Corpse = Person ?

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IIn Genesis 46:4, God speaks to Jacob to reassure him when he's about to go down to Egypt to see his long-lost son Joseph after about 22 years of thinking he was dead. Part of this reassurance includes a point-black statement by God, "I will bring you back."

Jacob dies in Egypt. His body gets brought back. Assuming the author and/or final editors of the text weren't complete idiots, they had to be aware that Jacob didn't go back to the land while he was still alive. So complex theories of different sources being conglomerated seem unlikely if we're to give even a modicum of charity to ancient Hebrew reporting.

What do we make of this, then? If we take the text at face value, then Jacob's bones being brough back to the promised land counts as Jacob being brought back. Does that mean Jacob's bones are Jacob? Can this fit with Paul's view in II Corinthians 5:1ff that we are naked until we get our heavenly tent? It's unclear if Paul is saying that there's an intermediate, disembodied state in which we are naked or if our current state is what's naked, and we will be clothed with the resurrection body. But either way it seems that our body is a tent.

Another thought worth considering is that God might have meant something more spiritual. God would bring Jacob back to the spiritual fulfillment of the promised land. But that seems to go against the natural reading of the text in light of what happens in Exodus, which is that God's statement would be fulfilled when Jacob's bones were brought back with the Israelites 400 years later. So even if there's some spiritualized meaning on top of the more obvious immediate one, it still seems as if there should be something to the more fundamental meaning.

So here is the question. Can we read any metaphysics of the human person off God's statement to Jacob? If not, why not? If so, what sort of metaphysics is at work, and how is it consistent with Paul's statements (because the metaphysics that seems most natural for Genesis 46:1 is a materialist one that seems flat-out inconsistent with Paul's statements).

19 Comments

My idea is that Person = Jacob + his family. The identity of Jacob is individual as well as corporate (Jacob = Israel).

The reason I personally refuse to add any dimension to the methaphysics of the individual is such passages as 1 Tim 6:16 (God himself is immortal, not the human souls) or 1 Tess 4:13-17 (we will experience being with the Lord after his second coming).

In my opinion this is permitted by 2 Cor 5,1 (there may be a gap between falling asleep and obtaining the heavenly body), Luke 23:39-43 (my understanding is pragmatical: when the person dies even though time period between his death and coming to the heavenly place elapses, the person's experience is like immediate waking up after the night's sleep -- in this sense "today" may hide a time period).

But of course God is not limited by any schemes and as to being with him in heaven NOW, Henoch (Genesis 5) and Elijah are examples of it (and Luke 23:39-43 may also be in this category).

Correct me if my understanding of any of these passages is too loose.

Now that's a thought. The name 'Israel' is used first of Jacob, but when God speaks to him he does use the name 'Jacob' twice. If the 'you' is plural, that would clinch it. If it's singular, it doesn't decide it. But I think the last clause, "and Joseph's hand shall close your eyes" counts pretty strongly against an exclusively corporate interpretation.

I Tim 6:16 doesn't imply that humans can't live forever. That would count against far too much of the Bible's statements about that. It must mean that God alone has immortality in his very nature, and immortality is a contingent property in us, a gift bestowed on us by God.

I'm not sure I Thess 4 says anything at all about the metaphysics of human beings other than mentioning some existence after death.

But I think the question still remains. I think your point is that the NT teaching is clear, and this passage shouldn't contradict that. That may well be right, but what I'm looking for is how the passage doesn't say something in conflict with the NT teaching. I don't think the corporate explanation succeeds as the primary meaning any more than the spiritual meaning does.

I'd be more inclined to suspect it's just a figure of speech, a common way of speaking in that time of what happens to your body in the same way that speaking of the sun rising is a common way to say something that isn't literally true. What you're saying is still true. But I don't have more than a suspicion that that may be the case.

Would a Chisholmian view like the one Van Inwagen used to endorse be consistent with both passages?

If we are something very small that doesn't gain or lose parts (and it's located in the body), then God could have kept his promise to Jacob by bringing the whole body back.

This would also make sense of our body being a tent - if the little material thing that we are is housed in the body.

I suppose that might fit with those two passages. I'm sure there's something it doesn't fit with. I didn't know van Inwagen ever seriously held that view. Where does he endorse it? I know he considers it, but I thought he had always rejected it in favor of the organism view. He seems to have the organism view as early as "The Doctrine of Arbitrary Undetached Parts", and I think that's in the early to mid 80s.

