Tuesday, 14 August 2012

"Deeper than Sheol" (Job 11:8)


© Godric Godricson
Writers  have argued that ancient Israel had a very poorly developed idea of the afterlife for the body and the spirit compared to the cultures that geographically surrounded it with little hope for a bodily resurrection.  There is no generally accepted idea that ancient Israel possessed a developed and coherent view of spiritual existence after death or of a physical resurrection of the body.

In historical terms, Israel shared a geographical border with Egypt where there was a particularly well documented belief in the survival of the personality into the afterlife and associated rituals to ensure this survival although there is no evidence that a developed belief system transferred from Egypt into Israel.  Although Israelite society did not take part in a large-scale importation of Egyptian ritual and belief, 1 Chronicles 10:12   indicates that the human body should be treated with dignity and respect and we have evidence for the ritual involved in burials  throughout Palestine. However, it is not then clear what people believed in the Old Testament period about the survival of personality or physical resurrection. The subterranean nature of burial in caves and crypts within ancient Israel may reference a belief in Sheol (the undefined and shadowy underworld) or the underworld common in earlier Caananite belief systems.

© Godric Godricson

It is not clear if the ancient peoples of Israel believed widely in life after death or, if indeed, they believed widely in bodily resurrection from the dead. Genesis 3:19 teaches that mankind can expect nothing other than the return of his body to the Earth from which it came. Psalm 103:14-16 gives no hope of physical resurrection and speaks of the transience of human existence on Earth. In effect, Israelites appear to be ‘here and now’ people rather than hoping for a better life to come.  Despite such negative expressions surrounding the survival of personality beyond death and to any physical resurrection we can see the book of Isaiah containing more definite hope for the future. Isaiah intones, "Thy dead shall live; my dead bodies shall rise".  This fragment, along with 2 Kings 13:20-21 (an indication of the efficacy of contact with the bones of Elisah) is an indication that there were at least competing views in the Old Testament period as to what happened after death and what a faithful person may hope for after death.  Ecclesiastes. 3:2I, takes a characteristically more hope-less stance and asks the reader to remember; “To him that is joined with all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion. We can see that ancient Israel did indeed have a poorly developed view of the afterlife although we  can see competing views existed about the nature of life.  Elijah is seen to have ascended into heaven (2 Kgs. 2:11-12)  and in this image we may have another, although unusual, way of humans surviving physical death; by ascension into heaven.

We can perhaps agree that the ancient Israelites had a poorly developed sense of the afterlife that stood in stark comparison to the Egyptian and Caananite people around them. This apparent lack of a coherent belief in an ‘afterlife’ continued through the Old Testament period. The faith of Israel was, in essence, a simple obedience to God as a creator of the physical world and, for many, that simple faith was enough. In considering Jewish eschatology we may contemplate such matters either with the zeal of the literalist or the indeterminism of the poet either extreme may lead to a misunderstanding.   It may be that in an exploration of Jewish eschatology,  many competing views existed in relation to the afterlife and resurrection in addition to the pervasive and accepted view taught in Jerusalem?

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