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Resurrection in the Old Testament: literal or metaphorical?

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The early apostolic testimony was that Jesus was “raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3). So the standard belief has been that the resurrection of the Messiah was prophesied in the Old Testament—somewhere, it’s never quite clear where, probably in the prophets.

The Old Testament, of course, was not written with Jesus in mind, so there is no prediction of his resurrection, as such. But the thought is found in a small number of texts that the dead will be raised and come to life again. How are they to be understood? And what can we infer from them, if anything, about the resurrection of Jesus?

Jason Coates asked about this after reading an article by Zvi Ron on Jewish interpretation of the resurrection hope expressed in Daniel 12:2. The 10th century Rabbi Saadia Gaon noted that “some few of the Jewish nation interpret every verse in which they find mention made of the resurrection of the dead at the time of redemption as referring to revival of a Jewish government and the restoration of the nation.” Saadia did not agree with this opinion, but it gets us pretty close to the heart of the problem. Did the authors of the Old Testament writings believe in a literal resurrection of dead people, or was resurrection a metaphor for the renewal of Israel?

Your dead shall live (Is. 26:19)

In a “song” celebrating the restoration of Jerusalem and Judah, Isaiah says of the “other lords” who have ruled over Israel that “They are dead, they will not live; they are shades, they will not arise; to that end you have visited them with destruction and wiped out all remembrance of them” (Is. 26:14). But God has “increased the nation” and has enlarged its borders. They cried out to him in distress, in despair of ever bringing about their own deliverance (Is. 26:14-18), but he says to them:

Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead. (Is. 26:19)

So is the contrast here between the dead oppressors and living, flourishing Israel, or between the dead oppressors, who will not arise, and dead Israelites whose bodies will arise? Is the language figurative or literal? The New Testament makes no reference to this text. The question has to be answered from the context.

For some time a curse of destruction has devoured the land because of Israel’s faithlessness, making it unproductive and uninhabitable, and “its inhabitants suffer for their guilt” (Is. 24:6). But now on Mount Zion the Lord “will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth” (Is. 25:7–8).

This is not a final destruction of death. The shroud that smothers all nations will be removed, not universally, but on this mountain, in the specific sense that the curse of death and destruction will be lifted—the devourer will be devoured. The outcome is not that the inhabitants of the reinvigorated land will no longer die but that their disgrace will be taken from all the earth.

The assurance that “your dead shall live, my corpse shall rise” presupposes this background.

Oswalt thinks that underlying the lament in Isaiah 26:16-18 is the implicit question: “it is fine to believe that God will one day be crowned on Mount Zion and invite all his saints to feast with him in the presence of their enemies, but what about all those saints who have lived and struggled and died in the meantime with no apparent result?”[fn]Oswalt, J., The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1-39 (1986), 485.[/fn] Verse 19 is then an assurance of real resurrection: “the dead will be revived with shouts of joy to partake in the festivities of God’s final triumph.” The passage would then prefigure Daniel 12:2-3, which we’ll get to in a moment, and Paul’s argument about the resurrection of the dead in Christ in 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17.

I’m not convinced, however, that the implicit question is really there. Israel went through a process of labour but failed to produce deliverance, and the “inhabitants of the world” have not fallen, they have not learned righteousness (cf. Is. 26:9). I see no reference to Israel’s dead here. In the context of a narrative of national salvation, it seems more likely that “your dead shall live, my corpse shall rise” is to be understood metaphorically; and “my corpse” strongly suggests that the whole people is in view (cf. “my people” in verse 20).

Ezekiel’s plain of dry bones (Ezek. 37:1-14)

Israel is in exile. The name of the God of Israel has been profaned among the nations—his reputation has been shredded—by the disgraceful behaviour of his people. Therefore, YHWH will act to vindicate the holiness of his great name, to restore his reputation and glory. He will bring the scattered sheep of the house of Israel back from the nations and will put a new heart and a new spirit in them to ensure that they walk in his statutes and obey his commandments. They will be cleansed of their iniquities; the desolate land will be made “like the garden of Eden” again; and the ruined cities will be fortified and inhabited (Ezek. 36:16-38).

Ezekiel is then brought “in the Spirit of the Lord” to a plain (biqʿah) strewn with bones. He is instructed to prophesy to the bones, and the bodies of the dead are brought back to life with a noisy rattling (Ezek. 37:1-10). At first there is no breath in the bodies, so Ezekiel must prophesy to the “breath”: “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live” (Ezek. 37:9).

The vision is interpreted for him. The bones are the “whole house of Israel,” who say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off” (Ezek. 37:11). Death is a metaphor for the condition of the Jews in exile. The bones “stand for the whole person, which has been sapped of vitality by the crisis of exile.”[fn]Allen, Leslie C. Ezekiel 20-48 (1990), 186.[/fn] So Ezekiel is told to prophesy to the people in exile:

Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. (Ezek. 37:12–14)

In the Greek version, it is not a mere rattling that precedes the “resurrection” of the figurative dead but an “earthquake” (seismos), which perhaps Matthew remembers when he narrates the circumstances of Jesus’ death:

the earth shook (eseisthē), and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. (Matt. 27:51–53)

Whether Matthew meant this to be understood literally is another matter. Ezekiel’s vision of the revivification of the dry bones of exiled Israel is certainly figurative.

