Sunday, February 2, 2014

Book Write-Up: Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel

Jon D. Levenson.  Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

A prominent scholarly narrative is that the concept of the resurrection of the dead is absent throughout the vast majority of the Hebrew Bible, which largely maintained that all of the departed go down to Sheol, the underworld.  According to this narrative, the idea of resurrection emerged in ancient Judaism due to Zoroastrian influence, as the Jews were under Persian authority in the late exilic and post-exilic periods.  An impetus for the incorporation of resurrection into Judaism was the persecution of faithful Jews during the Hellenistic period, as the martyrdom of righteous Jews called into question the traditional notion that God rewards the righteous in this life, leading to the idea that the righteous would be rewarded in the afterlife.  This prominent scholarly narrative affirms that the Sadducees went with the traditional idea that there was no bodily resurrection, whereas the Pharisees adopted the newer concept.  Nowadays, within much of Judaism, there is not much of a belief in the afterlife, as many Jews hold that living this life fully is an essential aspect of their religion.

Jon Levenson calls much of this scholarly narrative into question.  While he does not wholly deny Zoroastrian influence or the role of Hellenistic context in the acceptance of resurrection within Judaism, he does not believe that they are sufficient to account for it.  For one, whereas Daniel 12 presents some of the dead as people who are asleep and are waking up, Zoroastrianism did not use the metaphor of sleep in its own depiction of resurrection.  Second, Levenson notes that there was an awareness or a motif of righteous people being unjustly killed prior to the Hellenistic period.  Within the Hebrew Bible, Cain killed Abel, Jezebel killed the prophets of the LORD, and she also had Naboth killed.

Levenson’s own belief is that the concept of resurrection within Judaism was, at least in part, an outgrowth from prominent themes that were in pre-exilic strands of Israelite religion, themes that were about God bringing life out of death.

Does that mean that Levenson is arguing that the idea of the bodily resurrection of individuals was within pre-exilic Israelite religion?  Well, not entirely.  He does not think that we see in the Hebrew Bible the idea that everyone went to Sheol after death, for he argues that people who went to Sheol were either wicked or died prematurely or tragically.  The righteous, by contrast, lived long and had lots of progeny, living on through them, in a sense.  The reward of the righteous who were unjustly put to death was God’s punishment of the murderer.  There was also a view that one could experience immortality, at least temporarily, by participating in worship at the temple, as one encountered the world of eternity.  The restoration of Israel is also likened to resurrection within the Hebrew Bible.  Moreover, there was a concept of resurrection even within Israel’s ancient Near Eastern context, for Baal came to life after dying, and that meant fertility for the land.  Levenson also contends that the view of death in ancient Israel was rather fluid, for it could encompass disease and attacks by enemies, both of which would lead to literal cessation of life, unless God intervened; thus, God delivering people from death in the Hebrew Bible could mean deliverance from disease or peril, not necessarily actual death.  While Levenson is arguing that the theme of God bringing life out of death is prominent throughout the Hebrew Bible, that often does not entail righteous individuals literally rising from the dead, as far as Levenson is concerned.

But there are exceptions, or at least possible exceptions, Levenson notes.  Elijah and Elisha raised people from the dead.  In addition, God “took” Enoch and Elijah, and the Psalmist sometimes asked God to take him as well (Psalm 49:15-16; 73:23-28).  Levenson does not dogmatically proclaim that this means, according to the biblical tradition, that Enoch and Elijah never died, or that the Psalmist had a notion of an afterlife for the righteous, but Levenson does not appear to dismiss that possibility, either.  On page 105, he states, “Although some—-perhaps most—-are ‘sent down’ to Sheol (e.g., I Kgs 2:9), others God ‘takes’ himself, continuing even at or beyond death his reliable protection of those who find refuge in him.”

The book is excellent in that it thoughtfully addresses the sorts of questions I have had over the years.  I have wondered: if the Hebrew Bible believes that everyone will eventually die and go to Sheol, then why does it emphasize the theme that the righteous will live, whereas the wicked will die?  What is the reward for righteousness, according to this theme, if everyone dies in the end, anyway?  I have also been somewhat skeptical about the argument (or the implication) that Israel did not notice that the world was unfair and that righteous people died prematurely or unjustly, until the Hellenistic period.  How, then, could prominent strands of ancient Israelite religion, which made their way into the Hebrew Bible, still hold fast to a notion of justice in this life: that God punishes the wicked by killing them, while prolonging the lives of the righteous and giving them offspring?  Levenson apparently takes a stab at this sort of question on page 193, where he states:

“For God’s vindication of the oppressed could be realized after the latter’s death, quite without objection (however inadequate this may seem to us).  The opposing view, that people receive in their own lifetime only and exactly what their deeds warrant, is in the nature of an intellectualistic and schematic formula useful (then as now) for moral exhortation but hardly the unanimous view of the culture.  It exerted a profound appeal in certain theologically self-conscious circles, but biblical narratives are generally more subtle, more lifelike, and more cognizant of tragedy.”

If I have any criticism of this book, it is that I wish that Levenson had gone into more detail about this particular issue.  Otherwise, the book was excellent.  There were times when Levenson was exploring various aspects of a question and I was wondering where exactly he would land, but I found those discussions to be meaty and satisfying. Plus, he often summed up his arguments, anyway, so I was not lost as a reader.

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