Jewish Concepts of Afterlife: Biblical Period

  January 26, 2022   Read time 1 min
Jewish Concepts of Afterlife: Biblical Period
The concept of an afterlife in Judaism took shape gradually and was rarely cast into dogmatic or systematic form. The Jewish idea of the afterlife has focused upon belief in either corporeal resurrection or the immortality of the soul.

While one or the other of these conceptions, and occasionally both together, has been present in every period in the history of Judaism, it can safely be said that these ideas underwent their most significant development during the rabbinic and medieval periods. The notion of the afterlife in the Bible is decidedly vague. After death, the individual is described as going to She'ol, a kind of netherworld, from which he “will not ascend” (Jb. 7:9).

God, however, is attributed with the power to revive the dead (Dt. 32:39, 1 Sm. 2:6), and the language of resurrection is several times used in a figurative sense, as in Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones (Ez. 37:1–4) and in the apocalypse of Isaiah (Is. 26:17–19) to describe the national restoration of the people of Israel. The earliest description of an eschatological resurrection of the dead is in Daniel 12:1–2, an apocalyptic text composed in the midst of the Antiochian persecutions (167–164 BCE): There shall be a time of trouble . . . ; and at that time your people shall be delivered, every one whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

These verses probably do not imply a universal resurrection for all men but only for the righteous and the wicked of Israel. As some modern scholars have proposed, it is likely that the prominence the idea of resurrection began to assume in this period was a result of political and religious crises in which significant numbers of Jews suffered martyrdom. In order to maintain belief in God’s justice and in his promises to the righteous that they would enjoy the restoration of Israel, it became necessary to extend the doctrine of reward and punishment beyond this life to the hereafter. (For an explicit statement of this rationale, see 2 Maccabees 12:42–45.)

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