Resurrection in the Torah; or, On Trusting Jesus to be a Good Exegete

One of the oldest debates among the various religious groups that lay claim to Israel’s faith is whether the doctrine of the resurrection is found in Torah, the first five books of Moses. This is one of the areas where the early Christians and the Pharisees were in complete agreement, over against the Sadducees. And yet, making good on this claim is something many scholars have found difficult (as the various attempts by Rabbis over the centuries attest: one common feature of their arguments is the presence of straining natural conventions of language).

This difficulty seems to even include our Lord’s own argument for the Pharisaical tradition, where he argues from Exodus 3:6. Many have interpreted his argument as resting upon the present tense of the verb to be, such that God’s saying “I am the God of…” instead of “I was the God of…” implies the current existence of the patriarchs. But it is unlikely that Jesus was unaware of the weakness of such an argument. The correct answer lies elsewhere.

One thing recent Christian scholarship has noted with regards to Paul’s use of the OT in particular is that Paul frequently alludes not just to the verses that he quotes, but to the contexts surrounding those verses to support his arguments from the OT. We should at least consider whether Jesus might be doing the same.

There are several features within the Torah that indicate Exodus 3:6 probably would imply an eventual resurrection of the dead. Firstly, as J.G. Janzen (“Resurrection and Hermeneutics: On Exodus 3.6 In Mark 12.26,” JSNT 23 (1985): 43-58) has noted, God’s reference to the patriarchs follows an allusion to the sterility of Rachel:

But at this very point God—who earlier had ‘remembered’ Rachel and ‘heard’ her and ‘opened her womb’ (Gen. 30.22)—heard their groaning and remembered the divine covenant with the ancestors (Ex. 2.24). (55)

This story itself contains a comment by Rachel which connects sterility with death, and itself alludes back to the previous two patriarchs’ stories:

But if that is the case, then the statement in Gen. 11.30—’Now Sarai was barren; she had no child’—signifies that Sarai and Abram do not possess the saving qualification of their own forebears. They are the end of their line. They are dead while they live, like a tree which, standing among other trees, is dry and leafless. This is implicit in the case of the first ancestral couple, and it becomes explicit on the lips of Sarah’s granddaughter-in-law Rachel. As Robert Alter has observed, Rachel’s plea to Jacob should be translated, ‘Give me sons; if not, I am dead’. (52-53)

Thus, when God appears to Moses, in a context where the people of Israel are on the verge of death (as Janzen notes, killing all the male Hebrews would end the race (55)), God hears their cry and brings them out of death.

Thus, within the Torah itself, there has already been an analogous application of the divine work with the patriarchs later in history. Is there any reason to think that this might be further analogously applied to the literal death human beings suffer, within the Torah? I think there is.

First, note that from the original Genesis narrative, Adam and Eve were permitted access to the tree of life (or at least, given its mention, were seen as eventually being able to access it) (Gen. 2:16). After the fall, God removes the humans from the Garden precisely because they might have “take[n] also from the tree of life… and live[d] forever,” (Gen. 3:22). Thus we can see that originally God intended that the human race live forever. This is confirmed by the fact that the physical death of man is included in the curse given to man (Gen. 3:19). Prima facie, then, it seems God’s original intention for mankind was immortality.

Later in the Torah, within the purity laws, we find that death is considered antithetical to God’s presence. Yesterday I found a blog post that excellently summarizes this:

How did God pick these particular things and call them unclean? While scholars have proposed various theories (sin, aesthetics, fear of demons, holiness of the sanctuary, separation of Israel, health, magic, arbitrary priestly power), none of them explains all of the types of impurity so well as the theory of Jacob Milgrom, the premier scholar of Leviticus. As Milgrom says:

The bodily impurities enumerated in [Torah] . . . focus on four phenomena: death, blood, semen, and scale disease. Their common denominator is death. (p. 1002).

Loss of blood or semen is loss of life. Scale disease makes a person look like a corpse and is a form of rot or spreading death. Even the dietary restrictions of Leviticus 11 can be explained as limiting death to certain species (that is, if Israelites can only eat certain animals, they won’t kill as many animals).

The message of God’s purity laws is simple: he is the God of life, not death. This theology has its roots in Genesis, where God declares death the penalty for human sin. Sin is man’s choice, not God’s. Thus, death is not part of the perfect world God intended and will one day bring to completion.

Thus, we can see within the Torah that ultimately death was considered an enemy of God’s, and God’s people. We can also note that the promise to Eve, and later to Abraham, that the enemy of God’s people would be crushed and all the families of the earth would be blessed by their seed, the blessing being the answer to the curses of Genesis 3, indicates that God did intend to ultimately reverse everything that happened because of the fall.

Finally, even within the Exodus 3 narrative itself, there are several allusions to God’s power over death. Rick E. Watts notes several of these features:

In a brilliantly conceived passage constructed of emphatic pronouns and the verb hyh (“to be”) from which the name of the self-sustaining and life giving Yahweh is derived, Moses’ complaints of “Who am I… that I…?” (3:11) are met with the divine self-predication “I AM with you (3:12a…). The point, well recognized, is not who Moses is, but rather the character of the one who is with Moses and thus the revelation of the name (3:12-22). Yahweh offers an authenticating sign: Israel as a people will encounter I AM and ender into the covenant of life with him at Sinai (3:12b). Because of I AM, Israel will come to be.

The ensuing exchange between Yahweh and the still-doubting Moses makes precisely this point (4:1-11). The serpent being a symbol of resurrection in Egypt, Moses’ serpent-staff demonstrates that he, as Yahweh’s agent, now exercises over Egypt the power of life and death, of order and chaos… . So also does the power over “leprosy,” the living death (cf. Num 12:12; 2 Kings 5:7) that Yahweh alone can cure, and the turning of water into blood, where both are essential to and representative of life. This in part explains the Lord’s anger when he finally demands, using the imagery of the opening-of-the-mouth ritual associated with the enlivening the images of the gods…, that Moses tell him who it is that gives speech and hearing and sight, which are so characteristic of humanity. Everything in this passage presupposes Yahweh’s utterly sovereign control over every aspect of human existence and even existence itself (cf. Deut. 32:39). (Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 215)

Thus, taking the Torah in context, Janzen summarizes the obvious conclusion:

Such a use of Ex. 3.6 at Mk 12.26, it seems to me, displays the deepest sensitivity to the context in which Ex. 3.6 originally occurs and has its meaning. The alternative is to stand before the prospect of death, not only as a power operative in one’s historical existence, but as the terminus of that existence, and from that position to call to mind the divine address in Ex. 3.6, and then to decide that, for once, this text and what it connotes has nothing hopeful to say. To decline Jesus’ interpretation is to decide there is nothing in what Ex. 3.6 connotes which could not be quenched and extinguished by the Sadducees’ counter-story. So to decide is to confess that this locus classicus of biblically-derived existence, having burned continuously through so many and various other trials, finally found a context within which it burned and was consumed. That would be the end, or at any rate that would establish the limits of the relevance, of Yahwism. It would give an altogether different, and limiting, sense to Jesus’ concluding words that the God of the burning bush ‘is not God of the dead, but of the living.’ (56)