Retirement from Regular Service (Numbers 8:23-26)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
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Till Death Do Us Part: Is Retirement an Option Anymore?

In this blog from The High Calling, David Rupert tells the story of three people wrestling with whether to retire. The short-term financial downturn is now a multi-year economic crisis. The unemployed and underemployed are all around us. And it’s affecting retirement plans.

Numbers contains the only passage in the Bible that specifies an age limit for work. The Levites entered their service as young men who would be strong enough to erect and transport the tabernacle with all of its sacred elements. The censuses of Numbers 4 did not include names of any Levites over the age of fifty, and Numbers 8:25 specifies that at age fifty Levites must retire from their duties. In addition to the heavy lifting of the tabernacle, Levites’ job also included inspecting skin diseases closely (Lev. 13). In a time before reading glasses, virtually no one over the age of fifty would be able to see anything at close range. The point is not that fifty is a universal retirement age, but that a time comes when an aging body performs with less effectiveness at work. The process varies highly among individuals and occupations. Moses was eighty when he began his duties as Israel’s leader (Exod. 7:7).

Retirement, however, was not the end of the Levites' work. The pur­pose was not to remove productive workers from service, but to redirect their service in a more mature direction, given the conditions of their occupation. After retirement they could still “assist their brothers in the tent of meeting in carrying out their duties” (Num. 8:26). Sometimes, some faculties—judgment, wisdom, and insight, perhaps—may actually improve with increasing age. By “assisting their brothers,” older Levites transitioned to different ways of serving their communities. Modern no­tions of retirement that consist of ceasing work and devoting time exclu­sively to leisure are not found in the Bible.

Like the Levites, we should not seek a total cessation of meaningful work in old age. We may want or need to relinquish our positions, but our abilities and wisdom are still valuable. We may continue to serve others in our occupations by leadership in trade associations, civic organizations, boards of directors, and licensing bodies. We may consult, train, teach, or coach. We may finally have the time to serve to our fullest in church, clubs, elective office, or service organizations. We may be able to invest more time with our families, or if it is too late for that, in the lives of other children and young people. Often our most valuable new service is coach­ing and encouraging (blessing) younger workers (see Num. 6:24-27).

Given these possibilities, old age can be one of the most satisfying pe­riods in a person’s life. Sadly, retirement sidelines many people just at the moment when their gifts, resources, time, experience, networks, influence, and wisdom may be most beneficial. Some choose to pursue only leisure and entertainment or simply give up on life. Others find that age-related regulations and social marginalization prevent them from working as fully as they desire. An article by Ian Rose for the BBC, "Why we lie about being retired," explores challenges people face in retirement, especially if they enter it expecting to cease working for the rest of their lives.

There is too little material in Scripture to derive a comprehensive theology of retirement. But as we age, each of us can prepare for retire­ment with as much, or more, care as we have prepared for work. When young, we can respect and learn from more experienced colleagues. At every age, we can work toward retirement policies and practices that are fairer and more productive for both younger and older workers.