It is often said that the Old Testament contains little discussion about the afterlife. It is also often said that the earliest affirmative statements regarding resurrection occur only in the later books, such as Daniel. But in Ezekiel 37 there is a provacative discussion that Jews during Second Temple Judaism (4 Maccabees 18:17, 4Q Psuedo-Ezekiel) and even many today understood to be a reference to bodily resurrection. Ezekiel 37 paints a vivid picture of the author's being taken to a valley that is full of bones. The bones were "on the surface of the valley" and they were "dry."
Again He said to me, "Prophesy over these bones" .... So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold, a rattling;and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, sinews were on them, and flesh grew and skin covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then He said to me, "Prophesy to the breath" .... So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they came to life and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army. Then He said to me, "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say, 'Our bones are dried up and our hope has perished. We are completely cut off.' "Therefore prophesy and say to them, 'Thus says the Lord God, "Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel. "Then you will know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, My people. "I will put My Spirit within you and you will come to life, and I will place you on your own land.It is easy to see why so many have taken this passage as referring to bodily resurrection. Indeed, it is more graphicly physical in its description than most discussions of bodily resurrection in Judaism and Christianity. If true, this would place a definitive statement about bodily resurrection all the way back in the 6th Century BC. However, although at one point many scholars accepted it is as such, presently "most scholars understand the vision of resurrection here to be a metaphor for national and political restoration, not about the resurrection of the individual.” Claudia Setzer, Resurrection of the Body in Early Judaism and Early Christianity, page 8. Such is the verdict of leading Christian scholars such as N.T. Wright and James Charlesworth.
This conclusion is likely correct. Note how Ezekiel refers to the bones as "the whole house of Israel" and referse to placing them "on their own land." But does that really end our inquiry into what Ezekiel 37 can tell us about early Jewish beliefs about the afterlife? And specifically whether it gives any indication of belief in bodily resurrection. As Jewish theologian Neil Gillman writes:
What remains suggestive about this text, however, is the very use of the metaphor of bodily resurrection for national regeneration. Whence and why this metaphor? Where did the prophet learn of that very possibility?Neil Gilman, The Death of Death, page 74.
Wright adds his usuaul insight about this passage by noting why a valley full of unburied bones would have provided a good metaphor for the state of Israel at the time. "Of all the unclean objects an observant Jew might encounter, unburied corpses or bones would have come near the top of the list. That is the state, metaphorically, to which Israel has been reduced." Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, page 119. While this is true, it still does not explain, in my opinion, why Ezekiel would even think to use a metaphor of what is clearly the resurrection of the body to describe God's restoration of Israel. As Professor Setzer states, "metaphors cannot communicate if they have nothing to do with the way people think and live.” Setzer, op. cit., page 8. Metaphors typically use objects or events of familiarity to describe or explain the unfamiliar. This particular metaphor “would be meaningless in a context where afterlife is seen as an absurdity.” Id..
I do not think that this proves that bodily resurrection was a feature of Judaism at that time. But I think we should reserve judgment as to just when the idea permeated Jewish consciousness. The fact is that most of the Old Testament has little to say about the afterlife. And even what it does say may not tell us about the beliefs of all of the common people or of different sects. What happened to you when you died may have been more of a concern of the individual peasant rather than to the Prophets and Kings.
In reality, we know very little about when and how resurrection belief became a force in Jewish thought. Wright's Resurrection of the Son of God makes a case that is also well articulated by Rabbi Gillman, who writes:
It is equally conceivable that ... the idea of resurrection evolved within Israel as a thoroughly natural development of ideas deeply planted in biblical religion from the outset. If in fact, God created the world and humanity in the first place, if God is hte ultimate force Whose power extends over all of nature and history, if God can send Israel into exile and then redeem it once again, if God can renew the natural cycle each year, if God can, as Isaiah 66 promises, create 'a new haven and a new earth,' then why cannot God raise human beings from the grave?Gillman, op. cit., pages 96-97.
In sum, the use of a vivid account of bodily resurrection as a metaphor for national restoration in Ezekiel 37 should give us pause before concluding that resurrection was necessarily a later development. At a minimum, it demonstrates that they were aware that God had the power, and perhaps a reason, to do such a thing. Thus, Ezekiel 37 may have been one more step in the natural development in realization that God intended bodily resurrection as the ultimate expression of ending the exile of man from God. Of course, it may also be true that Ezekiel 37 reveals the belief of some early Jews that bodily resurrection was a part of God's plan and thus made a good metaphor for national restoration.