The online journal Religion Compass
allows the authors of articles to post the entire essay on their personal blogs after a year has passed since initial publication. This is a generous allowance, and I hereby take advantage of it by posting today, in its entirety, my article from a year ago: “Funerary Practices and Afterlife Expectations in Ancient Israel,” Religion Compass 1/6 (November 2007): 660–683, 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2007.00045.x. It appeared in Religion Compass volume 1, issue 6: click here
. To access the article directly on site, click here
.Funerary Practices and Afterlife Expectations in Ancient Israel
Stephen L. Cook
Virginia Theological SeminaryAbstract
Ancient Israel was thoroughly familiar with existence beyond death. Individual personalities survived the death of the body, most Israelites believed, albeit in a considerably weakened and vulnerable state. The ensnaring tentacles of Sheol constantly threatened the living-dead, but the fortunate among them were able to use the power of kinship bonds to keep Sheol’s threats at bay. The traditional ties of lineage and kin-bonding, according to biblical Yahwism, were an actual way for the living-dead to pull themselves back from death’s devouring suction. Ancient Israel’s funerary practices and afterlife expectations are greatly illumined by recent archaeological studies and by a new comparative model that draws on data gleaned from African ethnography.
Probing Burial and Afterlife in the Hebrew Bible and in Ancient Israel
Biblical understandings of death and of life after death have proved of enduring fascination to readers of the Scriptures, and have been the subject of an intriguing history of interpretation. This history has been well characterized elsewhere, and need not be rehearsed here in detail (see e.g. Barr 1992; Johnston 2002; Olyan 2005; Levenson 2006). It is, however, worth mentioning a few salient highlights of ongoing pertinence.
It is generally agreed that pre-modern, classical interpretation of the Bible erred grievously in applying alien notions of afterlife based in Greek dualism to its readings of the Hebrew Scriptures. Few modern biblical scholars continue to associate the Hebrew Bible with an otherworldly heaven, an immaterial soul ensnared in a physical prison, or death as an experience of liberation. The biblical world simply did not oppose spirit and matter, mind and body. This fact, however, generally comes as a surprise to large segments of the general public, who continue to assume that the Bible depicts salvation as something disembodied and ethereal.
Especially in the post-World War II period, biblical theologians began to emphasize how the Hebraic world of the Scriptures was largely independent from Greek dualism. The immortality of the soul was of little interest in the world of the Bible, these researchers charged. For Israelites, one’s ‘living soul’ was nothing other than one’s vital, embodied existence, infused with God’s breath of life (Gen 2:7).
At its brightest, the new scholarship claimed, the biblical hope for salvation involves corporeal
resurrection, not disembodied afterlife in heaven. At the same time, twentieth-century biblical theologians did not abandon the historical-critical claim that resurrection was a late accretion into the canon. Critics continued to insist that before the Second Temple period Israelites’ hopes were focused narrowly on reaching old age and producing numerous descendants. Even today, this problematic claim is widespread in biblical scholarship.
Despite some clear insights, major cracks have developed in the post-World War II consensus on Israelite thanatology and researchers have blazed ahead in new directions. Let me mention three key problems. First, the idea that Hebrew anthropology anticipated the modern understanding of the psychosomatic unity of human persons by thousands of years seems all too convenient. Second, despite claims to the contrary, specific biblical texts (to be reviewed below) unambiguously attest that Israelites had an idea of an underworld and a concrete belief in the continuation of the human personality after death. Third, recent scholarship on Ugaritic and Aramaic texts and on cults of the dead in the ancient Semitic world has revealed a lively belief in shades of the dead in Israel’s milieu, which must have impacted Israelites and their experience of death in substantial ways. In light of this evidence, the idea of Krister Stendahl (1984, p. 196) that the world coming to us through the Bible ‘is not interested’ in the soul appears patently erroneous.
A position diametrically opposite to Stendahl’s confronts us from the side of recent scholarship on ‘Israelite religion’, which has sought to interpret Israelite understandings of death in terms of the religious patterns of neighboring cultures. Whereas many mainline biblical scholars of the twentieth-century tended to see living souls of the dead nowhere in the Hebrew Bible, this new camp tends to see them hidden throughout, often in unexpected places such as behind the fifth commandment (Exod 20:12) or in the rite of piercing a slave’s ear (Exod 21:6). It is fair to say that biblical scholars are currently divided between the position that ancient Israelites had no belief in spirits and the position that they had rather pronounced dealings with them.
In recent decades, scholarship on cults of the dead within Israel has abounded with argumentation and speculation that Israelite religion from early on had licit dealings with the ‘shady’ and eerie forces of the underworld. Specifically, Israel is claimed to have been home to such practices as deification of the dead, inquiring of them about the future, sacrificing to them, and holding bacchanalian funerary banquets on their behalf. Such activities, we now know, are well attested in Israel’s milieu (such as at Ugarit). It is hard to resist the inference that more than a few Israelites engaged in them.
