Resurrection in the Old Testament
A complete separation between the Old and New Testaments is a sign of a flawed interpretation of Scripture. A byproduct of this error has been to ignore important Christian doctrines, like the resurrection, in the Old Testament. The purpose of this article is to point out the clarity of the resurrection as it was revealed to the Old Covenant people of God.
Most Christians are aware that Scripture can be referred to as God’s progressive revelation. I do not mean progressive in the sense of liberal politics or theology, but in the sense that God has revealed Himself and His plan more and more as time has progressed. Noah knew less about God and about God’s plan than Moses. Likewise, Joshua was less informed than Jeremiah, and so on. Because this is the case, some have been tempted to think of the Old Testament as representing an entirely different system of religion than the New Testament. Perhaps this is most apparent in the work of Marcion who thought the Old and New Testaments spoke about two different deities altogether. However, the issues that Marcion wrestled with and succumbed to can be solved simply by recognizing the nature of God’s revelation.
The God of the Bible did not deliver His truth at one instant in Genesis. Rather, He has purposely determined to reveal Himself and His plan by way of successive revelation. In the earlier revelation things are less clear. For example, Adam and Eve, after they committed the first sin, were covered by animal skins made by God Himself—this no doubt typifies the ultimate Sacrifice which would be made by Himself thousands of years later. So, while there was a germ of future revelation in the earliest portions of the Old Testament, that revelation was much less perspicuous than it is now.
Some scholars, and many lay people, have come to the conclusion that the notion of a bodily resurrection would have been foreign to the Old Testament (OT) saints. While it may be true that bodily resurrection would have been much more obscure to the OT people of God, it would be disingenuous to say it was foreign a foreign concept. There are a few reasons to believe that the Old Covenant saints certainly held on to some idea of corporeal resurrection contrary to the misconception that they did not. The oldest book of the Bible to be authored was Job. It’s not oldest in terms of the history it records (Job lived sometime between Abraham and Moses), but it is the oldest to be authored. This is significant because it boasts one of the clearest references to the resurrection in the Old Testament. Job says:
As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God.
— Job 19:25, 26
In the English it is pretty strong, in the Hebrew it is worlds stronger. The term “skin” (‘owr) literally means hide or skin. Yet, the term “flesh” is a different Hebrew term altogether (basar), which means flesh of the body. Thus, Job is clearly looking forward to a bodily resurrection. IN a historical context wherein bodily resurrection was unheard of, this is rather striking. N. T. Wright notes that while apotheosis (soul translation) was a popular concept, anastasis (bodily resurrection) was totally foreign to the ancient near east and within Greek mythology. If Job was written as early as many think it was, it provides a context for all other pagan ideas of life after death proceeding the time of Job. Not only is the resurrection found in the Old Testament here, but it sets a cultural precedent for resurrectional language within pagan culture, be it corporeal or some type of translational existence.
There are other places the resurrection can be found in the pages of the OT. Ezekiel is often underestimated in it reference to resurrection even though, next to Job, it is the clearest and most extensive reference we have in the OT. It reads as follows:
He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, You know…” He said to me… “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold they say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope has perished. We are completely cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel.”’ — Ezekiel 37:3, 11-13
First, a brief defense of my use of this passage is in order. Many restrict this passage to the ethnic nation of Israel. However, given my view of progressive revelation I take Israel to mean the Old Covenant church, and I take the church to be the new Israel (Gal. 6:16). Moreover, even if those who maintain a narrow, dispensational view of Israel cannot consistently take this passage seriously. If this passage is interpreted to mean the ethnic people only, then we are forced to take this resurrectional language as being allegorical (since nowhere in Scripture does God indicate that ethnic Israel is resurrected separately from the church). But the graphic nature of the text seems too robust to allow such an interpretation.
Second, the passage clearly speaks of a bodily resurrection, be it figuratively or literally. Because of this, the way the passage is interpreted eschatologically really does nothing to undermine the existence of corporeal resurrectional themes in the Old Testament. Third, Ezekiel and Job represent such a disparity in biblical chronology that the retainment of resurrectional theology, and thus the significance of it, should be noted. A significant amount of time existed between the days of Job and the days of Ezekiel, yet their theology concerning the bodily resurrection is identical, albeit more or less explained.
The third instance of resurrectional language that I will cover occurs in Isaiah. The prophet writes: “Your dead will live; their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy, for your dew is as the dew of the dawn, and the earth will give birth to the departed spirits (Is. 26:19).” The prophet clearly establishes the truth of resurrection, although cryptically, in a cradle of eschatological language. Here, Isaiah also writes, “For behold, the Lord is about to come out from His place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity; and the earth will reveal her bloodshed and will no longer cover her slain (v. 21).” Clearly, Isaiah is speaking of a future global judgment. It is interesting that here is a relatively developed eschatology, or doctrine of the last things, not the least of which is the resurrection of God’s people.
Not in the least have I exhausted the Old Testament references to the bodily future resurrection which the people of God long for. Upon the return of Christ will God’s people be glorified, and this is richly expressed in the oldest pages of Scripture. What is even more amazing is the consistency with which the resurrection is spoken of in its most basic of forms. Each mention of the resurrection either explicitly or necessarily indicates that this is a bodily anastasis, a corporeal raising from the grave. Job, Ezekiel, and Isaiah all point to a time in the future where God will raise His people from the dirt of the earth.