in Jerusalem (Acts 11:30; 15:2, 6; 16:4), in Ephesus (20:17), and elsewhere in Asia Minor (14:23). 1 Peter 5:1-5 instructs the elders of the congregation to lead by example, rather than by decree. The "elders" in James 5 are those who know how to pray effectively, and according to the first letter of John (1 John 2:13-14), "fathers" are those who most fully know "him who is from the beginning" (meaning God). Not surprisingly, therefore, the Book of Revelation depicts 24 elders worshipping around the throne of God (Revelation 4-5).

In the Biblical tradition, since elders are the guardians of religious history and tradition, memory is an essential ingredient of social cohesion. So Moses tells the people of Israel, "You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise" (Deuteronomy 11:18-19). The Book of Deuteronomy as a whole contains repeated exhortations to "remember" what the Lord has done to create the nation of Israel: "Remember the days of old, consider the years long past; ask your father, and he will inform you; your elders, and they will tell you" (Deuteronomy 32:7). To the extent that they remember the past, God’s people remember the source and contours of their own identity.

In today’s world, if you look momentarily blank or absent-minded, someone is bound to ask whether you’re having a "senior’s moment," for the simple reason that we associate loss of memory with aging. But in Scripture, lack of memory is not depicted as a problem afflicting the elderly, for the elderly are assumed to have longer memories than anyone else. Absence of memory is a problem for the young, for it is the young who must constantly be exhorted to remember those features of their collective social, cultural, and religious past that give meaning and direction to both the present and the future. Whether in gaining, retaining, or transmitting wisdom, the role of the elderly among God’s people is thus essential.


Precisely because they are so practical and concrete, having to do with the transmission of lived experience from one generation to the next, Biblical views of aging and the elderly are also inescapably relational. In contrast to most world cultures for the majority of world history, Westerners are highly individualistic, placing a high value on independence and self-direction as marks of having achieved a mature personal identity. To be dependent, by contrast, is seen to represent a loss of dignity as well as of self-determination. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that we imagine ourselves to be a society of "free radicals" — self-generated, self-motivated, and self-sustaining. Scripture, on the other hand (both Hebrew and Christian), places a high value on interdependence: on mutuality, community, and interrelationship within a covenant fellowship. In the world of which Scripture speaks, identity itself is social and corporate as much if not more than it is individual.

Thus, particularly within families, the elderly are to be honoured not just for their own sake, but also because old and young alike share common interests, above all a common concern for the perpetuation of their family name, their society, and their nation. In this sense, respect for elders and the conventions they represent serves an important social function by maintaining a societal status quo, for example by ensuring the smooth transfer of power and property from one generation to the next. To the benefit of established structures and institutions, it de-legitimates the potentially destabilizing influence of new ideas, new leaders, or new power structures. But respect for the past and its representatives also serves the interests of the young, in that it prevents the disenfranchisement of otherwise rebellious offspring. Herein lies the scandal, for example, of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), who disgraces his father by disrupting not only family relationships but also the time-honoured process of orderly land transfer by inheritance.

The early church, a religious society at pains to establish its identity apart from the Israel of old, takes such concerns one step further. First, the community establishes a "fictive kinship"3 that names its members as brothers, sisters, and elders. But they also adopt the metaphor of the "body of Christ" as a model for community identity — and relationships — according to which every part serves an integral function that is essential for the benefit of the whole: young and old, weak and strong, elder in the faith and new convert together. "Bear one another’s burdens," Paul admonishes them, "And so fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2).


To stop at this point, however, would be to miss what is most distinctive about the biblical world-view. Every society preserves its traditions and many cultures honour their elderly. But Israel and the early church are motivated by a deeper concern, for according to Scripture, neither cultural continuity nor the maintenance of social relations constitutes a sufficient end in itself. Rather, all human conduct and all human relationships are to be evaluated in light of the divine-human relationship. Human identity is to be viewed in light of the divine identity.

