Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel by Jon D. Levenson
“Who Revives the Dead”
Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life
by Jon D. Levenson
Yale. 274 pp. $40.00
Resurrection of the dead is a seminal doctrine in both Judaism and Christianity. The rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud affirmed that one who denies it has no portion in the World to Come. Near the beginning of the central text of every Jewish prayer service—morning, afternoon, and evening, weekday, Sabbath, and holiday—the traditional prayer book prominently includes a blessing of the Lord “Who revives the dead.” For Christians, belief in a general resurrection at the end of days may loom even larger than it does in Judaism because of the resonance generated by the story of an earlier, individual resurrection that stands at the core of the religion.
Jon D. Levenson, a professor of Jewish studies at Harvard, is a distinguished biblical scholar and theologian whose interest in this theme was foreshadowed in his The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity (1993). Here he has given us a beautifully written, multi-faceted work that begins with 19th and 20th-century Jewish theologians and liturgists, moves back in time to touch on Maimonides in the 12th century, back still farther to the Talmud and midrash, and finally turns to the biblical material that stands at the core of the book.
Levenson’s purpose is to refute two widely held positions, or what might be called contemporary orthodoxies. The first of these is a counter-orthodoxy current among many Jews—to wit, that Judaism rejects belief in physical resurrection, either because Judaism is a this-worldly religion or because it accords pride of place to the idea of a disembodied immortality of the soul. As Levenson notes, those who apply either of these characterizations to classical Judaism are very numerous, but uninformed.
A more serious variant of this same contention is that Judaism should reject belief in resurrection, in favor of a putatively more sophisticated alternative. Illustrating this tendency in action, Levenson takes us on a tour of liturgical references in non-Orthodox prayer books to a doctrine that plainly makes their editors and translators extremely uncomfortable. Instead of “the Lord Who revives the dead,” we are introduced to an array of creative formulations. God “bestows life here and there.” He “planted immortal life within us.” His “gift is life.” “We pray . . . for love through which we may all blossom into persons who have gained power over our own lives.” And so forth. Although there is little original in this discussion, Levenson’s guided tour may serve as an eye-opener for users of these prayer books who are unaware of the manner in which the classical text has been modified or its translation distorted.
In this same context, Levenson introduces Maimonides’ own struggle to integrate physical resurrection with immortality of the soul, the latter of which was regarded by the great medieval thinker as both philosophically demonstrable and spiritually supreme. Maimonides’ far from seamless solution was to postulate a temporary physical resurrection, one in which individuals already enjoying spiritual bliss would be reunited with their bodies but ultimately die a second death, returning to a disembodied state.1
After addressing modern and medieval Judaism, Levenson next turns his attention to the rabbinic period. While underscoring the centrality of resurrection in rabbinic theology, he notes that the prooftexts from Scripture adduced by the rabbis are for the most part patently removed from Scripture’s plain sense. This raises a puzzle as to what the rabbis had in mind. In an original argument, Levenson points out that the ancient rabbinic translations do render the verses in question in accordance with their plain meaning—which suggests, he maintains, that the rabbis may well have been proffering their interpretations on a secondary, non-literal level of meaning known as derash.
As an Orthodox Jew who believes in this doctrine, I have long been intrigued by a little-noticed passage in which Maimonides apparently agrees that the prooftexts adduced by the rabbis do not, according to their straightforward meaning, affirm an eschatological resurrection. In his Treatise on the Resurrection, he acknowledges that the first such unmistakable affirmation of resurrection is in the biblical book of Daniel; he then proceeds to explain why, in his estimation, God withheld this information from masses of Jews for so many generations beforehand.
Maimonides’ position is perhaps best summed up in a charged term: “progressive revelation.” It is all the more striking that he should advance it in the case of a belief that he himself lists as a requirement for entering the World to Come. And this brings us to the second orthodoxy tackled by Levenson, to which he devotes the lion’s share of his book.
This orthodoxy operates in the academic world. According to longstanding scholarly consensus, Levenson writes, the Hebrew Bible does not consider death to be theologically problematic. All the dead, without exception, descend to a netherworld called she’ol, never to return. Only very late in the biblical period, during the era of the Second Temple, did the tragic death of righteous martyrs combine with the influence of Zoroastrian belief to produce the radically new doctrine of resurrection, which makes its appearance in Daniel and then in later rabbinic Judaism.
About this portrait, Levenson expresses profound reservations. Although he accepts the idea that the expectation of a large-scale resurrection is late, the central thrust of his argument is that it is not discontinuous with earlier biblical religion, which contained major themes that adumbrated and nurtured it.
What are some of those themes? Levenson enumerates them. Not everyone in the Bible was condemned to she’ol. Stories of individual miraculous resurrections establish God’s power to reach beyond death. Poems centered on the Temple speak of an Eden-like garden where people enjoy, if only rhetorically, eternal life. Ezekiel’s vision of the “dry bones,” even if it is a metaphor for national revival, similarly indicates that resurrection was not alien to the religious mentality of his contemporaries. God’s reversal of personal illness or disability and his redemption of Israel from the death of exile into the rebirth of national revival are couched in rhetoric strikingly analogous to the language of resurrection. And the theme of the ultimate vanquishing of evil by the “Divine Warrior” provides a final, crucial ingredient for the crowning “victory of the God of life.” In short, while martyrdom and Zoroastrianism may have triggered the final development of the doctrine of resurrection, they cannot in themselves account for it.2
In these sections of his boldly revisionist book, Levenson brings together a set of undeniable motifs in the Hebrew Bible bearing on the theme of resurrection and subjects them to fresh, instructive analysis. I am very sympathetic to his overall argument here. With respect to some key issues, however, we are left with ambiguity and even contradiction. In some instances, these inconsistencies emerge from what Levenson explicitly presents as conflicting texts, but in others they bedevil his understanding of dominant themes in biblical religion as a whole.
