Formations 11.03.2019: The Day of the Dead

Job 14:7-15

The Mexican Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead coincides with Halloween on our calendars, but the two are not the same. As Logan Ward explains in a National Geographic article,

Whereas Halloween is a dark night of terror and mischief, Day of the Dead festivities unfold over two days in an explosion of color and life-affirming joy. Sure, the theme is death, but the point is to demonstrate love and respect for deceased family members.

A Mexican woman sits at a gravesite covered in marigolds and other flowers during a Day of the Dead celebration in Tzintzuntzan, Mexico.
Photo by Jan Sochor, Alamy.

The festival begins with the indigenous cultures of Mexico, who considered it disrespectful to mourn the dead. Rather, they saw the dead as still members of the community, “kept alive in memory and spirit.” Through costumes, parades, and traditional foods and drinks, Mexicans from all religious and ethnic backgrounds celebrate the Day of the Dead as a reaffirmation of this belief.

UNESCO recognizes the Day of the Dead on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Today, the festival, which begins on October 31 and culminates on November 2, is more popular than ever, both in Mexico and abroad.

Attitudes toward death change with time and geography. In some cultures, including much of North America in the twenty-first century, death is something we hold at arm’s distance and shrouded with euphemisms. Conversations about death and dying—when they are permitted at all—are met with reverent tones and hushed voices. In Mexico, though there is certainly grief and sorrow at the passing of a loved one, conversations about death also include the colorful, exuberant celebration of the Day of the Dead.

Death was a mystery in the ancient world, no less than for us today. What happens after we die? We might offer theological answers to that question, but let’s be honest enough to acknowledge that nobody knows with certainty.

In today’s passage, Job ponders the meaning of mortality and the prospect of life beyond death: “If mortals die, will they live again?” (v. 14).

He looks to a natural phenomenon for an answer. A felled tree may sprout again, but human beings don’t rise from the dead—at least in any sense that Job has ever observed (v. 12). He begins by assuming that life after death is not possible for humans—though he wishes it were! The prospect of new life remains. If such life were possible, Job would see his death as “release,” a return to the God who created and longs for him.

This ambiguity may make us uncomfortable. Job, standing near the beginning of the history of God’s revelation through Scripture, doesn’t reach a firm conclusion.

It’s important, though, to honor this challenging book’s contribution to Scripture by giving ourselves permission to express our own questions and doubts about what happens after this life.

Logan Ward, “Top 10 Things to Know about the Day of the Dead,” National Geographic, 26 Oct 2017 <https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/north-america/mexico/top-ten-day-of-dead-mexico/>.

Discussion

• How were you brought up to think about death and mourning?
• When have you seen an attitude toward death similar to what is found in Día de los Muertos?
• How might such an attitude help us to cope with the death of our loved ones?
• What questions do you have about death and what comes after?

Reference Shelf

Sheol

Sheol, variously translated as “grave,” “pit,” or “abode of the dead,” is the OT word for the underworld or unseen world of the dead where departed spirits go (Prov 9:18).

In Sheol, people existed as “shades” in a world of misery and futility. It was a place of stillness, darkness, powerlessness, and inactivity. It was a land of forgetfulness where God’s wonders were unknown. Since people were thought to be separated from God in Sheol, it was greatly feared by the living.

In certain poetic and prophetic works, the term “Sheol” is used simply to refer to the depths of the earth (cf. Deut 32:22; Amos 9:2).

Robert Rainwater, “Sheol,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 819.

Human Beings Expire, And Where Are They?

In ancient Near Eastern literature, the tree is a common fertility symbol representing the source of life that grants one wisdom and power comparable to the gods. The most pertinent biblical allusion to this myth is in Genesis 2–3, which describes two trees, the “tree of life” and the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:9), which were planted in the garden of Eden. The first tree is emblematic of life in its fullest possible scope. The second represents a God-like knowledge of “good and evil” (the phrase is idiomatic for the totality of what can be comprehended about ethical and moral choices). Although the “tree of life” is mentioned at the beginning and ending of the story (2:9; 3:22, 24), the principle focus lies on the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (2:9, 17; 3:2-6, 11- 12). It is this tree that is expressly forbidden the first couple (2:17), not only because it holds radical possibilities for immortality, but also because it invites what this story clearly understands to be the mis- guided notion that human beings can attain the understanding that makes them in some sense “like God” (3:22).

It is interesting to speculate on the possible echo of Genesis 2–3 in Job’s reflections on the hope of the tree. It is reasonable to suggest that the tree is an alluring symbol of the hope for rejuvenation that temporarily fixes Job imagination. It is also instructive to consider that Job’s hope is not only for life, as if he would be satisfied simply to go on drawing breath. Even more than life, Job desires to understand what is happening to him. On the far side of the “garden of Uz,” Job is no longer content simply to accept whatever “good” and “evil” God may assign him (2:10; see further the commentary on Job 1–2). He insists on asking “Why?” He has invited the friends to teach him what his failures are (6:24), but they are convinced that Job simply cannot understand the ways of God (11:7-8). He has repeatedly implored God to make known to him what he has done wrong (7:20; 10:2; 13:23), but he is convinced that no matter how persistently he may call, God will not answer (9:2, 16; 13:22). Like the primordial couple, Job has been denied knowledge of “good and evil,” and like them, he has been barred from the fullness of life in the garden. The reason for their banishment was sin. The reason for his is unknown. At issue in both cases is what it means, finally, to be created in the image of God. If the wicked and the righteous alike are denied the possibility of attaining Eden’s promise, then how can human beings ever hope to fulfill the divine commission to image God (cf. Gen 1:26-27)? Job looks at the tree and reflects on life and understanding as divine gifts that have been irretrievably and inexplicably lost. East of Eden/Uz, Job concludes that the only “hope” for humankind is to be born, live in misery, and die. When that sad sequence of events is complete, all that remains is for someone to say a final word: “Human beings (’adam) expire, and where are they?” (v. 10).

Samuel E. Balentine, Job, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006), 218–19.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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