Where Do We Go Now: Divine Judgment in Early Judaism
The Tanakh provides a relatively straightforward idea of divine justice in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, specifically chapter twenty-six of Leviticus and chapter twenty-eight of Deuteronomy. Each chapter, in its own way, reaffirms God's covenant with the people of Israel, and pays particular attention to the retributions God will lay down if the people of Israel should transgress and violate the covenant.
Leviticus and Deuteronomy provide a clear picture of the beliefs of the Israelites concerning justice. For the Israelites, at least in the times that Leviticus and Deuteronomy were written, there were different ideas of how judgment was carried out. Deuteronomy is ambiguous concerning exactly who it is that gets judged. Deuteronomy 28 implies that it is an individual judgment, that every person is judged individually. However, Deuteronomy 29 implies that the individual unit is the family, and that the head of a household was responsible for the fate of everyone in his household. Unfortunately, it is unclear whether the individual was a family, an entire tribe, or possibly even the entire nation of Israel.
According to the books of the Torah, the righteous were the Israelites that obeyed God's covenant. Everyone else was wicked by default. However, in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, Israelites are the ones who made the covenant with God, so Israelites are the only ones that are mentioned in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. If Israel followed God's commandments, then they would be rewarded with prosperity and security. If, however, they turned away from God, then God would reverse his rewards and make curses of them. "But if you do not obey the Lord your God to observe faithfully all His commandments and laws which I enjoin upon you this day, all these curses shall come upon you and take effect: Cursed shall you be in the city and cursed shall you be in the country. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the issue of your womb and the produce of your soil, the calving of your herd, and the lambing of your flock. Cursed shall be your comings and cursed shall you be in your goings" (Deut. 28: 15-19). This is an exact reciprocation of the blessings the Lord would give in return for obeisance which is mentioned earlier in the chapter.
From this, it is shown that both judgment and the results of judgment occur within one's lifetime. One is judged during this lifetime; if you are righteous, reward is given out in this world. If one is wicked, then punishment is dealt, also in this lifetime. This suggests a notion of a neutral idea of death. Regardless of whether a person was righteous or wicked, the fate is the same once a person dies.
Up to this point, it seems that there are no real differences with the views of justice between Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. However, there is a significant difference between the two passages. Unlike Deuteronomy 28, God in Leviticus 26 shows that he can be merciful. Throughout Leviticus 26, it is implied that God would stop punishing Israel if they would stop disobeying His commandments. This notion of mercy is mysteriously absent in Deuteronomy 28.
Sources that were written after the destruction of the first temple began to show doubts of this idea of Deuteronomic justice. During the exile, it must have seemed that the Jews that were following the commandments were the ones that were suffering the most, while the Jews that conformed to a more Babylonian lifestyle seemed to be living better.
One of the characters in the Tanakh that questioned this idea was Job. In chapters 30 and 31, Job laments the fact that he knows that he is a righteous man but he seems to be getting none of the rewards that are promised in this life for being righteous. God then retorts in chapters 38-41 telling of all the things that He can do and how mankind cannot do any of these things, such as commanding the day to break and assigning the dawn its place (Job 38: 12) or drawing out Leviathan by a fishhook (Job 40: 25). Job, after hearing this, is humbled and replies that he spoke without understanding and recants his previous lamentation (Job 42: 2-6). This seems to indicate that although questions are being raised concerning the idea of Deuteronomic justice, Deuteronomic justice was still strong as well as prevalent, as is indicated by the outcome of the challenge.
Chapter thirty-seven of Ezekiel actually gives an indication that other ideas were proposed to challenge the idea of Deuteronomic justice. This is one of the only times in the Hebrew Bible that the idea of resurrection is even mentioned. As it stands, Ezekiel 37 is the only detailed description of resurrection in the entire Hebrew Bible. When this is combined with the text in Daniel, chapter 12, it appears to be a critique of the forms of justice in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Daniel 12 seems to imply that death is not the end and is not neutral, as Deuteronomical justice implies. As it says in Daniel, "Many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, others to reproaches, to everlasting abhorrence" (Dan. 12: 2). A resurrection of people at some time in the future is being hinted at in this chapter, and more specifically, has differing fates for the wicked and the righteous. So, not only does this challenge the idea of neutral death, it also shifts the time of judgment from this life to some time in a far off future. Since the time of judgment is sometime in the future, reward and punishment are also handed out, not in this world as is stated in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but at some time in the future.
The Hebrew bible was written over a span of many years. In that time, occurrences in the world, such as the destruction of the first temple in 586 B.C.E and subsequent Babylonian Babylonian Captivity. These events stimulated critique in the beliefs of the Israelites which were reflected in the authorship of the later books of the Hebrew Bible.
The resurrection of the dead and the coming of the Messiah become the topic of many texts in rabbinic literature. There seems to be significantly more literature discussing Olam ha-ba (the World to Come) than there was in the Hebrew Bible.
Early rabbinic sources seem to envision the idea of Gehinnom not as the modern concept of Hell, a place for the wicked to be punished for eternity. Instead, it seemed to be a place where all souls went to for the length of a year. The pain and suffering that occurred here was a sort of ritual purification of the soul. Only after the soul was purified could a soul inherit the World to Come. In this manner, a similarity can be drawn to Deuteronomic sources. Here, like in Deuteronomic times, death and Gehinnom were things that every soul experiences. Here a neutral death seems to be implied. According to Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:2, "For anyone who confesses has a portion in the world to come." This implies that anyone has the capability to receiving a portion in the world to come. Death itself becomes the great equalizer, so long as one confesses before death.
Certain death rituals seem to show these beliefs clearly. Criminals who were executed were not to be buried with their family once executed. Instead they were buried in a grave that was prepared by the court. This treatment of the dead seems to be part of the punishment, implying that the soul can still suffer after one is dead.
The Mishnah in other places seems to imply that rewards are handed out for good deeds in both this world and in the world to come. Good deeds are rewarded here in this world, but these same deeds were considered "principle for the world to come." These specific words are mentioned several times in the Mishnah concerning the rewards for virtuous activities such as the study of Torah or honoring one's mother and father.
Elsewhere in the Mishnah a different view is proposed on the role of Gehinnom. Avot 5:19 seems to imply that Gehinnom is not a place for all souls, but that only the wicked inherit Gehinnom. Conversely, those who are generous, humble, and have modest desires are to be considered the righteous; Gehinnom is not for them. These individuals inherit the World to Come. Avot 5:20 further clarifies this by saying that the modest are destined for Gan Eden.