Shades of Sheol
Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the
God of Life
reviewed by Peter J. Leithart
When Paul commends the faith of Abraham in Romans 4, he commends not only the fact but also the content of Abraham’s faith. Like Abraham, Christians are called to trust in the God who raises the dead. For Paul, the faith of Israel has always been faith in the God who gives new life on the far side of the grave.
After his resurrection, Jesus spent forty days opening the minds of his disciples to understand the Scriptures. According to Jesus, the Scriptures teach “that the Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead on the third day” (Luke 24:46).
Modern scholars find these readings of the Old Testament incredible. According to their evolutionary reconstruction of Israelite religious history, hope for resurrection is a late and anomalous intrusion into the faith of Israel.
Early Hebrews believed that death was a natural part of creation and that all who died went to the dim underworld of “Sheol,” from which they had no hope of escape. When resurrection belief emerges after the Babylonian exile, modern scholars consider it, in Jon Levenson’s words, “a foreign importation devised to solve a new and embarrassing theological crisis.”
Levenson, Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University, challenges this reconstruction of the development of Jewish beliefs in resurrection. He agrees with the scholarly consensus that belief in individual bodily resurrection appears explicitly only after the Babylonian exile, but he argues compellingly that the faith that God will triumph over death in all its forms pervades the Hebrew Bible.
Instead of being a “jarring innovation in Second Temple Judaism,” belief in individual resurrection “developed slowly and unevenly over the preceding centuries,” particularly out of the “long-standing conviction that God would yet again prove faithful to his promises of life for his people and that he had the stupendous might it would take to do so.”
The Midrash states, “No passage lacks the resurrection of the dead, but we lack the capacity to interpretproperly” ( Sifre on Deuteronomy 32). Though Levenson doesn’t entirely endorse that claim, he finds more truth in it than most modern scholars, and his book is an effort to restore our capacity to see the triumph of the God of life as a major theme of the Bible.
Much of Levenson’s argument depends on his insight that, for ancient Hebrews, life and death are not purely biological conditions. They are instead relational and social conditions, and have to do as much with the quality of life as with the fact of having a beating heart.
On this view, the barrenness and infertility of the patriarchs’ wives are forms of death, because they cut them off from the perpetuation of the self in a family name and descendants. Levenson suggests that the promise of a perpetual seed is one of the earliest forms of “resurrection” belief.
Enslavement is considered a form of death as well. Exile can be pictured as a grave, because exile cuts off Israel from the land, its source of independence and prosperity and a sign of God’s favor.
In the imagination of the biblical writers, “Grave, pit, underworld, utmost bounds of the earth, engulfing waters, subterranean city, prison—all these metaphors communicate a mode of existence [that] characterizes people who have not ‘died’ in our sense of the term at all.”
Saved from Death
Once we recognize the breadth of what ancient Hebrews meant by “death,” we begin to see that the Lord is portrayed from the beginning as a God who triumphs over death. He makes barren women fertile; he restores lost children (2 Kings 4:8–37); he delivers Israel from slavery in Egypt; he brings Israel back from the grave of exile (cf. Ezek. 37).
The faith that God delivers from all these threats to life provides the context for the later explicit resurrection belief. If the Lord overcomes infertility, slavery, and oppression, then surely he will also overcome the final infertility and oppression of the grave. Resurrection is not marginal to Israel’s beliefs. It is central. Israel is, in fact, a “resurrected” people from the beginning, as soon as they pass through the death-waters of the Red Sea into liberty.
Some of Levenson’s most intriguing chapters examine the Hebrew notion of “Sheol.” Scholars are surprisingly united in saying that the ancient Hebrews believed everyone went to Sheol, which many take as a synonym for “death” or “the grave.” In Sheol, the dead are without joy, strength, or blessing, and on this view, the dead in Sheol have no hope of returning from the grave or enjoying a blessed afterlife.
Through careful examination of the usage of the word, Levenson concludes that Sheol is the destiny of those who die violently, prematurely, or without descendants. Sheol is the destiny of those whose lives end unfulfilled, and that unfulfilled existence continues in Sheol.
When Jacob mourns for Joseph, he feels himself heading for Sheol (Gen. 37:35). Miraculously, Joseph is restored, and Jacob is saved to die a fortunate death, having seen not only Joseph but also Joseph’s sons. The Joseph narrative thus intimates that the Lord is capable of rescuing his people from Sheol.
Levenson also explains how the temple functions as a place of life, a restored Eden, in a world of famine, slavery, infertility, and death. Israelites want to dwell in the house of the Lord because “within the sanctuary lies life; outside it lurks death.” Biblical descriptions of the temple are evidence of Israel’s faith in a God who will triumph over death.
Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel shatters the scholarly consensus that ancient Hebrews knew nothing of hope for eternal life. For those indifferent to the academic debates, it provides illuminating readings of many passages.
Though Levenson does not endorse Paul’s claim that Abraham already trusted a promise that God would bring life from the dead, he shows how Paul could have come to that conclusion from reading Genesis. As a result, his book, though a scholarly exercise in the history of Israelite religion, encourages Christians to open our mouths and say, with the midrashic writer, “Blessed are you, O Lord, who revive the dead.”
Peter J. Leithart is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and the president of Trinity House Institute for Biblical, Liturgical & Cultural Studies in Birmingham, Alabama. His many books include Defending Constantine (InterVarsity), Between Babel and Beast (Cascade), and, most recently, Gratitude: An Intellectual History (Baylor University Press). His weblog can be found at www.leithart.com. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.
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“Shades of Sheol” first appeared in the September 2007 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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