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Are there examples of resurrection in the Old Testament?

No. Not really. Well, sort of. OK, yes, but it depends on how you look at it.

Resurrection is pretty central to the New Testament, in case you haven’t noticed. Yet searching for that kind of resurrection in the Old Testament will bring you up empty-handed.

We do have one lengthy passage, Daniel 12, which is an important text for understanding the development of Jewish faith later in the Second Temple period (specifically here, in the second century BCE) when “resurrection” of individuals was in the air generally within Judaism (more below).

2 Maccabees is another example of a text from roughly the same period as Daniel and which mentions the future resurrection of the dead as if no one needs it explained to them (e.g., see 2 Maccabees 7:9)

Neither Isaiah 25:7 (the Lord will “swallow up death forever”) nor 26:19 (“Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise”), however, seem to me to be “resurrection from the dead” texts.

The first seems to echo Canaanite mythology about Baal who hosts a victory banquet after his defeat of the sea god Yamm (representing chaos).

The second passage is a more possible candidate, but if both are read in the larger context of Isaiah, their metaphorical meaning seems clear: deliverance from the “sure death” of foreign oppression/threat. At any rate, even with these texts, the silence of the Old Testament on future resurrection is deafening.

But this brings me to where I think resurrection is very much part of the story of Israel, and it goes like this.

A perspective on the Adam story that I lay out in The Evolution of Adam and The Bible Tells Me So is that Adam represents Israel’s entire epic journey in the Old Testament—Adam is a “preview” of Israel, so to speak.

Just as Adam was created by God out of dust and placed into a garden paradise, and remaining there was contingent upon obedience (don’t eat from the Tree of Knowledge), so, too, Israel was created by God from Egyptian slavery, placed into the paradise-like Canaan, and remaining there was contingent upon obedience (to the covenant, the Law of Moses).

This reading of the Adam story is not mutually exclusive of others, but it has rabbinic precedent (Genesis Rabbah, perhaps 5th c. CE), and you have to admit the parallels are at least worth thinking about. So even if you’re skeptical, work with me here.

Remember that Adam was warned that “on the day” he eats of the forbidden fruit, he would die (Genesis 2:17). Now, the fact of the matter is that “on the day” Adam and Eve do not die so much as they are banished from the Garden (Genesis 3:22-24).

That banishment bars them from the Tree of Life, their heretofore source of immortality, which is only in the Garden. The Lord places two cherubim at the entrance, which is on the east (hold that thought) to stand guard to make sure the doomed couple doesn’t go do back in and eat from the Tree of Life.

To be in the Garden means access to the Tree of Life. To be banished from the Garden to the east (keep holding that thought) means “death.”

Fast forward to Deuteronomy 30. Here we are at the final stage of Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the desert, and Moses is giving the people his last series of pep talks before they enter Canaan and take over the land as their own.

The whole chapter is worth a closer look, but we get to the main point within verses 15-18. There we see that “life” means being in the land, and “death” means exile—the same notion we see in the Adam story.

If Israel will continue to obey God’s commands, the reward is life, which Deuteronomy 30 explains to be prosperity, increased population, and longevity for the people as a whole (not individuals) in the land.

Likewise, disobedience to God’s commands yields “death and adversity,” i.e., “you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess” (v. 18).

So where does resurrection in the Old Testament come in? Give me a sec. I’m getting there (or maybe you’re there already).

Flip to the chapter in the Old Testament that certainly is on most people’s top 10 list of weird passages: Ezekiel 37:1-14 and the “valley of dry bones.”

In a vision, Ezekiel sees a valley with dry bones that miraculously come back to life. Bones will be covered again with sinew and flesh, and God will “put breath” into those bones.

God brings to life through “breath.” Feel free to think of the Adam story here (Genesis 2:7).

Anyway, as weird as Ezekiel is in general, and chapter 37 in particular, at least the meaning of this vision is spelled out for us:

Thus says the Lord: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel (v. 12).

Death isn’t physical but metaphorical. The dry bones represent Israel in exile (the grave). Where is exile? In Babylon, which is in the east (thank you for holding that thought).

To be in exile, in the east, outside the land of Canaan, is death. To be in the land is life. The Adam story is a 2-chapter summary of Israel’s national plight.

So now we finally get to the resurrection part of all this.

If moving from the land into exile is to move from life to death, returning to the land is (all together now) to be brought back to life, to be raised from the dead (as Ezekiel’s prophecy lays out for us).

And that is where we find resurrection in the Old Testament: returning to the land, where God and his temple are, where there is peace and security, the land promised to Abraham (Genesis 12), the land “flowing with milk and honey.”

Physical resurrection of individuals isn’t the hot topic of conversation in the Old Testament. Revival of a nation is.

So what about physical resurrection in the New Testament? Where does that idea come from? At least in part from developments in Judaism after the exile, especially in the 2nd century BCE. [Quick note: Jon D. Levenson in his wonderful book Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel argues that individual resurrection already has strong echos in the pre-exilic period.]

