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Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life

by Jon D. Levenson
Yale University Press, 304 pages, $40

In most of the mythology of ancient Greece, the gods could not revive the dead. The religion of Israel, however, saw death as firmly within the dominion of its Almighty God, who “slayeth, and maketh alive; He bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up,” as First Samuel puts it. For the Jews, the possibility of resurrection points to a power greater than history—greater even than nature itself. In the Middle Ages, Maimonides counted belief in the resurrection of the dead as one of the thirteen cardinal principles of Jewish faith and wrote an entire treatise to defend it. The Amidah, a main prayer in Jewish liturgy, blesses God for reviving the dead.

Yet despite the centrality of resurrection to both Judaism and Christianity, nearly everyone is confused about the biblical origins of the doctrine. At least according to Jon D. Levenson. A professor of Jewish studies at Harvard, Levenson has written on Jewish-Christian relations and on historical criticism of the Bible—and the evasions that often undermine both. He has argued, for instance, that a common Jewish and Christian Old Testament theology is impossible.

Levenson’s latest book is Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel, an essay in biblical thought that examines another set of evasions—this time of the doctrine he calls “a weight-bearing beam in the edifice of rabbinic Judaism.” Part of the confusion, Levenson says, comes from those who mistake resurrection for a Christian invention. Some associate resurrection exclusively with Jesus and are thus tempted to mistake the absence in Judaism of a belief in the resurrection of Jesus for an absence of any resurrection in Judaism.

At other times, resurrection is conflated with the belief in an immaterial and imperishable soul, forcing both into the catch-all term afterlife. For most moderns, meanwhile, the meaning of resurrection has become clouded, an unbelievable answer to a forgotten question. Those of a materialist or rationalist bent reject resurrection altogether, ascribing it to a fear of death or a desire for an unearthly reward to earthly suffering.

Then there is the evasion that comes from within Judaism. Most Jews these days suppose resurrection plays a marginal role in Judaism; they see it as a late and rather embarrassing superfluity. American Reform Judaism, in its famous 1885 Pittsburgh platform, declared that bodily resurrection belongs in the set of “ideas not rooted in Judaism.” Some Jews interpret resurrection not as God’s triumph over death but as the individual’s ethical victory over evil in the world and in himself. The revision allows them both to emphasize Judaism’s this-worldly character and to differentiate their faith from Christianity.

But that kind of apologetics takes its cues from the scholarly consensus that serves as Levenson’s real target. In the standard academic view, resurrection is an idea with no biblical roots—a foreign, unprecedented import into Second Temple Judaism. Scholars often point to the Hebrew Bible’s reticence on resurrection and to the finality of the death depicted there. As the wise woman of Tekoa tells David, “We must all die; we are like water that is poured out on the ground and cannot be gathered up.” “Whoever goes down to Sheol does not come up,” Job says, adding, “if a man dies, he will not live again.” The distinguished scholar André LaCoque, for one, writes that resurrection almost certainly originated “under Iranian influence after the return from Exile, when Judea was under Persian suzerainty.” And the Encyclopedia of Religion begins its entry on an even starker note: “The Hebrew scriptures as a whole have no doctrine of resurrection.”

With Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel, Levenson aims to clear up this confusion by showing how it can be traced back to facile thinking. It is facile, he says, to collapse redemption into ethics. It is equally simplistic, he persuasively shows, to take resurrection as a self-serving answer to questions of theodicy, an anesthetic for death’s sting, or (as Alan F. Segal does in his recent book on the afterlife) an explanation for suffering and martyrdom.

The book’s brilliance shows most clearly, however, in the way it treats the continuities between the rabbinic and biblical imaginations (and, secondarily, between rabbinic and early Christian thought). To do so, Levenson employs modern critical methods to argue that the common claim that no resurrection can be found in the Hebrew Bible rests on two characteristically modern habits of mind.

First, such a claim depends on treating resurrection as though it were a free-standing, tidy bit of theology. Levenson suggests instead that religious affirmations “are so deeply embedded in the particularity of the scriptural language that efforts to disregard the latter in order to penetrate back to the core idea’ only lead us into grave misunderstanding.” In this book, as elsewhere, Levenson’s sensitivity to biblical language guides his own style of theology.

Second-and more fundamental-the claim that the Bible is mute on resurrection rests on a modern individualistic conception of the self. Nodding in the direction of Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self, Levenson contends that in contrast to the liberal political theory that is predicated on an autonomous self, the Bible constructs the self in familial, tribal, transgenerational, and ultimately in national terms. Much as biblical theology is embedded in scriptural language, the biblical self is profoundly embedded in, and subordinated to, communal identity. The meaning of an individual’s death changes accordingly, as phrases like “he was gathered to his kin” suggest. The great biblical tragedy is not an individual’s death but infertility, the closed womb that cuts short a family line.

The meaning of resurrection likewise shifts. It is true that (with the exceptions of Elijah and Enoch) the Bible portrays post-Edenic man as subject to irreversible death. But resurrection in the Bible is national destiny, not individual self-perpetuation. It is a still-unfulfilled promise to the people of Israel made by a God who often fulfills a promise only to the descendants of the individual to whom it was directly made. The miraculous resurrection parallels this people’s equally miraculous birth, the later redemption echoing the earlier. Resurrection, Levenson writes, “expresses the faith that the God who created will also re-create, and the miraculous potentials he activated at the beginning will again be seen at the end.”

Astonishingly, the rabbis imagined resurrection to have already taken place at the moment of revelation at Sinai: “Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: At every utterance that went out from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, the souls of Israel went out [of them], as it is said, My life went away when he spoke’ (Song of Songs 5:6). Inasmuch as their souls went out at the first utterance, how did they accept the second utterance? He brought down the dew with which He will resurrect the dead and resurrected them.”

So to ask “Will I live after death?” is, biblically speaking, to pose the wrong question. “The Jewish expectation of a resurrection of the dead is always and inextricably associated with the restoration of the people Israel,” Levenson concludes. The eschatological expectation that the dead will rise is inseparable both from redemption and peoplehood; it is part of the drama of the promised national deliverance.

Seen in the light of national reconstitution, the idea of resurrection does not appear suddenly on the horizon of Jewish theology; it dawns in a natural, albeit diffuse way. Levenson leads us through some deft readings of biblical passages-the first clear articulation of resurrection, in Daniel 12, the revival episode in 2 Kings 4, and the vision of the valley of dry bones blossoming into life in Ezekiel 37-to prove that resurrection is hardly a foreign idea. Born of the coalescence of biblical elements, it is at once conservative and innovative. “A full-fledged doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, when it arrives,” Levenson writes, “reflects certain key features of the deep structure of the theology of pre-exilic Israel.”

So skillfully does Levenson layer his arguments that this conclusion, when it arrives, seems utterly convincing; so much so that it leaves room for only one quibble. He might have pressed further on a question that hovers here unacknowledged: Why does modernity demand a depreciation of the belief in resurrection? Must the question of life after death cease to be posed for modernity to continue its onward march?

In the end, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel reveals a vision that makes death a parenthesis between moments of life, and makes the body a site not only of death but also of redemption. In showing the resurrection of the dead to be the divine promise-indeed the divine action-par excellence, Levenson recovers the Bible’s theological colors in all their vibrancy.

Benjamin Balint is a library fellow at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem.