My oldest boy used to think that if he could not see the sun shining in the sky during the day, then it was not really out and shining. For him, the sun had to be visible, uncloaked by clouds. He eventually realized that the presence of the sun was evident in the light it shone. Clouds might affect his seeing the fiery ball above, but the rays still came down to illumine the earth. And soon he will learn that even darkness does not mean the absence of the sun, for the moon reflects its light.
The sun of resurrection hope shines bright and clear in Daniel 12:2: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” There is not a cloud in sight. But whence came this hope? Some interpreters insist that it did not shine earlier than Daniel 12. ((See, e.g., John J. Collins, Encounters with Biblical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 28, 32; Lloyd Bailey, Biblical Perspectives on Death (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 73.)) But what if rays could be seen through clouds in earlier prophets, poetry, historical books, and even the Torah? What if the promise of resurrection, in some places, was more like moonlight?
In this article I will put forward evidence that the OT authors advanced a hope for resurrection. Daniel 12:2 is the fullest expression of it, but that verse is not an innovation or intrusion in OT theology. Resurrection hope is discernible in the Bible’s earliest books and culminates in the statement that those who returned to the dust would one day wake up and rise.
An exhaustive exploration of OT resurrection hope is not possible in this article, so subsequent sections will engage texts that represent expressions of this hope in the theology of the OT authors. Crucial to my approach are two preliminary issues: first, the importance of progressive revelation, and second, the dynamic presentation of death and life in the Bible.
Progressive revelation acknowledges that what God disclosed at one point in history may undergo development and further disclosure. Later biblical authors may use and reappropriate the texts of earlier biblical authors. Recognition of such usage is hermeneutically helpful because we can see an inspired, authoritative interpretation and expansion of earlier verses and themes. The insights of progressive revelation can be more fully appreciated in the Bible’s canonical context. Attending to the canonical context helps to preserve the organic storyline and unity of Holy Scripture. Certainly resurrection hope is a frequent subject in the NT. For the question of that hope in the OT, our attention to progressive revelation can help us rightly identify early texts where the seeds of this hope are planted.
Some readers may conceive of resurrection hope in exclusively biological terms. This understanding is far too narrow, however. We should take our cues from the biblical authors, who spoke of death and life in more dynamic ways. The hope for bodily resurrection was part of a matrix of other OT themes—like the movement of rising up, restoration reversing desolation, provision of offspring despite obstacles, near-death rescue, promises implying new bodily life, redemption from captivity, recovery from sickness, resuscitation from physical death, return from exile—that testified of God’s power and promise-keeping zeal. This tenfold matrix will help us see how resurrection hope was both implicit and explicit prior to Daniel 12:2.
The opening chapters of the Bible narrate God creating a world and, most specifically, giving life as things rise up. His Spirit hovered over the waters (Gen 1:2) and, on the third day, brought forth land out of the water (1:9) and then vegetation and plants from the land (1:11). Mirroring the third day was the sixth, ((Days 1-3 form what is then filled in Days 4-6. See Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (Word Biblical Commentary; Nashville: Word, 1987): 6-7.)) when God brought up man from the dust (2:7). These reports of upward movement from the ground or water are resurrection imagery. ((For an excellent treatment of resurrection typology in the Genesis creation account, see Nicholas P. Lunn, “‘Raised on the Third Day According to the Scriptures’: Resurrection Typology in the Genesis Creation Narrative,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 57.3 (2014): 523-35.)) From the ground, God has raised up life. Man was not created as a soul apart from a body; man was an embodied being. The divine design, then, was an image-bearer with a body.
The first Adam was an archetype in the sense that every image-bearer would come into this world as an embodied person. And while the wages of sin was death (Rom 6:23), the last Adam secured resurrection life for all who are in him (1 Cor 15:22). When the apostle Paul talked of resurrection hope in 1 Corinthians 15:35-49, he alluded to Genesis 1-2. Death could be depicted as sowing grain in the ground (1 Cor 15:37), yet the seed rises up in due time with its fitting form (15:38-39). Likewise the body is sown into the ground at death, but it will be raised imperishable at the resurrection (15:42-44). Jesus’ own resurrection was the fruitfruits of this hope coming true (1 Cor 15:20; cf. John 12:24).
Restoration Reversing Desolation
In Genesis 7-8, God destroyed the world and then made it new again. The flood was a de-creation. God’s Spirit had once separated waters (Gen 1:6), brought forth dry land (1:9), and filled that land with plant, animal, and human life (1:11, 25-27). Yet this order was reversed as God wiped out mankind, animals, and plants, and then covered the dry land again with water. When the mighty deluge ended, God caused the waters to move (8:1), and when they receded, dry land appeared (8:4-5) and plant life returned (8:11). Soon the animals and man filled the land again (8:18-19). The biblical author depicted Genesis 7-8 not only as a de-creation but as a re-creation too. ((See Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 162-63.)) The world which had died was now raised from its desolate state. The apostle Peter referred to the ark being preserved through the waters of judgment (1 Pet 1:20) right before he mentioned baptism (1:21). Baptism pictures going into and coming out of the grave (cf. Rom 6:3-4), so Peter’s previous reference to the ark event confirms that Genesis 7-8 tells a story of death and resurrection.
By analogy, desolations of land are death, and restoration is resurrection. For example, in Isaiah 35 God will cause the wilderness to be glad and the desert to thrive (35:1-2). According to Levenson, as God “marches forth in wrath against the oppressive forces of chaos and death, nature languishes, and when he returns enthroned in victory and justice, nature flourishes and luxuriates.” ((Jon D. Levenson, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 211.))
