In the field of biblical studies, renowned for its deficit of basic agreement and the depth of its controversies, one cannot but be impressed by the longevity and breadth of the consensus about the early Israelite notion of life after death. The consensus, to be brief, is that there was none, that “everyone who dies goes to Sheol,” as Johannes Pedersen put it about eighty years ago,
The resurrection of the dead has no early roots or sources in the Hebrew Bible, which offers a vision of life and death and the relationship between them that is strikingly different from those that underlie a belief in resurrection. In the Hebrew Bible (except for passages that are very few and very late), death is an altogether unproblematic part of God's plan, and there is neither an expectation nor even a hope to transcend it. Indeed, death is there deemed to be part of God's creation and thus presents no theological scandal at all. When people died, they were thought to descend without exception to the dreary netherworld known as Sheol, from which there was no chance of return. Only very late in the period of the Second Temple, as the last books in the Hebrew Bible were being written, did an alternative position appear.
From Intro: Professor Jon D. Levenson. Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life
Consolation in that set of Scriptures, so goes this line of thought, lies solely in the continuity of the family over the generations: having descendants is the functional equivalent of being immortalized, and familial survival plays the role we moderns associate with a personal afterlife ... Thus, whereas Utnapishtim, the "Babylonian Noah" of the Epic of Gilgamesh, is granted immortality after he survives the great flood, the Israelite Noah receives a covenant that "never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth" (Gen 9:11). The permanent continuation of the human race (that is, the descendants of Noah) plays in Genesis the role that Utnapishtim's personal immortality plays in Gilgamesh, and the individual's own death - the issue that drives the narrative of Gilgamesh - is no issue whatsoever in the biblical flood story.
Professor Jon D. Levenson. Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life
Given this biblical concept of the self (which we shall examine in more detail in chapter 6), Rabbi Simai's logic fails. God can indeed give the promised land to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob after they are dead without resurrecting them, for the people that carries their blood, bears their name, and reenacts their experience (in part) still lives and is still able to experience the fulfillment of the promise. On a deeper level, however, Rabbi Simai's observation points us toward a profound truth: the deaths of the patriarchs of Genesis do not have the finality that we (and he) associate with death. Rather, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob continue to exist after they have died, not, it should be underscored, as disembodied spirits but as the people whose fathers they will always be. That death represents an absolute terminus, as it does to the modern mind, is not a foregone conclusion in biblical thought. In biblical thinking, it is possible to continue even after death, and without either resurrection or immortality
in the sense of survival as a bodiless soul. Not everyone does, of course. Some die cut off from kith and kin and from the worshiping community that enjoys God's radiant, life-giving
presence. But it is possible, in biblical thought, to die what the non-Israelite prophet Balaam enviously calls "the death of the upright" right" (Num 23:10), to die like Abraham, "old and contented ... gathered to his kin" (Gen z5:8). Among the several ways to understand the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead is to view it as a way to preserve that possibility when biblical notions of identity have eroded and a more individualistic conception of the self has come to the fore. Or, to put it differently, if we hold a more individualistic conception of the self than one finds in most of the Hebrew Bible, one must either accept a notion of the resurrection of the dead or concede that the biblical promise fell void, never to be fulfilled. From the standpoint of the biblical sources in question, the first option introduces a novelty; the second, a theological scandal. In one sense, then, resurrection is a new idea, and it is hardly surprising that prerabbinic and nonrabbinic Jews held a variety of other ideas about ultimate human destiny. In another sense, however, it is a tradition-preserving reaction to new thinking that threatened the older biblical idea that existence in an embodied, communal form could continue after death, through a gracious God's fidelity to his promise.