I'm pretty sure he brings it up in a discussion as to whether or not it is possible to reconcile materialism about persons and the resurrection. Perhaps "The Possibility of Ressurection." I think I have a copy of the essay. If I find it I'll email it to you.

(He may not actually endorse it in that essay)

Hey Jeremy,

I just went back and read the essay. He doesn't explicitly endorse the Chisholm view, but in the postscript he says his inclination is to accept something that a Chisholmian view would flesh out more clearly.

He says that he is inclined to think that God preserves a "naked kernel" that will be sown in corruption and raised in incorruption.

One way to flesh out that story more is to say that the small tiny remnant that God preserves and sows like a seed is "you" the person.

I'm not a fan of the Chisholmian view, and it's not clear that Van Inwagen is either - but it would resolve the puzzle about resurrection Van Inwagen discusses. It would also, I think, make sense of the two passages you describe.

You're right, though, it probably conflicts with something else. Let me know if you find anything it conflicts with.


My first inclination is to say that we can't read any metaphysics into this verse. Why? Mainly because it wasn't written to teach metaphysics, so we ought to be careful looking for it. Not saying it's impossible to draw implications out, but that I wouldn't make too much of it either way (but that's the exegete, rather than the theologian, in me).

And I'm not sure the 2nd "you" has to be plural in order to be read corporately. Metonymy doesn't necessarily work that way. The harder point would be arguing the alternating of referents in the "you...you...your" sequence.

I don't think the second "you" has to be plural to be corporate. What I was saying is that if it is plural then it is likely corporate, but even that does run afoul of the alternating referents problem, because his eyes that Joseph closes aren't corporate.

I don't think a passage has to teach metaphysics for there to be some metaphysical proposition that you can read off it. A metaphysical assumption can provide the basis of an ethical argument, for instance. The passage teaches the ethical point, but the reason given assumes a metaphysical point. My inclination is with yours that you could take this in a way that isn't making a metaphysical claim, but I don't have any supportable proposal for what it is saying. My suspicion is that it's a standard way of speaking like "and he lay with his fathers" in burial throughout the OT narratives, but I have no evidence for that (and I haven't gotten around to reading any Genesis commentaries on this verse to investigate this yet; they may have an answer to this).

Yeah, I wasn't really trying to disagree with you on the plural "you", I knew what you were saying.

And I totally agree on the assumption point; in fact, one thing I frequently point out in my Bible teaching at church is that assumptions generally give you a better idea of what is believed by the biblical writers than the argument, or at least what the writer and reader agree on (easier to see in the epistles than in narratives, in my opinion). With that said, most of what we can glean from looking at the assumptions of biblical authors can be seen elsewhere in more explicit language. If my Genesis commentaries were currently packed in boxes, I'd see what they have to say.

I wonder if the point might be that Jacob didn't return because he and his family sinfully refused to be brought back to Canaan. I note that when Jacob and his sons arrived they said "We have come to live here for a while, because the famine is severe in Canaan ..." (47:4). But in fact they settled down, became rich, and stayed (47:27). Seventeen years passed before Jacob died (47:28), so he could easily have led his family back to Canaan after the seven year famine and died there. Instead he seems to have envisaged his family taking his body home soon after his death (47:29,30, 48:21). All the adult Israelites paid a short visit to Canaan to bury him (50:7-9). Is there in fact a good reason why they didn't return for good? Would Joseph's Pharaoh have forbidden this? When Joseph was dying, actually not very many years later, he said that God would come to the Israelites' aid to take them back to Canaan, implying that there was already some difficulty. What had changed? How would history have been different if the Israelites had in fact returned to Canaan when the famine ended?

There is a clear prophecy back in the days of Abraham or Isaac, I believe (or it may have been to a younger Jacob) indicating that the covenant people would be exiled for 400 years. So whatever else we're going to say, I think we should say that God knew Jacob would not be returning by this point, having already indicated that this exile to Egypt would last 400 years. So even if Jacob was sinning in not returning when the famine ended, God knew that this would happen and still told Jacob he'd bring him back.

As for coming to their aid to take them back to Canaan, that doesn't presuppose that there already was trouble for the Israelites. In fact, I think Exodus 1 is pretty clear that a Pharaoh coming to power who did not know Joseph was responsible for the situation Israel needed to be freed from. The aid they would need was not yet needed, then. But that's consistent with Joseph receiving a prophecy that God would later come to their aid when they later would need it.