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down, the grass shall become reeds and rushes (Isa 35:5-7).
In this passage, physical handicaps and geographical desolation are linked together, and God reverses the state of both. He brings life and restoration. Levenson again: “These transformations, whether of deserts or mountains or unjust fates or human disabilities, were equally impossible and equally exceptional … To those of little faith, they were doubtless mere fantasies and impossibilities.” ((Ibid., 212.)) Yet God’s power overcomes what seems impossible. Earlier verses (e.g., Isa 25:8 and 26:19) teach that God’s power will undo death as well. Greenspoon reasons that the “resurrection of man can be fit into the overall portrayal of nature’s response to the victorious Divine Warrior.” ((Leonard J. Greenspoon, “The Origin of the Idea of Resurrection,” in Traditions in Transformation: Turning Points in Biblical Faith (ed. Baruch Halpern and Jon D. Levenson; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1981), 276.))
The Israelites could also be desolated and restored. When God promised judgment to rebellious Israel, he compared his wrath to a lion that would tear them apart (Hos 5:14). Hosea reported the response of the people, “Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us, on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him” (6:1-2). While the sincerity of the people may be in question (see 6:4-6), they were not wrong about God’s ability to raise the dead. If God desolated them with judgment, their restoration would be like resurrection from the dead. Their use of resurrection language confirmed the existence of this concept already during the 8th century B.C. ((Ibid., 309.)) Since resurrection hope existed prior to Hosea’s ministry, the language in 6:2 adapted bodily resurrection to the experience of the nation. ((Francis I. Andersen and David Noel Freedman, Hosea (Anchor Bible; Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1980), 420.)) The Israelites described their revival in terms of a land flourishing under God’s blessing: “Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD; his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth” (6:3). Similar language appeared in 14:6-8 (Eng. 14:5-7) when God promised to restore his desolate people: “I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall blossom like the lily; he shall take root like the trees of Lebanon; his shoots shall spread out; his beauty shall be like the olive, and his fragrance like Lebanon. They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow; they shall flourish like the grain; they shall blossom like the vine; their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon.” ((The language in Hos 14:6-8 (Eng. 14:5-7) is probably shaped by the earlier resurrection passage in 6:2-3. See Levenson, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel, 205.)) In Hosea 6, the people hoped God would resurrect them, that he might come to them like spring rains on a parched land. And in Hosea 14, God pledged to do just that. In their desolate state, God’s restoring power would raise them up.
Provision of Offspring Despite Obstacles
The experience of barrenness (Gen 11:30; 16:2; 18:11-13) or the loss of children (37:33-35; 48:11; Job 1:19-20; Jer 31:15) were devastating obstacles that a couple could face. Wright observes, “To see one’s children die or be killed was perhaps the greatest possible personal disaster.” ((N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, (Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 3; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 148.)) The end of a family line was a functional death because personal identity continued on in the survival and propagation of progeny (cf. Gen 15:1-3; 30:1). Life, then, was bound up in social identity, and Hebrew culture did not finely distinguish the individual from it. ((Levenson, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel, 109.)) This logic undergirded the practice of levirate marriage (Deut 25:5; Matt 22:24). ((Ibid., 120. “By a kind of legal fiction, his family brings something of their dead kinsman back to life, birth again reversing death. Levirate marriage is a mode of redemption of the dead” (121).)) If a couple experienced barrenness or the loss of children, the subsequent provision of children was the resurrection of the family line from the dead.
Consider the tragic death of Abel in Genesis 4. Coming after the promise of 3:15 that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent, Eve may have thought that the birth of Abel marked the fulfillment of that prophecy (4:1). Yet Cain killed Abel, ending the line that would have advanced through him (4:8). The birth of Seth was the resurrection of the promised line (4:25-26). ((For a further treatment of how the birth of Seth was a resurrection of the line that died with Abel, see Mitchell L. Chase, “The Genesis of Resurrection Hope: Exploring Its Early Presence and Deep Roots,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 57.3 (2014): 467-80.)) The theme of obstacles to the line of promise surfaces repeatedly in the Pentateuch, and the first attestation of the pattern of birth-reversing-death was in Genesis 4 (cf. Job 1 and 42).
The chapters of Genesis also interweave a barrenness theme. Levenson rightly observes, “Striking at each generation of the patriarchs of Genesis, and then Judah in the next, childlessness in one or both of these modes threatens to terminate the family, thus evoking the terror that later generations (including our own) feel in the face of their personal deaths.” (((Levenson, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel, 119-20.)) God promised Abraham that all families of the earth would be blessed through him (Gen 12:2-3), but the reader had just learned of Sarah’s barrenness (11:30). This obstacle of barrenness introduced tension in the narrative because God promised the patriarch more offspring than the stars above (15:5). Displaying his power, God granted life to Sarah’s dead womb (21:1-7). “God’s reversal of Sarah’s infertility brought life from death in the same way Seth’s birth brought hope after Abel died.” ((Chase, “The Genesis of Resurrection Hope,” 477.)) In Paul’s interpretation of Isaac’s birth, the apostle affirmed that God “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom 4:17). The pattern of birth-reversing-death was repeated in the wombs of Rebekah (Gen 25:21), Leah (29:31), and Rachel (30:22). “These reversals of barrenness strengthen the confidence that God has the power to reverse destruction and to overcome any obstacles impeding the advance of his promises and the seed of the woman.” ((Ibid.))
Stories of near-death rescues pervade the OT. God may rescue his people from external threats (like looming tragedy or the assault of enemies) or from internal threats (like sickness). In this section we will consider rescues of the former kind.
