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    Front Page
     May 28, 2008
BOOK REVIEW
Life and death in the Bible
The power of God for Christians and Jews
by Kevin J Madigan and Jon D Levenson

Reviewed by Spengler

Theology was dethroned as queen of the sciences two centuries ago. This splendid book supports the case for restoration. How are we to make sense of a world in which the raw issues of life and death - secular society's failure to endure life, and traditional society's embrace of death - overthrow the trifling calculus of political science? The world has buried Karl Marx's economic man and Sigmund Freud's libidinous man, and the shovel is ready for Martin Heidegger's "authentic" man. Levenson and Madigan show instead Biblical man in his confrontation with death, and in so doing hold up a mirror to us.

Resurrection is among a handful of recent theological texts that radically affect our view of the world, including works by Michael 

 
Wsychogrod [1] and Fergus Kerr [2], as well as a new translation of Franz Rosenzweig's chief work [3]. It is doubly remarkable as the joint effort of a Jewish and a Christian scholar.

Life and death to the ancient Hebrews were a moral conditions more than medical one, the authors explain. Enslavement and looming cultural extinction were felt as the grave, as was childlessness. National redemption and the covenantal promise of continuity of Abraham's line were a restoration of life, a resurrection in the earliest stirring of Hebrew religious sensibility. The modern materialist view of life and death, the authors remind us, has little in common with the way in which ancient readers of the Bible understood existence.

One might go farther, and assert that the Biblical understanding of life and death still prevails today among most of the world's six billion souls. The materialism of modern political science sadly misjudges the demands of the human heart. Nations are willing to fight to the death because their national life already has become a living death, in just the way the Bible saw it. In their hearts they already have gone down to Sheol, and the world holds no greater terror for them than what they live each day.

Resurrection draws a red line from the earliest response to death in the Hebrew Bible, to the promise of resurrection in the flesh in the 2nd century BC Book of Daniel and in Christian doctrine. Madigan and Levenson show how basic to Jewish and Christian belief is the promise that a loving God will redeem his faithful from death, in the full unity of body and soul. This is the promise of redemption that has sustained Jews and Christians through the centuries, and given them a perception that their life in this world participates in eternal life. Thus they are alive even in death.

But what of those who feel abandoned to death? By the same token, they are dead even in life. From this existential experience of life and death, the authors show how deeply the hope of resurrection in the flesh is embedded in the Hebrew Bible. Their object is to show continuity between the religion of ancient Israel the Christianity and Judaism that have come down to us from late antiquity, contrary to a scholarly consensus that views resurrection as a later innovation. Professor Gary A Anderson of Notre Dame's review in the June-July 2008 issue of First Things provides a fine summary of the scholarly issues.

Levenson is one of a very few scholars working today who help us read the Hebrew Bible with fresh eyes, and no review will reproduce the experience of reading his latest work. It is a book to be savored, not summarized. In any event, here is the authors' portrait of the Biblical view:
The sources in the Hebrew Bible have a broader definition of death and of life than we do That is why they can see exile, for example, as death, and repatriation as life, in a sense that seems contrived (to put it negatively) or artful (to put it positively) to us, but probably did not so seem to the original authors and audiences. In part, this is because the ancient Israelites, altogether lacking the materialist habit of thought so powerful in modernity, did not conceive of life and death as purely and exclusively biological phenomena. These things were, rather, social in character and could not, therefore, be disengaged from the historical fate of the people of whom they were predicated (emphasis added).
Levenson and Madigan add:
To be alive inevitably entailed more than merely existing in a certain physical state. It also entailed having one's being within a flourishing and continuing kin group that dwelt in a productive and secure association with its land. Conversely, to be widowed, bereaved of children, or in exile was necessarily to experience death.
Ancient Israel felt Egyptian slavery as a living death, and redemption as a resurrection from this death. That is what the author of I Samuel meant by these words: "The LORD deals death and gives life/Casts down into Sheol and raises up" (I Sam 2:6).

When Ezekiel saw a vision of a valley of dry bones brought back to life in the 6th century BC, he did think in terms of the resurrection in the flesh of each individual prophesied by the prophet Daniel three centuries later. The authors explain:
What does not die is the people Israel, because God has, despite their grievous failings, honored his unbreakable pledge to their ancestors. Israelite people die, like anyone else; the people Israel survives and revives because of God's promise, despite the most lethal defeats.
Because existence was not individual but social in ancient Israel, national restoration and individual resurrection occur as the same thought in the Second Isaiah when prophesying the return of Israel to Zion:
He will destroy death forever.
My Lord GOD will wipe the tears away
From all faces
And will put an end to the reproach of His people
Over all the earth -
For it is the LORD who has spoken. (Isa 25:8).
The leap from Ezekiel and the Second Isaiah to the Book of Daniel, which offers the hope of resurrection in the flesh to all of the righteous, is far narrower than standard scholarship has claimed, in the authors' view.

Why Christianity and Judaism stood their ground on the issue of resurrection in the flesh against internal and external skeptics requires a second thought. Neither religion, observe the authors, can claim a "radical uniqueness" with respect to the other. The priestly elite of Second Temple Judaism, the Sadducees, denied resurrection, as did the Gnostics against whom the Church fathers fought so bitterly during the first three centuries of Christian life. "In rabbinic theology God was not thought to have fulfilled his promises until the whole person returned, body included ... the person is not 'the ghost in the machine' (that is, the body) but rather a unity of body and soul."