Here we begin with a remarkable observation, namely that in Hebrew Scripture, God is sometimes depicted as an old man. A man, because in patriarchal societies men wield power, at least in the public sphere. But why old? Because God has been around for a long time — long enough to learn a thing or two, long enough to understand things that the young and inexperienced cannot fathom. So God says to Job (himself no spring chicken), "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding... Have you commanded the morning since your days began?" (38:4, 12). According to Daniel 7, God is "ancient" — the "Ancient of Days" in the familiar phrasing of the King James Version — replete with hair as white as pure wool (Daniel 7:9). Therefore, says Jeremiah (6:16), wisdom and refreshment are to be found in choosing the "ancient paths" that are God’s ways from of old. God’s ways of dealing with people do not change because God’s character does not change. God is old, and Israel is bound to this old, unchanging God by the obligations of covenant. To be sure, this is not the only metaphor or image for God in Hebrew Scripture, but its presence highlights an essential feature of the divine identity. Even more remarkable is the fact that the Book of Revelation depicts the Messiah, the risen Jesus, as "one like a Son of Man" whose head and hair are "white as white wool, white as snow" (Revelation 1:13-14). Not only is the God of Israel like an old man, but against all historical verisimilitude, so too is Jesus!

These depictions pose something of a theological challenge. Most people are familiar with the notion that we are created, according to the book of Genesis, "male and female, in the image of God" (Genesis 1:27). Adam and Eve are universally depicted as youthful, vigorous, and healthy, which seems to suggest the same of their Creator. Yet if the God of Judaism and the Messiah of Christian expectation can each be portrayed as one "Ancient of Days," then perhaps it is age, not vigorous youth, that more fully represents and fulfills God’s image in human form.

Given such metaphors, it should not surprise us that the people of Israel feel obligated to view their relations with the elderly in their midst in light of their relationship with their aged, ancient God. Three considerations come into play here. First, there is the nature of God: Israel is obligated to act in a certain way because God acts in that same way. Second, old age is itself seen as a gift from God. And third, parents in particular resemble God in certain respects.

So, first, the Bible is consistently clear about Israel’s obligations of compassion and justice for the poor, the weak, and the oppressed. They are to be compassionate because their God is by nature compassionate. This is not to say that the elderly are by definition poor, weak, or oppressed. It is rather to assert that the biblical view of the human community is one in which God’s people care for one another in the same way that God has taken care of them, above all in delivering Israel from slavery in Egypt. "Respect for the God of justice therefore motivates respect for an older person."4 This vision of a just and compassionate God is intended to sustain empathy and compassion amongst the people of Israel.

Moreover, according to the faith of Israel, righteous conduct brings its own reward. "The fear of the LORD prolongs life," declares Proverbs 10:27, "but the years of the wicked will be short." "Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life" (Proverbs 16:31). The children of Israel seem blissfully untroubled by the concerns of genetics, heredity, or a healthy diet. As they see it, those who live long generally do so because God has blessed them, and because God intends it that way.

Notwithstanding the declaration of Genesis 6:3 that the ideal life span is 120 years, or even that of Psalm 90:10 that "The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong," the average life span in ancient Israel was probably considerably more brief. Judging from the ages of Israelite and Judean kings recorded in the bible, according to Horsnell, we can determine that "the normal life span was probably between 30 and 50 years. Most people probably died some time before the age of 50."5

Thus Scripture is well aware of the physical limitations that attend increasing age. Sarah, who at 90 is well past the age of child-bearing, has to stifle her laughter when it is suggested that she will bear a son (Genesis 17:17, 18:10-15); Isaac (who lives to be 180) goes blind and cannot tell his sons apart (Genesis 27); King David’s courtiers, despite extraordinary measures, cannot keep their aging monarch warm (1 Kings 1:1-4); and Barzillai the Gileadite, age 80, complains that neither wine, nor women, nor song are of much interest to him any more (2 Samuel 19:32-37). Indeed, according to one psalmist, old age can be a time of need and fear: "Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother's womb./ ...Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent" (Psalm 71:6, 9). Yet such examples only prove the point that if physical infirmity (not to mention the ever-present dangers of disease and warfare) is inevitable, then surely longevity is proof positive of divine favour and protection: either the reward of a righteous life or an answer to earnest prayer. It is this confident vision of a just and divinely-ordered existence that leads another of Israel’s poets to declare: "I have been young, and now I am old,/ yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread./ They are ever giving liberally and lending, and their children become a blessing" (Psalm 37:25-26).

