Once a year in the autumn millions of Jewish people around the world observe a solemn fast day—Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Ten days earlier, at Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, my people begin to greet one another with the traditional benediction, L’shana Tova Tikatevu,” “May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year.” It is believed that during that time, called The Ten Days of Awe, God examines the deeds of each Jewish person. If he finds their hearts and actions pure, they will have their names written in his book for another year.
Traditions that have changed the original biblical meaning of Yom Kippur began as early as the first century. In 70 A.D., after the fall of Jerusalem, Rabbi Jochanan Ben Zakkai, head of the Pharisees, gave leadership to Judaism as it made the transition from a Temple-based faith to a religion no longer bound by a particular place. Called “a father of wisdom,” “defender of the faith” and “the hammer” that broke all heresies, he taught that since atonement was no longer to be made at the altar in Jerusalem, people could be made righteous before God by acts of lovingkindness.
This thought goes against the clear teaching of Scripture regarding atonement. Medieval misunderstanding and foreign thought have further invaded the Judaism of the Bible. The very idea that we can be inscribed in a book of life based on our good deeds reflects the influence of the Babylonian religion and Hinduism on Judaism.
The concept of a book of life can be traced to Mesopotamia, where the gods were believed to possess tablets on which they recorded the deeds of men. Archaeologists have found in the library of Assyrian king, soldier and scholar Ashurbanipal his prayer to Nabu, the divine scribe, in which he petitioned: “My life is inscribed before thee. May Nabu inscribe the days of my life for a long duration on the tablet.”
The Hindus have long taught the concept of karma: that evil or good comes back to a person in this life or in the life to come—that the deeds of an individual are weighed in a balance to assess that person’s righteousness. It is easy, then, to combine these two ideas and arrive at the concept of earning a place in God’s Book of Life by outweighing one’s bad deeds with righteous acts.
What, then, is the relevance of the Book of Life concept for the 20th century believer? God has given us his Word, the Bible, to guide us in living and to teach us truth. There is an idea of God’s book of life in Scripture. It comes from Torah (Pentateuch)—Exodus 32, to be exact.
The Children of Israel had sinned against God by constructing a golden calf, which was an idol. Moses told the people, “Perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” So he went before God and said, “But now, if thou wilt, forgive their sin, and if not, please blot me out from thy book which thou hast written” (Exodus 32:32).
The rabbis have taught that Moses offered himself as a substitutionary atonement. This is a misconception about the true nature of intercession. They claim that Moses was asking God, “Let my goodness count on their behalf.” But in verse 33 the truth comes out as God says, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot him out of my book.” To understand what he was saying 3500 years ago, we must study history.
In ancient times books took several forms. You might find a book containing hymns to the gods, or praises of the victories of a king. Proverbs, stories and poems of love were recorded. Texts about magic, medical records and mathematica might also be preserved in writing. The Egyptians wrote many such books. They were a people who longed for eternal life. They believed that once an individual died, he must face the gods to answer for his deeds. If he could pass their test, he was ushered into the realm of the eternal. Concurrent with these beliefs, the Egyptians wrote The Book of the Dead and enclosed copies of it in the tombs of those they buried. This Book of the Dead was a text of prayers and supplications by which they could cajole the gods with a section that supposedly contained the answers to the divine quiz. In essence, it was a ticket to heaven—sort of a divine “crib sheet.”
The most common forms of written material in the ancient Egyptian world, however, were not poems, hymns or mathematics texts but business documents. These might be ledgers indicating accounts to be settled between two parties. One might find a roll book with an inventory or a record of transactions. A wealthy merchant would have an inventory of his property, including a roll of his slaves or servants. This was called “the Book of Life,” or more correctly, “the Book of the Living.”
Moses saw himself as being pressed into duty to serve the living God. He had committed himself to lead God’s people out of Egypt. When they made the golden calf, he supposed that by their idolatry they were no longer willing to be God’s people. And if our ancestors would not be God’s people, then Moses wanted to be released from his service to the Lord in leading them. I think that was what he meant when he said, “But now, if thou wilt forgive their sin, and if not, please blot me out from thy book which thou hast written!”
In verse 33 the Lord tells Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot him out of my book.” In other words, “Don’t you understand, Moses? It’s a privilege to belong to the living God. It’s an honor to be in this work of serving him!” The people’s sin would be dealt with, and that was not the issue. God’s book was a roll or inventory, a book of the living, a list of those who belonged to him and served him, a list of those he knew and accepted. Since he still knew and accepted Moses, he intended that Moses would continue to serve him.
We find another scripture reference to God’s book in the scroll of Daniel. Daniel 12:1 describes a time of great sorrow and tribulation on the earth. It declares, “And there will be a time of distress that has never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time, your people, everyone who is found written in the book will be rescued.” God’s Book of Life in this case contains the names of those who are marked for deliverance.
