A belief in the general resurrection runs deep in the Old Testament, much more so than some realize.
Many of us are familiar with the prophet Ezekiel’s fantastic vision of the resurrection in the valley of the dry bones (see here). But the belief goes back much further than that. In fact, we can trace it all the way back to the oldest book of the Bible. If you’re thinking Genesis, you’d be wrong. While Genesis’ subject matter is chronologically the oldest, the book itself was actually written after the oldest one, which is Job (see here).
While Ezekiel’s prophecy is certainly better known, it is to Job that St. Thomas Aquinas turns to when looking for Old Testament evidence for a belief in the general resurrection (see here).
Job on man’s mortality
Job’s first major statement on the resurrection comes in a soliloquy about the transitory nature of human life:
Man born of woman
is short-lived and full of trouble,
Like a flower that springs up and fades,
swift as a shadow that does not abide (Job 14:1-2).
Job continues. He draws a contrast with a tree saying for a tree there is hope. Even if it is felled, a sprout may spring again. “Its tender shoots will not cease,” Job says (Job 14:7). “But when a man dies, all vigor leaves him; when a mortal expires, where then is he?” (verse 10). Man is like a lake that dries up or a stream that ‘shrivels’ (verse 11).
It doesn’t seem like we’re headed for a full-throated defense of the general resurrection, but that’s exactly where Job takes us:
So mortals lie down, never to rise.
Until the heavens are no more, they shall not awake,
nor be roused out of their sleep (Job 14:12).
At first blush, this doesn’t read like there’s much hope for the resurrection. But go back and reread it. Job says ‘until.’ He’s positing a condition. It may sound impossible—the non-existence of the heavens—but then the resurrection should seem impossible too when considered from a purely human standpoint. The Douay-Rheims translation offers a more poetic and provocative rendition of these lines (the above are from the New American Bible, Revised Edition):
So man when he is fallen asleep shall not rise again; till the heavens be broken, he shall not awake, nor rise up out of his sleep.
The ‘breaking of the heavens’—doesn’t this remind us of Revelation 6:13’s description of the end times when the stars will fall, the moon will turn blood red, and the sun shall be blackened?
The subsequent verses of Job 14 elaborate on this hope, once we understand there is hope here:
Oh, that you would hide me in Sheol,
shelter me till your wrath is past,
fix a time to remember me!
If a man were to die, and live again,
all the days of my drudgery I would wait
for my relief to come
You would call, and I would answer you;
you would long for the work of your hands (Job 14:13-15).
The resurrection as God’s act of remembering us
Job longs to be hidden in Sheol till God’s judgment has passed. Then he asks God to ‘remember’ Him at a time in the future. There’s a firm expectation conveyed in Job’s plea that God fix a time for His remembering. The resurrection is not meant to be something that happens when God casually ‘remembers’ it (as if that could happen with God). Instead it’s meant to be a thing foreordained, a promise rooted in the past.
Here the general resurrection is envisioned as a manifestation of God’s memory. The implication is that God simply has to remember us in order to restore us. The new creation will be like the old. God ‘spoke’ and the stars and planets, along with the trees, the animals, and man all came to be. God’s words, whether spoken out loud or in the silent interiority of the Trinity, have creative power.
Job’s idea of memory also looks forward to the gospels, where remembering can make something present. This is what happens in the Eucharist which we ‘do in memory’ of Him. This kind of remembering is alluded to during the crucifixion, when the Good Thief asks Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
Job expresses a deep longing for the resurrection. He says that if such a thing were possible he would be willing to wait for it “all the days of my drudgery.” Finally, Job expresses confidence that God would call on Him and that he’d be able to hear the voice of God and respond. Again, this language foreshadows Jesus in the gospels. In John 10:27-28, Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand.”
Seeing God while in the flesh
Later in the book, Job is even more unequivocal in his hope for a general resurrection, including, specifically, the resurrection of the body:
As for me, I know that my vindicator lives,
and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust.
This will happen when my skin has been stripped off,
and from my flesh I will see God:
I will see for myself,
my own eyes, not another’s, will behold him:
my inmost being is consumed with longing (Job 19:25-27).
The above wording can be a bit confusing. The Douay-Rheims puts it this way, “And I shall be clothed again with my skin, and in my flesh I will see my God.” As before, we see Job’s hope grounded in his realism. He knows that someday he will die and his skin bill be ‘stripped off.’ Just the same, he has confidence that his bones will again be clothed with skin.
Job’s hope in a bodily resurrection is striking. He doesn’t back down from the point. He will behold God with ‘my own eyes’ and not those of another. In other words, the very eyes Job had in this life will see God. His soul will not be implanted into the body of another. As the textual notes for the Douay-Rheims translation point out, the restoration envisioned here is much significant that a tree sprouting anew:
[N]ot as one tree riseth in place of another, but that the selfsame flesh shall rise at the last day, by the power of God, changed in quality but not in substance, every one to receive sentence according to his works in this life.
In Job, what had initially been an image of sorrow—the contrast between the fate of the tree and that of man—instead is recast as a source of hope. Instead of reminding us of what we cannot attain, the contrast with the trees helps explain how much greater our rebirth will be. Job’s textual history mirrors the theological reality: a belief in the resurrection transforms the sadness of death into hope for a new life. Fittingly, Job, the man of much despair, becomes our earliest source for a firm hope in the resurrection.