Despite its welcome correctives and new comparative data, the history-of-religions approach has not won the day, but has shown itself vulnerable to critique at definite points. Above all, in its zeal to assimilate Israel to its environment it has tended to ignore a significant stream of tradition within Israel that was highly critical of many ancient Near Eastern practices surrounding the dead. This venerable tradition-stream, which eventually won a dominating position within Scripture, reeled at the betrayal of God and family associated with worship of the power of death or of strange spirits. Any such worship is an egregious temptation for Israel, this stream of thought maintained, and is a real departure from a family’s proper veneration of its departed ancestors.
I would defend the position that the proponents of this tradition stream, which we can label ‘biblical Yahwism’, interacted with their Near Eastern milieu critically
. Scholars should grant their viewpoint its own integrity and antiquity, not belittle it as a late stage of Israel’s religious evolution. For arguments to this effect, see especially the insights of Levenson (2006, pp. 58–59), Cook (2004), and the discussion below.
Even this cursory overview of modern interpretation of biblical thanatology has quickly revealed the lack of current consensus among scholars. There is pressing need for further study and clarification. Was Sheol real or not for ancient Israelites? If it was real, were all souls expected to end up imprisoned there? How did Israelites interact (or refrain from interacting) with the shades of the dead? By summarizing the latest findings, including those of the archaeology of death, and by introducing a new cross-cultural model for use in interpretation, I hope that the present essay makes a solid contribution toward a new shared interpretation.
I shall argue in this essay that interpreting burial and afterlife in ancient Israel requires cross-cultural comparisons, especially comparisons to the beliefs about ancestors of traditional African religions. Such comparisons make it possible to unpack the allusions to death and the hereafter in our source texts and access a system of beliefs foreign to our modern (often dualistic) thinking. Taking advantage of comparative data, a social-scientific model can assist the task of biblical interpretation. Such a model is crucial in connecting the intriguing but cryptic evidence available from key biblical texts and from inscriptions and archaeology.
For over twenty-five years the modern biblical academy has seen the fruitful use of cross-cultural models and social-scientific methods in biblical interpretation (Cook & Simkins 1999, pp. 1–3), yet many researchers still question the approach. Some are overtly skeptical about social-scientific interpretation, its generalizing mode of operation, and especially its employment of comparisons from outside of the ancient Near East. A few words of clarification may help.
The interpretation of biblical literature through comparison with currently extant, observable groups and cultures is simply too helpful and worthwhile a project to neglect. Israel and its contiguous neighbors are civilizations of the past, whose social dimensions are largely inaccessible to the standard tools of historical criticism and the history of religions. Social-scientific tools are necessary to access the social values and systems that the biblical texts embed, which may be key to their understanding. Such tools make us aware of social patterns and processes of significant import that are just not apparent in the textual and material remains of archaic civilizations of a bygone age.
My choice to emphasize the living ethnography of Africa in this essay is a case in point. I chose the African evidence intentionally, because this database is composed of traditional, tribal societies akin to early Israel. Comparison with Africa opens a window into the social workings of beliefs and rituals concerning the dead among groups that organize themselves around family ties and kinship just as old Israel did. As it turns out, kinship and afterlife are inextricably connected in traditional Israelite society just as they are among indigenous African groups.
The best practitioners of a social-scientific approach to biblical texts are cautious. They read widely in the literature of the fields on which they are drawing, and strive to avoid oversimplifying the debates and conclusions of anthropologists, ethnographers, and other specialists outside of their discipline. When they turn to examine the biblical texts, they studiously refrain from forcing alien constructs onto the literature. Rather, they understand the comparative evidence that they gather to offer a range of possibilities and new angles of vision for biblical interpretation.
A social-scientific approach stresses the comparative nature of most knowledge. Comparisons between phenomena that are temporally and spatially removed from each other may even prove necessary for understanding. Ultimately, it does not matter from where one’s comparative material is drawn, as long as one’s interpretive model remains a hypothesis in one’s mind until thoroughly tested for internal consistency and external fit with the unexplained data at hand. For discussion, see Cook & Simkins (1999, pp. 5–7).
Generally accepted methods of biblical exegesis are what determine a comparative model’s ‘fit’ in any particular case of interpreting the Scriptures. Only the evidence of a given text can determine what cross-cultural parallels apply to it and prove illuminating. For more introductory notes on the legitimacy and value of social-scientific methodology in biblical studies, see Cook & Simkins (1999) and Cook (2004, pp. 11, 144–145).