Such convictions provide the foundation for Israel’s attitude toward the elderly in their midst. Notice the parallel clauses of Leviticus 19:32:

You shall rise up in the presence of grey hair

And honour the face of an old man

And fear your God, for I am the LORD.

The parallelism cannot be accounted for simply on the grounds that God and the elderly are similarly ancient, or wise, or in charge of things, as a result of which both should be treated in the same way. Rather, the principle at work here is one of honouring those whom God has honoured; treating the gift of old age — or indeed the recipients of old age — as the One who has given it deserves to be treated.

Granted, this principle may be difficult to translate outside the faith community into the morality of a publically secular age. But, at the very least, we could perhaps appropriate this principle publically in terms of reverence for the gift of life itself — particularly long life — as a gift from God, rather than seeing it as a burden or a source of affliction. Such an insight might cause us to treat our elderly somewhat differently.

Something similar obtains in the case of parents in particular. Exodus 20:12 may well be the most familiar of the ten commandments, repeated and expounded by both Jesus and Paul: "Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you" (cf. Mark 7:10, Luke 18:20, Ephesians 6:1-3). Deuteronomy 5:16 adds, "and that it may go well with you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you" (italics mine). In both passages, the command to "honour" one’s parents employs a Hebrew verb (db'@ka@) that elsewhere typically indicates the giving of honour or "glory" to God, rather than to human beings. Similarly, Leviticus 19:3 declares, "Let each of you revere [or ‘fear’] your mother and father, and you shall observe my sabbaths: I am the LORD your God."6 Again, this is language usually reserved for God.

We have already encountered one possible explanation for the commandment, namely that God blesses righteous conduct, with the result that those who honour their parents receive long life in the land which is itself the Lord’s gift and blessing. Still, such an explanation seems incomplete. Why the specifically sacral language of honour, fear, and glory? Surely because life itself is considered a sacred gift. "Behold, children are a gift from the Lord; the fruit of the womb a reward," declares Psalm 127:3. Parents are, therefore, the instruments of God’s gift of life: they act, to all intents and purposes, in God’s place. In short, those whom God has honoured deserve similar honour from the members of their own community, for to honour them is to honour God.

Both because one’s parents are the immediate source of one’s own life and because the elderly generally are presumed to be sustained in life by divine blessing, they merit honour and respect. Of course, they can prove unworthy of such honour, as Ecclesiastes 4:13 does not hesitate to observe: "Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king." Nonetheless, the role and social status of the elderly derive in large measure from assumptions about the relationship of the latter to God: the community’s relationship with its elders can only be understood in relation to the larger context of their common covenant with God. Within such a covenantal framework, relationships with God and with other members of the community are thus understood to be commensurate.


In one sense, however, almost the entire discussion to this point might seem beside the point, at least to those who do not share the faith convictions of Judaism or Christianity. In the last analysis, the challenge of aging is not just one of social continuity or fidelity to a particular religious tradition. It is a universal challenge. The unavoidable finitude of personal existence presents a dilemma for all members of society, religious and non-religious alike. According to Ecclesiastes, the ultimate insight bestowed by age and long experience is that "all is vanity": that the vigour of youth soon fades and that death is inevitable (Ecclesiastes 12:1-8). No one knows this quite as clearly as those whose advanced years make death a looming prospect. Death threatens the basic foundations of our personal and social identity, which in the (post-)modern West include expectations of health, material security, and individual freedom. In contrast to all such expectations, the elderly are faced with the imperative of making peace with themselves, their world, and their God in the face of their own more imminent death. Indeed, the real wisdom that aging brings is that in confronting this unavoidable reality, we are forced to seek answers to all-important questions about transcendence, significance, ultimacy, and eternity. Such questions lie at the heart of spirituality. There is nothing quite like "cramming for one’s finals," as the saying goes. Perhaps this is the richest gift that our elders can offer: not just a retrospective wisdom of experience and memory, but a prospective conviction that all human endeavours, even wisdom itself, will one day fail.

