Resurrection: A Symbol of Hope by Lloyd Geering
Lloyd Geering is a Presbyterian minister and former Professor of Old Testament Studies at theological colleges in Brisbane and Dunedia, and Professor of Religious Studies at Victorian University in Wellington, New Zealand. He is author of Tomorrow's God (1994), The World to Come (1999) and Christianity Without God (2002). Published by Hodder and Stoughton: London, Auckland, Sydney, Toronto, 1971.
Chapter 5: Resurrection is the Hope for the Return of Spring
I saw the younger Sons carry the royal blood far down among the people, down even into the kennels of the Outcast. Generations follow, oblivious of the high beginnings, but there is that in the stock which is fated to endure. The sons and daughters blunder and sin and perish, but the race goes on, for there is a fierce stuff of life in it. It sinks and rises again and blossoms at haphazard into virtue or vice, since the ordinary moral laws do not concern its mission. Some rags of greatness always cling to it, the dumb faith that sometime and somehow that blood drawn from kings it never knew will be royal again. Though nature is wasteful of material things, there is no waste of spirit. And then after long years there comes, unheralded and unlooked for, the day of the Appointed Time...
-- from the Prologue of The Path of the King, by John Buchan
Our story takes us as far back in history as our knowledge of human thought goes. We shall confine our attention to the Ancient Near East, for this supplied the cultural roots for all Western civilization. There the two river valleys of Egypt and Mesopotamia cradled the civilizations which began to flourish from the fourth millennium before Christ. W. F. Albright writes: ‘Archaeological research has thus established beyond doubt that there is no focus of civilization in the earth that can begin to complete in antiquity and activity with the basin of the Eastern Mediterranean and the region immediately to the east of it -- Breasted’s Fertile Crescent. Other civilizations of the Old World were all derived from this cultural center or were strongly influenced by it; only the New World was entirely independent.’1
The culture and beliefs of men in the Ancient Near East were by no means the same through all the areas of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Asia Minor, Greece, etc., but they did share certain common problems and themes. This is due to the fact that when men slowly abandoned the nomad existence of the hunter and pastoralist for the settled existence of the agriculturist, they found themselves in a context in which their existence depended upon certain common factors and cycles of time. They recognized their dependence upon the sun, not only for bodily warmth, but also for growth of their crops and fruits. The sun itself went through a daily cycle. The moon had a monthly cycle. The earth itself knew an annual cycle, clearly marked by the changing seasons.
These cycles moved round the two opposite poles of life and death. Let us take, for example, the cycle of the sun, which received particular attention in Egypt. To the ancient Egyptian the sun’s daily journey began with birth and ended in death. The land of the East from which it rose became associated with life, birth and re-birth. The land of the West, where it sank to rest, became associated with death and life after death. The Egyptian hymn to Aton, the sun-god, runs thus, ‘When thou settest on the Western horizon, the land is in darkness in the manner of death . . . when the day breaks, as thou risest on the horizon . . . they awake and stand upon their feet . . . they live because thou hast arisen for them.’2
In contrast with the Egyptian, the nomad of the desert was more concerned with the moon than with the sun. He saw the moon wax and wane. At full moon this night luminary reached the point of maximum light and life, and enabled the nomad to move over the desert in cool comfort. As the moon waned it exhibited declining powers until it disappeared altogether -- in death -- only to reappear three days later, as a new moon. The full moon and the new moon are still reflected in the Old Testament as the chief seasons for the festivals of the nomad.
The annual cycle of the seasons was the most striking of all. Ancient man found himself living in a world which seemed to be a gigantic living entity which could hardly be described as ‘it’, for it pulsated with life akin to that which he experienced in his own person. Just as he himself oscillated between periods of vitality and tiredness, alertness and sleep, and lived out his life between birth and death, so the life of the earth itself was subject to a cosmic ebb and flow. In spring the blossoms and new shoots revealed a great burst into life, which continued until it reached the highest peak of life in summer. The autumn was marked by signs of slowing down and decay, while in winter the lowest ebb of inactivity was reached in a quiescent state comparable with death. Thus the annual cycle, the monthly cycle, and the daily cycle moved round the poles of life and death.
