Philip S. Johnston, Shades of Sheol. Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002. 288 pp. Paper. ISBN: 0-8308-2687-4. $20.00.
This volume is a review of the much-controverted debate over the Old Testament concept of life at death and life beyond death. Since the 19th century, fashionable liberal fundamentalism has regarded the Israelite view on these matters as the bottom of the (religious) evolutionary pool. That is, the Old Testament religious person had no concept of life after death because Israelite religion evolved/developed only as it was exposed to other more advanced world religions in its own odyssey. Israel's last stop on the developmental trail, in exile at Babylon, was the beginning of her affirmation of life beyond death. Using the methods of comparative pagan religions, Israel's view of the underworld reads more like Homer and other Greco-Roman mythologiesso say the devotees of higher critical fundamentalism.
This canon of post-Enlightenment critical fundamentalism was disturbed in the 1960's and 70's by the late Mitchell Dahood (author of the famous Anchor Bible commentary on the Psalms) when he drew parallels from his Ugaritic studies to Hebrew religion, The Ugaritic culture of Ras Shamra (particularly 2000 B.C. and later) evidenced a notion of the afterlife. If so, could Old Testament Hebrews be far behind? Could they be that less enlightened living in contact with Ugaritic culture and religion? One could ask the same question about Hebrew contacts with Egypt and the latter's elaborate preparations for the next world witnessed by the monumental pyramids.
Johnston sets out to review the discussion especially over the last forty years or so. He provides a thorough discussion of: death, Sheol, resurrection. He considers Ancient Near Eastern parallels, reviews archaeological data, and examines virtually all Old Testament texts touching on death and the afterlife. The discussion is thorough and fair to all points of view (though his sources are occasionally dated). But his conclusions are ambiguous, if not outright concessive. While admitting on the one hand that Israel's view of death and the afterlife are unique, nonetheless he ends up agreeing with the critical fundamentalist consensusi.e., there is only a meager indication that Old Testament persons believed in heaven, hell, conscious existence beyond the grave, resurrection of the body.
Johnston is representative of the emerging evangelical biblical scholar. He is a synthesist, not an antithesist. That is, he merges his alleged evangelicalism into the critical mainstream without positioning himself antithetically to those liberal philosophical presuppositions (for even in biblical matters, all critics are driven by liberal philosophical presuppositions). He ends up giving with his right hand to the critics, while attempting to reserve a very small corner of orthodoxy to his left hand. In the end, he cannot escape being swallowed up by the anti-orthodoxy of the critical schools.
Johnston demonstrates competence in the requisite Ancient Near Eastern languages; he is at home in the sources; he is abreast of Ancient Near Eastern comparative religious studies. In all of these, he excels. But he leaves us wondering whether the Old Testament is in fact divine revelation. Reducing the question of death and resurrection to the natural horizons of Israel's neighborhood, leaves Israel no vertical supernatural or vertical and eschatological neighborhood. This means that the Old Testament text for Johnston must be understood from the bottom upand he admits the paucity of any indicia of the "up" dimension. In other words, the Hebrew notion of death and afterlife is defined not in terms of God speaking to Israel (or into Israel's history and experience) from his transcendent, supernatural, eschatological realm; the Hebrew notion of death and the afterlife is defined only from comparative Ancient Near Eastern cultural studies, endless analysis of Hebrew etymologies and the compartmentalization of Old Testament religion to this world. Beyond this world, no sure Old Testament word. "A few [Israelites] seem to glimpse some form of continued communion with God beyond [death]" (p. 217). Not much to build an eschatology of the Old Testament upon; not even much to build a faith like unto that of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob ("I will be your God and you shall be my people. I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob")sojourners by faith, looking for the city whose builder and maker is God.
This is an impressive book, but disappointing with respect to the conviction that the Old Testament is revelation, given by God, out of heaven, to which he called his sons and daughters, even during the Old Testament era. "Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee" (Ps. 73:25). That is the precious hope of the Old Testament pilgrim even as its fullness in the death and resurrection of Christ is precious to the New Testament pilgrim.
James T. Dennison, Jr.