It’s time for a post on Hebrew Scripture, and today’s topic is the resurrection of the dead in the Tanakh, or Pentateuch. The Gospel of Mark in verse 18:12 tells us that “some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus… .” Unfortunately, scholars on occasion pick up on this verse and argue that the Jews generally did not believe in a resurrection prior to the middle of the first century AD.
This is not quite true. On the other hand, many Christian scholars will agree that the Jewish understanding of life after death evolved from its early biblical period until the time of Christ. In the first place, Jews believed that a Messiah along the lines of King David would return to Judea. The return of a Jewish king, who would bring stability and prosperity to Israel in the context of human history, in some sense pre-empted a theological discussion of the importance of a heavenly paradise. An obvious example of death as the “end” is contained in Genesis 3:19 (for you are dust, and to dust you shall return).
There is clearly tension in the Old Testament between the idea of death as “sheol” or a netherworld, and the idea that death brought about a resurrection and/or divine judgment. I would argue this tension is by design, since the question of a resurrection is not resolved until the coming of Jesus as Messiah. The most oft-cited passage in the Old Testament referring to a resurrection is contained in the prophet Ezekiel’s book. His Book speaks of things both present and future, his vision is apocalyptic, yet it also refers to a restoration of Israel’s people with God.
Here is Ezekiel’s vision (37:5-13) of the resurrection of the dead:
Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: See! I will bring spirit into you, that you may come to life.
I will put sinews upon you, make flesh grow over you, cover you with skin, and put spirit in you so that you may come to life and know that I am the LORD.
I prophesied as I had been told, and even as I was prophesying I heard a noise; it was a rattling as the bones came together, bone joining bone.
I saw the sinews and the flesh come upon them, and the skin cover them, but there was no spirit in them.
Then he said to me: Prophesy to the spirit, prophesy, son of man, and say to the spirit: Thus says the Lord GOD: From the four winds come, O spirit, and breathe into these slain that they may come to life.
I prophesied as he told me, and the spirit came into them; they came alive and stood upright, a vast army.
Then he said to me: Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They have been saying, “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are cut off.”
Therefore, prophesy and say to them: Thus says the Lord GOD: O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel.
Then you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and have you rise from them, O my people!