In Tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud, one mishnah lists those people “who will be barred from the world to the come,” and includes those who say that “there will never be a resurrection of the dead” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 10:1).
This is a clear indication that there was a lack of agreement, to put it mildly, on this issue during the Talmudic era. One religious group that did not believe in the resurrection of the dead was the Sadducees, and the Talmud presents a debate their leaders had with Rabbi Gamliel on the biblical passages used to corroborate belief in the return of the dead.
“The Sadducees asked Rabbi Gamliel: How do we know that God will resurrect the dead? He replied: It is written in the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings. However, he did not manage to convince them. He told them: In the Torah it is written, ‘And the Lord said unto Moses: ‘Behold, thou art about to sleep with thy fathers; and … [he] will rise up’ [Deuteronomy 31:16].
“Perhaps, the Sadducees retorted, we should instead adhere to the literal reading, which is, ‘and this people will rise up, and go astray.’ Rabbi Gamliel continued: It is written in the Prophets: ‘Thy dead shall live, my dead bodies shall arise [– awake and sing, ye that dwell in the dust]’ [Isaiah 26:19]. The Sadducees replied: Perhaps this is a reference to the dead that the Prophet Ezekiel resurrected. Rabbi Gamliel went on: In the Writings, it is written, ‘And the roof of thy mouth like the best wine, that glideth down smoothly for my beloved, moving gently the lips of those that are asleep’ [Song of Songs 7:10].
“Perhaps, answered the Sadducees, this is merely a reference to a movement of lips. Let us recall what Rabbi Yohanan said. Citing Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai, Rabbi Yohanan stated: When Talmudic scholars quote the words of their deceased masters, it is as if the lips of those masters are being moved in the grave, as it is written, ‘moving gently the lips of those that are asleep’” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, page 90b).
In the above passage, the Sadducees vex Rabbi Gamliel, asking him how he knows that God will resurrect the dead. Rabbi Gamliel turns to the source of divine knowledge that is held sacred by both himself and the Sadducees – the Hebrew Scriptures – and presents from that source three verses, one from each of the scriptures’ three divisions. Nonetheless, as the reader is informed from the outset, “he did not manage to convince them.”
Thus, the reader knows already at an early stage in the narrative that Rabbi Gamliel’s belief in the resurrection of the dead is a priori and that the Sadducees do not share this belief. Yet, amused by this bizarre creed, they are prepared to put their lack of belief to the test – that being based on the use of scriptural “proof texts.” Rabbi Gamliel’s presentation of three such texts becomes a test in reading comprehension: In other words, can one read into the biblical text something that does not at all appear in its literal reading?
Various readings can be used to extract different messages from the written text. A reading that one person might consider convincing might be totally unacceptable to another, and a reading that is regarded in one generation as close and coherent might be seen as distant according to a literal reading in the next generation. In the above Talmudic passage, what Rabbi Gamliel considers convincing proof is rejected by his Sadducee interlocutors.
Toward the end of Deuteronomy, God informs Moses what fate lies ahead for the Israelites after his death: “And the Lord said unto Moses: ‘Behold, thou art about to sleep with thy fathers; and this people will rise up, and go astray after the foreign gods of the land’” (Deut. 31:16). It is clear that the verb “sleep” refers to Moses, and that the verb “will rise up” refers to “this people” (that is, Israel).
The midrashic reading of the verb “will rise up” as a description of Moses’ future resurrection in the End of Days is frequently used – as is the case in the debate between Rabbi Gamliel and the Sadducees – as proof that the Bible refers to the resurrection of the dead. However, when this midrash is presented to the critical eyes of the Sadducees, that reading simply collapses. Obviously, a midrashic reading that does not obey the rules of punctuation cannot hold water when confronted with a literal reading, especially when the literal reading completely contradicts the midrashic one.
The second proof text that Rabbi Gamliel uses is from the Prophet Isaiah and it too is rejected by the Sadducees, who claim that it is simply a reference to the prophecy of the resurrection of the dead (the famous prophecy of the Dry Bones) that appears in a later prophet, Ezekiel.
The third proof text is from the Song of Songs. The male lover compares the roof of his beloved’s mouth – namely, her lips or kisses – to fine wine that can move even the lips of those who are sleeping; that is, it can even awaken the dead. In response, the Sadducees argue that, in a literal reading, the verse is simply referring to the movement of the lips of the dead, but not their resurrection.
As proof, they cite Rabbi Yohanan, who quotes Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai and who states that when a dead person is quoted, it is as if that person’s lips are moving. However, claim the Sadducees, this is simply a poetic image: Dead people are not resurrected – it is only their words and ideas that live on eternally.
All of Rabbi Gamliel’s arguments are rejected, as are his biblical proof texts. However, the midrash appearing in this Talmudic passage continues: “Then he quoted the following verse from the Pentateuch: It is written ‘[that your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, upon the land] which the Lord swore unto your fathers to give them’ [Deut. 11:21]. The text reads ‘them’ not ‘you [in the plural].’ From this verse we learn that there will be a resurrection of the dead” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, page 90b).
That piece of evidence, based on a verse from this week’s Torah reading (Parashat Ekev, Deut. 7:12-11:25), is not rejected out of hand by the Sadducees and bears careful consideration. How can God give the land to our ancestors if they are already dead? This is clear proof that they will one day be resurrected from the grave and will then receive the land he promised them.
Whereas the readings that the Sadducees rejected relied on an incoherent punctuation of the verse and on a reading that is allegorical or metonymic, the verse from this week’s Torah portion is not rejected because its precise use of the pronoun “them” removes any doubt that Rabbi Gamliel’s reading is metaphorical or allegorical.
One could ask why the midrash first presents three verses that are rejected by the Sadducees as proof of the truth of the belief in the resurrection of the dead. I suggest the answer is that they are included in order to provide the midrash with rhetorical vigor. The midrash understands the interpretive and literary preferences of its readers, who actually identify with the Sadducees.
From the criticism of the Sadducees, readers learn how far-fetched Rabbi Gamliel’s readings are. By rejecting these readings, the midrash teaches what the boundaries are of a persuasive reading, which must not be allegorical, metaphorical, metonymic or ahistorical, and which must obey the rules of punctuation. The midrash then leads the readers of the biblical text to its proper reading, one that meets the above criteria.
The reader, who previously identified with the Sadducees, is led to the proof that the Torah does refer to resurrection of the dead because the verse that is used meets the criteria of a proper and persuasive reading.