A reader wrote to ask about the raising of Lazarus in John 11—specifically:
why was he in the tomb for four days? My pastor’s answer was that traditionally Jews thought the spirit of a dead person stayed around for 3 days. Since Lazarus was in the tomb 4 days, he was truly raised from the dead rather than his spirit just returning to his body because it had been hanging around.
This doesn’t seem to be a sufficient answer. I know numbers are significant. What does it mean that he was in the tomb 4 days? John has so much to show about the spirit moving. Does that have to do with the 4 winds or 4 corners of the earth?
John 2:8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you do not hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
Can you help me think through this?
I can certainly try.
I am not sure that this has to do with the Spirit moving; the connection is certainly very opaque if it is. While that is certainly an important theme in John’s gospel, I’m skeptical that we are supposed to find it here.
I am even more skeptical that a Jewish superstition about the spirits of the departed is in view. I have certainly not come across such a belief in any of the commentaries I’ve consulted. Even if it was something held at the time, it is obviously repudiated by scripture, and it seems very improbable to me that Jesus would use such a belief as the touchpoint for how long he waited to raise Lazarus. A more common interpretation is simply that he wanted the miracle to be more pronounced, since after four days, as Martha says, a body would be decomposing.
Like you, I agree this is unsatisfying, and unlikely to be the extent of the significance that John intended. However, I don’t know for sure what the answer is; often numbers are puzzles, designed to get us to ponder the text and see some possibilities, not necessarily to arrive at a certain conclusion. Here is what I think might be going on, from the most stretchy to the most plausible:
Four is in one sense a number of completion; there are four corners to the world or a house, four winds, four kingdoms and beasts before Christ, four living creatures, four faces to each, four horses and horsemen, four watches of the night, etc. Possibly we are therefore meant to intuit that Lazarus is “completely” dead, not just mostly dead as Westley was in The Princess Bride.
It is also possible that we should detect here a “micro-wilderness” pattern. Lazarus is in the tomb four days, as Israel was in the wilderness 40 years, and Jesus 40 days. I wouldn’t discount this, but it seems like a bit of a stretch.
A more likely connection, not incompatible with those above, is that the number four is also an inflection-point, or turning-point. For instance, Samson’s enemies try three days to solve his riddle, then on the fourth switch to a more violent strategy (Jg 14:14–15); the Levite stays three days, then tries to leave on the fourth (Jg 19:4–5); Ezra waits three days in Jerusalem, then begins work on the fourth (Ez 8:32–33). The idea here is that the third day is the half-sabbath (cf. Ge 40:20; 19:11; Nu 19:12 etc), so it is appropriate to rest three days, then begin work again. This seems more likely to me, as it is a pattern that seems to fit naturally into the resurrection of Lazarus.
Related to this, we have Leviticus 19:23–25:
And when ye come in unto the land, and have planted all kinds of trees for food, then ye have reckoned as uncircumcised its fruit; three years it is to you uncircumcised, it is not eaten, and in the fourth year all its fruit is holy—praises for Yahweh. And in the fifth year ye do eat its fruit—to add to you its increase (Le 19:23–25)
This seems to take the pattern of the fourth “time” as a turning-point, and add an extra layer to it, such that if Lazarus’ resurrection is part of that pattern, there is a special significance given to his being raised on the fourth day, rather than the fifth—he is now holy to the Lord. This obviously has notable eschatological overtones. But it also leads into the final possibility:
John sets up the answer at the beginning of the story. Once Jesus decides to return to Judea and the disciples object, he makes this mysterious remark:
Are there not twelve hours in the day? if any one may walk in the day, he doth not stumble, because the light of this world he doth see; and if any one may walk in the night, he stumbleth, because the light is not in him. (Jn 11:9–10)
This does not seem apropos of anything; it does not answer their objection, nor explain his actions. Its meaning, like the meaning of Lazarus being four days in the tomb, is dark.
Perhaps these two dark things shed light upon each other. Lazarus is no longer in the day; he has fallen into darkness. Jesus walks four days in the light in order to raise him back up. By the counting that Jesus himself gives us, that is 48 hours. Of course we are not counting the hours of darkness; he tells us to count only the hours of light—the “twelve hours in the day.”
I don’t mean to suggest that Jesus walked exactly 48 daylight hours, or alternatively that Lazarus was in the tomb exactly that amount of time, but rather that John uses the general timing of these events to set up a pattern where we can discern that Lazarus was numerologically in the tomb for 48 hours.
This would put the next event, his being raised and coming out of the tomb, at the 49th hour—a jubilee hour, a sabbath of sabbaths, and a prototype of both the rest and the holiness we have in the resurrection. This seems to mesh quite happily with Leviticus 19:23–25, depicting Lazarus as a first-fruits set apart for God.
It would also mesh very happily with a previous numerological connection that John makes in chapter 2:
The Jews, therefore, said, Forty and six years was this temple in the building, and wilt thou in three days raise it up? but he spoke concerning the temple of his body. (Jn 2:20–21)
Here, too, we have resurrection depicted as a jubilee—46 times + 3 times = 49. Thus Jesus’ resurrection is prefigured as the jubilee that grounds Lazarus’ own jubilee-resurrection, which in turn prefigures the great Jubilee of the eschaton.
Now, possibly there are problems with this interpretation; possibly it is not what John intended at all. But these are the sorts of connections that come to mind when I see puzzles like this in scripture.