John 11: Sleep or Death
I was just studying the raising of Lazarus in John 11, and found myself paying more attention to a detail I had more or less blown over in the past.
The account starts off by telling us that Lazarus was ill, and near death. Jesus explains the illness:
“… does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
Yet, instead of leaving to heal Lazarus, Jesus stays where he is for two days. This may not have been seen as all that odd to Jesus’ disciples. When the two days pass and Jesus declares they should go to Judea (where Lazarus is) his disciples remind him the last time he was there the people tried to kill him. Jesus responds with a short parable talking about walking in the light and cryptically ends with:
“Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.”
Jesus’ disciples are a little confused now: “well if it’s fallen asleep he’ll recover” they say. John as narrator clarifies that Jesus was talking about Lazarus’ death, not sleep. And then Jesus told them ‘plainly’:
“Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
Jesus then goes on to ‘raise’ Lazarus from the dead. I’ll leave all the speculation about the miracle portion of this and instead focus on Jesus’ earlier statement, that Lazarus had ‘fallen asleep.’
The Greek verb used here by John is κεκοίμηται (koimaomai.) It is translated as ‘death’ fourteen times, and as ‘sleep’ four times in the NT. It was a common metaphor in both the Hebrew and Greco-Roman world, often used by Paul as well. We can only guess that the Aramaic word had this double meaning as well.
Sleep is used in a modern context in the same fashion, but most of the time to explain death to young children. We seem to just accept a person has died, and grow out of the ‘sleep’ idea as we get older. But, Should we just accept this? Was this ‘sleep’ metaphor just a 1st century cultural way of conceptualizing death? Or was it actually more accurate then our ‘modern’ concept? How is it that a person can be ‘dead’ (in the medical sense) and yet modern medicine can revive them? Were they, in fact --- in some way --- merely asleep?
Was Jesus actually ‘dumbing down’ the concept when he said ‘plainly’ to his displaces that Lazarus was dead? Was Jesus doing the opposite of what we, in modern times, do with children? Is our modern ‘adult’ concept of death actually childlike?