I read someone on the web today positing that at the time of Moses there was “no belief in heaven and hell… nor were there firm beliefs about the afterlife.” I’m no expert in the ancient near-east, but this assertion strikes me as wrong on multiple levels and I just wanted to comment on it.
For the sake of keeping this brief, let’s grant the benefit of the doubt and guess that when the author said there was “no belief in heaven and hell” at that time he means that folks did not have a conception of the “afterlife” that at death one was either endowed with wings and inclined to sit on clouds playing a harp all day, or else tormented in the bowels of the earth by red satyrs with pitchforks. That’s fine, I don’t believe that either.*
Instead, let me just focus on the idea from the second clause above about the afterlife. Now, I’m not sure what the author would consider a “firm belief about the afterlife” or what constitutes a lack thereof. How many people must staunchly hold a belief about the afterlife for us to admit there was such? And must those beliefs be uniform, or is there room for variation in beliefs about the hereafter while still counting as “firm” beliefs? I don’t know, but it seems to me that any criteria that would rule out the ancient world having “firm beliefs about the afterlife” would also rule out the modern world having them, or vice-versa.
At any rate, I’m quite sure the ancient Egyptians (for one) had a fairly intricate theology of death. One example, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, dates to around the time of Moses, and it deals extensively with laying out its view of the afterlife. This includes, incidentally, dealing with the concept of a paradise for the departed.
But what about God’s people? Any evidence that they had any conception of an afterlife beyond simply “sheol” that far back?
Actually yes. I’d point to the 19th chapter of Job, where we read…
For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
I think the argument can be well made that this represents an intimation, if not a full-fledged understanding, of the Resurrection on the part of Job. And, given that the length of his lifespan has led many (including myself) to believe that he was of a generation well prior to Moses, this would demonstrate a clear expectation of, not just an afterlife, but a new life in the body among God’s people even before the Torah was even jotted down.
*For what I do believe on this subject, listen in to my podcast here starting at 28:25. (Might have to open it in a new window to select the time.)