In some passages, Levenson seems content to say that, in the Bible, she’ol is the destination not of everyone but only of those who die in a state of divine disfavor, while the righteous find fulfillment and continuity through their descendants (and not through “some version of the Garden of Eden or heaven”). The fulfilled life does not continue after death precisely because it is fulfilled.
If this is so, it would seem to follow that many people avoid she’ol, but they do so through cessation of existence. Elsewhere, though, Levenson tells us that certain biblical texts envision only two possibilities: either irreversible misery in she’ol or, in “extraordinary” instances, salvation from that fate. Apparently, then, the vast majority of people, including those who leave large, happy, and productive families, do find themselves in she’ol. Moreover, the few who avoid this fate do not find fulfillment solely through their descendants but are “taken” by God in an act of genuine, individual salvation. We are even told that the saved could find themselves in a place “something like” the rabbinic Garden of Eden.
And our confusion does not end there. Despite Levenson’s statement about the “extraordinary” nature of salvation, Psalm 49 speaks of salvation for the “upright” as a group. His own analysis of that psalm, as well as of Psalm 73, leads him to assert the following: “Although some —perhaps most—are ‘sent down’ to she’ol, others God ‘takes’ himself.” It follows inexorably that the “others” whom God takes must themselves constitute “some—perhaps most—” of the population. These tensions are not only unresolved in the book; they are not even fully acknowledged.
Nor is that all. Ruling out any idea in biblical religion of disembodied survival after death, Levenson provides a vigorous argument for the Bible’s interconnection of body and soul. In particular, he notes that various body parts register emotions and express ideas. But this in turn raises questions that he never addresses. If a substantial number of people—not just Elijah, Enoch, and a few psalmists—are “taken,” did the biblical authors believe that many bodies were no longer in their graves? And, without those critical organs, in what sense did the “shades” that Levenson locates in she’ol maintain some level of consciousness? These questions should at least generate caution about drawing too-easy conclusions from the intimate relationship between body and soul in the Bible.
Finally, Levenson makes a point of the national dimension of the final resurrection; the title of his book underscores this. While that dimension deserves attention, the relationship between the restoration of Israel and the resurrection of the dead is more complicated than he allows. The messianic age, whose advent many Jews placed well before the anticipated resurrection of the dead, receives no attention in Levenson’s book outside the context of the prophets’ rhetoric of national rebirth, but it was during this age that the restoration of Israel was to be accomplished. Thus, the doctrine Levenson examines in this book, whatever its exact function in the book of Daniel, had only a tenuous connection to the redemption of the Jewish people.
The very richness and complexity of Levenson’s analysis impel me to register a complaint about the publisher: Yale University Press has made it particularly difficult to follow the twists and turns in this book by failing to supply anything more than an index of ancient sources and a single-page index of authors. Thus, any serious reader—or reviewer—who wishes to find the discussions of she’ol or afterlife or immortality or Elijah must rely on memory and constant rereading. Abbreviated endnote citations to books and articles do not refer back to the full references, and there is no bibliography at all. This is nothing less than reader abuse, and I found myself hoping wistfully for a criminal statute under which Yale could be appropriately prosecuted.
But that is hardly the note on which I wish to end. Scholars who come to this book from a different and academically more typical angle of vision than mine will no doubt protest that Levenson has not definitively refuted the position that the doctrine of resurrection was born out of the late impulses usually assigned to it. I think, however, that he will have forced any fair-minded person to reconsider the question. Since we are dealing with the history of a religious doctrine of profound influence and importance, this is a signal achievement indeed, and my caveats about the book do not detract from its seriousness or its significance.
1 This medieval material is not Levenson’s strong suit. After citing with approval a mistaken remark in a recent article that, to Maimonides, “the resurrection presumably will last only minutes,” he quotes a passage from Maimonides himself asserting that resurrected individuals will “die after an extremely long life.” More seriously, he is unfamiliar with Dov Schwartz’s Messianism in Medieval Jewish Thought, the one significant scholarly study concerned with the tension between resurrection and disembodied immortality in the Jewish thought of the period.
2 Levenson reinforces these larger themes with several specific allusions. He affirms that Hannah’s prayer in I Samuel 2:6 (“The Lord deals death and gives life, casts down into she’ol and raises up”) does refer to God’s resurrecting the dead, though not necessarily to a large-scale event at the end of days. Although he resists what strikes me as a persuasive talmudic argument that Deuteronomy 32:39 does the same, his resistance, especially in light of his discussion of Hannah’s prayer, appears half-hearted. And along with some other scholars, he finds large-scale resurrection in the so-called Isaianic apocalypse (Isaiah 26:19).