For Christians the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is the revelation on which the faith is founded. Resurrection in Christian doctrine is the reward of the individuals who leave their Gentile nations to take part in the new people of God and become part of Christ's resurrection. Christian identity is as just as social as Jewish identity, for Christians believed they are saved through adoption into a new people. Madigan and Levenson show that the sacrament of baptism for early Christians was inextricably tied to rebirth and resurrection. Thus Christians rescued themselves from the maelstrom of death that took hold of the late Roman Empire.

It is a conceit of modern materialism that identity no longer is social, but rather individual; we choose our pleasures, and, if the mood strikes us, shop for a religion the way we might choose a neighborhood. We fancy ourselves rational beings. If we are not quite beyond good and evil, for law and custom still discourage rapine and murder, we certainly are beyond sin and redemption, which we have replaced by stress and therapy.

Modern materialism has weaned the industrial world off spiritual food, like the thrifty farmer who trained his donkey to eat less by reducing its rations each day. "Just when I got I had him trained to live on nothing," the farmer complained, "the donkey had to die!" Like the donkey, the modern world has died when its spiritual rations were cut to nothing. We refuse to acknowledge that our deepest needs are no different from those of Biblical man. We fail to nourish them and we die.

What Benedict XVI calls the anti-culture of death will reduce most of the industrial world to a geriatric ward by the latter half of his century, and to ruins to be picked over by immigrants not long thereafter. We experience death in life, but our intellect and our technology enable us to deny the prospect of death.

Not so the peoples who emerge blinking into the modern world from the wreckage of traditional society. Globalization spells the end of traditional society, and no amount of sentimentality will save it. In many ways the traditional peoples are much closer to the social view of identity expressed in the Bible than are we. They experience death as a palpable and ever-present horror. Among contemporary poets, none portrays this horror more vividly than the Syrian-Arab poet who calls himself Adonis [4]

In a recent interview, he described the three hundred million Arabs as already an extinct people: "We have become extinct ... We have the masses of people, but a people becomes extinct when it no longer has a creative capacity, and the capacity to change its world ... The great Sumerians became extinct, the great Greeks became extinct, and the Pharaohs became extinct."

Adonis is the greatest poet in the Arab language, the only Arab writer on the short list for a Nobel Prize, and his song is of living death. As I noted last year, outbursts like the following are characteristic of his poems:
Each day is a child/ who dies behind a wall/ turning its face to the wall's corners.

When I saw death on a road/ I saw my face in his. My thoughts resembled locomotives/ straining out of fog/ and into fog.

Strangled mute/ with syllables/ voiceless,/ with no language/ but the moaning of the earth,/ my song discovers death/ in the sick joy/ of everything that is/ for anyone who listens./ Refusal is my melody./ Words are my life/ and life is my disease.
Modern Westerners endure a living death no less terrifying than the awful images of Adonis. Perhaps that is what makes vampires and zombies perennially popular in Western entertainment. The presentiment of death lurks in Western consciousness and leers out through the television screen. Westerners avert their eyes in from the horror that prevails in the traditional world, flipping channels from massacres in Darfur or bombings in Iraq to the "Attack of the Teen Vampire Zombies". Only on occasion, eg, September 11, 2001, does the horror crawl out of the screen and impose itself upon Western consciousness.

What passes for political science takes as a point of departure Immanuel Kant's claim that he could devise a constitution for a race of devils, "if only they be rational". Persuading the peoples of the Global South to accept modern materialism has proven to be a failure. Some months ago I took to task the political philosopher Mark Lilla [5], whose recent tract A Stillborn God bemoans the failure of modern rationalism. If only the donkey hadn't died after learning to eat nothing, complain the farmers who populate the political science faculties of the West. Modern political science has encountered the raw hopes and fears of Biblical man, and shied away in consternation.

The hope of traditional society for life on this Earth - for men cannot tolerate life on this earth without the promise of eternal life - is precisely the same as it was in late antiquity. Four hundred million Christian converts in Africa and perhaps a hundred million in China are evidence enough that much of the world will abandon broken traditions and embrace the promise of life. Man is still Biblical man, and the Bible yet again may prove a guidebook to life as it did two millennia ago.

Theology should reclaim its throne as queen of the sciences because it is our guide to the issues that will decide the life and death of nations. Levenson and Madigan have done an enormous service to their own and to many other disciplines by clarifying the Biblical understanding of life and death.

Notes
1. Abraham's promise and American power Asia Times Online, February 8, 2005.
2. The inside story of the Western mind Asia Times Online, November 6, 2007.
3. Indispensable handbook for global theopolitics Asia Times Online, November 22, 2005.
4. Are the Arabs already extinct? Asia Times Online, May 8, 2007.
5. It must be the end of secularism Asia Times Online, August 21, 2007.

The power of God for Christians and Jews by Kevin J Madigan and Jon D Levenson. Yale University Press, May 30, 2008. ISBN-10: 0300122772. Price US$40, 304 pages.

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(May 23-26, 2008)

 
 



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