Over the centuries ancient man learned to express his thinking about the world in the form of myths, or stories of the gods, in whom were personified the unseen forces he presumed to be at work in the phenomena he observed. Closely associated with the myths were elaborate customs and ceremonies -- his ritual -- evolved over a long period of time. In these actions he danced and acted out what he believed to be his proper response to the living world which contained him. The details of these myths and the accompanying ritual differed from country to country, and even from city to city, but certain motifs became dominant and chief among these was the concern with life and death.
One story which seems to have been common, at least in general outline, to all the cultures of the Ancient Near East, describes how the vegetation or agricultural god dies with the decaying autumn season and is brought to life again in the spring. In Egypt he was called Osiris, in ancient Sumer Dumuzi, in Phoenicia Adonis and in Babylonia Tammuz.
As with most of the myths surviving from the ancient world, there is no one standard form of the myth of Osiris, Isis, Seth and Horus, coming to us from Egypt, and the details often become confused and inconsistent. The general picture is that Osiris, embodying the power of growth and fruitfulness, and indeed all the creative forces of nature, was killed by his brother Seth, who represented the barren red desert and the scorching wind, the natural enemies of agriculture in the Nile valley. The season of the year which marked the death of Osiris was that at which the level of the life-giving Nile sank lower, and the hot wind blew from the desert and the leaves began to fall.
Isis, the sister and lover of Osiris, went weeping in search of his dismembered body, and her tears were associated with the later inundations of the Nile and the subsequent restoration of the agricultural land to life. The various forms of the myth describe the restoration of Osiris in different ways. In one, Isis buried the limbs and flesh-pieces of Osiris in the various fields, so that the dead god would rise in the next season’s crops. In another, she restored Osiris temporarily to life so that she might become pregnant by him, and this meant that while Osiris remained the god of the underworld, he rose again to life on the earth in the person of the son Horus who was born to him. This is celebrated in the great hymn to Osiris, engraved on a tombstone about 1550 BC.:
Praise to you, 0 Osiris, Lord of Eternity, King of the Gods. . .
Isis, the mighty, who took action for her brother, who sought
The myth of Adonis, even though it is best known in its Greek form, originated in Phoenicia. It is commemorated still in the name of the Adonis river, which flows down from the Lebanon range into the Mediterranean not far from the famous city of Byblos. An ancient temple has been found in the vicinity of the cavern from which the head waters of the river issue forth. Each spring the river, enlarged by the melting snow, turns red because of the silt it carries down to the sea, and this was spoken of as the blood of Adonis. The myth has also been connected with the blood-red anemone which blooms on the mountains.
Adonis (derived from the Semitic word for ‘lord’) was a handsome young man, whose youth and virility symbolized the principle of growth and vitality. Every year he died, being killed while hunting a wild boar. The winter cold and lifelessness marked his absence from the earth, and he was pursued to the gloomy underworld by the beautiful Aphrodite. During her absence love and sexuality were thought to cease, and all life was threatened with extinction. In response to a messenger sent from the gods, the beauty queen was allowed to return from the underworld, and we are led to assume, though no form of the myth explicitly states it, that she was accompanied by her lover Adonis.
Thus Adonis spent one part of the year in the world of the living and then everything was alive and growing. The other part, following his annual death, was spent in the world of the dead, and then life and growth came to a standstill. More particularly he was taken to represent the corn which lies buried in the ground for half the year and then springs into life above the ground for the other half. Frazer maintained that in the great Phoenician sanctuary of Astarte at Byblos the death of Adonis was mourned annually to the accompaniment of wailing and lamentation, but that on the day after the festival, he was believed to come to life again and ascend up to heaven.4
What is sometimes claimed as the prototype of all these myths of the dying vegetation god is found in Mesopotamia in the myth of the Sumerian Dumuzi. He personified the creative powers of spring, and the goddess manna (Babylonian Ishtar) represented the fertility of nature. Their annual marriage was celebrated every spring and was the mythological way of describing the new fertility and growth of the spring season. The story is known as ‘manna’s Descent to the Nether World’. Although this myth was known in a later Babylonian form, which closely resembled the myth of Adonis, the prototype from Sumeria has only been slowly pieced together during this century, and some of it is still missing. It is clear, however, that unlike the Osiris and Adonis myths where the male element is dominant, in ancient Mesopotamia it was the goddess Inanna who took the major role, embodying in herself all the creative power of nature.
