Did Abraham believe in resurrection? Did Moses? Whether the idea of resurrection is contained in the Old Testament or not has been a cause of controversy since the first academics arrived on the scene.
The church father, Augustine, gave us this maxim: “In the Old Testament the New is concealed; in the New, the Old is revealed.” While by no means claiming to be dispositive, this article will examine passages in the Old Testament which seem to point toward a belief in resurrection.
An argument can be made, at the very outset, that the entire Old Testament is a story of death and resurrection. The human race is destroyed by a flood, but reborn through Noah and his family. Joseph “dies” to his old life, when he is sold into slavery. But he is reborn as a powerful official in Egypt. Former slaves of Egypt die in the desert, yet are reborn as a new nation.
Either these patterns by the thirty or more authors of the Old Testament are coincidental, or those authors saw in the story of the Israelites, themselves, the hope of a life beyond death.
The text of the Old Testament makes the following points on the subject of life after death:
- God is able to overcome death.
- We will be resurrected.
- God will punish evil doers and reward the righteous in the afterlife.
- Our close relationship with God will continue in the afterlife.
More Powerful than Death
Around 1000 BC, Hannah, the mother of the prophet, Samuel, described God’s power over life and death this way:
“ ‘The Lord kills and makes alive; He brings down to the grave and brings up’ ” (1 Sam. 2: 6).
About 575 BC, the prophet, Ezekiel, made this seminal prophecy about the nation Israel. While fulfillment of the prophecy was dependent on the Lord, couched within its terms is the concept of resurrection:
“The hand of the Lord was upon me, and…set me in the midst of the valley; and it was full of bones…[T]here were very many…and indeed they were very dry. And He said to me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ So I answered, ‘O Lord God, You know.’ Again He said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!…I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the Lord” ’ ” (Ezek. 37: 1-6)
The Books of First and Second Kings were written around 560 BC. Israel had been conquered by Assyria around 722 BC, and Judah by Babylon in 586 BC. These would have been momentous events. And yet two of the miracles recorded – by prophets, Elijah and Elisha, no less – involve the resurrection of children, a clear indication of God’s mercy toward the least of these.
“Then the Lord heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came back to him, and he revived. And Elijah took the child and brought him down from the upper room into the house, and gave him to his mother. And Elijah said, ‘See, your son lives!’ ” (1 Kin. 17: 22-23).
“When Elisha came into the house, there was the child, lying dead on his bed. He went in therefore, shut the door behind the two of them, and prayed to the Lord…and the child opened his eyes” (2 Kin. 4: 32-33, 35).
The idea of resurrection may not have been fully developed in the Old Testament, but the Israelites believed that a human being consisted of more than just a finite body. They viewed human beings as comprised of four distinct components: the basar or flesh, the neshamach or breath; the nephesh or psyche/soul; and the ruach or spirit.
“The ruach [spirit] is that component which activated man’s neshamach [breath], gives the basar [body] life, and calls into existence the nephesh [psyche/soul]. Catholic Christian doctrine has traditionally viewed the ruach as related, and sometimes identical, to the Holy Spirit of God. For this reason, the ruach [spirit] of a human is seen by many as being intimately related and connected to the ruach YHWH. The ruach does not pass to Sheol at death – there are no ‘spirits’ there. The ruach returns [on death] to God who made it (Eccl. 12: 7).”[i]
This is why even the body was treated with respect by Jewish custom – never burned, never left to the ravages of wild beasts, and never abandoned to the elements.
Death was not seen as a complete and total end. After death, the essence lived on in Sheol – a kind of shadow existence, since the Spirit of God which gave life had returned to Him. “If He should gather to Himself His Spirit and His breath, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust” (Job 34: 14-15).
There are, in fact, hints in the Old Testament that the soul may be redeemed at some point:
“Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices; my flesh also will rest in hope. For You will not leave my soul in Sheol, nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption” (Ps. 16: 9-10).
“But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave, for He shall receive me” (Ps. 49: 15).
As Christians, we know that these prophecies were fulfilled by Jesus Christ.
More Than a Euphemism
The term “was gathered to his people” (and its variation “will gather you to your fathers”) may be found throughout the Old Testament. If this is more than a mere euphemism for death, if it can be read as an affirmation of the belief in life after death, the Old Testament is suddenly alight with declarations of faith.
“Then Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people” (Gen. 25: 8).
“…Ishmael…breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people” (Gen. 25: 17).
“So Isaac breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people, being old and full of days” (Gen. 35: 29).
“When Jacob had finished commanding his sons, he drew his feet up into the bed and breathed his last, and was gathered to his people” (Gen. 49: 33).
“Now the Lord said to Moses: ‘Go up into this Mount Abarim, and see the land which I have given to the children of Israel. And when you have seen it, you also shall be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother was gathered’ ” (Num. 27: 12-13; Deut. 32: 50).
“When all that generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation arose after them who did not know the Lord nor the work which He had done for Israel” (Judg. 2: 10).
“ ‘Surely, therefore, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace…’ ” (2 Kin. 22: 20; 1 Chr. 34: 28).
With this introduction, our next article will address the nature of resurrection, as understood in the Old Testament.
[i] Life After Death in the Old Testament, St.-Onge, Charles P., 5/18/03.