Friday, May 8, 2009

Daniel 12: Hebrew resurrection

Like Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, like Orville Redenbacher invented popcorn, and like Michael Jackson invented diamond-studded gloves, it is widely believed that Jesus invented resurrection. (He didn't, but that's beside the point, at least for the moment.) But it will come as a surprise to some that the Bible's first reference to resurrection actually comes in the Hebrew Bible (or Christian Old Testament), in the twelfth chapter of the "prophetic" book of Daniel.

Daniel tells the story of a mysterious Hebrew sage who, sometime during the sixth century B.C.E., rises up through the ranks of the imperial court to serve at the side of the Babylonian despot Nebuchadnezzar (and later, the Persian Cyrus). However, the book was most likely composed hundreds of years after the time of Babylonian ascendency, in the middle of the second century B.C.E. From historical cues not-so-cleverly hidden in the text, most argue that Daniel comes from the time of the Maccabean revolt--when Jews bravely fought off foreign tyranny and, in celebration, gave each other presents for eight nights and tried to avoid the lite rock stations that played only Christmas songs for six weeks. (Just kidding ... though these events do, of course, inspire Hanukkah.)

A repeating trope in the book of Daniel is the hero's interpretation of dreams. (Many note that Daniel is a kind of latter-day Joseph.) Each of these dreams correctly tells the future--a less impressive feat given the fact that the book was probably written during the "future" whose existence the narrative predicts. Nonetheless, the Daniel author's faux-proleptic tales may have served a crucial purpose by inspiring freedom-fighters to strength and bravery. The message of the dreams is clear: the imperial powers under which the Israelites have long suffered are weakening, and the current ruler--the nefarious Antiochus--is ripe for defeat. The revolutionaries just need to have faith in the God who will deliver them.

It is in this context that many understand Daniel's explanation of resurrection:

"There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Daniel 12: 1-2).

This is a time of anguish, says Daniel's author to the Israelites, but you will be delivered, and many of you will come back from the grave. Many scholars, thus, read Daniel's prediction of resurrection as a call to martyrdom: many Maccabean revolutionaries who die in the cause will not really die--they'll get out of jail free and collect $200. (And perhaps even the slackers in the cause--or even the enemies--will reap "shame.")

Of course, this story has a happy ending, though perhaps not for those freedom-fighters who did die and are waiting around for the end of their dirt nap (or for those who came back only to "everlasting contempt"--a rude awakening, to say the least) . The Maccabees win, Antiochus is repulsed, and we later have the institution of the Hasmonean dynasty--a rare moment of Jewish semi-independence in the age of empires. And perhaps the author of Daniel deserves some of the credit.

However, we're all a little warier of calls to martyrdom these days. We don't necessarily want suicidal fighters who believe in everlasting life as reward for their actions. So, an open memo to the author of Daniel: keep it down on the topic of the resurrection. Jesus will blow the lid of that one in about 200 years.


  1. Fire Pan: feeling a bit inadequate to say anything other than "thank you for the historical primer in the time of Daniel and introduction to the Hasmoneon dynasty". But I also might add that I appreciate how you fit Eli Whitney, the popcorn man and the gloved in a single sentence and compare the whole lot to the savior of mankind. Audacious. Nice.

  2. well said, Karin. Personally, I'm looking forward to your breakdown of Leviticus. That's the one where humans have prices set, no?


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