Abraham’s child of promise was born in Genesis 21:1-7, and in 22:2 God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. This instruction would kill the promised line, and it would also call into question God’s promise in 21:12 that “through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” Nevertheless, Abraham went to the mountain with his young men and son (22:3), and on the appointed day he took Isaac to the mountain. Before the ascent he told his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you” (22:5). Abraham spoke in the plural when he spoke of returning (“come again,” wĕnāšûbāh). The best explanation of his words is confidence that God would not renege on the promise of multiplying offspring through Isaac. His plural statement, “I and the boy will … come again to you,” was an expression of resurrection faith. If God appointed Isaac as the vessel of offspring, and if he also directed Abraham to kill this promised child, then God must intend to raise Isaac from the dead in order to uphold his promise. Abraham did not believe that God’s command in Genesis 22:5 would nullify God’s promise in 21:12. The writer of Hebrews tells us that Abraham “considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Heb 11:19). Isaac’s near-death deliverance was a figurative resurrection from the dead! ((According to Philip E. Hughes, “So dramatic was the sequence of events that it was as though Isaac really had died and been raised up to life again” (A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977], 484).)) And according to Beale, God’s preservation of Abraham’s seed through the deliverance of Isaac was a “type” of the future resurrection. ((G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 320.))
If a biblical character neared death, successful intervention was deliverance from death. This deliverance was sometimes framed as if the victim was in the very jaws of Sheol before being lifted out by the power of God. Therefore death was not just the culmination of a life but could even describe the process leading up to the cessation of biological life. Commenting on how Hebrews 11:19 interpreted the rescue of Isaac in Genesis 22:10-12, Byron Wheaton deduces:
This text provides us with several clues for reading other narratives of the OT for their allusion to the resurrection. First, the “victim” is under some sort of sentence of death. Second, the process of execution is in progress. Third, there is no human possibility of rescue; the end is imminent. Fourth, the dying process is miraculously overcome so that the victim is restored to life. Fifth, the “resurrection” issues in a new future for the victim and those associated with him. ((Byron Wheaton, “As It Is Written: Old Testament Foundations for Jesus’ Expectation of Resurrection,” Westminster Theological Journal 70 (2008): 248.))
With this hermeneutical lens in place, consider the near-death rescue of Jonah. The prophet was thrown into the sea (Jon 1:15), and a fish swallowed him (2:1 [Eng. 1:17]). The fish delivered Jonah from drowning, and Jonah experienced another deliverance when the fish vomited him onto dry land after three days and three nights (2:1 [Eng. 1:17]; 2:11 [Eng. 2:10]). The prophet described the watery depths as “the belly of Sheol” (2:3 [Eng. 2:2]), from which the fish rescued him and “brought up my life from the pit” (2:7 [Eng. 2:6]). Wheaton says, “This act of divine intervention when there was no possibility of escaping death can only be understood as resurrection.” ((Ibid., 252.)) Jesus used the image of Jonah’s near-death descent to speak of his own impending death: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt 12:40).
David once portrayed his conditions of demise as waves of death, torrents of destruction, cords of Sheol, and snares of death (2 Sam 22:5-6). When he called upon God, “He sent from on high, he took me; he drew me out of many waters” (22:17). The content of 2 Samuel 22 parallels Psalm 18 (see Ps 18:5-6 [Eng. 18:4-5]; 18:17 [Eng. 18:16]). The picture of being taken up from Sheol is resurrection from the dead. Anderson explains:
Some of Israel’s psalms indicate that death is something more than a biological event that occurs when the heart stops beating… [I]n the view of Israel’s psalmists, death’s power is at work in us now, during our historical existence. Death’s power is felt in the midst of life to the degree that one experiences any weakening of personal vitality through illness, bodily handicap, imprisonment, attack from enemies, or advancing old age. Any threat to a person’s welfare …, that is, one’s freedom to be and to participate in the covenant community, is understood as an invasion of Death, regarded as a mythical Power, into “the land of the living.” In some of the psalms (especially individual psalms of thanksgiving), one can see how the experience of salvation from the power of death moves toward the experience of “resurrection,” that is, being restored from death to life. ((Bernard W. Anderson with Steven Bishop, Contours of Old Testament Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 312.))
David wrote in Psalm 3 about enemies surrounding him. With the threat of death rising against him (Ps 3:1-2), God was a shield and head-lifter (3:3-4). David lay down, slept, and rose again because of God’s sustaining power (3:5). David was confident of vindication (3:7). In Psalms 22-24, David described terror on every side, as well as a feeling of forsakenness within him (22:1, 6-7, 12-15). Evildoers encircled the king (22:16), piercing him and gloating over him (22:16-18). Yet the Lord was his shepherd (23:1), leading him and restoring him (23:2-3). In the shadow of death, he confessed the comforting staff of God (23:4). Then in Psalm 24, David asked who shall ascend and stand in God’s holy place (24:3). The answer was “the King of glory” (24:7-10), who experienced exaltation and triumph. Passages like Psalm 3 and clusters like Psalms 22-24 depict the deliverance and vindication of the king in terms that evoke rescue from death. Confident in God’s power over death, the psalmist can say, “when I was brought low, he saved me … I will walk before the LORD in the land of the living” (116:6, 9).
