Old Testament and Eschatology

The Old Testament is an appropriate point of departure for any understanding of Eschatology, not simply because it helps us to understand the New Testament better, which it certainly does, but also because it introduces us into a world of symbol, myth, and metaphor which is primary language of eschatology. Further, many of the concerns of Old Testament eschatology overlap with the concerns of twentieth century eschatology.
One notices different forms of eschatology in the Old Testament. On the one hand there is a strongly prophetic eschatology. The future promised by the prophets is a future about life in this world: an end to poverty and injustice among the chosen people, the creation of peace on earth among nations, and the introduction of a new harmony between people and nature. On the other hand there is within late Judaism the gradual emergence of an apocalyptic eschatology, an eschatology that is primarily otherworldly in its concerns. Within apocalyptic eschatology there is an emphasis on the transformation of this world into a new reality.
From the eight century onward the prophets begin to point towards a time in the future when Yahweh will judge Israel and the rest of the world. This time is known as the ‘day of the Lord’, a time of upheaval and destruction as well as a time of renewal and return to the ways of Yahweh. One way of describing this imminent future is to employ the ancient myth of a struggle between god and evil, between the God of life and the black monster from the deep. This myth is used in the biblical account of creation and in the eschatology of the prophets. In both instances God overcomes the forces of evil and darkness. One of the prophets in Isaiah predicts: “In that day the Lord with his hand and great and strong word will punish Leviathan, the fleeting serpent… and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea” (Is 27: 1). At the same time: “On the mountain the Lord of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine…” (Is 25: 6-8).
It is this victory of Yahweh over the forces of evil that is the basis of the promise of a new creation in this life. The theme of a new creation, developed after the Babylonian exile, is a statement of dissatisfaction about the world as it is and an expression of hope that this world will be changed by Yahweh: “For behold, I create a new heavens and a new earth,… the cry of distress” (Is 65: 19). Clearly, the eschatology of the prophets, which is a major part of the Old Testament eschatology, is this-worldly, with little or reference to what we today would call the next life. Hope is centered in what will be done in this life by the way of divine intervention on behalf of the people of Israel. This action of Yahweh will bring about the restoration of Israel to its former position of power and glory among the nations.
Within this vision length of days is interpreted as a blessing of Yahweh and short life as a curse to be overcome in the future. For the prophets, Yahweh is at the centre of this-worldly eschatology; Yahweh is the one who will in the future change our world into a better place to live. It is Yahweh alone who can make good a world that has gone astray through the failure of people to be faithful. In addition, the prophets focus their eschatology on the future of the people as a whole rather than simply on the individual.
This prophetic eschatology of the Old Testament is taken up in the second century B.C.E. and changed into a new movement called apocalypticism. The word apocalypse means a special kind of revelation, usually given is symbolic and dramatic language, which requires the interpretation of an angel. The main example of apocalypse in the Old Testament is given in the Book of Daniel, which was written during the Maccabean crisis. During that time, the Jews were persecuted under the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes; Jewish laws and practices were suppressed; many were put to death as martyrs for practicing their religion. Within this context the author of the Book of Daniel raises the question of a reward for the righteous. For the first time in Judaism the possibility of life beyond death is explicitly affirmed: “And many of those who sleep in the dust… like the stars forever” (Dan 12: 2-3).
What is significant here in the late emergence of apocalyptic thought within Judaism is the explicit hope for some form of existence beyond this world. This new dimension of Jewish faith points beyond life in this world, implicitly critiquing a purely prophetic, this-worldly form of hope. Once again the victory of Yahweh over the beast and the conquest of evil by the forces of good are affirmed – but now in a manner that goes beyond life in this world. This new faith and hope in some kind of life after death develops in subsequent centuries. By the time of Jesus there is an emerging faith and hope among different Jewish groups in some form of resurrection.
These hopes, both prophetic and apocalyptic, generate a keen expectation that the Lord will come and reign as King among his people; initiating an era of peace and justice, restoring the fortunes of Israel, and bringing about a new alliance between people and nature. The details of this expectation are extremely varied in late Judaism. Yet they come together into an expectation summed up in the powerful symbol of the coming Reign (Kingdom) Kingdom of God.
We can make two points by way of theological significance of the Old Testament understanding of Eschatology: First, while the Old Testament does not offer any clear teaching about the topics which hand-book theology usually treated in the tract called ‘eschatology’, there is a sense in which it is possible to speak of eschatology even in the early levels of the Spiritual tradition. This is largely a question of the definition of terms. If eschatology is thought of solely as doctrine about death, judgement, heaven, and hell, the terms can hardly be applied to most of the per-Christian, biblical tradition. If, however, the term is taken to refer to the conviction that this world of human experience is destined for a goal set for it by God, towards which God is leading it, then there is good reason for speaking of the emergence of eschatology in the history of the future-consciousness in the Old Testament. In this sense, eschatology involves a theology of history. History is fundamentally incomplete until that time when God’s eternal plan is actualized fully in human reality. Ultimately our future, wherever and however it comes about, is the gift of God to creation. An eschatological sense of history emerges out of the development of future-consciousness, which is present already in the Abraham-tradition and is developed more throughout the centuries of Jewish history that follows.
Second, the development of eschatological awareness arises from two poles. Om the one hand, Israel lives from faith in the God of the promise. On the other hand, Israel’s concrete experience never lives up the measure of the divine promise. When, where, how will Israel experience fulfillment, which corresponds in depth and richness to a promise, which is of God? Each attempt to pin down an answer to the question is frustrated. From the destiny of one man and his family, the Scriptures lead us to reflect on a destiny that is universal and cosmic in scope. What will be the final condition of the world that God has created, and of the human race, which God has placed in this world to be the responsible steward of the gift of creation? This is the true eschatological question.

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