by Susan Perlman | May 06 1980
“May your name be inscribed in the Book of Life” is the most common greeting for the Jewish New Year season.
From the time of Moses onward, the roll call of the redeemed has been closely linked with atonement (reconciliation with God). The Book of Life held much meaning for other world religions as well.
The ancient belief can also be traced to Mesopotamia. Babylonian religious writings speak of “The Tablets of Transgressions” and “The Tablets of Destiny,” which record man’s fate. If one’s name was written in the sin-recording tablets, it was blotted out of the Tablets of Destiny. According to this legend, every year all the gods got together in a special room in heaven called “The Room of Fate.” Marduk, who was the chief god, presided over the meeting. Nabu, the god of wisdom and literature, took notes, recording each man’s fate on these tablets. Again, the “Book of Life” concept appears in tablets from the neo-Assyrian period, and there seems to be a hint of the same idea in an ancient Sumerian poem.
Because of these writings, some modern Jewish “scholars” believe that the Sefer Hayyim (Book of Life) was adopted into Jewish tradition as a result of the Babylonian influence. Who’s to say, however, that the Babylonians weren’t influenced by the ancient Jewish revelation before it was transcribed by the Bible writers?
Other theories have been put forth as to the origin of the Book of Life concept. Some say it corresponds to the civil list, or register, in ancient Judea which recorded all the names of the fully qualified citizens. The idea of a heavenly register, they say, might have been derived from this earthly system so that membership in the Book of Life would mean membership in the divine commonwealth. The Mishnah states that the Book of Life records man’s deeds: “Know what is above thee—a seeing eye and a hearing ear, and thy deeds written in a book.” (Avot 2.1) The Sayings of the Fathers also compares life to a shop with its open ledger of credit and debit. Following this concept to its conclusion, good deeds can cancel out bad deeds or vice versa. Or, as R. Simeon B. Yohai put it,
“Even if he is perfectly righteous all of his life, but rebels at the end, he destroys his former good deeds, for it is said, “…The righteousness of a righteous man will not deliver him in the day of his transgression…'”(Ezekiel 33:12.) And even if one is completely wicked all his life but repents at the end, he is not reproached with his wickedness, for it is said, “…and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he will not stumble because of it in the day when he turns from his wickedness… (ibid).” (Kiddushin 40a–b.)
One of the most common interpretations on judgment and forgiveness is found in Rosh Hashanah 16b:
“Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah: one for the wholly righteous, one for the wholly wicked, and one for the intermediates. The wholly righteous are at once inscribed in the Book of Life; the wholly wicked are at once inscribed in the book of death and the intermediates are held suspended from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur. If they are found worthy, they are inscribed for life; if found unworthy, they are inscribed for death.”
Jewish liturgical writings also mention the Sefer Hayyim: Zakhrenu Le-Hayyim (“Remember us unto life”) is a prayer that is said in the daily service from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It reads, “Remember us unto life, O King who delightest in life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life, for Thine own sake, O God of life.”
U-Netanneh Tokef, a most poignant and stirring liturgical piece, describes what the Day of Judgment will be like: “Let us declare the mighty holiness of the day, for it is solemn and awesome.” The prayer acknowledges,
“True it is that Thou judgest and givest reproof, Thou discernest and bearest witness, Thou recordest and sealest, Thou recountest and measurest; Thou rememberest things forgotten. Thou unfoldest the book of remembrance, and it speaks for itself, for every man’s seal is found therein.”
Up to that point, the prayer sounds very ominous, giving man little hope for a positive verdict. But then it concludes with three ways to alleviate the severity of the judgment. Teshuvah is one. It is usually translated “repentance,” however a literal translation would render it more accurately, “return.” One is not to become a new person, but to return to the “goodness” that is inherent in him according to rabbinical understanding. Tefillah is the second way to making things right. It is usually translated as “prayer” and connotes “attaching oneself.” Man is to strengthen his attachment to God. Tzedakah, the last route to forgiveness, comes from the Hebrew word meaning “justice,” and is translated “charity.” Justice demands that man give to others.
According to rabbinic thought, it is these three: Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakah, that will ensure one an inscription in the Book of Life. In Hagigah 27a we read,
“At the time when the Temple stood, the altar brought atonement for a person; now a person’s table brings atonement for him (through the hospitality shown to a poor guest).”
In other words, without Temple sacrifice for our sin, we can now rely on acts of charity to gain us entrance in God’s Book of Life.
Yet the Bible paints somewhat of a different picture of this ledger, its origin and its contents.
Moses knew who originated the Book of Life. When he pleaded with God atop Mount Horeb after the children of Israel committed the great sin of the golden calf, he cried, “Alas, this people has committed a great sin, and they have made a god of gold for themselves. But now, if Thou wilt, forgive their sin – and if not, please blot me out from Thy book which Thou hast written!” (Exodus 32:31–32.) So God Himself is the author and keeper of the Book of Life.