The book of Daniel described two famous near-death rescues: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were delivered out of a fiery death (Dan 3:26), and Daniel was saved from the lions (6:22-23). The fiery furnace and den of lions were places of death, and God delivered these characters in figurative resurrections. Steinmann says, “The preservation of his faithful followers from physical harm and temporal death affords a glimpse of the salvation from eternal death and resurrection to eternal life that all God’s people have through faith (12:2-3).” ((Andrew E. Steinmann, Daniel (Concordia Commentary; St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2008), 322.)) Near-death deliverances stirred hope for that final vindication when God’s people will dwell with him forever in bodies not bound by death. In the book of Daniel, a temporal deliverance and vindication “encourages us to see the prediction of resurrection as the final and most explicit promise in a much longer line … Any second-Temple Jew who pondered the book would find in 12:2-3 not a new and outlandish idea, unanticipated and unforeseen, but the crown of all that had gone before.” ((Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 114-15.)) Every deliverance from death, every picture of resurrection, turned up the heat of hope for God to do something about death itself. With each divine rescue—be it of Isaac, Jonah, David, or Daniel—the temperature rose.
The previous stories in this section concerned small-scale deliverances from death, with the focus on an individual. On a corporate scale, the crossing through the Red Sea depicted resurrection on a grand canvas. As the Egyptians pursued the Israelites, the latter asked Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (Exod 14:11a). The people believed they were standing in their own graves, and this language was significant for what God did next. God divided the waters of the sea into two standing walls (14:21-22), and the Israelites crossed on dry ground (14:22, 30). The apostle Paul certainly viewed this crossing as a picture of resurrection because he spoke of the people being “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Cor 10:2), and baptism displayed dying and rising again.
Promises Implying New Bodily Life
In the Garden of Eden, the tree of life held out hope for a kind of life Adam and Eve did not yet have. After the couple sinned, God exiled them out of the garden “lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (Gen 3:22). The tree of life was a promise of immortal bodily life. Adam and Eve were embodied image-bearers, but they lived in mortal bodies in the garden. The tree of life indicated that another kind of bodily life was possible, a superior and immortal existence. Waltke says, “This highest potency of life was available in the garden and … will be experienced consummately in the resurrection of our bodies.” ((Bruce K. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 257.))
God promised Abraham, “I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God” (Gen 17:8; cf. 12:7; 13:15; 15:18). But how could God keep this promise if Abraham died not owning more than a burial plot in the promised land? ((Donald E. Gowan, Theology of the Prophetic Books: The Death and Resurrection of Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 17.)) The patriarchs did not believe death would hinder the fulfillment of their promised inheritance. When Abraham died, Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah—a cave in Canaan (25:9). When Isaac died, Jacob and Esau buried him in that same cave (35:29; 49:31). And as Jacob was dying, he told his sons to “bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, in the cave that is in the field at Machpelah” (49:29-30; 50:13). Near his own death, Joseph requested that his bones be carried from Egypt to Canaan (50:24-25; Heb 11:22). These Genesis characters believed burial in Canaan was important because God would keep his promise to give them the land as an everlasting possession. These hopeful men would experience new bodily life that enabled the fulfillment of the land-promise. N. T. Wright says that no rabbi “supposed that the patriarchs … had yet been given this resurrection life. The point of demonstrating that there were promises yet outstanding to the patriarchs was that God must be capable of fulfilling them in the world yet to come.” ((Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 199-200.))
Isaiah 24-27 is a little apocalypse, and in 25:8 God promised to “swallow up death forever.” If death is defeated, its hold on bodies would be broken. Therefore the promise to eat death implied resurrection. Isaiah 25 contrasted with the previous chapter, which narrated God’s judgment and cosmic destruction (24:1, 3-6, 17, 19-20). Isaiah 24 and 25 were chapters of judgment and renewal, and God’s consumption of death would be part of this renewing work. Since death was one of God’s enemies, “or even the ultimate enemy,” the final victory of God “requires the elimination of his great foe, death.” ((Levenson, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel, 200.)) The apostle Paul understood that the promise of Isaiah 25:8 would be fulfilled at the resurrection (see 1 Cor 15:54).
Redemption from Captivity
In light of the OT’s dynamic view of death, slavery or captivity was a functional death. ((Ibid., 161. See also Othmar Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms (New York: Seabury Press, 1978).)) An episode like the exodus from Egypt (Exod 12:33-42) was a redemption tantamount to living again. Liberation was resurrection. According to Levenson, “To be alive in this frequent biblical sense of the word inevitably entailed more than merely existing in a certain physical state. It also entailed having one’s being within a flourishing and continuing kin group that dwelt in a productive and secure association with its land.” ((Levenson, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel, 154-55.)) The exodus became a salvific event writ large in the minds of Israelites. It was a prototype of ultimate redemption, of eschatological liberation: resurrection from the dead. ((Ibid., 27-28.)) Especially in the Prophets, the events of the nation subsumed within it the hope for individual liberation as well, freedom from death and decay (cf. Hos 6; Ezek 37). The OT authors advanced individual hope through the experiences of Israel.
Having considered the corporate example of the people being liberated in Exodus, now reflect on the individual story of Joseph at the end of Genesis. His scheming brothers sold him into slavery (Gen 37:27-28). The narrator said “Joseph had been brought down to Egypt” (39:1), a descent into captivity. Yet God prospered Joseph. Joseph’s master installed him as the overseer of his house “and put him in charge of all that he had” (39:4). Eventually Joseph rose to power in Egypt with only Pharaoh being greater (41:40). Pharaoh set Joseph over all Egypt, putting a ring on his hand, fine linens on his body, and a golden chain around his neck (41:41-42). From the death of captivity, Joseph had experienced a resurrection. ((Wheaton, “As It Is Written,” 250.))
