Shades of Sheol: Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament

  • Philip S. Johnston
  • Sep 1, 2004
  • Series: Volume 7 - 2004

Johnston, Philip S. Shades of Sheol: Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament. Apollos. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002. Paperback. 288 pp. ISBN 0-8308-2687-4.

This revised (1993) Ph.D. thesis from the University of Cambridge provides an exhaustive examination of the Old Testament's teaching on death, the destiny of the dead, and the practices associated with the dead in ancient Israel. He begins his study with several essential observations regarding communication, expression, and beliefs in ancient Israel. These include the recognition of the diversity of religious beliefs among different peoples and times in ancient Israel; the awareness that the biblical descriptions are often more poetic and evocative than what we might call literal and specific; and the common cultural sensitivity that, as English speeakers may use terms and expressions laced with references to Greek, Roman, and Scandanavian deities and yet not believe in the deities themselves, so too did the ancient Israelites use terms and expressions especially in their poetry that contained West Semitic and ancient Near Eastern allusions and yet they did not necessarily believe in those divinities.

Johnston observes the polarities of teachings about death in the Old Testament: as a friend but primarily as an enemy; as the conusmmation of life but as a sign of an unfulfilled life (death at a young age); as the result of sin and yet as the basis for the belief in the resurrection. He has important observations on human sacrifice, uncleanness, suicide, and being reunited in death. Although Johnston dismisses an interpretation of references of being gathered with one's fathers and its connection with communal ossuaries, in favor of a connection with the reunion in the afterlife, it would seem that this is not an either/or dichotomy. One of the causes behind the popularity of this particular type of burial may have been the theological significance that it portrayed.

Regarding mourning practices, Johnston lists the customary rituals and notes the prohibitions for Israelites cutting or mutilating themselves and trimming their hair (p. 48; Lev. 19:27-28; 21:5). However, these are Canaanite or, better, West Semitic customs as is evident in the Baal cycle where El and Anat both mourn at Baal's death, and do indeed cut themselves (Ugaritic text KTU 1.5 VI 11-25). The discussion on royal burial practices could have been supplemented by discussion of some twenty tumuli around Jerusalem that have been identified with the fire rites described as part of the mourning practices (55). Johnston rightly stresses the importance of burial as an honor to the body, and he notes that cremation was not practiced in ancient Israel.

More controversial in recent scholarship has been the study by Elizabeth Bloch-Smith who concludes that the 850 Judean burials she studied all contain eating and drinking vessels, and that there was therefore in Judea a universal practice of feeding the dead. Following the suggestion of Robert Cooley for Late Bronze Age tombs, Johnston concludes that the Iron Age tombs that contain such vessels merely used them to provide continued nourishment for the dead until the body decomposed. At that time the soul was assumed to have reached its destination and the bones were unceremoniously added to those of other ancestors in the common tomb. In fact, Johnston notes that most of the burial sites discussed were there were vessels with food remains lie outside the central highlands, such as those at Beth Shemesh and Lachish. The populations in these sites was mixed at best and hardly one hundred percent Judean. Even at the site of Aitun, no food has been recorded in the vessels. Therefore, it is not clear that any custom of feeding the dead was practiced in the Judean highlands (pp. 57-65).

The heart of the book and the most clearly argued thesis is that Sheol is primariliy the place of the unrighteous dead or those who die before their time as a result of sin (pp. 69-97). Thus Jacob speaks of going down to Sheol when hears of the premature death of his favored son Joseph. However, when he is goes to Egypt and is restored to his son there is no longer any talk of Sheol. Most biblical references where a specific destiny is described mention as the place of the ungodly (Num. 6:30, 33; 1 Kings 2:6, 9; etc.). Others focus on it as a place of deceit or a place where all appear to go (Psa. 89:48; Eccl. 7:10). Hezekiah, Job, and Psa. 88:3 interpret Sheol, like Jacob, as a destiny because of divine judgment. Indeed, Psalm 88 and other Psalms (as well as Jonah 2:2) seem to portray the psalmist as in Sheol. However, the very fact that the psalmist can pray suggests that he is not dead yet. Therefore, this may be understood as a poetic expression describing the extreme state the writer is in; i.e., similar to a modern expression such as, This is hell. The whole argument is persuasive and provides a reasonable interpretation of the texts addressed. Johnston goes on to reject attempts to create homonyms for "earth" ('erets) and "deep" (tehom) with the meaning of underworld.

For Johnston the Rephaim/Rephaites are associated with the dead and presumably located in the underworld. They are weak although they formerly were kings. He severs a connection with the rpum of Ugarit, noting that the biblical shades have no founder, are not individually named (but see Og in Deut. 3:11 etc.), and are not consulted in necromancy. The term seems to have originated in reference to ancient warriors, perhaps especially though not exclusively associated with the Argob region near the modern border of Jordan and Syria. It was applied at Ugarit to deified ancestors who could travel on chariots and celebrate a banquet, witness a (Keret's) marriage, and bless Ugarit and individuals with health and fertility. In the Bible, however, this term was reapplied from a perspective in which the dead have no powers and are generally weak, without life or vitality.

In contrast to many recent discussions, Johnston argues on the basis of the relatively rare occurrences of the terms, that necromancy was not widespread in ancient Israel. The cult of the dead does not receive many references in the Bible, either. However, it did exist and seems to have been practiced by Israelites, although less than many think. Despite his questioning of the burial evidence in Judah as already noted, Johnston (pp. 169-181) does accept that some texts such as Isaiah 57 and Ezekiel 43, do indeed refer to sacrifices given to the dead, and condemn it. On the other hand, a text such as Deuteronomy 26 refers to food given to the dead and this seems to have been a relatively harmless practice that was debated into the Intertestamental period. The marzeach, a feast of some sort mentioned in Amos 6:7 and in Jer. 165-9 (house of marzeach), may have associations with the dead, as in Jeremiah and at Ugarit, but need not be anything more than an occasion for alcoholic consumption at other times. Tackling yet another commonly held view, Johnston denies the equation of the teraphim with divinized ancestors. He is correct in his criticism of the evidence, although, as with so many matters regarding Israelite religion, he does no prove that they could not be so understood (pp. 187-188). He only demonstrates that they were not necessarily teraphim; an important argument in itself.

Johnston's final chapters examine texts such as Psa. 16:10 as an example of the possible opening to different postmortem fates for the unfaithful and the faithful. He also looks at Isa. 26:19 and Dan. 12:2 as examples of belief in an individual resurrection. Finally, he compares this with other cultures, including some helpful observations on the differences between Zoroastrian and Jewish beliefs about resurrection.

In conclusion, the work can be recommended without hesitation for the reader who wishes to understand the questions of death in the Old Testament, using full interaction with biblical scholarship and with relevant archaeological discussion. At the same time, the work is a significant contribution to the subject itself. Johnston carefully presents and evaluates the evidence and regularly takes on accepted assumptions about death in the Old Testament, using significant arguments to support his case.

Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
Professor of Old Testament
Denver Seminary
September 2004