Hi Jeremy, I'll venture a guess, probably getting quickly over my head, since I don't know much of the relevant literature. So forgive me if this is hopelessly naive.

We want to reconcile all of the following:

(a) God brought Jacob back to Caanan.
(b) Jacob died before his body was returned to Caanan.
(c) The tent metaphor aptly describes our earthly bodies: we inhabit our bodies, and hope eventually to inhabit heavenly bodies instead.

I can sort of see the tension here, but there's definitely no outright contradiction. The tent stuff entails that we're not identical to our bodies, but it doesn't entail that we don't stick around inside them for a while after we die. (The Corinthians passage doesn't suggest a timeframe for our relocation.)

So it looks to me that there's a straightforward way to read all of these as true: Jacob continued to inhabit his body at least long enough to be brought back to Caanan.

Maybe this suggestion is hopelessly inconsistent with other things in the Bible?

(By the way, there appears to be something quirky in your blog comments: when I preview my comment, my paragraph breaks don't show up. Maybe it'd be more trouble than its worth to figure out why and fix it, but I thought I'd mention it just in case. I'm using Firefox.)

(Also, it appears that html isn't showing up in the previews either. But if this shows up formatted, then it works for the actual commenting.)

Yes, I'm aware of that. It's actually been doing it for a very long time but not since the beginning of previewing, so something happened to change it during some redesign or software update (although I have no idea which redesign or software update). I'm not tech savvy enough to do anything about it, but if Wink or Matthew sees this and wants to look into it, I'd appreciate it.

I checked my commentaries. The "you" in question is singular, but most commentators take it to have a corporate reference in addition to its individual reference.

Looking at the whole passage:

Then he said, "I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes."

It might be legitimate to state that since there (in Egypt) Jacob would be made into a great nation, that the bringing up again would apply to the nation as an extension of Jacob. This sort of federal headship, where a patriarch is himself and his people is a both/and kind of reference.

Even so, there is no reason not to require its literal fulfillment, which would put it into the future, a coming event, post resurrection. There is no time frame referenced or associated event to mark a correlation to a specific time of fulfillment.

Post-resurrection? I wouldn't think a post-resurrection "return" to the New Jerusalem would count as a literal fulfillment, though. After all, it's called the New Jerusalem.

Unless there is a prior assumption that Jacob's bones = Jacob, I don't see that the face value of this text necessitates that reading. It could be included, but I believe the primary reference is to the exodus. In Genesis 15, God had told Abraham that his offspring would dwell in a land that was not theirs, that they would be afflicted four hundred years, and that they would come out with great possessions. In this passage, God is essentially restating this promise to Jacob. Just before he tells Jacob, “I will go down with you to Egypt and I will bring you up again,” he had said, “Do not be afraid to go to Egypt, for there I will make you a great nation.” Jacob is identified with the nation and that nation, the offspring of Abraham who leave with great possessions, is the 'you' that God brings out of Egypt.

If the passage does refer to Jacob's burial, which I think unlikely given the reading that equates him with his descendants, it looks like there would be a stronger case for Jacob's body being Jacob than the passage in which he is buried. There, his sons bury, not their father's bones, but their father. I see this as nothing beyond a figure of speech. However, in Genesis 46, the sense in which God brings him back again seems to be the same as that in which he brings him to Egypt. It doesn't seem that God is merely saying, “In my sovereignty, I will cause these things to happen.” There is a personal intimacy in the promise of his presence that doesn't fit with a figure of speech.

As to Jacob and his family sinfully refusing to be brought back to Canaan, I don't see that the passage allows for it. We could, perhaps, argue the case if Jacob did not know the details of the promise made to Abraham. After all, it wouldn't be the first time that God fulfilled a promise through the instrumentality of someone's sin. [Consider Jacob himself, along with his mother, and the fulfillment of the promise to her that the elder son would serve the younger.] But God specifically tells Jacob, “There [in Egypt], I will make you a great nation.” I see little way to escape the implication that Jacob was to go there and stay put.

Yes, I'm aware of that. It's actually been doing it for a very long time but not since the beginning of previewing, so something happened to change it during some redesign or software update (although I have no idea which redesign or software update). I'm not tech savvy enough to do anything about it, but if Wink or Matthew sees this and wants to look into it, I'd appreciate it.

IIRC, this was happening even before I did the redesign of the site, so it's been going on for a long time now. I tried to solve it while doing the redesign but couldn't figure it out. I doubt that I'd be able to do a better job now. This is probably a job for Matthew.

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