Recovery from Sickness
Keeping in mind Anderson’s words that “Death’s power is felt in the midst of life to the degree that one experiences any weakening of personal vitality through illness,” ((Anderson, Contours of Old Testament Theology, 312.)) Naaman’s leprous condition was a kind of death. In 2 Kings 5, the king of Israel received a letter from the king of Syria which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy” (5:6). But Israel’s king tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?” (5:7). In the mind of this king, God alone could cure leprosy because God had the power to kill and make alive—and a leper being cured would be like rising from death!
According to Leviticus 13:45-46, a leper had to wear torn clothes and loose hair, cry out “Unclean! Unclean!” lest anyone come near, and live in exile for the rest of his days, cut off from friends and family (see Num 5:2-3). In light of Moses’ words about Miriam when she became leprous, someone with that disease was as good as dead (see Num 12:10-12). Curing leprosy was like resurrection. Elisha instructed Naaman the Leper to wash in the Jordan River seven times in order for his flesh to be restored and clean (2 Kgs 5:10), and Naaman’s compliance resulted in physical restoration (5:14). What seemed impossible to man could be overcome by the power of God.
Resuscitation from Physical Death
In the Torah, no one was physically raised from death. Three occurrences in the historical books merit our attention, however. Elijah raised a widow’s son (1 Kgs 17:20-23), Elisha raised a Shunammite’s son (2 Kgs 4:34-35), and Elisha’s bones raised a dead man when the latter’s body touched the prophet’s bones (2 Kgs 13:20-21). N. T. Wright says these resuscitations “are not particularly relevant to the study of Israelite beliefs about death and life beyond,” ((Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 96.)) but that statement severely underestimates their importance. Since there was no previous story of someone coming back from the dead, these episodes were unprecedented. And consider what these reports meant about death: physical death was not undoable. Its jaws, though clenched tightly over its prey, could be pried open at the command of God. Of Elijah’s resuscitation of the widow’s son (see 1 Kgs 17:20-23), Greenspoon said that “what Elijah carried out could be termed a preliminary resurrection, but a resurrection nonetheless.” ((Greenspoon, “The Origin of the Idea of Resurrection,” 315.)) After all, the three resurrections in 1-2 Kings were still unto mortal bodies, so death would eventually come again for each character. Of Elisha’s resuscitation of the Shunammite’s son (see 2 Kgs 4:34-35), Levenson said the miracle demonstrated “a firm faith in God’s power over death.” ((Levenson, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel, xii.)) Indeed, “long before the apocalyptic framework came into existence, the resurrection of the dead was thought possible—not according to nature, of course, but through the miraculous intervention of the living God.” ((Ibid., 132. As Smith rightly concludes, “The fact that Elijah and Elisha brought to life two different dead boys (1 Kgs 17:17-24; 2 Kgs 4:18-37) and that a dead man was brought back to life after his body touched … Elisha’s bones (2 Kgs 13:20-21) indicates that individual resurrection from the dead was known long before the days of Isaiah” (Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 1-39 [New American Commentary; Nashville: B&H Publishers, 2007], 452).))
The NT evidence confirms the importance of these OT resurrections as pointers to the general resurrection of the dead. In Hebrews 11, the writer lists a series of victories and deliverances in 11:33-35a, ending with “Women received back their dead by resurrection” (11:35a). The allusion is surely to the widow’s son of 1 Kings 17 and the Shunammite’s son of 2 Kings 4. Note that as a list of sufferings begins in Hebrews 11:35b, the writer mentions a hope for general resurrection: “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life.” At the pivot point between the list of victories (11:33-35a) and the list of sufferings (11:35b-38), 11:35 has a pair of resurrection references. And both references use anastasis. The writer could have ordered the victories and sufferings any way he deemed appropriate, so it is not incidental that the final victory (11:35a) and the first suffering (11:35b) refer to resurrection. The former—resurrection to mortal bodily life—is a type and foreshadowing of the latter—resurrection to immortal bodily life. As Cockerill notes about 11:35, “Every temporal deliverance provides assurance of ultimate deliverance in the ‘better resurrection’ (11:35b) because it bears witness to the faithfulness and power of God.” ((Gareth Lee Cockerill, The Epistle to the Hebrews (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 526.))
The typological significance of temporal resurrections is confirmed in Jesus’ words as well, though he wasn’t alluding to 1-2 Kings. In Matthew 11:5, Jesus answers the doubts of John the Baptist by telling him “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” This verse is a meshing together of various OT texts. Discernible is the dependence on Isaiah 35:5-6 (where there is reference to the blind, deaf, and lame) and Isaiah 61:1 (where good news is preached to the poor). ((There are no clear OT promises that lepers would be cleansed. Jesus’ inclusion of this miracle, then, adds to his remarkable healing ministry.)) Jesus’ reference to the dead who “are raised up” is probably an allusion to Isaiah as well, most notably to 26:19: “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.” This verse occurs in the Little Apocalypse (Isa 24-27) just like 25:8 (which Paul quoted in 1 Cor 15:54). The pertinence of Jesus’ allusion to Isaiah 26:19 is in the fact that his words in Matthew 11:5 were to miracles he had done in his ministry (see Matt 8-9). He had healed a leper (8:1-4), a lame man (9:1-8), the blind (9:27-30), the deaf (9:32-34), and he had preached good news to the poor (9:35-36). He also raised a dead girl (9:23-25), but her resurrection wasn’t unto immortality. Note, then, that Jesus alludes to an Isaianic promise of general resurrection when he had only performed a temporal resurrection in his ministry. This allusion to Isaiah 26:19 does not exhaust the hope of that OT promise, but it does confirm that the eschatological restorative and transformative power of God is already at work in the world. Temporal resurrections are signs pointing to the hope that one day bodies would rise never to die again.
