Resurrection in the Old Testament and intertestamental literature

If She’ol/Hades is an intermediate state, then it means it is still not the end. The main biblical pattern seems to be about a resurrection after this waiting time we just talked about.

 

We will focus on passages that really talk about resurrection with a link with the final fate of humanity1. In the OT the vision for resurrection is an evolving concept. Please consider the following scriptures that I quote from the more pessimistic to the more optimistic2:

Genesis 3,19

You are dust, and you will return to dust.

Job 7,6-10 (Job to Eliphaz)

My days pass more swiftly than a weaver’s shuttle; they come to an end without hope. Remember that my life is but a breath. My eye will never again see anything good. The eye of anyone who looks on me will no longer see me. Your eyes will look for me, but I will be gone. As a cloud fades away and vanishes, so the one who goes down to Sheol will never rise again. 10He will never return to his house; his hometown will no longer remember him.

Ecclesiastes 3,19-22

For the fate of the children of Adam and the fate of animals is the same. As one dies, so dies the other; they all have the same breath. People have no advantage over animals since everything is futile. All are going to the same place;
 all come from dust, and all return to dust.
 Who knows if the spirits of the children of Adam go upward and the spirits of animals go downward to the earth? I have seen that there is nothing better than for a person to enjoy his activities because that is his reward. For who can enable him to see what will happen after he dies?

Psalm 6,4-5

Turn, Lord! Rescue me; save me because of your faithful love.
For there is no remembrance of you in death; who can thank you in Sheol?

Isaiah 26,19

Your dead will live; their bodies will rise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in the dust!
For you will be covered with the morning dew, and the earth will bring out the departed spirits.

Daniel 12,1-4

Many who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake,
 some to eternal life, and some to disgrace and eternal contempt.
 Those who have insight will shine like the bright expanse of the heavens, and
 those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.

You can see the difference in perspective between these different texts which do not belong to the same biblical background:

 ➡ Genesis is neutral: you die and that is all, no resurrection mentioned. But it doesn’t mean that there is nothing. At the least, it describes reality, but add no hope of any kind. The context of the text though is not very positive: it describes the (sad) knowledge that Adam and Eve got from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: they realize that as humans they are made of dust and that they are not like God at all as promised by the serpent.

➡ Job is also quite radical : no hope for people in She’ol. It is true that when people suffer to the extreme, they sometimes desire to die. Job says a few verses earlier that if a slave longs for shade and a hired worker waits for his pay, he as a suffering person doesn’t wait anything neither from life nor from God. Not only does he desire death, but he also desires to never come back in this world of disappointment.

➡ In Psalm 6, the prayer is provocative and is opening to a theological thinking: it seems the psalmist cannot accept that we are here simply for a few years. The question in v5 is rhetorical and calls for God’s positive answer to salvation that consist here not in sorting out the good from the bad guys but in staying alive in this world.

➡ Ecclesiastes is a bit cynical: the question he asks in 3,22 is rhetorical and calls for an absence of answer. But this apparent pessimistic question calls for an evidence: only God can do something about death. If we can’t see anything it is because we are not God and we ought to stay at our place. The reference to Genesis 3,19 made in Ecclesiastes 3,20 remembers us that if we want to speculate about after-life, then we take God’s place!

➡ Isaiah 26,19 is part of a prayer of hope. It has been considered as a miracle from god that Sennacherib did not destroy Jerusalem (2King 19,36). This hope created the idea that God could do anything, even awake those who dwell in the dust.

➡ In Daniel 12 written during the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes the IVth (≈ 170 BC), the perspective has changed: there will be a resurrection for the righteous. Here the dust of the earth or (other traduction) the land of dust is not seen as negatively as in Genesis 3 nor with so much interrogation as in Ecclesiastes 3,20 because here it will help us to awake. There is not much remaining that is necessary to preach a new creation!.

I could have had add to the list the famous text of Ezekiel 37. The reason why I did not is that, at first this text does not address the resurrection at all. Ezekiel wonders why deportation happened. In Chapter 37 he talks about both the problem and the solution. Ezekiel was a priest and the main focus of priests is cultual (religious) purity. And here Israël is represented by dry bones that were not buried: the top of impurity and infamy. This is a metaphor for Exile in Babylon3. The solution can only come from a new mighty work of God: a new creation4 of a new people.

It is true that if the primary intention was not about it, later jewish literature will use this text as reference for resurrection. And it is also true that Ezekiel had the intuitive idea that God is able to bring the dead back to life.

But the main standard in further talks about resurrection in jewish intertestamental literature (especially in apocalyptic literature) and even in the NT has been Daniel 12,2-3 (see for example Matthew 25,46 or John 5,29). Following are three examples of intertestamental literature:

➡ 1Maccabees holds out no hope for a future life, but only for a glorious memory among those who come after5

➡ On the contrary, 2Maccabees teaches bodily resurrection6

➡ And 4Maccabees7 on the contrary does not talk about the resurrection of the body but about the immortality of the soul, which comes directly from greek philosophers but is not in accordance with Biblical thinking8

Those three examples shows how were explored the possibilities of afterlife. And the reason why it is important is that some of them will be included in the NT later.


Note

1 So we will not consider miracles from Elijah (1King 17,17-24) nor Elisha (2Kings 4,31-37 ; 13,21) for they are more like healings and they do not anticipate the final fate of humanity. We will neither talk about Hoseah 6,1-6 nor Ezekiel 37 (dry bones) as they refer more to the spiritual restauration of the nation. They might have only a secondary interest in our study.

2 The order I choose may be subject to discussions, but everybody can realize that the idea of resurrection changed at least from author to author. It is also possible to discern a chronological trend that consist in developing the idea of resurrection from a generation to another to end up with a highly developed idea of the resurrection. Normally the "first" Isaiah is considered to write at the time of the assyrian domination which, according to scholars, should be the oldest passage in my list. But Isaiah 26,19 is considered as proto-apocalyptic literature and has been added lately in the book of Isaiah (probably 4th c. BC).

3 Exile was considered by the Israelites as an infamy: see Psalm 137,1-6 ; Lamentations 2,10; 3,48.

4 There is a clear reference to Genesis 2,7 in Ezekiel 37,5-6 and 10.

5 1Maccabees 2,49-70 — you can read it here: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/r/rsv/rsv-idx?type=DIV1&byte=4219672
1Maccabees is a trilogy that tells the story of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers Jonathan and Simon. The author, is a Jew from Palestine who wrote around 100BC.

6 A major text about resurrection is 2Maccabees 7 about seven brothers who refuse to eat porc and are tortured by king Antiochus. They hope in being resurected for an eternal life as a reward for respecting God’s laws (v9). And they predict punishment for those who make war to God (v19). The mother even want to find back her sons after death in the time of mercy. 2Maccabees is not the continuation of 1Maccabees, because the narrative begins before the advent of Antiochus IV and ends before the death of Judas Maccabeus.

7 See 4Maccabees 18,23
4Maccabees is dated from the middle of the first century AD and is presented in the form of a philosophical discourse. The author was inspired by 2Maccabees and developed its themes but modified them: he does not clearly affirm the idea of resurrection and prefers that of the immortality of the soul, like the author of the Wisdom of Solomon and Philo of Alexandria.

8 Immortality of the soul is probably a Stoïc concept. Being immortal is slightly different from being eternal. To be immortal means that the soul (and not the body) is the important part of our identity because it was created to never die. On the contrary, being eternal contains the idea that we are dependent on someone who will be able to perpetuate our being (which may also involve our body) after this life. As we know that everybody dies, to be eternal requires that someone will help so that even if we die we’ll live (John 11,25).

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