When it began to occur to me that God’s promise of eternal life to the individual cannot be found in the Old Testament, I was surprised and troubled. For years I have read the Old Testament through the eyes of the New Testament rather than through the eyes of those living during those ancient times. What, I asked myself, are the implications of my discovery? I am still trying to answer that question. Did others before me make the same discovery? Yes, but almost exclusively by those who were not in sympathy with the New Testament message.
In this issue I will begin exploring relevant passages in the first five books of the Bible – the Torah. I make no claim that my study will prove exhaustive, and I invite you to call to my attention passages I have overlooked or areas where you disagree with my conclusions. All Old Testament quotes are from the Hebrew Scriptures, the Tanakh, marked JPS in the footnotes.
Reflections on Genesis, Exodus, and part of Leviticus
Genesis – When God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden, He called attention to two trees: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve’s preoccupation with the latter alerts us to the fact that as human beings we desire autonomy, more than eternal life. It is clear from Gen. 3:22 that the fruit of the tree of life was understood to bestow immortality. But when God said, “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die,” He linked death and sinning. Thus, if man did not eat of the fruit he would not die, implying the immortality of man. Although God does not resolve this conundrum, you can see why man was attracted to the tree promising autonomy rather than the one promising eternal life. When Adam sinned, God barred access to the tree of life.
Gen. 25:8; 35:29; 49:33 tells us that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were each “gathered to his people.” “It would seem, therefore, that the existence of this idiom, as of the corresponding figure ‘to lie down with one’s fathers,’ testifies to a belief that, despite his mortality and perishability, man possesses an immortal element that survives the loss of life. Death is looked upon as a transition to an afterlife where one is united with one’s ancestors. This interpretation contradicts the widespread, but apparently erroneous, view that such a notion is unknown in Israel until later times.” Gen. 25:17 tell us regarding Ishmael, “and he expired and died; and was gathered unto his people.” Ishmael was not a child of God’s promise, and yet Genesis makes no distinction between where he went after death vis-à-vis Abraham. This would seem to indicate that the abode of the dead was viewed at that time differently from how those in the New Testament viewed it. I can find no indication of an individual expressing a personal, eternal hope, or of God offering one.
Exodus – Exodus 32 – 34:10 (or maybe to the end of chapter 34) form a unit: Moses delays his return from Sinai and Aaron makes for the people an idol shaped as a golden calf. God threatens Israel’s destruction and Moses interceded saying that God should forgive the people because: 1) – God would look bad in the eyes of Egypt, and 2) – It would violate the covenant God made with Abraham. God relents. In v. 35 “the Lord sent a plague upon the people, because they made the calf which Aaron made.” When the Levites executed God’s justice in Exodus 32:25-29 you notice three groups of Hebrews: the innocent, the tempted, and the tempters. Moses does not make clear how many from each group were killed; God controls the destinies of people. But there is no reason to assume that the innocent were spared God’s wrath. In v. 30 Moses says, “You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” In v. 32 Moses tells God, “If Thou wilt not forgive their sin, blot me out of Thy Book,” to which God responds, “Whoever has sinned against me, him will I blot out of My book.”
In Exodus 33 the people mourn when they hear of God’s anger and in v. 6: “Therefore the people of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments, from Mount Horeb onward.” The rest of the chapter is devoted to God agreeing to lead the people and His revealing Himself to Moses. In Exodus 34 Moses prepares two new tablets for the Law and meets God on Mt. Sinai. We find God’s self-revelation in vv. 6-7: “And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, 7 Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.” This self-revelation of God seems to be a counter-point to the Decalogue of Exodus 20.
Moses responds in v. 9, “And he said, If now I have found grace in thy sight, O Lord, let my Lord, I pray thee, go among us; for it is a stiffnecked people; and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for thine inheritance.” God says, “Behold, I make a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been wrought in all the earth or in any nation; and all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the LORD; for it is a terrible thing that I will do with you.”
In light of this, it seems best to conclude that when God says, “The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,” He refers to the nation as a whole, which seems to be His assurance to Moses in v. 10. He does not offer His grace and longsuffering to the individual; He refers to the individual Hebrew in Exodus 32:33: “Whoever has sinned against me, him will I blot out of My book.” – i.e., God will do to the sinner what Moses requested God does to him in v. 32. In none of this does God offer an individual eternal hope.
