Willingness to Die and the Gift of Life
Suicide and Martyrdom in the Hebrew Bible
One particularly challenging aspect of the Hebrew Bible is its treatment of various forms of voluntary death: suicide, suicide attack, martyrdom, and self-sacrifice. How can people of faith make sense of the ways biblical literature at times valorizes these sensitive and painful topics?
Willingness to Die and the Gift of Life surveys a diverse selection of Hebrew Bible narratives that feature characters who express a willingness to die, including Moses, Judah, Samson, Esther, Job, Daniel, and the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53. The challenging truth uncovered is that the Hebrew Bible, while taking seriously the darker aspects of voluntary death, nevertheless time and again valorizes the willingness to die—particularly when it is for the sake of the group or in faithful commitment to God. Many biblical authors go so far as to suggest that death willingly embraced can unlock immense power: endowing the willing with the charism necessary to lead, opening the possibility of salvation, and even paving the way for resurrection into a new, more glorious life.
Paul K.-K. Cho’s unflinching analysis raises and wrestles with provocative questions about religious extremism, violent terrorism, and suicidal ideation —all of which carry significant implications for the biblically grounded life of faith today. Cho carefully situates the surveyed texts in their original cultural context, discussing relevant topics such the shame and honor culture of ancient Israel and the importance attached to the group over the individual. Closing with an epilogue that reflects on the surprising issue of whether biblical authors considered God to be capable of dying or being willing to die, Cho’s fascinating study showcases the multifaceted relationship between death and life in the Hebrew Bible.
Table of Contents
1. Kings and Hero Men and Suicide in the Deuteronomistic History
2. Job and the Problem of Suicide
3. Was Samson a Suicide Terrorist?
4. The Other Samsons
5. Judah’s Scepter
6. Moses from the Breach to the Cleft
7. Queen Esther’s Gambit
8. From Suicide to Martyrdom
9. The Suffering Servant Exalted and Lifted Up Very High
10. The Wise Shall Live Again
“Paul Cho highlights an important but understudied phenomenon in the Hebrew Bible: the willingness to die. He carefully, but engagingly, distinguishes between suicide, martyrdom, and other ways that the motif appears in ancient texts. Just as importantly, he keeps a keen eye upon the theological implications of the attitudes to death in the Hebrew Bible in order to develop a fuller picture of how death affects life on both the human and divine planes for people of faith today.”
— James D. Nogalski
“Although martyrdom and a willingness to sacrifice one’s life for the sake of others is often assumed to be a distinctive New Testament or Christian theme, Paul Cho’s Willingness to Die and the Gift of Life argues that the theme is deeply embedded already in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. Cho expertly portrays how a wide array of protagonists in the Hebrew Bible exemplify the theme in different ways. Some actually give up their lives; others contemplate it and come dangerously close. Examples include Samson, Saul, Job, Judah, Moses, and Esther. Two Old Testament figures are genuine martyrs in the fullest sense: the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 40–55 and the persecuted members of the ‘Wise’ who were killed for their faith and promised a resurrection from the dead in Daniel 11. The book concludes with a provocative reflection on whether the God of the Hebrew Bible could conceivably ever die or be portrayed as willing to die.”
— Dennis T. Olson
Princeton Theological Seminary
“Paul Cho has written a fresh and richly suggestive book. He shows that by a focus on a fresh interpretive question, texts are illuminated in new configurations that generate new possibilities for meaning and significance. Cho’s work is marked in two important ways. On the one hand he attends carefully to the biblical text; on the other hand he has read widely and has mobilized fresh secondary material for his study. This book is welcome now in a culture of violence where life is precarious and widely under threat. It is only because of the inexplicable gift of life that we may think with freedom about death. In this study, Cho features those who thought courageously about death.”
— Walter Brueggemann
Columbia Theological Seminary
“Paul Cho has produced an important and relevant work on the monumental subject matter of death in the Hebrew Bible as risked death, suicide, and martyrdom. Each chapter is a highly developed, self-contained exposition engaging theological, social, and ethical issues on death so that life may be furthered for those that continue to live in the here and now. From kings and heroes like Moses, Job, and Samson, to Queen Esther, the Suffering Servant, and Daniel and his three friends, Cho has provided an invaluable and fresh work with exceptional literary exposition. The work is timely and provocative.”
— John Ahn
Howard University School of Divinity
“In this splendidly argued, creative, learned, and readable volume, one of the preeminent biblical scholars of the younger generation offers striking new insights into no less momentous an issue than that of death and life in the Hebrew Bible. Buckle your seat belt: this book is likely to change your views on that issue and on a multitude of biblical texts in the process. Enthusiastically recommended!”
— Jon D. Levenson
Harvard Divinity School