Return from Exile
As far back as Genesis 3, exile denoted death. ((As Koorevaar explains, “Exile and return together form one of the most important theological subjects of the OT… At the beginning, with the banishment from the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3, the subject of exile applies to all of humanity. From Gen 11:27 and the rest of the OT, the subject of exile and return applies to the people of the covenant, Israel. Humanity as a whole and the nation of Israel are linked together macro-theologically. Adam and his exile function paradigmatically for Israel and its possible exile. Israel’s return to the land can then also be seen as a paradigm for the return of Adam as representative of all humanity. The question in this connection is: return to what? Return to the Garden of Eden, or return to the earth as a prospect of rising above death?” (Hendrik J. Koorevaar, “The Exile and Return Model: A Proposal for the Original Macrostructure of the Hebrew Canon,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 57.3 : 510).)) Adam and Eve had sinned against God, and God had previously promised Adam that violating his command would bring death (2:17). The first couple did not immediately die physically, though God sent them from the land (garden). Since death is viewed dynamically by the biblical authors, the exile of Adam and Eve was a kind of death. Sin affected mankind both spiritually and physically (Gen 2:17; 3:17-19; Rom 5:12-21). But before Adam and Eve left the garden, God made a promise to the serpent that “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen 3:15). Eve anticipated the fulfillment of this prophecy (see 4:1, 25-26), and this hope was passed from generation to generation. Lamech hoped his son Noah was the promised victor, for he said, “Out of the ground that the LORD has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands” (5:29). ((According to Walton, “It may have been Lamech’s hope that Noah would somehow bring about the reversal of the curse” (John H. Walton, Genesis [NIV Application Commentary; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001], 281).)) Noteworthy is the fact that Lamech believed the promised victor would reverse the curse from 3:17-19. ((James M. Hamilton Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 88.)) And, keeping in mind that an aspect of the judgment in 3:17-19 was physical death (3:19), this promised one would reverse the curse in a sense that would affect death itself. ((Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 228-29.)) Beale rightly concludes, “The first possible hint of resurrection life may be discernible in Gen 1-3.” ((Ibid., 228.)) The reversal of the curse and the resurrection of the dead is the greatest return from exile.
The pairing of resurrection language with a return from exile is also evident in Psalm 80. There Asaph prayed for the restoration of Israel: “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved!” (80:4 [Eng. 80:3]). The nation’s destruction meant death, so the psalmist prayed for God to “give us life, and we will call upon your name!” (80:19 [Eng. 80:18]). This prayer of Asaph was significantly preceded by Psalm 79, which opened with, “O God, the nations have come into your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple; they have laid Jerusalem in ruins” (79:1). The return and restoration of Israel would be resurrection from the dead.
Perhaps the most famous pairing of return from exile and resurrection is in Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones in a valley (Ezek 37:7-10). Ezekiel prophesied over the bones, and they came together, bone to bone, followed by sinews, flesh, and skin (37:7-8). Breath entered the bones, and the resurrected people stood on their feet (37:10). Who is this army? God told Ezekiel, “Son of Man, these bones are the whole house of Israel” (37:11a), and then, “Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel” (37:12). The return from exile was resurrection from the dead! According to Carnley, “The standard use of any term is presupposed by the metaphorical use, and we would not understand the metaphor without it.” ((Peter Carnley, The Structure of Resurrection Belief (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 229. Similarly, Ladd: “The very fact that the vision sees the restoration of dead bones to life suggests that the idea of bodily resurrection was familiar” (George Eldon Ladd, I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975], 48).)) So the choice of language in Ezekiel 37—bones, sinews, skin, breath, raise—would function most effectively when placed in a worldview already informed by the concept of bodily resurrection. ((Greenspoon, “The Origin of the Idea of Resurrection,” 293.)) Rather than a prophecy of corporate resurrection influencing writers to hope for bodily resurrection, the hope for bodily resurrection came before corporate applications of it. ((Greenspoon reasons, “It is sufficiently clear that Ezekiel was working with a concept of the resurrection of the dead well enough known to his audience to allow for the simultaneous application of this belief to ‘literal’ resurrection and national restoration” (“The Origin of the Idea of Resurrection,” 294).))
Hope for Bodily Resurrection
Near the end of Deuteronomy, Moses reports Yahweh’s unrivaled claim: “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand” (Deut 32:39). The claim to “kill” and “make alive” is parallel with the claim to “wound” and “heal.” The order is significant because wounding comes before healing, so the previous pair should be understood as killing and then making alive after death. Bronner observes, “The arrangement of the key words … suggests that they are dealing with a resurrection motif.” ((Leila Leah Bronner, “The Resurrection Motif in the Hebrew Bible: Allusions or Illusions?” Jewish Bible Quarterly 30.3 (2002): 145.)) Here God claims the power to raise the dead. The timing of this claim is important because there was no report, up to that point in Israel’s history, of God raising anyone physically from the dead (see later in 1 Kgs 17; 2 Kgs 4; 2 Kgs 13). God is asserting his uniqueness over against idols which can do nothing. Greenspoon, again, is correct: “Since there is perhaps no other action of God’s which displays the totality and uniqueness of His power more forcefully than the process by which He restores His dead to life, a reference to bodily resurrection is surely in keeping with the context at this point.” ((Greenspoon, “The Origin of the Idea of Resurrection,” 312.)) Not to downplay the previous texts I’ve cited from Genesis and Exodus, but if Deuteronomy 32:39 was all the evidence we had in the Torah for resurrection hope, that verse alone “may well be sufficient to establish the certainty of an early date for the Biblical belief.” ((Ibid., 310. Beale agrees that Deut 32:39 is perhaps “the earliest explicit OT reference to [bodily] resurrection” (A New Testament Biblical Theology, 231).))
