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 6: Resurrection as the Hope for National Revival
When we turn from the myths of the Ancient Near East to the literature of Israel preserved in the Old Testament, we find ourselves moving in quite a different world of thought. The Old Testament was written over the long period of about a thousand years, contemporaneous with the time when the myths we have been discussing were still playing a convincing role. Yet the Old Testament is almost completely free of myths of that kind. They were replaced by a remarkable concern with history and this strongly characterizes two-thirds of the Hebrew Bible. The change from myth to history is further illustrated by the way in which the main annual festivals of Israel were gradually transformed. Originally these celebrated the pastoral and harvest seasons; eventually they commemorated those historical events which were of permanent significance for Israel.1
Israel not only abandoned many aspects of the mythological view of ancient man, but her prophets fought a continual battle against their re-emergence. There is ample evidence in the Old Testament of the prophetic resistance to the resurgence of the Baal cult, which, with its accompanying religious prostitution, provided the ritual for celebrating and promoting the new vitality and growth at the appropriate time of the year.
The chief aim of the prophetic ministry of Elijah was to oppose the Tyrian Baalism then being rekindled by the queen Jezebel. In the following century Hosea was still trying to convince Israel that it was not Baal but their own God YHWH ‘who gave her corn, new wine, and oil . . . who lavished upon her silver and gold which they spent on the Baal’.2 Many scholars have noted the disguised reference to Adonis made by Isaiah, and which the New English Bible has rendered,
For you forgot the God who delivered you,
In the time of Jeremiah the Jewish women were rebuked for ‘kneading dough to make crescent-cakes in honour of the queen of heaven’, the latter being the Babylonian goddess Ishtar.4 A little later Ezekiel found them ‘sitting and wailing for Tammuz’.5
In view of the fact that Israel pioneered a new road in the ancient world, abandoning the nature myths, and concerning herself with the events of her own history, it is not surprising that the myth of the ‘dying-and-rising god’ found no place at all in the thinking of her prophets. Israel’s God, YHWH, was the Lord of human history, the creator of the world, the only true God; and while the annual processes of generation, growth, harvest and decay therefore all emanated from Him, they did not constitute the paramount activity for which He was honoured.
For a long time the idiom of resurrection was not required in Israel, and when at last it did arise, very late in her history, it was used for a different purpose in order to meet different needs. Because Israel’s faith looked to the dynamic, history-controlling and eternal YHWH, death presented no great problem to her. Israel’s future seemed assured because of the YHWH who had brought them out of slavery in Egypt. From the time of Israel’s entry into the land ‘flowing with milk and honey’ down to the period of the divided kingdoms, Israel had prospered, and looked forward to further prosperity. She drew hope for the future from her former miraculous deliverance from Egypt.
At this point we must take into account the fact that Israelite thought was much more corporate in its concerns than ours is today. For the Israelite the destiny of the individual was completely overshadowed by the destiny of the corporate body of Israel. Consequently the death of the individual did not raise the same sense of tragic concern and questioning that it may do for us. The death of the individual was of small significance compared with the life of the people. Israel, as a people, moved on from generation to generation, perpetuating itself as it went along. So long as Israel lived a reasonably secure existence, unthreatened by external disasters, the hope for the future was not a question which loomed very large. We may notice even in our own setting that when there is little on the visible horizon threatening us either as individuals or as a community, we live largely for what we are doing at the moment. It is when our future is threatened, or when our present existence is intolerable, that our attention is turned to the unknown future and we are led to face it either in hope or despair.
So it was with Israel. It was not until her existence as a people was being seriously threatened by the rapidly expanding empire of Assyria that she found a use for the idiom of resurrection. We find the first example in the book of the prophet Hosea. The eighth and seventh century prophets of Israel, some of whose words have been preserved in the books of the Bible which bear their names, were essentially prophets of crisis. They clustered round the two critical periods of national disaster, when first the northern kingdoms of Israel was swallowed up by Assyria in 721 BC. and later the southern kingdom of Judah succumbed to Neo-Babylonia in 587 BC.
