Death and Resurrection in the Hebrew Scriptures

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The author of Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life, Jon D. Levenson, is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University Divinity School. He has been studying the idea of death and resurrection in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and early Judaic sources (including Rabbinic and New Testament texts) since his Harvard Ph.D. dissertation on the theology of restoration in Ezekiel. As a classmate of mine for four years, we sat through many lectures, shared monumental assignments in Akkadian, and compared ideas over lunch in the Divinity School cafeteria.

It is a genuine pleasure to bring this book to the attention of thought-oriented Adventists for whom the idea of resurrection is an important part of our intellectual reflection. Levenson writes for an educated lay audience that is both Jewish and Christian. He either avoids specialist terms, or carefully defines them, and translates Hebrew words, many times brilliantly encapsulating difficult ideas in just one or two English words.

Because he writes primarily from a Jewish point of view, the observations about theological ideas and biblical exegesis are often expressed in ways that appear new to us, but at the same time they resonate with our Adventist apocalyptic background. I was frankly surprised how similar his Jewish and my Christian Adventist apocalyptic expressions were. Thus, for an Adventist reader, there is a sense of freshness, but we recognize the themes easily.

The book also incorporates some of the most skilled exegesis I have seen in a book of this nature. Levenson is intimately acquainted with the literary styles and languages of the texts he uses (some are Canaanite texts, as well as biblical and rabbinic ones). The tightly controlled logic which he uses to present very close readings of the texts never extended beyond the limits of the text. Sometimes, in the preliminary overviews of his conclusions, I thought he over-generalized at times, but, in the end, after he presented all the details, he convinced me.

Before reading this book, I must confess that I tended to see resurrection as a very late entity in the Bible, not present at all in the Old Testament, except for Daniel 12:1-3. Well, of course there were various miracles in the Elijah and Elisha stories, but they were exceptions. Exceptions that prove the point. And some references, such as the Enoch verses in Genesis, are so vague it is difficult to be sure what the text is saying, even in general terms. In one of my undergraduate courses I conduct a whole class period on the Valley of the Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37, showing how it used the idea of resurrection not as an example of a fact of a real resurrection, but as a metaphor for the restoration of Israel. Happily, Levenson agrees with me. But he goes farther. He argues that, because the metaphor was used, people must have understood it as divinely possible. I used to suggest that Ezekiel 37 represented a movement of Israel’s thinking toward the idea of resurrection that would then be presented as fact in Daniel 12.

In a virtuoso foray throughout the Bible, Levenson shows how this kind of symbolic, figurative, and literary thinking about resurrection permeates almost every type of biblical literature, including the Pentateuch, the Former and Latter Prophets, the Psalms, and even Wisdom literature (which also most strenuously denies an afterlife—Eccl. 9:15, a verse precious to Adventist thinking). In his mind, although ancient Israel may not have thought of resurrection the way we moderns do, the seeds of our view can be found throughout the Old Testament. There was thus no “jump” to a belief in the reality of a resurrection in the early Judaism of the Rabbis or the New Testament.

The most earth-shaking conclusion for scholars from this study is the resounding conclusion that the origins of the idea of resurrection was not simply borrowed from the religions, mythologies, and cultures around Israel (some have suggested that Zoroastrianism was an important influence), but rather are to be found latent within the Israelite literary traditions of the Old Testament. Interestingly, because they have almost no literary connections with the biblical texts, he avoids discussions of the theme of the dying and rising gods in most of the ancient mythologies, including Egypt (Osiris and Isis) and Mesopotamia (Tammuz). However, he does mention the Canaanite version from the texts found at Ugarit centered around the god Baal (Hadad), who is defeated by the god Death, but raised up (partially, at least) by his sister Anat. In Levenson’s defense, these are myths about gods which define the dry and rainy seasons of the year (Baal is the storm god). They are not trying to suggest the idea of human resurrection, metaphorically or in reality.

Levenson refers to almost every text in the Old Testament that could presage the idea of resurrection. Therefore, it was a surprise to me that he did not refer to Job 19:25-26: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God.” Probably because of the word “redeemer” (the capital “R” in most versions is the decision of the editor) most Adventists, who read these verses without the benefit of the surrounding context in the chapter and in the rest of the book, see it as a reference to the resurrection of the flesh in Jesus Christ. The context, of course, does not support this rather facile interpretation, and it may not be an issue in Jewish thinking. However, I hope that, in a second edition, he will include this passage.

I have, of course, done an immense disservice to Levenson by trying to summarize his extremely detailed reading of many biblical and rabbinic texts, as well as his carefully nuanced conclusions. But this audience should know that, for Adventists, this is now the best source to begin reading about the origins of the idea of resurrection in the Bible.

Larry Herr writes from Canadian University College where he is a professor of religious studies. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University in 1977.

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