Inanna was the Sumerian goddess of love and queen of heaven, whose hand was wooed and won by the shepherd-god Dumuzi. But the marriage was to end in his death. Inanna, not content with being queen of heaven, set her heart -- or so it would appear -- on ruling the underworld as well, this latter being governed at that time by her sister and bitter enemy. She set off in her royal regalia for the ‘land of no return’, leaving instructions that if she did not return in three days her vizier should raise the alarm in the assembly of the gods and take steps to have her rescued. As she passed through each of the seven gates to the underworld, she was stripped in turn of her crown, sceptre, necklace, jewelry, rings, breastplate and finally her clothes, until she arrived stark naked before her sister’s throne, where the judgment of death was pronounced upon her and her corpse was hung from a nail.
After three days the vizier set in process the prearranged plan which led to the point where two sexless creatures were created by the god Enki to carry down to the underworld the ‘food of life’ and the ‘water of life’. On their arrival they sprinkled these an the lifeless corpse of manna and she revived. She was then allowed to ascend from the underworld but only if she gave someone as her substitute. So she returned to the earth, accompanied by heartless demons ready to pounce on their new victim. In the first two cities which she approached, the deities prostrated themselves before her and so saved their lives from the demons. But when she reached her husband Dumuzi, he sat in festive array on his throne and refused to grovel before her. So she ordered the demons to carry him off.
It is now clear that the story ends with the death of Dumuzi and that the journey of manna to the underworld was not undertaken in order to rescue him from death, as was once thought. The seasonal death and renewal of vegetation finds its representation in Inanna herself. It is Inanna who is brought back to life. In the later, Babylonian version of the same story, the goddess (there known as Ishtar) still plays the dominant role which ends in her renewal, and it is the young male (there known as Tammuz) who annually succumbs to death. As late as the sixth century BC. the Israelite prophet Ezekiel deplored the fact that Jewish women in Jerusalem were ‘sitting and wailing for Tammuz’ instead of being loyal to the God of their fathers.5
The myth which probably had greatest influence upon the ancient people of Israel is that of Baal and Anat, which, since 1930, has been partially recovered for us in tablets of Ancient Ugarit discovered at Ras Shamra. This was thought by some to be another seasonal myth describing the death and resurrection of the vegetation god, but the myth is not tied to an annual cycle and is much more concerned with the threat of periods of drought and the way to ensure the supply of the lifegiving water on which men, animals and all vegetation alike depend.
The poem revolves round the struggle of Yam-Nahar (god of seas and rivers), Baal (god of rain) and Athtar (god of springs, wells, and perhaps irrigation channels) as they each lay claim to the vacant post of viceroy to the kindly old god of heaven called El. Yam-Nahar (perhaps because the primary source of water was thought to be in the seas and rivers) was the first to attempt to build himself a palace, but he was attacked and defeated by Baal. Baal was allowed to build a palace, and this was provided with windows through which the rain would be poured on to the earth. One obstacle in his way was Mot, god of death, who caused the deaths in those times of drought when Baal failed to provide the rain. Mot was unwilling to enter the world above, so Baal descended into the underworld to search for him. While he was absent the rain ceased, the earth was parched and life failed. Since Baal was reported to be dead, El handed over the vacant power to Athtar (for when rain ceased and rivers dried up, men resorted to artificial methods, such as digging wells). Athtar ascended the throne, but being young and unmarried was not adequate for the task (i.e. artificial irrigation could not permanently replace the natural water supply). Baal’s sister Anat went searching for him, found his body and carried it to burial. Then she seized Mot and demanded that he deliver up her brother. Mot confessed that he had consumed Baal, whereupon Anat seized Mot, cut him up with a sword, winnowed him with a fan, burned him with fire, ground him up with a hand-mill and sowed him in the field. (These obviously are all actions which followed on the gathering of the previous harvest.) Then Baal came to life again. The myth announces, ‘The Prince had perished, and behold he is alive!’ The kingly father-god El saw in a vision the heavens raining fatness and the wadies flowing with honey and cried, ‘Now will I sit and rest and my soul be at ease in my breast. For alive is mighty Baal, existent the Prince, Lord of the Earth.’ Then Baal destroyed his rival Athtar, defeated Mot, and finally proved his right to the throne by taking to wife Anat, his own sister and the daughter of El.