Hosea was the only northerner to arise among these two groups of prophets, and it is in the book which has preserved his prophetic oracles that we find the following words:
Come, let us return to the LORD:
These words are commonly regarded today as a kind of penitential psalm which was used liturgically in the sanctuary at the time of a national emergency. If this be so, they are here being quoted as an example of the easy optimism which stems from the nature religions and which now comes under divine judgment. They are immediately followed by a divine oracle uttered by Hosea in which Israel is rebuked by God for the superficial character of her penitence and for her belated profession of cupboard-love loyalty which could be displayed when it suited Israel, but which could also vanish quickly ‘like the morning mist’.
Our immediate interest with these words is to examine them to see if they are in any way connected with the idiom of resurrection in the way that is sometimes claimed of them. Robert Martin-Achard has gathered together a number of points about this passage.7 These suggest that it forms an important step in the path we are pursuing by showing how the idiom of resurrection came to take a new form in Israel after it had been abandoned in its mythological form.
First we note the two phrases ‘after two days’ and ‘on the third day’. These are synonyms and are sometimes used in the Old Testament simply to describe a comparatively short interval of time. They may be regarded as meaning ‘without delay’ and they are used in this way of Abraham’s journey for the intended sacrifice of Isaac,8 and of Hezekiah’s recovery from illness.9 Even in these two instances there may be overtones that have been lost to us because we were not familiar with the long associations these terms had possessed.
For we must not ignore the fact that these very expressions had played an important role in the myths of the ‘dying-and-rising god’ which were still very much alive in the wider cultural environment of Israel. A Sumerian reference to the descent of Inanna into the underworld states that the goddess remained there for three days and three nights. It is recorded by Plutarch that the death of Osiris was celebrated on the 17th of the month and his ‘discovery’ or ‘resurrection’ was on the 19th day (and this by ancient reckoning was the ‘third day’) Lucian records that ‘at Byblos the faithful expect the resurrection of Adonis "on another day" 7. The counterpart of the Adonis cult in Rome was that of Attis, whose untimely death was celebrated every spring in a three-day festival, in which, on the third day, he was found; then rejoicing replaced the two-day exhibition of grief and mourning.
Several reasons have been put forward for the prevalence of this three-day period in the various forms of this resurrection myth. Some think it may point to the vestige of a moon cult, for the moon remains invisible for three days in the monthly cycle. Others point to the widespread belief that the soul was thought to remain near the corpse for three days before departing to the underworld at the expiry of that time. Consequently, if the soul was to re-animate the body it had to happen within that time. The resurrections (or more correctly resuscitations) which, according to ancient tradition had been performed by Elijah and Elisha, depended partly upon this belief.10 The same belief supplies us with the reason why the story of the raising of Lazarus lays such emphasis on the fact that he "had already been four days in the tomb". It is tantamount to saying that he was beyond all hope of resuscitation. The number three may have been arrived at because experience showed that it was usually after the third day that the signs of decomposition of the body became obvious. Consequently Martha complained, ‘Sir, by now there will be a stench; he has been there four days.’11
For these, or possibly other, reasons there had been a long association of a three-day period with the ancient resurrection myths. Do the phrases ‘after two days’ and ‘on the third day’ have any such association in this passage from Hosea, where, to describe the hoped for restoration of Israel, they are used in conjunction with the three verbs, ‘restore to life’, ‘raise to life’, and ‘live’ which form the basic vocabulary of resurrection?