Likewise, King David mentions the Book of Life in Psalm 69. Zealous for God’s house, he curses his tormentors and asks that they be blotted out of the Book of Life and not listed with the righteous. “Let the entrance into God’s righteousness, his justifying grace, be denied to them forever,” he asks. “Let them be blotted out of the list of the living—the heirs of life.” David wished on his enemies the curse of having their names removed from God’s heavenly register.
The concept of a heavenly roster is seen also in the New Testament scriptures. In Luke 10:20, Yeshua told his disciples to rejoice because their names were written in heaven.
These passages seem to indicate three things about God’s Book of Life: Unless a person’s sin was pardoned, he could not remain God’s servant, as those who sinned with the golden calf in Egypt. A bondservant in the time of Daniel would be preserved, delivered and saved. Servants of the Messiah Jesus had their names written in heaven.
When we think of bondservants in Scripture—those who have counted themselves slaves of Jesus Christ—we must think immediately of Saul of Tarsus, the Apostle Paul. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul extends a salutation and request for those who have served with him: “And I entreat thee also, true yoke fellow, help those women who labored with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellow laborers, whose names are in the Book of Life. Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say rejoice” (Philippians 4:3-4). Paul describes his fellow workers as those in the inventory of the Lord’s servants. “Help them,” he says, “because they have helped me, and rejoice, because even having lost your life to serve the living God, you have gained it in belonging to him.”
Again, in the last book of the Bible, the Revelation of Jesus the Messiah, we read in chapter 3, verse 5: “He who overcomes shall 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.”
In the Bible a name always carried with it authority or rights. An indentured slave would declare or proclaim the name of the household to which he belonged. He would confess the name as one belonging to that slave inventory—the book of the living. That confession then gave him certain rights.
In this passage in Revelation 3 Jesus promises to show, to declare, to proclaim the names of the faithful—those who have overcome the world through his blood. They will remain on his inventory. They will belong to him eternally! Their names will not be blotted out or erased from the Book of Life.
We find two other references to the Book of Life in the Revelation. In Chapter 13, this inventory is called the Lamb’s Book of Life. Again in Chapter 17, it is spoken of those who belong to Jesus for all eternity.
We who are believers in the Messiah know that he died at Calvary that his blood might be shed for the forgiveness of our sins. He did for us what we could not do for ourselves. We know from Scripture that our righteous deeds cannot save us: “There is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Psalm 14:3b); “All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6).
Our hearts ache for those who hold to such a frail and unfruitful hope as to believe that their righteous deeds will be enough to earn them God’s forgiveness and life. There is no assurance in mere hope. The story is told of Rabbi Ben Zakkai’s own doubts during his last hours on earth. He kept weeping out loud. “Oh, Master,” his disciples exclaimed. “Oh, tall pillar, light of the world, mighty hammer, why art thou weeping?” “I go to appear before the king of kings, the Holy One blessed be he. Moreover I have before me two roads, one to paradise and one to Gehenna (Hell) and I know not whether he will sentence me to Gehenna or admit me into Paradise.”
This same insecurity concerning forgiveness is still found in contemporary Jewish thought. Author and Boston University professor of Humanities, Elie Wiesel, wrote a short story about a Yom Kippur commemorated at the Auschwitz death camp. He entitled it “The Day Without Forgiveness.”
In the Book of Leviticus Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is described as a time to bow before the Lord in humility. Yet Wiesel wrote that in the humiliation of the holocaust, his heart and the hearts of others turned in bitterness against God. He wrote of Pinhas, who before the war had been the director of a rabbinical school somewhere in Galicia. In Auschwitz his heart had turned against God. On Yom Kippur he declared, “Until now, I’ve accepted everything. Without bitterness, without reservation. I have told myself: ‘God knows what he’s doing.’ I’ve submitted to his will. Now I have had enough. I have reached my limit. If he knows what he is doing, then it is serious; and it is not any less serious if he does not. Therefore, I’ve decided to tell him, ‘It is enough.'”
In Wiesel’s words, every day in Auschwitz was Yom Kippur. There everyone fasted daily, whether or not they wanted to. And the Book of Life and Death was no longer in God’s hands, but in the hands of the executioner.
Thank God for the peace and perspective of faith in Yeshua. Scripture tells us that God’s grace is greater than all our sin. The holocaust must be examined in the light of God’s grace and not the other way around. When we were slaves to sin, God bought us from the slave market (Romans 5:8). When iniquity held us prisoner in its death camp, he delivered us out of our personal Auschwitz and made us his.
As believers in Yeshua, the Messiah of Israel, we celebrate more than a calendar date. We celebrate because we belong to the living God. We rejoice that our names are in the Lamb’s Book of Life. The wonder of it all is that he brought us home when we went astray. He wrote our names on his inventory roll and then made us members of his royal household. We rejoice because we are co-heirs with Christ, and not just property of the sovereign God. We give thanks to the Holy One who made us wholly his and gave us eternal life.