G. R. Driver comments, ‘As thus interpreted, the poem depicts the introduction of the youthful Baal as a god of fertility into the Ugaritic pantheon and the establishment of his supremacy, under El’s suzerainty, over all the other gods, exercising power over earth as god of rain; for rain is the ultimate source of the life-giving water which is essential to the whole of nature, however it may be distributed.’6
Now, having briefly sketched these myths from Egypt, Phoenicia, Sumeria, Babylon and Canaan, we must ask some questions about their significance. The fact that they differ in their details is, for our purpose, of far less importance than the fact that there are the same motifs, general plot and characters running through them all. They have been commonly called the myths of the ‘dying-and-rising god’. What do they tell us about the thoughts of ancient man?
Much has been written about the ancient myth since Sir James Frazer completed his monumental task of assembling the myths and folk-lore of primitive man in The Golden Bough. He was essentially on the right lines when he described mythology as the philosophy of primitive man and defined myths as ‘documents of human thought in embryo’.7 H. and H. A. Frankfort have summarized the complex character of myth as follows: ‘Myth is a form of poetry which transcends poetry in that it proclaims a truth; a form of reasoning which transcends reasoning in that it wants to bring about the truth it proclaims; a form of action, of ritual behavior, which does not find its fulfillment in the act but must proclaim and elaborate a poetic form of truth.’8
The myth was certainly the product of human imagination, but it was not simply fantasy. The myth-maker was feeling round for suitable story-models in which to express, and partly to explain, the mysterious changes and events in which he found himself caught up in the living world about him. Most likely many myths made by men lived only a short life, but those that survived and spread did so because they readily met the common need of the human society where they flourished. Besides being explanatory models of the phenomena of life, they also provided personality figures with whom ancient man could identify in the variety of human experience, such as wonder, despair, joy, sorrow. This latter was one of the psychological values of the myth. For example, apart altogether from the more obvious meaning and purpose of the myths we have been looking at, the annual lamentation for Tammuz, Adonis, Osiris, etc., provided an annual outlet for man, however unconsciously it was used, to express grief for his own mortality and to that extent to come to terms with it. We may compare to some extent the therapeutic value in the traditional celebration of Good Friday by the Christian and of the Day of Atonement by the Jew.
Now the myths of the ‘dying-and-rising god’ provided the most acceptable description for ancient man of the annual cycle of growth and decay which he observed in his crops and fruits. The fact that he was so utterly dependent upon them for his continued life meant that he not only looked for an explanation of what was happening, but he sought an assurance that the dying down of the life processes in the earth would once again be followed by new life and growth as in former years. The fact that he also experienced storms, droughts and insect pests meant that he had no guarantee of this. Thus ancient man was looking for grounds on which he could face the future with hope. The myth of the ‘dying-and-rising god’ supplied him with an explanation, a ground for hope, and a means by which through the accompanying ritual, he could play his part in bringing his hope to fruition.
Now the first thing that is common to this group of myths is that they revolve round the two polar extremes of life and death, in such a way that sometimes one holds the upper hand and sometimes the other. Life and death, vitality and decay, impressed themselves upon man as powerful forces with which he had to contend, both in his own existence and in the very nature of the world where he lived. Every year a mysterious and wonderful thing took place -- it was indeed a miracle, something to be wondered at (for that is the ancient and proper meaning of the word ‘miracle’). It was this: Out of death there sprang life. When things had reached their lowest ebb, new life began to flow. The mysterious powers and processes at work he described as gods, and within the framework of his worldview that was easily the best explanation. These myths gave him hope because they told him that in the conflict between death and life, while life was not wholly victorious, yet death was by no means the last word.