What is recorded in the book? According to the Bible, everything! King David remarks that even his tears are entered in that heavenly journal. (Psalm 56:8.) The Psalmist also speaks of the fact that the days that were ordained him were written in God’s book before he was even born. (Psalm 139:16.)
And who will be blotted out of the book? God’s response to Moses’ plea for the children of Israel was “Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book.” (Exodus 32:33).
But everyone has sinned against the Almighty. Does this mean that according to the Bible all will be blotted out of the book of life? No. God is just, but he is also merciful. In His mercy, He has always provided a means of atonement, so that we could choose life.
The Day of Atonement (Yom ha-Kippurim) is first mentioned in the book of Leviticus. It is a solemn day, accented by fasting and praying to God for forgiveness of the sins committed against Him. In the Temple days, the High Priest was the key figure in mediating between the people and God. This one day of the year, he entered the Holy of Holies. This one day of the year, he took a live goat, laid his hands upon its head and confessed “all the iniquities of the Israelites and all their transgressions, and even all their sins.” Thus he transferred, in symbol, the sins of the people onto the sacrifice animal. This scapegoat was made the victim, the substitute for the human sinner. In accepting the substitutionary sacrifice, God could inscribe His people into the Book of Life. Therefore, it makes sense that the liturgy for the Day of Atonement concludes with a prayer for inscription in the Book of Life, but with the plea that one be sealed in it.
With the Temple destroyed, the priesthood disbanded, and the cessation of the sacrifices, the rabbis felt they had to improvise. They rationalized, “Repentance and works of charity are man’s intercessors before God’s throne. ” (Shab. 32a.) “Sincere repentance is equivalent to the rebuilding of the Temple, the restoration of the altar, and the offering of all sacrifices.” (Pesik., ed. Buber 24.158; Lev. R. 7.; Sanh. 43b.) However, the Bible does not teach these as ways of being inscribed into the Book of Life, for there is no access to forgiveness without a mediator, an intercessor. Moses fulfilled that role when he pleaded with God not to blot the children of Israel out of His book. The High Priests did likewise.
Who can plead our case today? Only God Himself. And that He did, in the person of Jesus. When Jesus began His earthly ministry, the prophet John heralded Him as “the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world.” Jesus served as the substitutionary sacrifice, the “scape-lamb” of God.
In the Machzor, the prayer book for the Day of Atonement we read:
“Our righteous anointed is departed from us: horror hath seized us, and we have none to justify us. He hath borne the yoke of our iniquities and our transgression, and is wounded because of our transgression. He beareth our sins on his shoulder, that he may find pardon for our iniquities. We shall be healed by His wound, at the time that the Eternal will create Him (the Messiah) as a new creature.”
Form of Prayers For Day of Atonement. Revised Ed. pp. 287–88. Rosenbaum & Werbelowsky, New York, 1890
With our sins upon Jesus, God’s righteous anointed, He can look upon us as righteous and worthy to be entered into the Book of Life.
Jesus told those who believed He was God’s anointed, “Rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven” (Luke 10:20.) Does it seem strange to link the idea of celebrating the inscription of one’s name in the Book of Life to the person of Jesus? The Jewish New Year expression “Le shanah tova tikatev ve-tehatem” is more than a quaint custom. It is an expression of hope for God’s acceptance and forgiveness.
At the time of Christ, the ancient Biblical tradition of atonement ceased. Was this merely coincidental? The Kapporah, or sacrifice animal, to accomplish atonement is nowhere apparent in modern Judaism – yet in original Judaism, sacrificial atonement is intrinsic and essential:
For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement. (Leviticus 17:11)
In order to fully comprehend the concept of God recording man’s eternal destiny, one cannot stop reading the Bible at the Old Testament portion. Nor can one allow himself to be sidetracked into the forest of contradictory statements which is the Talmud. For understanding, one must read the continuation of the Bible, in what is commonly called the New Testament, to see the true meaning of the Book of Life and to discover how a person is permanently inscribed for eternity:
“He who overcomes shall thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My father and before His angels.” (Revelation 3:5)
“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God made ready as a bride adorned for her husband… and nothing unclean and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Revelation 21:1, 2, 27)
Had Judaism not rationalized away God’s system of sacrificial atonement, then it would not have come to regard the person and atoning work of Jesus as alien. Had it not substituted humanistic and humanitarian value for God’s value structure, would not God’s remedy of Jesus the “scape-lamb,” have made sense?
What a paradox confronts the modern Jewish person! If he would be a faithful Jew according to the Bible and not merely according to the traditions of man; or if he would be God’s kind of Jew, then he must be written in the Lamb’s Book Life and thus be a follower of Jesus, the Messiah.