The written word was a powerful creation in the ancient Near East. Both Egyptians and Babylonians saw writing as sacred, a direct gift of the gods. Although Yahweh did not make writing a specific gift to the people of Israel, he did employ writing in his dealings with people. He used writing to communicate directly in specific instances, such as the Ten Commandments and at Balthasar's feast. The biblical writers also record that God shared with humanity the employment of writing in an "economic" role. The balance book of God is named "the Book of Life."
An anguished interchange between a wrathful Yahweh and a pleading Moses after the discovery of the golden calf illustrates the Old Testament understanding of the Book of Life. Moses asks that God either forgive the people or "blot me out of the book you have written" ( Exod 32:32 ). Yahweh responds that he will blot out whoever has sinned; the punishment is immediate. The Book of Life is a list of the righteous. In the Old Testament focus on divine reward and punishment in this life, the blessed on the list receive their blessings here and now and those stricken from the book suffer in this life, not in some eternal future. The psalmist understands this when he asks God to "list my tears on your scroll" ( 56:8 ) and have his enemies "blotted out of the book of life" ( 69:28 ).
The New Testament transforms this balance book into an eternal ledger of heavenly citizenship. Within the classical world, citizenship was not an automatic right, but a strictly protected honor. Citizens were specifically enrolled, and the franchise was strictly limited. In the Gospel story of the seventy sent out into the world, Jesus assures these disciples that their names will be written in heaven ( Luke 10:20 ). In the letter to the church at Sardis, heavenly citizenship, exemplified by listing in the Book of Life, is promised to those who overcome the world ( Rev 3:5 ). At the last judgment, anyone whose name is not written in the Book of Life is thrown into the Lake of Fire ( Rev 20:15 ).
Thomas W. Davis
Bibliography. A. A. Anderson, Psalms (1-72); A. Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible 10, 000-586 B.C.E.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Book, Book of Life'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".