The second thing we may note is that in the plot of each of this group of myths there is both a male and a female figure, and the love affair or marriage between them is closely associated with the renewal of growth, the chief purpose of the myth. Ancient man could not help but notice that mating and marriage held the key to new life by means of regeneration, at least in the world of living creatures. And it is not at all surprising that so many of the fertility rites were accompanied by religious prostitution.
But we must further note in these myths that the male figure is associated with death more than with life, while the female figure is associated more with life and renewal than with death. It is the female figure in each case who makes the journey to the land of death, or takes whatever steps are necessary to bring about the return of natural vitality to the earth. This is a natural consequence of the fact that in the creaturely world it is the female who is most closely identified with the birth of new life. It is she who experiences the labor pains, faces herself the threat of death, and eventually achieves the new birth. It is the male on the other hand who more often succumbs to an untimely death in hunting or in war. Further, the male is more symbolic of the species as a whole, and man, along with all the creatures, is mortal. Thus in each case it is the male in whom the fact of death is represented. Man as a species is born to die, but before he dies, he regenerates his species through the female. Consequently, when the death and rebirth of the vegetation was being described in a personal way, in the manner of myth, the same themes persisted.
Thirdly, though the common theme of this group of myths has frequently been referred to as the ‘dying-and-rising god’, it has more recently been pointed out that the return to life, or the resurrection, of the dead god is nowhere explicitly described. This is a very important point, and it largely depends on how we interpret the word ‘resurrection’ as to what we would expect to find if the myth were to include an appropriate description of it. It is at this point that the very poetic and symbolic nature of the term ‘resurrection’ begins to make itself felt even in the context of the ancient myth. If the myths, for example, had explicitly stated that Osiris returned from the underworld in person, that Adonis has accompanied Aphrodite back to the land of the living, that Dumuzi (Tammuz) had returned with Inanna (Ishtar), that Baal had made a triumphant tour from the underworld, then it would have to become a question of whether this would not have been more appropriately named a resuscitation.
Yet ancient man was not so naive as to think that the previous season’s growth and harvests could simply be resuscitated. The harvest had been gathered, stored and partly eaten. The spring growth that he looked for in hope was a new growth, very like the previous spring’s growth in appearance and having a great dependence upon it, yet essentially new all the same. The way in which death gave rise to life was essentially too much of a mystery simply to be described in terms of resuscitation. So it is at this very point in the myth that we find the mystery of the rising’ being spoken of in a variety of ways, and in most cases it is left to the listener to draw his own conclusions about it.
In the Egyptian myth Osiris is likened in one place to the seed which must be placed in the ground to die so that the new growth may shoot forth; and at the same time he is thought of as rising in the form of his son Horus who thus avenges the death of Osiris. In the earliest form of the Sumerian myth it is only the death of Dumuzi of which we are told; but after Inanna has taken her trip to the underworld and back, Dumuzi is somehow back on his throne ready to be consigned to death once again. In the later forms of the same essential myth the actual return of Tammuz or Adonis is not described, yet we are led to conclude that they have nevertheless returned to life.
In this quite striking way the ancient myths did full justice to the reality and finality of death on the one hand and to the mystery, on the other hand, of how death gave rise to new life. The term ‘resurrection’ of course comes to us from a much later period in history. Yet it is valid to speak of these myths in terms of the ‘dying-and-rising god’ not so much in spite of the fact that the resurrection is nowhere explicitly described, but rather just because it is not so described. Resurrection is a term which does not so much describe an observable process, as point in a symbolic way to what has always been the great mystery of the origin of life and the regeneration of new life out of death.
