Review of The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality, Part Two

Chapter Two – The Naturalness of Death, and the Path to Immortality

Barr’s second chapter addresses the two topics highlighted in his chapter title. He summarizes his own chapter well:

I do not suppose that in this chapter I have proved the immortality of the soul; it was not my purpose to do so. Nor has it been my purpose to argue that the immortality of the soul is a good thing, or a bad thing, for people to believe in. What I think I have shown is that, for much of the Hebrew Bible, death, so long as it was in proper time and in good circumstances, was both natural and proper in God’s eyes; that the Old Testament provides thoughts and aspects out of which ideas of the immortality of the soul could naturally and easily develop; and that the world on the basis of which much of the New Testament was written was a world in which the belief in that immortality was lively and strongly represented. (56)

Having argued in his previous chapter that Paul’s interpretation of Genesis 3 shares the concerns of Hellenistic thought rather than the concerns expressed in the actual text, he moves forward with his argument that death is portrayed throughout the Bible as something that is natural, not as something unnatural and opposed to God which Adam introduced when he sinned. His first line of argument is to survey a number of passages which implicitly assume or explicitly state that God is the author of both life and death, paying careful attention to those passages which might suggest otherwise. Building off this line of thinking he discusses the circumstances in which death is viewed as natural, namely when it bring about completion and fulfillment to a life well (or even poorly) lived, when it is followed by a proper burial, and when it is followed by a good name and offspring.

Barr then goes on to discuss the rather undefined concept of Sheol in the Old Testament. While the implicit assumption is that all the dead end up in Sheol, he observes that none of the most hallowed characters in the biblical narrative are said to end up there (but what of Samuel?). Sheol may be perceived as an undesirable destination for the dead, similar in ways to the New Testament conception of Hell. While Sheol is not strictly considered life after death, it does suggest a continuance of the person, and some headed to Sheol expressed their conviction that “the God of Israel has, potentially, presence in Sheol, power to control the destiny of his own ones who are there, but, must important, ability to hear their prayers and to have some sort of communion with them” (33). And if all this is true, might he not also have the “power to keep them out of Sheol and, if need be, to remove them thence” (33)? While Barr moves forward tentatively at this point, he expresses concern between the intersection of the meaning behind the word death as it is used by these authors and death as we mean it. Those familiar with his Semantics of Biblical Language will recognize Barr’s honed ability to criticize the meaning of a word in light of its various contexts.

If it is true that this correctly represents the language of the Bible (and I am still not sure that it does), all it seems to prove is that biblical materials framed in this language are not suitable for helping us with problems of what we call death. ‘Death’ in this poetic biblical sense may be a curse, may be opposition to God, may be a force that challenges him and opposes him, but that only proves that we are talking about something other than death. (34)

Barr then moves on to discuss the topic of the soul. He discusses the view that Hebrew thought conceived of the body and soul as a singular totality (living being, nephesh, נפשׂ), much like much modern thought considers man to be, body and mind, a psychosomatic unity. Wielding his semantic lightsaber, Barr penetrates the semantic differences occurring between body and soul in Hebrew thought. 1) People speak to their soul, “which is something like a superior companion or accompaniment to that totality” (39). 2) Body and soul are sometimes cast as oppositional terms. 3) The soul is mobile, sometimes leaving the body (and even returning on occasion). Thus, Barr concludes:

I submit, then, that it seems probably that in certain contexts the nephesh is not, as much present opinion favours, a unity of body and soul, a totality of personality comprising all these elements: it is rather, in these contexts, a superior controlling centre which accompanies, expresses and directs the existence of that totality, and one which, especially, provides the life to the whole. Because it is the life giving element, it is difficult to conceive that it itself will die. . . . With the recognition of this fact the gate to immortality lies open.” (42-3)

Barr goes on to discuss a few other topics–Later Hebrew thinking, The impact of ‘sceptical’ Wisdom, Variety of thought on our subject, Martyrdom, and The Wisdom of Solomon–before concluding.

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five


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