Leviticus – Although we could have looked at the sacrificial system in Exodus, I instead waited for Leviticus simply because the Exodus account of sacrifices gives no hint of an eternal hope.
Because Christ became the sacrificial Lamb of God, I thought perhaps I would find a connection to His death and with it a glimpse of God’s eternal plan for the believer. Not only do we find an absence of such hope, we discover that God does not offer much in the way of a temporal hope for those who sin willfully.
God instructs Israel in Leviticus 1:4: “he shall lay his hand upon the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.” Many sins that individual Hebrews committed were not a direct, apparent violation of the law. For example, a man has angry thoughts because of what his parents did to him, and then wonders if he has violated the fifth commandment, or he has a sick child that he must tend and wonders if he violated the fourth commandment. In such matters, he wants God to “cover” his possible transgression, and thus he makes this sacrifice.
Leviticus 5:1-2 describes a sacrifice designed for an individual who has opportunity to testify the truth regarding a matter, but refrains, and later regrets his silence. Leviticus 5:20-26 describes the person who commits a crime dealing with another’s property, deceitful acts or theft, robbery, or fraud in which none can verify his crime, and he later comes forward of his own volition and confesses. In these cases, even though the crimes were intentional, God made available expiation because the offender took the initiative and volunteered his guilt. (Cf. Numbers 5:5-7.) If, however, witnesses testify of his guilt, the sinner could not hope for expiation. This is an exception to the law stating that sacrifices cannot cover intentional sin. Still, God makes no mention of the person accruing an eternal hope because he offered such a sacrifice.
Numbers 15:30-31 tell us that willful or defiant people are cut off from the believing community, or in the case of capital offences, they forfeit their lives. Because sacrifice did not atone for willful sin, we need to address the question of Yom Kippur, perhaps the most holy of all Israel’s celebrations. Leviticus 16 outlines the procedure. “The primary objective of expiatory rites like the ones set forth in chapter 16 was to maintain a pure sanctuary. An impure, or defiled, sanctuary induced God to withdraw His presence from the Israelite community…(N)o ritual of purification was actually performed over the people, as was the case on other occasions… Out of love for his people Israel, God manifests His presence among them, but only on condition that the Israelite sanctuary be maintained in a state of purity. God’s forgiveness, coming at the end of the expiatory process, can be anticipated only after the purification of the sanctuary is satisfactorily accomplished.” Note how God words it: “And he shall make atonement for the holy place, because of the uncleannesses of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, even all their sins; and so shall he do for the tent of meeting, that dwelleth with them in the midst of their uncleannesses.” God does not offer any individual an eternal hope, and God does not promise to pardon the individual for willful sin in the temporal.
When Moses pleads before God on behalf of the nation after the Golden Calf incident, he said, “Now therefore, I pray Thee, if I have found grace in Thy sight, show me now Thy ways, that I may know Thee, to the end that I may find grace in Thy sight; and consider that this nation is Thy people.” Moses wanted to understand the ways of God. The Psalmist notes, “He made known His ways unto Moses, His doings unto the children of Israel.” God granted his request; He made known to Moses His ways while the nation only got to see his doings.
One of my prayers through the years has been that God will show me His ways. Seeing Him in action is not enough. In a love relationship we want to do more than observe a person, we want to understand the person.
You can view biblical application from the perspective of a “do list,” or from the perspective of seeking to understand God’s ways – convinced that the better you know Him, the greater your appreciation and the better the chance you will have to emulate Him. All permanent change in a person’s life comes about by the altering of his thinking; to become godly requires understanding Him and thinking His thoughts so that you respond biblically to the circumstances of life.
This doesn’t mean that doing is unimportant. James says, “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” In this study on eternal hope, however, I seek to understand the ways of God. Although you will not have many “do list” items, hopefully you will have opportunity to grapple with understanding His ways.
His … Yours,
 Genesis 2:17, JPS
 Genesis 3:24
 Sarna, Nahum M., The JPS Torah Commentary on Genesis, Nahum M. Sarna, general editor, The Jewish pu
 Levine, Baruch, The JPS Torah Commentary on Leviticus, Nahum M. Sarna, general editor, The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1989, pages 99-100.
 Leviticus 16:16, JPS
 Exodus 33:13, JPS
 Psalm 103:7, JPS
 James 1:22, KJV