According to Scripture, death is both an enemy and an ally, at once a curse and a blessing. It is a curse in the sense that it was never intended to be. Death, in the Book of Genesis, was not part of God’s original purpose for humanity. It was a consequence of broken faith, as a result of which God put a roadblock in the path of human development to remind us of our finitude, our mortality, and our ultimate dependence on God. Ironically, death serves, in a manner all too familiar to a consumer society, as God’s version of "planned obsolescence" for the human race. To borrow a more technological metaphor, it is the ultimate "virus" in the human programme. Yet to the extent that death serves such a function, it also an ally and source of blessing, precisely in its ability to turn us to our Maker.

If death is an enemy, says Saint Paul, it is "the last enemy" (1 Corinthians 15:26), for it is a cornerstone of Christian theology that death itself has been defeated, redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. Despite having the appearance of ultimate defeat, death also holds out the prospect of justice, the promise of "shalom," and the hope of restored community. In this sense, death provides a gateway to the fulfilment of all we ourselves have most truly hoped for in life, and all that God intends. Because they are closer to it than most younger folk imagine themselves to be, our elders might have a word or two of wisdom for us concerning the motions of this equally indiscriminate and inevitable two-edged sword.


Admittedly, the foregoing study says very little directly about abuse of the elderly in Scripture. It is not that Scripture fails to take the subject seriously. On the contrary, according to Exodus 21, "Whoever strikes/curses father or mother shall be put to death" (Exodus 21:15, 17; cf. Leviticus 20:9). Deuteronomy is equally uncompromising:

If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders [note!] of his town... They shall say to the elders of his town, "This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us..." Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death.

(Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

Although their own outlook is considerably less stark and threatening, the New Testament letters to the Ephesians and Colossians also emphasize familial obligations and responsibilities, presumably because such arrangements have earlier been overlooked in the apocalyptic enthusiasm of this new religious movement (Ephesians 6:1-3; Colossians 3:20-21). The need for such legislation itself clearly suggests that the elderly were indeed liable to neglect, exploitation, or abuse, both in Israel and in the early church. But instead of rehearsing a series of admonitions, prohibitions, and penalties, the approach taken in this study has been to outline the positive roles of elders and the elderly within the world of Scripture, as a means of challenging some of the underlying cultural prejudices and expectations in our own day that sometimes lead to abuse.

In the course of writing this essay, I have become more and more aware of the limitations of my own perspective. I have begun to realize that everything I write assumes the perspective of one who is not yet "old," at least in the eyes of the society in which I live. But if that is the case, then I have not yet begun to view the issues the way Scripture itself views them. For Scripture does more than simply to value tradition, continuity, or the wisdom of the past. Scripture is a collection of books not only about elders and their wisdom but also by elders: it is their wisdom. So its purpose is not just to convey information or even to impart understanding. Rather, Scripture invites us to accept our own advancing years by entering into the wisdom and perspective that it offers. Scripture invites us to see things the way its authors have come to see them, from a perspective of faith that both looks back over long experience and looks forward to a hope-filled future. Scripture invites us to enter into the understanding of the elderly and the blessings of age by living faithfully in the presence of the God who is the giver of all life. To do that is both to perceive and to act towards others in the same way that God acts toward us, and thereby to enter into the insight of the aged – and of the ages – even before advancing years force such reflection upon us.