An affirmative answer to this question receives some confirmation from the fact that within the immediate context we find some other words and phrases which point to the influence of the Baal cult on the language of Hosea and his contemporaries. The lion, to which YHWH is compared,12 was often used in Baalism as the symbol of death. ‘It will come to us like a shower, like spring rains that water the earth’ is an affirmation which could equally well have been made about Baal, for he was the god of rain, and when he ascended from the underworld in the spring, rain accompanied his return. James L. Mays comments on these verses, ‘Here, and in the last two metaphors, Israel’s God is brought within the frame of reference of the deities of Canaan whose activity was a function of weather and season. Rain is the peculiar provenance of Baal in Canaanite theology."13
Hidden allusions are never easy to be sure of and particularly is this the case with an ancient text, but one can at least see the reasons why Martin-Achard comes to the conclusion that these verses from the book of Hosea not only apply the idiom of resurrection to Israel’s hope for the future, but also show where it came from. ‘The Israelites took the conception from the Canaanites who, in deifying the forces of nature, primarily explain the appearance and disappearance of the vegetation as the death and resurrection of the gods; thus originally, the resurrection has nothing to do with Yahweh-worship; it comes from the agricultural cults.’14
Once we remember the strong influence of the Baal cults in Israel right down to the time of Hosea, it is easier to recognize the genuineness of these allusions. But it is just as important to recognize the way in which Israel dealt with and transformed the use of the idiom resurrection, which, on the above thesis, it eventually allowed to be borrowed from the pre-Israelite myth of the ‘dying-and-rising god’. Prophetic voices like that of Hosea protested strongly against the trend which could have allowed the Israelite faith in YHWH to have been swallowed up in the Baal nature cult. ‘Hosea has to give his contemporaries a renewed vision of the true face of their God. Yahweh is not some sort of Baal, a blind and brutal natural force . . . His destiny, like that of His people, is not identical with the cycle of the seasons, the regular succession of the day and the night, the growth and decay of the vegetation; Yahweh is the Lord of history, whose word alone creates and preserves Israel in life.’ 15
If this passage from Hosea has been correctly interpreted as a short penitential psalm, it probably reflects the popular thought of Israel rather than that of the prophet, who quotes it only to rebuke its spirit of over-confidence. Even so, the passage reveals some significant differences from the pure Baal cult. The Israelite hope in YHWH may be expressed in the language drawn from the cult which celebrated Baal’s resurrection, but there is no suggestion that YHWH himself undergoes a death and renewal process. The idiom of resurrection, if it is truly present here, is applied to Israel herself, and not to Israel’s God. It is no longer being expressed in a mythological manner, even though it has drawn upon the language common to mythology; rather the idiom of resurrection has here assumed a metaphorical form, by which Israel prays for the revitalizing of her life as a people. One is reminded of the way in which John Milton so frequently used the terms of classical mythology in his poetry in order to express his Christian faith.
This process may be described as a demythologizing of the idiom of resurrection. The chief points of change are, first, that the scene has been transferred from the supernatural world of the gods to the earthly sphere of human history; secondly, that It is not a god who experiences the renewal of life (for the God of Israel is not himself subject to death and resurrection, but on the contrary initiates and controls these events) but the people of Israel, who look in hope for restoration when their existence is threatened; and thirdly, that this hope is expressed as a metaphor describing the historical future, rather than as a myth of cosmic renewal. Finally we may note that this first hint of the resurrection idiom to rise to the surface in an Israelite form comes just a few years prior to the virtual extinction of this northern section of the people of Israel.
The above three points come to fuller expression in the next Important stepping stone provided for us by the Old Testament. This is the well-known vision of what took place in the valley of dry bones as described in Ezekiel 37. This is the earliest material in the Old Testament in which there is an unmistakable description of a resurrection from death to life, and that in spite of the fact that the basic words ‘rise’ and ‘dead’ never occur. Here, however, there is no longer visible any link at all with the myth of the ‘dying-and-rising god’. In later times both Jews and Christians interpreted this vision as a pre-view of the resurrection of the dead at the last day. Some of the early Christian Fathers saw it as a prophecy of individual resurrection.
Modern study of the passage has made it clear that it was not personal resurrection beyond death that concerned Ezekiel here. He himself supplies the key to the correct interpretation when he reports that his fellow-Israelites, languishing in exile in Babylon, had lost the will to live, complaining, ‘Our bones are dry, our thread of life is snapped, our web is severed from the loom.’16 The prophet was inspired to engender new hope in them by relating a vision in which he found himself set down in a valley of dry human bones, the grim memorial of some disastrous battle long before. It may have been a battle in which Nebuchadrezzar had annihilated the fleeing Israelite army at the fall of Jerusalem. In his vision Ezekiel found himself performing his prophetic mission by being the voice at whose command the bones came together, then to be refleshed, and finally to be revived with the living spirit or breath which comes from God. So they stood on their feet again as a mighty living army.
