Ezekiel

Dry bones transformed and other visions: What do Jews believe about life after death?

Dry bones transformed and other visions: What do Jews believe about life after death?

NORMAN’S QUESTION:

The Hebrew Bible makes no mention of an afterlife. When did this belief come into being among the Israelites, and why?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

This is an appropriate follow-up to our December 1 answer to Paula concerning “what does Christianity say happens to believers after death?”

True, the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh (or for Christians the Old Testament) has no explicit and detailed concept of the afterlife such as we have in the New Testament. This whole topic has been considerably more central and developed in Christianity than in Judaism. However, Jewish authors offer a more complex scenario than that Jewish Scripture “makes no mention of an afterlife.” They observe that while most biblical references are vague, we see an evolution in belief. Some particulars:

Frequent references in Genesis, followed by the Psalms and the prophets, say that the dead abide in a shadowy state called sheol. Such passages as Ecclesiastes 9:5, Job 14:21, and Psalm 88:11-12 indicate that this involves no conscious existence.

On the other hand, the Bible depicts forms of life beyond death in Genesis 5:24 (Enoch taken directly to God), 2 Kings 2:11 (the same with Elijah), 1 Samuel 2:6 (God “brings down to sheol and raises up”), Psalm 49:15 (“God will ransom my soul from the power of sheol, for he will receive me”), and Saul’s notable conversation with the deceased Samuel in 1 Samuel 28.

Also, sages interpreted the prophet Ezekiel’s “dry bones” vision in chapter 37 as depicting a communal afterlife for Israel, and the Talmud saw Isaiah 60:21 (“they shall possess the land forever”) in terms of bodily resurrection.

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