May You Be Inscribed in the Book of Life for 5774

And, By the Way, What Book Might That Be?

People of the Book: In 1935, artist Nicholas Roerich offered his vision of the ‘Book of Life.’
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People of the Book: In 1935, artist Nicholas Roerich offered his vision of the ‘Book of Life.’

By Philologos

Published September 08, 2013, issue of September 13, 2013.
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When Moses, therefore, asks to be erased from God’s book, he is talking about a Hebrew version of the Babylonian-Sumerian “book of life,” although it is not quite clear whether he asking to die or simply to be relieved of the role God has cast him in and forgotten. Other biblical passages also state or imply that God records his plans and judgments in a book, but the actual phrase sefer he-ḥayyim occurs in the Hebrew Bible only once. This is in the 69th Psalm, whose author requests that his enemies be “erased from the book of life and not listed with the righteous.” Apparently, this book was conceived of as being for the righteous alone; the files on the wicked were kept somewhere else.

A “book of life” is also mentioned in the apocryphal book of I Enoch, a second-century BCE Hebrew visionary work that survived only in an Ethiopian Christian translation. In it, implored by “the saints in heaven” to remember “the righteous whose blood has been spilled,” God is described as sitting on “His glory seat, the books of life opened before him and all the heavenly hostS standing by.” And in the New Testament book of Revelations, written in Greek in the late first century C.E. and clearly influenced by Enoch, there is this description:

“And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works…. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.” Here, too, the book of life is only for the righteous; the sinners are listed in other books. This was also the opinion of the ancient rabbis. In the talmudic tractate of Rosh Hashanah, we find it written: “Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah: One for the totally wicked, one for the totally righteous, and one for those in between. The totally righteous are at once inscribed and sealed for life, the totally wicked are at once inscribed and sealed for death, and the in between are left in suspension.”

“In between,” I take it, means nearly all of us. Have a happy 5774, suspense and all!

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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