The whole vision is a parable or metaphorical description of the way in which Ezekiel was being used to bring fresh hope to the dispirited Israelite exiles in Babylon by helping them to look forward in hope to the time when, as a people, they would return to their own land and once again flourish as in the former days. The parabolic nature of this vision is confirmed by the fact that it is followed by a second picture (which some think may have been added later) in which it is not a battlefield but a graveyard from which Israel will rise to new life. The prophet was required to declare, ‘These are the words of the Lord God: O my people I will open your graves and bring you up from them, and restore you to the land of Israel. . . . Then I will put my spirit into you and you shall live, and I will settle you on your own soil.’17 It is clear that these two descriptions of resurrection are intended as vivid expressions of the promise that the exile would end and Israel would be restored in the fullness of life to the land of their fathers.
Many scholars connect this vision of Ezekiel with the Hosea passage studied above. Both have to do with the revival of national life and both use the idiom of resurrection to describe it. In each case it is the resurrection of the whole people, the national community of Israel, that is envisaged, and not that of individuals. For this reason the resurrection idiom is to be regarded as a metaphorical description of a coming event. Here, even more than in Hosea, the mythological interest in resurrection is absent, for the scene being described by Ezekiel has nothing to do with an unseen supernatural world, but refers to a future event in the sphere of human history to which Ezekiel points his people forward in hope and confidence.
The Babylonian exile dealt such a blow to the vitality of the people of Judah, already a remnant community surviving from the larger Israel of David’s time, that it was natural to speak of the experience in terms of the death of the nation. Jeremiah likened the exile to the swallowing of Israel by the emperor Nebuchadrezzar, or by Bel the god of Babylon. So he imagined Israel uttering the following lament:
Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon has devoured me and sucked me dry,
In response to this lament came a prophetic oracle in which the God of Israel
I will punish Bel in Babylon
It is very likely that it was this metaphor from the book of Jeremiah which inspired the writer of the book of Jonah. Many scholars regard the figure of Jonah in this book as a symbolic representation of the people of Israel, and then the period of three days and three nights during which Jonah remained in the belly of the great fish represents the exile in which Israel was swallowed by Bel. The psalm which has been placed in the mouth of Jonah was not originally composed for the present context for it is a thanksgiving for deliverance from death. It may have been written to celebrate the divine act by which Israel believed herself delivered from exile in Babylon, which, so far as Israel was concerned, was no better than Sheol, the underworld of the dead.
I called to the Lord in my distress,
Seeing that the above cry was said to be uttered ‘out of the belly of Sheol’, and the response of God was to bring ‘up alive from the pit’, it is fairly certain that we have here an expression of the idiom of resurrection. But, as with the two earlier examples, the idiom is intended to be taken metaphorically and to describe how Israel was raised to new life by God when she was delivered from exile. The writer of the book of Jonah is indebted to Jeremiah, and perhaps also to Ezekiel.
It is particularly interesting to note the specific mention of the period of three days and three nights which Jonah spent in the belly of the fish. It can hardly be accidental that this phrase coincides with the period of time associated with resurrection in the myths of the ‘dying-and-rising god’ and again in the Hosea passage. We have continually to remember that the spring festivals celebrating the return of the vegetation god on the third day were still being celebrated in the contemporary non-Jewish cultures of the Ancient Near East. But though such phrases as this help to mark out the path being taken by the resurrection idiom in its journey from a mythological cosmic setting into the Jewish national hope, we must also note carefully that now for the third time the resurrection idiom is being applied metaphorically, and to a national community rather than to either a god or a human individual.
The last example we shall take is from the book of Esther. This book was probably written towards the end of the Persian period, though some date it as late as the second century BC. The story itself is nowadays usually regarded as fictitious, and one of its purposes was to explain the origin of the feast of Purim. This feast and the story of Esther to which it is now attached have to do with an attempt to annihilate the Jews by mass extermination. For this reason the book became very popular among the Jews from the second century BC. onwards since it brought the much needed encouragement in their frequent periods of persecution by setting forth a story of ultimate victory.
