The Dovekeepers and the World to Come
I had several issues with the book, but probably the biggest was this–the tragedy at Masada is one of the most dramatic tales in all of history. There was no need to add witchcraft and fantastic elements. It’s clear that Ms. Hoffman did a ton of research, and I don’t expect that ancient Jews were just like contemporary ones, but I didn’t even recognize the people she was writing about as Jews. They were like some kind of weird, superstitious pagans. And this is coming from a woman with absolutely no religious faith–but apparently I have strong feelings of connection to my Jewish history. And I felt she took tremendous liberties with a story that shouldn’t have been altered out of respect. I was kind of offended.
For instance, the Jewish faith doesn’t tend to dwell on any kind of afterlife. It’s a vague concept at best. We focus on this life. However, Hoffman uses the phrase “world-to-come” 44 times in this novel! These people are obsessed with the afterlife. And there are plentiful references to ghosts, demons, magic, spells, witches, etc. I realize there is mysticism in Judaism–real Kabbalah, not the nonsense practiced by Christian celebrities–but it’s a tiny part of the religion. And yet it seems to be all Alice Hoffman is able to write about.
I have already suggested that one read Gideon Bohak on Ancient Jewish Magic, if you have the same reaction as this reviewer to the element of magic in the novel. Regarding the “world-to-come,” there is so much written about the afterlife in Judaism that it is hard to know where to begin.
So, instead, I offer a passage which was one of the first that I ever read in Hellenistic Greek. I was still in my teens, and had no awareness that there were English translations of the Septuagint. I didn’t even know that these books existed. Under Pietersma, we read through the Maccabees and many other texts, and he had the delight of knowing that we were coming with minds untrammelled by any English translation. That, of course, is hardly possible today, with the NETS online.
But I still remember vividly, as if it were yesterday, reading and slowly comprehending this horrendous story from 2 Maccabees 7,
and he ordered that the tongue of their spokesman be cut out and that they scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of the brothers and the mother looked on. 5When he was utterly helpless, the king ordered them to take him to the fire, still breathing, and to fry him in a pan. The smoke from the frying-pan spread widely,
I had been somewhat sheltered, and up to this point, had possibly seen one or two movies and no TV, read Victorian novels only, and so on, when this story of torture and annihilation unfolded in my mind as I read it in Greek.
And a few verses lower down, here are the texts, in Greek, and in English, which still stand among the first Jewish references to the afterlife. Surely, after this, one could hardly imagine the inhabitants of Masada not focusing on an afterlife.
7 μεταλλάξαντος δὲ τοῦ πρώτου τὸν τρόπον τοῦτον, τὸν δεύτερον ἦγον ἐπὶ τὸν ἐμπαιγμὸν καὶ τὸ τῆς κεφαλῆς δέρμα σὺν ταῖς θριξὶ περισύραντες ἐπηρώτων· εἰ φάγεσαι πρὸ τοῦ τιμωρηθῆναι τὸ σῶμα κατὰ μέλος; 8 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς τῇ πατρίῳ φωνῇ εἶπεν· οὐχί· διόπερ καὶ οὗτος τὴν ἑξῆς ἔλαβε βάσανον ὡς ὁ πρῶτος. 9 ἐν ἐσχάτῃ δὲ πνοῇ γενόμενος εἶπε· σὺ μὲν ἀλάστωρ ἐκ τοῦ παρόντος ἡμᾶς ζῆν ἀπολύεις, ὁ δὲ τοῦ κόσμου βασιλεὺς ἀποθανόντας ἡμᾶς ὑπὲρ τῶν αὐτοῦ νόμων εἰς αἰώνιον ἀναβίωσιν ζωῆς ἡμᾶς ἀναστήσει.After the first brother had died in this way, they brought forward the second for their sport. They tore off the skin of his head with the hair and asked him, “Will you eat rather than have your body punished limb by limb?” 8He replied in his ancestral language and said to them, “No.” There- fore he in turn underwent tortures as the first had done. 9And when he was at his last breath, he said, “You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.”
13 καὶ τούτου δὲ μεταλλάξαντος, τὸν τέταρτον ὡσαύτως ἐβασάνιζον αἰκιζόμενοι. 14 καὶ γενόμενος πρὸς τὸ τελευτᾶν οὕτως ἔφη· αἱρετὸν μεταλλάσσοντα ὑπ᾿ ἀνθρώπων τὰς ὑπὸ τοῦ Θεοῦ προσδοκᾶν ἐλπίδας πάλιν ἀναστήσεσθαι ὑπ᾿ αὐτοῦ· σοὶ μὲν γὰρ ἀνάστασις εἰς ζωὴν οὐκ ἔσται.After he too had died, they maltreated and tortured the fourth in the same way. 14When he was near death, he said, “It is desirable that those who die at the hands of human beings should cherish the hope God gives of being raised again by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life!”
20 ὑπεραγόντως δὲ ἡ μήτηρ θαυμαστὴ καὶ μνήμης ἀγαθῆς ἀξία, ἥτις ἀπολλυμένους υἱοὺς ἑπτὰ συνορῶσα μιᾶς ὑπὸ καιρὸν ἡμέρας εὐψύχως ἔφερε διὰ τὰς ἐπὶ Κύριον ἐλπίδας. 21 ἕκαστον δὲ αὐτῶν παρεκάλει τῇ πατρίῳ φωνῇ γενναίῳ πεπληρωμένη φρονήματι καὶ τὸν θῆλυν λογισμὸν ἄρσενι θυμῷ διεγείρασα, λέγουσα πρὸς αὐτούς· 22 οὐκ οἶδ᾿ ὅπως εἰς τὴν ἐμὴν ἐφάνητε κοιλίαν, οὐδὲ ἐγὼ τὸ πνεῦμα καὶ τὴν ζωὴν ὑμῖν ἐχαρισάμην, καὶ τὴν ἑκάστου στοιχείωσιν οὐκ ἐγὼ διερρύθμισα. 23 τοιγαροῦν ὁ τοῦ κόσμου κτίστης, ὁ πλάσας ἀνθρώπου γένεσιν καὶ πάντων ἐξευρὼν γένεσιν καὶ τὸ πνεῦμα καὶ τὴν ζωὴν ὑμῖν πάλιν ἀποδώσει μετ᾿ ἐλέους, ὡς νῦν ὑπερορᾶται ἑαυτοὺς διὰ τοὺς αὐτοῦ νόμους.20 The mother was especially admirable and worthy of honorable memory. Although she saw her seven sons perish within the course of a single day, she bore it with good courage because of her hope in the Lord. 21She encouraged each of them in their ancestral language. Filled with a noble spirit, she reinforced her woman’s reasoning with a man’s courage and said to them, 22“I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. 23Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the origin of man and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws.”
While this was written in Greek, and is not the origin of the expression “world-to-come”, it does establish that a belief in the afterlife existed among at least some Jews, in the 2nd century BCE. The Hebrew expression Olam Ha-Ba, “world-to-come” dates back to the Mishnah, texts collected and recorded not long after Masada.
So often we imagine the belief in eternal life to be exclusively Christian. We don’t know the history of ideas, because we stay in one track. We think that “all Christians believe” such and such, and “all Jews believe” some other such and such. In fact, all Christians do believe in an afterlife, but this was a belief inherited from an early Jewish belief. And the reason why we think of it as an exclusively Christian belief is because Jewish belief is not so univalent, so one-tracked, but multiple views on the afterlife have come in and out of popularity in different Jewish communities at different times.