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  and Fergus Kerr , as well as a new translation of Franz
Rosenzweig's chief work . 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
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:
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
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
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
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
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
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 
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:
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
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 , 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.