At one time, Bible scholars challenged the use of theology, especially conventional theology, in their reading of the Bible. Instead, these Bible scholars were critical. Not in the sense that they were negative but that they subjected conventions to the rigor of the Bible’s evidence. Critical, too, meant they read the Bible in its historical context. As well, they read through the grid of the reconstruction of the texts – Isaiah was not by one author, Daniel was late, etc..
The modern practice, which has gained in influence among many evangelicals, of reading the Bible with the aid, or even though the categories, of conventional theology is the resurrection of traditional, pre-Enlightenment Bible interpretation.
Conventions, however, have grown rife among critical scholars. Which means we have critical scholars subjecting conventional critical readings to critical readings. Get it?
Greg Carey, in his discussion of eschatology in the Hebrew Scriptures and in Ancient Judaism, subjects a particular conventional reading of the afterlife to a critical reading. We find it in his new book, Death, the End of History, and Beyond: Eschatology in the Bible. This book is not a 600 page monster going through the details of everything here and there, but instead Carey devotes some of his writing career to the public face of scholarship. This books is an example. A good example, in fact, of what a more public theology can look like.
Instead of a summary of the entire chapter I want to give special attention to his critical proposal. But, to be fair, the chapter covers creation (gotta look back to look forward in Israel’s eschatology), election-exodus-inheritance, royal aspirations (gotta look at Davidic hope to get to a Messiah hope), and the expanding sense of the Day of the Lord. Each of these sections makes for good reading, and would be a great assignment in seminary classes on eschatology.
Now to the conventional view.
To begin with, many think ancient Israelites “believed the human self consists of a unified soul and body and could not conceive of an immortal soul disconnected from the body.” (This challenges nearly every funeral sermon one will hear in a church.) In addition, the oldest biblical texts “presupposes that death is just that, death, with no existence to follow.”
Greg Carey points then immediately to Jon Levenson’s well-known Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel. Then Carey develops a critical-of-the-conventional-critical view. Enough of that language. I will not outline the whole argument for a more corporate resurrection as well as for some ancient Israelites evidently not believing in that unified theory of the body and soul. Here are some observations that struck me:
First, how does one explain Enoch walking with God, Elijay’s lift into the whirlwind, or especially Saul consulting the spirits of the dead? Look at Genesis 5:24; 2 Kings 2:1-12; 1 Samuel 28:3-25.
Second, ancient Israelites believed in a “constellative view of the human self,” that is, people are not just the typical terms (body, mind, flesh, soul, spirit) but also have “social roles and relationships” and after death they go to their ancestors. There is some kind of “social, or constellative, afterlife.”
Third, some ancient Israelite burial practices indicate the presence of food for the dead. Tombs were family tombs. This is all sounding very much, at least to me, like Egyptian and Greek views. The dead were sleeping.
Fourth, the afterlife was not a primary theme for any of the ancient Scriptures of Israel. The Christian framing is a convention that was not the case in much of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Fifth, the nephesh, translated by some as soul and is better as self, inhabits Sheol but the self is in a diminished state.
Sixth, the constellative theory, which emphasized continuity between a person and one’s social group, led eventually in ancient Judaism to a corporate resurrection, not so much (and hardly at all) to an individual sense of resurrection. And corporate resurrection is often more about a revival of a national life.
Seventh, resurrection in Ancient Judaism meant (1) a transformation of the raised; (2) it is corporate and not individualistic; (3) it applies to dead people, but it tends to exclude immediate entrance into glory. He reads Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones (37:1-14), Isaiah 26, and Daniel 12 in less than conventional ways. Daniel 12 is about individuals; it is end time; it is not universal and Carey reads it as for a minority within Israel, the wise, the martyrs, not for all; and the persons raised just maybe became stars, as was found in apocalyptic literature. The majority are raised to condemnation, and there a sense here of eternal torment.
Eighth, some texts in the Hebrew Bible “dismiss the possibility” of a resurrection, and Carey points us to Jeremiah 51:39, 57 and to Job 14:12. I include those texts here:
Jer. 51:39 When they are inflamed, I will set out their drink
and make them drunk, until they become merry
and then sleep a perpetual sleep
and never wake, says the LORD.
Jer. 51:57 I will make her officials and her sages drunk,
also her governors, her deputies, and her warriors;
they shall sleep a perpetual sleep and never wake,
says the King, whose name is the LORD of hosts.
Job 14:12 so mortals lie down and do not rise again;
until the heavens are no more, they will not awake
or be roused out of their sleep.
It cannot be said that the Hebrew Bible, or even Judaism post Bible, provided a clear and consensual view of what is now seen as conventional among scholars. Carey challenges that view here and it is worth considering by all who are engaged in serious Bible study.
But apocalyptic literature/theology was already reshaping the world of Judaism’s view of the future. We will look at that next week.