Faithful Jews are being martyred by the Seleucid King Antiochus. 2 Maccabees relays a story that captures the crisis, where seven sons are executed in a gruesome fashion for remaining obedient to the law rather than eat unclean food and reject God. And earlier were several centuries of faithful Jews who might not have been martyred but who died without seeing God fully restore Israel as a nation.

Israel’s exile, though ending in 539 BCE, still continued in a manner of speaking for centuries thereafter. Ezekiel’s “resurrection” was not complete until Israel was “fully” in the land, which meant restoring Jewish independence.

To be sure, God would one day come through for his people. And those who died waiting for the “consolation of Israel” (to borrow Simeon’s phrase in Luke 2:25) would not just miss out but, as an act of divine justice, would be raised to take part in the messianic age.

Fast forward to the Gospels. It is surely no accident that all four Gospels introduce Jesus’s public ministry by citing the opening verses of Isaiah 40, one of the key texts in the Old Testament announcing that God is about to bring the captives back from Babylon—back home…back to the land of Canaan…back to the place of life, not death.

Why do all four Gospels introduce Jesus’s ministry by citing this major “end of exile” announcement? Probably because whatever Jesus is going to do probably has something to do with bringing an end to Israel’s exile/death.

The New Testament twist is that the resurrection of Jesus draws together both the national and individual dimensions while also redefining them.

Jesus’s individual physical resurrection fulfills Israel’s corporate national story by creating a new people, a new nation—a new humanity—where resurrection is a present spiritual reality and a future hope for each one who is “in Christ” (as Paul puts it).

So, we move from (1) resurrection as nationalistic and metaphorical in the Old Testament, to a (2) resurrection that also includes individuals physically in response to crisis by the 2nd century BCE, to (3) the New Testament, where both are realized and redefined in Jesus.

If anything, this should remind us how New Testament theology is more than a process of back-referencing passages from the Old Testament, but must also include postexilic developments in Jewish thought.

The resurrection from the dead in the New Testament isn’t “in” the Old. It grows out of and transforms an Old Testament metaphor, with a middle stage in Second Temple Judaism.

The New Testament writers do that a lot.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

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  • I think this is largely correct, and I’d carry this further into the new heavens and new earth where death also equals exile (or vice-versa). You are cut off from the people and the land forever.

    This also has a bearing on all the “have as many kids as you can” texts in the OT. Your family having a “long life in the land” is the OT version of eternal life.

    • peteenns says:

      Indeed. Living on in your children while being buried with your fathers in the land. Eternal life. Brichto’s “Kin, Cult, Land, and Afterlife” is a classic article on this.

  • Kyle Essary says:

    Would you recommend Levenson/Madigan’s “Resurrection” on the topic? I’ve found it very helpful. Although they clearly take a different tact than yours above, they likewise argue that resurrection is almost nowhere in the HB, and yet the trajectory is all over it.

    • peteenns says:

      Do you mean Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel, or The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son? Either way, unqualified yes.

      • Kyle Essary says:

        Actually option 3, “Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews,” but I can likewise comment that “Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel” is wonderful! I haven’t read the other by Levenson, but generally anything he writes seems worth reading.

  • David W says:

    Pete, thanks for this article. I always appreciate how you bring second temple literature into the discussion to show how it shaped the NT writers’ thought processes. That being said, I’m wondering if you could comment on the significance of the ascension episodes of both Enoch amd Elijah. Paul almost seems to echo this in describing how believers will be ‘caught up in the air’ with Christ (1 Thess 4:17). Also, does the resurrection of the Shunamite woman’s son allude to the physical resurrection of say, Lazuras and ultimately Jesus?

    • peteenns says:

      Those are all fair points. I should have made clearer that my focus is on general resurrection not resuscitation of a corpse.

      • David W says:

        Pete, I was reading something about Jewish hermeneutical methods and I came across the assertion that the Sadducees were more or less strict traditionalists in regard to how they interpreted scripture whereas the Pharisees allowed their views to evolve. Acts 23:8 mentions how the Sadducees rejected the idea of bodily resurrection, so perhaps this lends more credence to your argument in the article, that resurrection, as Christians conceive of it, was not explicit in the OT and was thus a later, extra-canonical development.

  • Jeff Y says:

    I have long thought that those in OT Israel did not have a concept of resurrection. A friend of mine proposed an OT “hell” as having one’s lineage cut off (see Ahab) about 20 yrs ago. Among many lament texts there is the constant complaint about death and hopelessness to praise God in the grave ( eg ps. 88, Ecclesiastes, Job). I think Richard Bauckham was the first I read on this point: that 2nd Temple Jews slowly deduced resurrection from OT texts connected to God’s justice in view of the obvious injustice in the world (Eccles. 8:14). The only way for God to be just would be for there to be a resurrection.

  • Paul says:

    If you consider the question from the Orthodox Jewish perspective then of course the resurrection from the dead is taught in the Hebrew Bible because that included both the oral and written Torah. Enns’ answer comes from a Christian perspective not a Jewish one.