Although the resurrection idiom is not explicitly present in this example as in the others quoted above, there are nevertheless to be found in the story some striking factors which suggest that something very close to it lies beneath the surface. In the first place the author seems to have been influenced by the motifs of Babylonian mythology, even though, in characteristic Israelite style, he has transformed them into an historical setting. The name of the hero, Mordecai, appears to be derived from Marduk, the name of the chief god of Babylon. Esther, the name of the heroine, is almost identical with Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of love and queen of heaven referred to in the last chapter. An alternative name is mentioned for Esther, Hadassah, which is the Babylonian word for ‘bride’, a title used of Ishtar. Some also see a connection between the name of the villain, Haman, and the Elamite god Humman.
Then there are some striking parallels between the actions of Esther and those of Ishtar (or her prototype Inanna). As Ishtar risked her life to descend into the underworld to appear before its monarch, so Esther took her life into her hands to appear before the king in what seemed the impossible task of saving her people from certain death. As Ishtar had arranged for a certain plan to operate if she had not returned in three days, so Esther arranged that the Jews should ‘take neither food nor drink for three days, night or day’,21 and on the third day she put on her royal robes to approach the king, who had already issued letters ‘with orders to destroy, slay, and exterminate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day’.21
For these and other reasons a number of scholars have discerned links between the book of Esther and Babylonian mythology. At the same time it must be said that these links are not certain and if the resurrection symbol is present there, it is only by implication. It has been included here, however, because its overall theme is undoubtedly the threatened extinction or death of Jewry, and the way in which, at the eleventh hour, the tables are turned on their enemies and Jewry receives a new lease of life. In this sense it stands in genuine succession to the expressions of national resurrection expressed in Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Jonah.
In the intervening centuries of the Christian era, the Jewish people have pursued a course which is quite unique in human history. In this long period they have not only retained their identity as a people, scattered though they have been, but they have done this in spite of the many persecutions to which they have been subjected. Their history as a people, from the time of the ancient Babylonian exile onwards, has been strongly marked by the theme of death and resurrection. The threat of death and subsequent renewal or resurrection, such as is portrayed in the story of Esther, has been lived through again and again.
In no period has this been more vividly and tragically true than in our own century. No persecution has been attempted on such a vast and systematic scale as the Nazi attempt to annihilate the Jewish people. The Memorial to the Six Million, now erected in Jerusalem, silently marks this most recent attempt to achieve the death of a people, a people with a history more than three thousand years old. This dreadful threat to their national community must have contributed considerable drive to the present establishment of the modern state of Israel. If in our time we have seen a great people brought near to the point of extinction, we are also witnessing in Israel what can genuinely be called a resurrection of an ancient people. The resurrection of the formerly dead language of Hebrew to be the living language of Israel is but one of several aspects of this modern miracle which could be cited to illustrate our theme. It may be said that in many ways the rise of the new state of Israel is the modern counterpart of that aspect of resurrection which we have been looking at in this chapter, the use of the idiom of resurrection to express in metaphorical form the hope of an historical renewal after the national life has been near to the point of extinction.
1. This has been discussed in Chapter 9 of God in the New World.
2. Hosea: 2:8.
3. Isaiah 17:10.
4. Jeremiah 7:18, and also 44:17, 18, 19, 25.
5. See Chapter 5, note 5.
6. Hosea 6:1-3.
7. From Death to Life, pp. 81-6.
8. Genesis 22:4.
9. 2 Kings 20:5.
10. I Kings 17:17-24 and II Kings 4:31-7, 13:21.
11. John 11:39.
12. Hosea 5:14.
13. Hosea, a commentary, p. 96.
14. Op. Cit., p. 86.
15. R. Martin-Achard, op. cit., pp. 85-6.
16. Ezek. 37:11.
17. Ezek. 37:12, 14.
18. Jeremiah 51:34.
19. Jeremiah 51:44-5.
20. Jonah 2:2-6.
21. Esther 3:13.