In Psalm 16:9-11, David was confident he would not be abandoned to Sheol, for “You make known to me the life path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (16:11). There is no hint of danger or sickness in the context of Psalm 16, so David was hoping for something more than the postponement of death. ((Ladd, I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, 46.)) Mortality did not negate a future deliverance. God would vindicate the righteous, showing faithfulness to his own, and if this could be fully attained only after death, then God could be trusted to raise the dead. ((Richard Bauckham, “Life, Death, and the Afterlife in Second Temple Judaism,” in Life in the Face of Death: The Resurrection Message of the New Testament (ed. Richard N. Longenecker; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 86.)) The NT certainly applied Psalm 16 in a resurrection context. Peter quoted 16:8-11 in order to explain why “it was not possible for [Jesus] to be held” by death (Acts 2:24). Psalm 16 should be read as a hope for rescue after death. ((Grogan says, “Many modern commentators are reluctant to understand these passages this way and, it seems to me, tend to set aside this kind of interpretation of them too easily” (Geoffrey W. Grogan, Psalms [The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008], 291).)) Other psalms also hold forth a resurrection hope (such as 49:16 [Eng. 49:15]; 71:20; 73:24). Bauckham is right that hope for resurrection life beyond death is found “especially in the Psalms.” ((Bauckham, “Life Death, and the Afterlife in Second Temple Judaism,” 85.))
Within the Little Apocalypse of Isaiah 24-27, there is a promise in 26:19 that God’s people will see life again: “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead.” ((For an exploration of how Isa 26-27 parallel and depend on Hos 13-14, see John Day, “A Case of Inner Scriptural Interpretation: The Dependence of Isaiah xxvi.13-xxvii.11 on Hosea xiii.4-xiv.10 (Eng. 9) and Its Relevance to Some Theories of the Redaction of the ‘Isaiah Apocalypse’,” Journal of Theological Studies 13 (1980): 309-19.)) The notion of bodily resurrection is clear because the verse speaks of dead bodies rising from the dust. While a corporate application isn’t necessarily excluded, Robert Martin-Achart rightly notes, “The author of Isa 26:19 is not, like Ezekiel, envisaging the political revival of the nation; he is not even speaking about an event that would concern all Israel; he is thinking only of certain members of the chosen People, of those to whom ‘thy dead’ refer.” ((Robert Martin-Achard, From Death to Life: A Study of the Development of the Doctrine of the Resurrection in the Old Testament (London: Oliver and Boyd, 1960), 131.)) To underscore the plain sense of Isaiah 26:19, Sawyer says its resurrection meaning is something “which no-one but a Sadducee, ancient or modern, could possibly misconstrue.” ((John F. A. Sawyer, “Hebrew Words for the Resurrection of the Dead,” Vetus Testamentum 23 (1973): 234. Wright calls Isa 26:19 “the most obvious ‘resurrection’ passage in Isaiah” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, 116).))
Regarding the clarity and fullness of expressing resurrection hope in the OT, Daniel 12:2 is unmatched: ((John Collins asserts, “There is virtually unanimous agreement among modern scholars that Daniel is referring to the actual resurrection of individuals from the dead” (Daniel [Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993], 391-92).)) “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” ((For an exploration on how Dan 12:2 used earlier Scripture and influenced later intertestamental and NT literature, see my dissertation: Mitchell L. Chase, “Resurrection Hope in Daniel 12:2: An Exercise in Biblical Theology” (Ph.D. diss., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2013).)) Sleeping in the dust is a metaphor for death, ((See George W. E. Nickelsburg, Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism (Harvard Theological Studies 26; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: Oxford University Press, 1972), 17.)) and waking up from the sleep of death is a metaphor for resurrection. Goldingay notes that “The OT’s standard way of envisaging dying and coming back to life is by speaking of lying down and sleeping, then of waking and getting up.” ((John Goldingay, Daniel (Word Biblical Commentary; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989), 307.)) Death in the dust recalls Genesis 3:19, where God told Adam, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Resurrection is a curse-reversing act of God’s (re)creative power. ((See Anne E. Gardner, “The Way to Eternal Life in Dan 12:1e-2 or How to Reverse the Death Curse of Genesis 3,” Australian Biblical Review 40 (1992): 5-6.)) As those in the dust awake, God’s power “breaks open the world of death.” ((Walther Zimmerli, Man and His Hope in the Old Testament (Studies in Biblical Theology; Naperville, IL: Alec R. Allenson Inc., 1968), 148.)) This resurrection is unto an eternal state (“everlasting,” ʿôlām) for two groups, the righteous and unrighteous. ((In Nickelsburg’s words, “A double resurrection was a conclusion drawn from these Jews’ understanding of the Scriptures and from their belief that God would keep his word” (Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life, 22).)) Jesus alludes to Daniel 12:2 when he says, “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29). He interprets Daniel 12:2 as a prediction that everyone—believer and unbeliever—would be raised either to life or judgment.
The previous sections were not exhaustive examinations of OT texts, but they illustrated how biblical authors advanced resurrection hope. From the beginning, evident in the garden’s tree of life, image-bearers had a hope for immortal bodily life. Subsequent stories and promises displayed the dynamics of death and life at work in the world. The stream of resurrection hope had many bends and turns along the way, surging to its climactic expression in Daniel 12:2. At this point we can draw three conclusion in light of the preceding OT evidence.