The fourth thing to be noted is that in creating the myth of the ‘dying-and-rising god’ in order to give expression to his hope for the future, ancient man was led to this hope and to this particular symbol by his observations of the natural world. The very cycles of the world in which he found himself gave him hope -- the daily cycle of the sun, the monthly cycle of the moon and above all the yearly cycle of the seasons of growth, harvest and decay. The myth of the ‘dying-and-rising god’ may be called the earliest expression of hope in a world where for both creatures and vegetation it could easily be concluded that death had the last say. They recognized that the life of all living things ends in death; but if there were no death, there could be no fresh life, no renewal, no regeneration. Ancient man found that, built into the very fabric of the earth, there was an answer other than death and it spelled out hope.
We shall see that later in the story there was destined to be introduced into this idiom of hope, elements which did not spring simply from the world of nature. But at the same time we should not despise the witness which ancient man has given to us. The particular form of myth in which he expressed it does not hold for us the conviction that it held for him, but the experience that it points to is just as real. We, too, often take fresh heart because the dawn of another day causes new hope to spring up within us, and we can re-echo the psalmist’s words, ‘Tears may linger at nightfall, but joy comes in the morning.’9
Our moods and thoughts are frequently influenced by the time cycles and the changing seasons in which our lives are set, and some particular times are instrumental in giving us new hope for the future, as they did for ancient man. It is not at all accidental that the great Christian festival of Easter celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is celebrated in the spring and has superseded the pre- Christian spring festivals of the ‘dying-and-rising god’. The very season of the year in which the Easter festival is celebrated contributes to the meaning and truth it conveys. It may even be said that there is a certain element of loss when Easter is celebrated in the autumn, as now happens in the southern hemisphere. Children may well be puzzled why eggs and bunnies ever came to be associated with Easter.
While, as we shall later see, the concern with the changing seasons ceased to play a dominant role in our tradition from the time of Israel onwards, it was never wholly eliminated. Both Paul’10 and John the Evangelist11 draw an object lesson from the grain of wheat which is sown in the ground and they emphasize the fact that it is only when it falls into the ground and dies that it brings forth a harvest.
When Clement of Rome, writing at the end of the first century, discussed the Christian hope of resurrection, he drew on some of the phenomena of nature to show that the symbol of resurrection is found in the natural world. ‘Let us observe, beloved, how the Ruler is continually displaying the resurrection that will be, of which he made the first fruits when he raised the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. Let us look, beloved, at the resurrection which happens regularly. Day and night show us a resurrection; the night goes to sleep, the day rises: the day departs, night comes on. Let us take the crops. How does the sowing happen, and in what way? "The sower went out" and cast each of his seeds into the ground. These fall dry and bare on to the ground and decay. Then from the decay the mightiness of the Ruler’s providence raises them up, and many grow from the one and bear fruit."12
Today we live in a much more sophisticated world than our forbears of the Ancient Near East. Much has happened in the meantime to shape the tradition which has molded us to be the people we are. But even allowing for all this, we are still, like our ancient forbears, finite creatures who recognize our fundamental affinity with the earth on which we live. We are earth men. We have been formed from the ground. The life that has gone through the long process of evolution to make us the creatures we are is all part and parcel of the living processes of this planet, and presumably of the whole universe. Both the existence of the universe and the origin of life raise questions which lie beyond our grasp. We share with ancient man the sense of bewilderment about the processes of life and death, but out of our earth-world itself there still comes to us the same message that death is the end of every creature and every form of finite life, but always beyond death there is new life of some kind, and this observation constitutes a ground for hope -- a hope that finds an appropriate idiom in the word ‘resurrection’.
1. From the Stone Age to Christianity, p. 32.
2. Quoted by John A. Wilson in The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, p. 44.
3. Quoted by S. N. Kramer in Mythologies of the Ancient World, pp. ~
4. The Golden Bough, abridged edition, p. 335.
4. Ezekiel 8:14.
6. Canaanite Myths and Legends, p. 21. For the Baal myth see pp. 72-100.
7. Myths of the Origin of Fire, p. vi.
8. Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, p. 8.
9. P~. 30:5.
10. 1 Cor. 15:35-7.
11. John 12:24.
12. The Early Christian Fathers, ed. by H. Bettenson, pp. 36-7.