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Too many people assume that there is no uniform and sure doctrine on the subject of life after death in the Old Testament. Only one reference in the Old Testament is counted as a clear and undisputed reference to the resurrection of the dead by most Old Testament scholars, Daniel 12:2: "Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt." Unhappily, however, even those who concede this point incorrectly place Daniel in the second century B.C.
A few scholars are willing to add Isaiah 26:19 to the Daniel 12:2 passage and count it as a second passage supporting the idea of resurrection of the dead in the Old Testament. It reads, "But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead."
Nevertheless, it is amazing to see how many learned men and women will deny even these two texts and argue that the Old Testament teaches virtually nothing about resurrection or life after death.
The truth of the matter is that ancient peoples were more attuned to the subject of life after death than moderns suspect. The peoples of the ancient Near East wrote at length about what life was like after one left this earth. One need only consult such representative pieces as the Gilgamesh Epic, The Descent of Ishtar into the Netherworld, the Book of the Dead and the Pyramid Texts. Indeed, the whole economy of Egypt was geared to the cult of the dead, for all who wished a part in the next life had to be buried around the pyramid of the Pharaoh. What these Egyptians could expect in that afterlife was depicted in the scenes on the walls of their mortuaries: eating, drinking, singing and all the joys of this life. Each joy, of course, would be magnified and still enjoyed through a body.
By the time Abraham arrived in Egypt, such concepts had been emblazoned on their walls in hieroglyphics, murals and models made of clay, to make sure no one missed the point. Life after death was not a modern doctrine developed by an educated society that began to think more abstractly about itself and its times. Instead it was an ancient hunger that existed in the hearts of humanity long before the patriarchs, prophets and kings of the Old Testament began to function. Why should we attribute this idea to the second and third centuries B.C. if already in the third and second millennium B.C. there is strong evidence to support it?
The earliest biblical mention of the possibility of a mortal's inhabiting the immortal realms of deity can be found in Genesis 5:24. There we are told that a man named Enoch lived 365 years, all the while "walking with God." Suddenly, "he was no more, because God took him away."
Enoch, whose name means "beginner," must have been unusually godly--not that he achieved this distinction by removing himself from the world and contemplating only the presence of God. In fact, he fathered the famous Methuselah (the man who lived the longest that we know about on planet Earth, 969 years!). And he had other sons and daughters. This man was hardly removed from the daily grind and the problems of life. Nevertheless, he was able to walk with God.
Since this quality of "walking with God" is ascribed only to Enoch and Noah (Gen 6:9), it is significant that Malachi 2:6 shows that the concept involved having a most intimate communion with God. What a tribute to a mortal who is also a sinner! On the other hand, since Exodus 33:20 teaches that "no one may see [God] and live," the possibility of an outward, physical meeting with God is ruled out.
Many think that only since New Testament times have such nearness and inner communion with God become possible. But here was one who found such uninterrupted consciousness of the living God that it appears to match what we in the post-New Testament era experience.
After 365 years of intimacy with the Almighty, suddenly the Lord "took" Enoch. What can it mean that he "took" him?
The Hebrew root for the verb to take is used over a thousand times in the Old Testament. However, in two contexts--this Genesis 5 passage and the account of Elijah's assumption into heaven in 2 Kings 2:3, 10-11--it refers to a snatching of a person's body up to heaven.
In light of these two cases of physical assumption, are there other cases where the verb is used in the Old Testament with a similar meaning?
There are two additional contexts in which more is intended than a mere rescue from dying or distress. Psalm 49 presents a stark contrast between the end of the lives of the wicked and the end of the lives of the righteous. The wicked are like "the beasts that perish" (Ps 49:12, 20) without any hope that they "should live on forever" (Ps 49:9). However, the righteous have the triumphant expectation that "God will redeem [them] from the grave [Hebrew Sheol]; he will surely take [them] to himself" (Ps 49:15). The idea is the same as that of Genesis 5:24: God will snatch, take or receive us to himself when we die. If the psalmist had in mind the fact that he would be rescued from death for a few years, though he knows he still must eventually die like the beasts, then the psalm has very little, or no, point.
Psalm 73:23-25 makes a similar contrast between the wicked and the righteous. Once again there is faith that reaches beyond this life, and it centers on this verb to take (Hebrew laqah). Says the psalmist, "You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory" (Ps 73:24).
Accordingly, it can be argued on very strong linguistic and conceptual grounds that the "taking" of a person from this earth implies that mortals are capable of inhabiting immortal realms. For the believer in Yahweh in Old Testament times, death did not end it all. There was life after death, and that life was to be in the presence of the living God.
While Enoch did not experience "resurrection," he did experience glorification. He did, along with Elijah, transcend this mortal life and go in his body to be with God. Since Enoch had not died, he could not be resurrected.
Such a view of an immediate access into the presence of God would also close down all speculation on any kind of intermediate state, receptacle or location as unscriptural. To say that Old Testament believers stayed in a separate compartment in Sheol or in a kind of purgatory runs directly counter to the fact that God snatched Enoch and Elijah away "to himself."
To say that the Old Testament offers the hope of personal fellowship with God beyond the grave with a real body is not outlandish or incorrect. That hope is a teaching of the text itself.