Monday, April 09, 2018

Resurrection in the Book of Ezekiel (and in Ugaritic)

THEM BONES: The Valley of Dry Bones and the Resurrection of the Dead (Prof. Devorah Dimant,
Originally an allegorical vision about the future return of Judeans to their land, Ezekiel’s vision (ch. 37) becomes one of the cornerstones for the Jewish belief in the resurrection of the dead. The early stages of this development are made clear in a little-known Qumran scroll called Pseudo-Ezekiel.
Good essay. Instead of commenting on it directly, I'm going to use this as an excuse to share a few thoughts about Ezekiel's vision and the development of the idea of resurrection in the biblical world.

First, I want to depart a bit from the consensus on Ezekiel's vision of the dry bones. I agree that it is a symbolic representation of the revival of the nation after the exile rather that a description of the eschatological resurrection of the dead. But ... it's hard for me to think that the image didn't also evoke the idea of the physical resurrection of the dead in the mind of Ezekiel and his audience. Would anyone have used this image unless some ideas about physical resurrection were not already part of the cultural narrative? I doubt it.

Possibly around the same time as this oracle, the Deuteronomistic History was telling stories about individual resurrections carried out by the prophets Elijah and Elisha. So the idea was in the air. When prophets start seeing visions of a vast throng of individual resurrections, something interesting is in the air, and I don't think it's just symbolism.

Second, here's a tangentially related thought, something that occurred to me many years ago. I've never seen anyone else point it out. The Ugaritic texts from the late second millennium BCE include the Aqhat Epic, in which the hero Aqhat is killed by the goddess Anat. One guess was that in the lost ending Aqhat was resurrected from the dead. If so, that would be the earliest known direct reference to resurrection in the Northwest Semitic/Canaanite/Israelite world. But the ending is lost, so this is very speculative and I don't think it is seriously argued anymore.

But there is something interesting that is not speculative because it actually is in the text. When Aqhat's father, Danel, learns of the murder, he sets out to recover his son's body for burial. When vultures fly by, he invokes a curse of Baal on them which makes them fall from the sky and be torn apart, so he can examine the contents of their stomachs. (I know. Yuck!). Eventually he finds the vulture who ate Aqhat and buries what is left of him. But interest point is that after he examines the first dead vultures and finds they did not eat Aqhat, he recites an anti-curse in the name of Baal which reconstructs them and sends them flying off as good as new. So as early as the Ugaritic epics, people were exploring the idea of invoking the power of a god to raise individuals (birds in this case) from the dead. It's a very old idea.

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