A major focus of that favor - especially important, as we are about to see, in the case of Abraham and job - is family, particularly the continuation of one's lineage through descendants alive at one's death. Many expressions, some of them idiomatic, communicate this essential mode of divine favor. The idiom "He was gathered to his kin" or "to his fathers" (wayye'asep 'el-`ammayw / 'abotayw), may originally have derived from burial practices, but it does not literally refer to interment in the family grave or to secondary burial any longer, since it is used, for example, of Abraham (Gen 25:8), whose deceased blood relatives all lay in Mesopotamia.19 "More likely," writes Johnston, it "indicates joining one's ancestors in the afterlife," presumably, according to "most scholars . . . in Sheol, even if Sheol is never mentioned in this con- text."20 This last concession, however, is devastating to the widespread presumption sumption to which Johnston alludes. For Sheol is anything but a locus of familial reunion. Those
Or perhaps a place other than Sheol was thought to house the dead who did not go there, something like the Garden of Eden (to put it into rabbinic language)29 in contradistinction to the Gehinnom (or Gehenna) that was Sheol, or, in the familiar Christian terms, heaven as opposed to hell. But even if this is so, it is highly instructive that the Hebrew Bible is so severely reticent about describing it, and there is, as we have seen, room for disagreement ment about how significant a role such a belief played in ancient Israelite religion.30 A better course is to examine the narratives about the end of the lives of those who die blessed. If we do so, we see that a principal source of their survival vival lies in their lineage (including, in some cases, the larger lineage that is the whole people of Israel). Thus Abraham dies after arranging the marriage of his favored son Isaac and begetting, in addition to the firstborn Ishmael, six other sons, some of them (like Isaac and Ishmael) destined to beget great nations in fulfillment of God's explicit promise to the founding patriarch (Gen 25:1-18; cf. Gen 12:2; 17:20; 21:18; 28:3-4). And so, too, job lives "to see four generations tions of sons and grandsons" (Job 42:16). This, in turn, is strikingly reminiscent cent of the dying Jacob, who tells his son Joseph, "I never expected to see you again, and here God has let me see your children as well," or of Joseph himself, who "lived to see children of the third generation of [his son] Ephraim" (Gen 48:11; 50:23). These instances of the viewing of the future lineage are hardly coincidental or irrelevant to our topic. For, in all these cases, the individual dies fulfilled, the divine promises richly (and unexpectedly) realized at the end of a stormy life, long marked by infertility or other intergenerational prob- lems.31 The viewing of the distant descendants so prominent in the cases of Job, Jacob, and Joseph establishes the felicity of the individual's destiny at the time of his death. Dying within the blessing of God, the patriarch faces his final destiny with composure, altogether unlike those who, dying outside the blessing ing of God, face the misery of Sheol, with justified trepidation and despondency. dency. The fulfillment of the blessed individual's life survives him and continues to testify to his final felicity- and to his God's steadfast faithfulness to his pledged word.
Our examination of personal identity in the earlier literature of the Hebrew Bible thus suggests that the conventional view is too simple: death was not final and irreversible after all, at least not in the way in which we are inclined to think of these matters. This is not, however, because individuals were believed lieved to possess an indestructible essence that survived their bodies. On the one hand, the body itself was thought to be animated in ways foreign to modern materialistic and biologistic thinking, but, on the other, even its most spiritual part, its nepes (life force) or its nefdmd (breath), was mortal. Rather, the boundary between individual subjects and the familial/ethnic/national group in which they dwelt, to which they were subordinate, and on which they depended was so fluid as to rob death of some of the horror it has in more individualistic cultures, influenced by some version of social atomism. In more theological texts, one
sees this in the notion that subjects can die a good death, "old and contented ... and gathered to [their] kin," like Abraham, who lived to see a partial - though only a partial - fulfillment of God's promise of land, progeny, and blessing upon him, or like job, also "old and contented" after his adversity came to an end and his fortunes - including progeny - were restored (Gen 25:8; Job 42:117). If either of these patriarchal figures still felt terror in the face of his death, even after his afflictions had been reversed, the Bible gives us no hint of it.16 Death in situations like these is not a punishment, a cause for complaint against God, or the provocation of an existential crisis. But neither is it death as later cultures, including our own, conceive it. Given this embeddedness in family, there is in Israelite culture, however, a threat that is the functional equivalent to death as we think of it. This is the absence or loss of descendants. It is in this light that we should understand the association the book of Proverbs makes between Sheol and infertility: '--'The leech has two daughters, "Give!" and "Give!" Three things are insatiable; Four never say, "Enough!": 16Sheol, a barren womb, Earth that cannot get enough water, And fire which never says, "Enough!" (Prov 30:15-16) The three items analogized here to "a barren womb" are all redolent of death - Sheol (the dark, miserable netherworld), parched earth that cannot sustain life, and a raging fire that consumes everything and everybody in its way. Given such associations, we can better understand why the future patriarch triarch Abraham's childlessness evokes such terror and depression: 'Some time later, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision. He said, "Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great." 2But Abram said, "0 Lord GOD, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless!" (Gen 15:1-2) All the reward in the world -wealth, longevity, even having God as one's personal protector-cannot compensate for childlessness." And the proof that Abraham truly "fears God," that he places obedience to the divine command mand above his personal welfare, is that he is willing to sacrifice the promised son when at long last his previously barren and now elderly primary wife has borne him (z z: I I - 12.).
Professor Jon D. Levenson. Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life