First, God has the power to keep his promises. This confidence stimulated resurrection hope because the Bible’s characters saw God overcoming every obstacle and hostile power, even death itself. Therefore, if God made great and precious promises that were not fulfilled before death, then he would fulfill them in his people’s resurrection life. In no way would death prove God a promise-breaker. According to Ladd, “The idea of man as an animated body, and the faith in a sovereign God whose power and promises could not be broken by death, led to the belief in the eschatological resurrection of the body.” ((Ladd, I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, 49.))
Second, resurrection hope is rooted in the Torah. This claim is controversial, since what Elmer Smick wrote over forty years ago remains true today: “The consensus of critical opinion still insists that emergent belief in the resurrection of the dead was a thing unattested in the literature of preexilic Israel.” ((Elmer Smick, “The Bearing of New Philological Data on the Subjects of Resurrection and Immortality in the Old Testament,” Westminster Theological Journal 31 (1969): 12.)) Yet the NT rejects this critical consensus. The apostle Paul said his hope for resurrection was based on “believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets” (Acts 24:15). And when the Sadducees told Jesus a story which they thought displayed the absurdity of resurrection, Jesus answered, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt 22:29). He went on to say, “And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (22:31-32). ((See J. Gerald Janzen’s insightful interpretation of the Markan account of this story in “Resurrection and Hermeneutics: On Exodus 3.6 in Mark 12.26,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 23 (1985): 46-48.)) Jesus quoted Exodus 3:6 to the Sadducees because they only accepted the Torah as authoritative. ((Recognizing resurrection hope in the Torah was serious business, for according to the Mishnah nothing less than eternal inheritance was on the line: “And these are the ones who do not have a share in the World-to-Come: He who says that the resurrection of the dead is not in the Torah, [he who says] that the Torah is not from Heaven, and the skeptic” (m. Sanh. 10:1).)) His introductory words, “as for the resurrection of the dead” (22:31a), help us see that his OT quote would be evidence of resurrection hope. ((Hays explains, “Presumably, in fact, their rejection of the resurrection rests precisely on appeals to the authority of Scripture: no such belief was taught by Moses, so it should not be accepted. By challenging them at this point, Jesus creates the expectation that he will produce scriptural evidence to discredit their skepticism” (Richard B. Hays, “Reading Scripture in Light of the Resurrection,” in The Art of Reading Scripture [ed. Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003], 226).)) Jesus, whom Stephen Dempster calls “the Master Exegete,” ((See Stephen G. Dempster, “From Slight Peg to Cornerstone to Capstone: The Resurrection of Christ on ‘The Third Day’ According to the Scripture,” Westminster Theological Journal 76.2 (2014): 371-410.)) would show the error of the Sadducean position. So while interpreters may be willing to see glimpses of resurrection hope in the Psalms and Prophets, or at least in the book of Daniel, we should adjust our affirmations to fit those of Jesus and the apostles. Either those characters are wrong, or higher-critical scholars are wrong. When the OT evidence is considered, the higher-critical consensus is a seriously deficient position. The hope of resurrection was sown as early as the Torah—indeed, even in Genesis. ((See Chase, “The Genesis of Resurrection Hope,” 467-80.))
Third, the biblical authors advanced a hope for resurrection in a matrix of themes that presuppose a dynamic view of death and life. As long as interpreters insist on recognizing resurrection hope only if certain words or expressions are present (e.g., Isa 26:19; Dan 12:2), then the Sadducees are right about the Torah. Certain words, yes, may denote resurrection, ((See Sawyer, “Hebrew Words for the Resurrection of the Dead,” 229-30. Sawyer concludes that eight verbs can carry the weight of resurrection: (1) hēqîṣ, (2) ḥāyâ, (3) ʿālâ, (4) šûb, (5)ʿāmad, (6) ṣîṣ, (7) qûm, and (8) nēʿôr.)) but Jesus’ use of Exodus 3:6 and Peter’s use of Psalm 16 are examples of seeing resurrection in OT texts lacking “standard” terms. From the Bible’s opening chapters, God is a God of life. His purposes advance by sovereign power, and death is no comparable foe. As we read the OT, there are figures of resurrection everywhere. Hays says:
Because the Old Testament’s pointers to the resurrection are indirect and symbolic in character, the resurrection [of Jesus] teaches us to read for figuration and latent sense. The Sadducees were literalists, but God seems to have delighted in veiled anticipations of the gospel. . . . Resurrection-informed reading sees the life-giving power of God manifested and prefigured in unexpected ways throughout Scripture. ((Hays, “Reading Scripture in Light of the Resurrection,” 234.))
As we read the OT, at least ten themes stand out as catalysts for resurrection hope: the movement of rising up, restoration reversing desolation, provision of offspring despite obstacles, near-death rescue, promises implying new bodily life, redemption from captivity, recovery from sickness, resuscitation from physical death, return from exile, and explicit hope for bodily resurrection. While some texts may fit into more than one category, this tenfold matrix provides a map to locate figures and promises of resurrection.
God has the power to keep all of his promises. We will be raised, and all creation will be made new (see Rom 8:22-23). Christ’s resurrection was the firstfruits of this hope (1 Cor 15:20). Death, the last enemy, will be destroyed (15:26). Resurrection will reverse and overcome the sin and curse that grips the world and the grave. From dust you shall arise (Dan 12:2). Believer, you shall awake and sing for joy (Isa 26:19), for Christ comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.