Is there resurrection from the dead in the Old Testament?
No. Not really. Well, sort of. O.K., yes, but it depends on how you look at it.
Resurrection is pretty central to the New Testament, in case you haven’t noticed. Yet searching for that kind of resurrection in the Old Testament will bring you up empty-handed.
We do have one lengthy passage, Daniel 12, which is an important text for understanding the development of Jewish faith later in the Second Temple period (specifically here, in the second century BCE) when “resurrection” of individuals was in the air generally within Judaism (more below).
2 Maccabees is another example of a text from roughly the same period as Daniel and which mentions the future resurrection of the dead as if no one needs it explained to them (e.g., see 2 Maccabees 7:9)
Neither Isaiah 25:7 (the Lord will “swallow up death forever”) nor 26:19 (“Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise”), however, seem to me to be “resurrection from the dead” texts.
The first seems to echo Canaanite mythology about Baal who hosts a victory banquet after his defeat of the sea god Yamm (representing chaos).
The second passage is a more a possible candidate, but if both are read in the larger context of Isaiah, their metaphorical meaning seems clear: deliverance from the “sure death” of foreign oppression/threat. At any rate, even with these texts, the silence of the Old Testament on future resurrection is deafening.
But this brings me to where I think resurrection is very much part of the story of Israel, and it goes like this.
A perspective on the Adam story that I lay out in The Evolution of Adam and The Bible Tells Me So is that Adam represents Israel’s entire epic journey in the Old Testament—Adam is a “preview” of Israel, so to speak.
Just as Adam was created by God out of dust and placed into a Garden paradise, and remaining there was contingent upon obedience (don’t eat from the Tree of Knowledge), so, too, Israel was created by God from Egyptian slavery, placed into the paradise-like Canaan, and remaining there was contingent upon obedience (to the covenant, the Law of Moses).
This reading of the Adam story is not mutually exclusive of others, but it has rabbinic precedent (Genesis Rabbah, perhaps 5th c. CE), and you have to admit the parallels are at least worth thinking about. So even if you’re skeptical, work with me here.
Remember that Adam was warned that “on the day” he eats of the forbidden fruit, he would die (Genesis 2:17). Now, the fact of the matter is that “on the day” Adam and Eve do not die so much as they are banished from the Garden (Genesis 3:22-24).
That banishment bars them from the Tree of Life, their heretofore source of immortality, which is only in the Garden. The Lord places two cherubim at the entrance, which is on the east (hold that thought) to stand guard to make sure the doomed couple doesn’t go do back in and eat from the Tree of Life.
To be in the Garden means access to the Tree of Life. To be banished from the Garden to the east (keep holding that thought) means “death.”
Fast forward to Deuteronomy 30. Here we are at the final stage of Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the desert, and Moses is giving the people his last series of pep talks before they enter Canaan and take over the land as their own.
The whole chapter is worth a closer look, but we get to the main point within verses 15-18. There we see that “life” means being in the land, and “death” means exile—the same notion we see in the Adam story.
If Israel will continue to obey God’s commands, the reward is life, which Deuteronomy 30 explains to be prosperity, an increased population, and longevity for the people as a whole (not individuals) in the land.
Likewise, disobedience to God’s commands yields “death and adversity,” i.e., “you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess” (v. 18).
So where does resurrection come in? Give me a sec. I’m getting there (or maybe you’re there already).
Flip to the chapter in the Old Testament that certainly is on most people’s top 10 list of weird passages: Ezekiel 37:1-14 and the “valley of dry bones.”
In a vision, Ezekiel sees a valley with dry bones that miraculously come back to life. Bones will be covered again with sinew and flesh, and God will “put breath” into those bones.
God brings to life through “breath.” Feel free to think of the Adam story here (Genesis 2:7).
Anyway, as weird as Ezekiel is in general, and chapter 37 in particular, at least the meaning of this vision is spelled out for us:
This says the Lord: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel (v. 12).
Death isn’t physical but metaphorical. The dry bones represent Israel in exile (the grave). Where in exile? In Babylon, which is in the east (thank you for holding that thought).
To be in exile, in the east, outside of the land of Canaan, is death. To be in the land is life. The Adam story is 2-chapter summary of Israel’s national plight.
So now we finally get to the resurrection part of all this.
If moving from the land into exile is to move from life to death, returning to the land is (all together now) to be brought back to life, to be raised from the dead (as Ezekiel’s prophecy lays out for us).
And that is where we find “resurrection” in the Old Testament: returning to the land, where God and his temple are, where there is peace and security, the land promised to Abraham (Genesis 12), the land “flowing with milk and honey.”
Physical resurrection of individuals isn’t the hot topic of conversation in the Old Testament. Revival of a nation is.
So what about physical resurrection in the New Testament? Where does that idea come from? At least in part from developments in Judaism after the exile, especially in the 2nd century BCE. [Quick note: Jon D. Levenson in his wonderful book Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel argues that individual resurrection already has strong echos in the pre-exilic period.]
Faithful Jews are being martyred by the Seleucid King Antiochus. 2 Maccabees relays a story that captures the crisis, where seven sones are executed in a gruesome fashion for remaining obedient to the law rather than eat unclean food and reject God. And earlier were several centuries of faithful Jews who might not have been martyred but who died without seeing God fully restore Israel as a nation.
Israel’s exile, though ending in 539 BCE, still continued in a manner of speaking for centuries thereafter. Ezekiel’s “resurrection” was not complete until Israel was “fully” in the land, which meant restoring Jewish independence.
To be sure, God would one day come through for his people. And those who died waiting for the “consolation of Israel” (to borrow Simeon’s phrase in Luke 2:25) would not just miss out but, as an act of divine justice, would be raised to take part in the messianic age.
Fast forward to the Gospels.
It is surely no accident that all four Gospels introduce Jesus’s public ministry by citing the opening verses of Isaiah 40, one of the key texts in the Old Testament announcing that God is about to bring the the captives back from Babylon—back home…back to the land of Canaan…back to the place of life, not death.
Why do all 4 Gospels introduce Jesus’s ministry by citing this major “end of exile” announcement? Probably because whatever Jesus is going to do probably has something to do with bringing an end to Israel’s exile/death.
The New Testament twist is that the resurrection of Jesus draws together both the national and individual dimensions while also redefining them.
Jesus’s individual physical resurrection fulfills Israel’s corporate national story by creating a new people, a new nation—a new humanity—where resurrection is a present spiritual reality and a future hope for each one who in “in Christ” (as Paul puts it).
So, we move from (1) resurrection as nationalistic and metaphorical in the Old Testament, to (2) a resurrection that also includes individuals physically in response to crisis by the 2nd century BCE, to (3) the New Testament, where both are realized and redefined in Jesus.
If anything, this should remind us how New Testament theology is more than a process of back-referencing passages from the Old Testament, but must also include postexilic developments in Jewish thought.
The resurrection from the dead in the New Testament isn’t “in” the Old. It grows out of and transforms an Old Testament metaphor, with a middle stage in Second Temple Judaism.