  • MacPeter says:

    I think this is what Matthew is trying to point out in 27:51-53 when he ties the rising of the saints from the graves in Jerusalem to the death of Jesus. I think he is basically calling to mind Ez. 37 and saying, “look, *this* is our deliverance from exile; this is the way to the true Promised Land.”

    • peteenns says:

      I really like this, MacPeter. Makes sense.

      • MacPeter says:

        Thanks. It’s really too bad that Mike Licona is being subjected to so much flack on this point–the man writes a 700-page tome trying to give a modest defence of the Resurrection as being probable against those who say it never happened, and the theological “good guys” are burning him alive over this one small point about the rising of the saints in Matt 27 probably not being historical.

  • Norman says:

    I believe the more one understands how the Jews in 2nd T period understood the “the death metaphor” that the NT would start to look a whole lot different and become alive. It seems that so many read Paul as understanding biblical “death” the way we moderns and westernized peoples understand it. If we give Paul his 2nd T Jewish lead we would likely Read Romans 5- 8 a whole lot different than we have historically done. We read about “death” in verses like Rom 5:12 biologically while Paul almost certainly presented it corporately and relationally. To set the 2nd T period background there is a section in the 2nd century BC Book of Jubilees that performs a limited commentary on how Jews were working the Genesis Adam and Eve story. It provides us with a framework that we can find within first century Christian ideas and especially Paul.

    Jubilees 3 presents Adam as a High Priest who is required to offer sacrifices for Himself (think Israel and the feast of Booths) and along with the dumb animals (think unclean Gentiles) who collectively are cast out of the Garden together. (This combined idea of atonement is why Paul presents that “all men” died (relationally) when Adam sinned in Rom 5:12 because Adam (Israel) was a fallen/exiled priest who really wasn’t sinless (in the Garden) as he was supposed to be and was therefore inadequate as a High Priest. Paul didn’t invent this midrash hermeneutic about Adam that he is pushing in Romans 5-8 and again in 1 Cor 15 which is a recapitulation of Genesis 2 & 3 and ends with a soon and expected return to the Garden paradise in Romans 8. No I believe Paul was a product of 2nd T exilic theology through and through and framed his concepts from that idea. This is why I get a little exasperated with some current theologians who want to overstate that Paul was strictly an ANE product and want to overly apply a less than Jewish mindsets to Paul. They attempt to fit Paul into an anthropological generalized ANE caricature which just takes one down another empty rabbit trail. To understand Paul and his use of “death and the dead” you must come to grips with his 2nd T Jewish background and it’s going to be hard to get there for many if one limits themselves to only the OT and not to the broader spectrum of 2nd T exilic literature that permeated Paul and his contemporaries.

    Pete is bringing an understanding here to the readers that is critical to grasping how Jewish eschatology was being played out. We tend to get wrapped up in the “sign of the resurrection” and forego its ultimate intent and purpose which was to bring True Israel back to Life corporately as a people who have been raised from the dust and can fully stand relationally in the presence of God. And so Israel no longer is a singular race of people but is composed of all that the “veil of death has been spread over”.

    Isa 25:7 And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations.

    1Co 15:55 “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

    Eph 2:15 … that he might create in himself “one new man in place of the two” (Jew and Gentile), so making peace,

    Col 3:9-… having put off the “old man” (think first Adam) with his practices, and having put on the new (last Adam Christ), which is renewed in regard to knowledge, after “the image of Him” who did create him;

    Rom 6:7 for he who hath died hath been set free from the sin. (not physically dying with Christ but baptized/joined collectively into His Death to sin”

    Eph 2:1-2 And you were “dead” in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked … 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, “made us alive” together with Christ (we weren’t dead biologically but dead/exiled relationally.)

  • Andrew Foley says:

    Don’t passages like Isaiah 35 clearly evoke the hope of a community having renewed and healed bodies? Do you believe that these passages also seem to infer a long-lasting hope that will be experienced by those living but also ancestors?

    • I can’t speak for Peter, but my take would be that certainly the prophets anticipated a renewal of Israel that included physical healing along with other idyllic features. That’s pretty clear. Jesus even quotes this to prove to John the Baptist that he (Jesus) is the promised one who brings the promised kingdom of God, because he is doing these healings.

      But it’s a different issue whether or not Isaiah’s audience would have heard this prophecy and thought that death and resurrection was the ultimate fulfillment. Personally, I would think that’s unlikely. Jesus saying that the Son of Man had to suffer and die seemed to be a real curve ball to his audience. On this side of the NT, we might theologically read resurrection back into that prophecy, but I think it would be hard to make the case that Isaiah 35 is communicating death and resurrection or that anyone would have heard it that way.

  • Gary says:

    I think the question you’re engaging isn’t whether or not there is resurrection from the dead in the Hebrew Scriptures but whether or not there is belief in the resurrection from the dead in Hebrew Scriptures. There is a substantial difference and I believe enough warranting clarity of use of language.

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