On the third day he will raise us up (Hos. 6:1-2)

Also clearly figurative is the “resurrection” of chastised Israel in Hosea 6:1-2. The wounded people propose to return to the Lord so that he may heal them: “he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.” The thought is not of a return to life after death but of recovery after severe illness.

The remarkable thing, of course, is that early Christian tradition found in this image of corporate restoration scriptural support for the literal personal resurrection of Jesus: “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:4; cf. Lk. 24:7).

Many (but not all) sleeping in the dust of the earth will wake (Dan. 12:2-3)

The statement about resurrection in Daniel 12:2-3 comes at the climax to the historical crisis described in the preceding chapter. Antiochus Epiphanes has launched an assault on Jerusalem and Jewish religious practice, leading to internal division: “He shall seduce with flattery those who violate the covenant, but the people who know their God shall stand firm and take action” (Dan. 11:32). The wider political conflicts eventually play themselves out, and Antiochus “shall come to his end, with none to help him” (Dan. 11:45).

At that time (the temporal connection is asserted emphatically three times in Daniel 12:1) there will be an unprecedented period of trouble, but the Jews will be delivered—“everyone whose name shall be found written in the book.” It is part of the conclusion to the historical crisis, therefore, that “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake” (Dan. 12:2).

What is envisaged is the active participation of a number of Israel’s dead in the new state of affairs, for better or for worse. Some will participate in the glorious life of the new age, but others will experience “shame and everlasting contempt.” Those who are rewarded with “everlasting life” are presumably among that group of the “wise” in Israel who turned many to righteousness, who guided many Jews towards faithful adherence to the covenant during this traumatic period (cf. Dan. 11:32-35). They will “shine like the brightness of the sky above… like the stars forever and ever” (Dan. 12:3).

It is not so clear, though, whether this was conceived as a literal resurrection resurrection of the dead. It is not a figure for the restoration of the whole house of Israel, as in Ezekiel 37. But it may only mean that the names of the righteous martyrs will be honoured in the age that will come after the crisis, whereas the apostates in Israel will be remembered for the shame that they brought on the nation.

The second of the seven brothers famously martyred by Antiochus, however, seems to have taken the words of Daniel 12:2 quite literally: “the King of the world will raise us up to an everlasting re-living of life, because we have died for his laws” (2 Macc. 7:9, my translation). The odd expression “re-living of life” (anabiōsin zōes) perhaps suggests indeed that their lives would be re-lived in the context of a realistically restored Israel. The fourth brother tells Antiochus that there will be no “resurrection to life” for him (2 Macc. 7:14).[fn]In the second century BC Testament of Benjamin the scope of Daniel’s judgment appears to be expanded, though Christian redaction may have affected the schema (T. Benj. 10:7-8). The patriarchs will be raised to rule over their tribes, then all people will be raised, “some to glory and some to shame.” The Lord will judge Israel first, then he will judge the nations.[/fn]

In the same vein, the author of Wisdom of Solomon says that the persecuted righteous have a hope of “immortality” (athanasias); they have been tested and found worthy; therefore, “in the time of their visitation they will shine out, and as sparks through the stubble, they will run about. They will judge nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will be king over them for ever” (Wis. 3:7–8).

Jesus alludes to the passage at the end of his explanation of the parable of the weeds of the field (Matt. 13:36-43). He also envisages division in Israel. The weeds are the “sons of the evil one,” corresponding to those who had violated the covenant two hundred years earlier. Here we have a clear statement about the involvement of the Son of Man in the coming judgment of Israel: “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace” (Matt 13:41–42). But the righteous “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt. 13:43). He says nothing about resurrection.

The statement in Daniel addresses much the same problem that confronts Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. What about those who have died, who will miss out on the vindication and reward that will come with the parousia? Paul appears not to be interested in a resurrection of the wicked at this point, but on the basis of a “word from the Lord” he assures his readers that “the dead in Christ” will be raised and will be reunited with the living and with the Lord. I even suggested in The Coming of the Son of Man (164-65) that the “rapture” of the living in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 echoes the “lifting up” (hypsōthēsetai) of the people in Daniel 12:1 LXX.

This may be too simplistic, but it seems to me that we have two basic modes of resurrection in the Old Testament, corresponding to two different historical contexts. Where the exile motif dominates, it is the nation that is dead and the return to life is naturally figurative. In the later Hellenistic period, when foreign interference drives internal division, the focus sharpens, and the hope emerges that righteous Jews who lose their lives out of loyalty to YHWH will be raised, when God intervenes to end the crisis, to share in the vindication of the living.

In the Hellenistic context the hope seems likely to be realistic. It becomes the model for the resurrection of Jesus and the martyrs, but the importance of Hosea 6:1-2 for the tradition suggests that the corporate aspect remained significant and informative. In some sense, the actual resurrection of Jesus anticipated the resurrection of others who would imitate his suffering, and entailed the figurative resurrection of the renewed community of God’s people in him.

For those still interested in what Tom Wright thinks about these things, see my summary of the content of his Resurrection of the Son of God.