Beyond the use of parallels from ethnography, the particular use of biblical data in a study such as this may raise eyebrows. Problems and pitfalls abound in using Scriptural evidence to understand the ancient world, but there is little alternative. Biblical literature supplies the bulk of our information about Israel, and little progress could be made in this essay without accessing it. Thus, I shall make appropriately cautious use of evidence gleaned from the biblical texts alongside of anthropological, archaeological, and epigraphic data. For discussion of a judicious, combined use of biblical and material data in reconstructing aspects of death and the hereafter in ancient Israel, see Tappy (1995; p. 65); Lewis (2002); Pitard (2002); and Olyan (2005, pp. 602–603).
Form criticism and other oblique angles of vision into the depth-dimensions of the Hebrew Bible have long allowed critical scholars to access some of the ancient realia behind the Scriptures. Here, I use the biblical data to cull information on Israelite burial practices and afterlife beliefs without any naïve assumption of the historicity of the literature’s surface narrative. The limitations of the present context do not often allow me to present my full critical analyses of the texts that I have studied. I do, however, hint at my historical-critical conclusions when relevant to the discussion at hand.
Texts whose provenance is uncertain at least attest to beliefs and values that some
ancient Israelites must have held, which become incorporated into biblical literature at some point
in its compositional history. Where we can be more specific about a text’s dating and authorship, we can use its evidence to trace the diversity and development of Israelite beliefs about matters of death. As this essay will show, we must not assume any sort of uniform, unchanging perspective on death and the afterlife in ancient Israel.A Social-Scientific Model for Interpreting the Israelite Evidence
The biblical understandings of afterlife begin to make real sense when viewed through the lens of traditional African culture and its lineage-based customs and beliefs relating to the dead. These understandings, rooted in tribal systems organized by kinship and genealogy, have little in common with the beliefs about the hereafter in the minds of most modern westerners, which derive largely from Greek dualistic presuppositions.
In what follows I outline a comparative model for understanding death and afterlife in ancient Israel and the Hebrew Bible drawing on ethnographic study of African religions. While recognizing the individual features of the thousands of African traditional religions in existence, my emphasis is on tracing commonalities and sketching a model for use as a lens in biblical interpretation. In this vein, I shall speak of African religion in the singular, presenting it as a coherent entity.
My purpose is not to downplay the unique perspectives of the many separate African peoples, which should be clear from the examples that I give drawn from a variety of locales. Readers interested in the individual religions of specific African groups, rather than on shared commonalities, should not be dismayed. Rather, they are invited to avail themselves of the plethora of fine ethnographic studies of various African tribal societies now available.
My assumption of basic continuities among many African peoples in thinking about life after death accords with the current viewpoint of most African scholars of the continent’s indigenous religions. These scholars understand the manifest variety within African religion to have less to do with a fundamental diversity of belief than with a natural diversity of local expression. A similar experience and spiritual understanding of the world is shared by many of the peoples of Africa, they maintain, although local lifestyles and distinctive practices differ markedly. For more discussion, see the comments of Mbiti (1990, pp. xi, xiii) and of Magesa (1997, pp. 14–18).Life and Death in a Kinship-Based Society
In lineage-based African cultures and religions, it is the ties of kinship and genealogy that both form and nourish community. Lineage is often so strong a social-glue that permanent central authorities and official systems are not needed to hold a people’s life together. Rather, kinship bonds and traditions alone may structure the life of the community, strengthen its vitality, and offer it hope for the future (e.g. Mbisa 1993, p. 10; Ocholla-Ayayo 1989, p. 33).
Community in Africa is an ‘umbilical’ phenomenon, and family ties extend in ways unknown to modern westerners. In particular, African umbilical connections extend to deceased ancestors just as they do to living relatives. The vital force of kinship opposes and contradicts death, Africans believe. Thus, the dead are never dead. Departed souls may hope to remain very much a part of their families and kin-groups. The departed often retain their old familial titles in Africa, and they continue to command respect and to function as moral and spiritual heads of the family.
Universally, death is held to be a monstrous, demonic reality, feared and hated by one and all. Despite its terrors, however, death can neither sever a people’s family-bonds nor fell the trunk of their genealogical tree. Nurtured with resolute devotion, a people’s family-tree grows wide and sturdy, its roots firmly gripping inherited ancestral grounds.
Unlike most modern, western funerals, the burial rites of an African kin-group are not merely for the emotional benefit of living members of the clan. Rather, they preserve a strong social and spiritual bond between all clan segments, both living and departed. The bond is interactive and reciprocal. On the one hand, the departed establish the living. On the other, the living represent the dead on earth.Being Gathered to the Ancestors
The ancestors of old inspire and empower their living descendents, and they offer hope to the dying. In particular, one hopes for a reunion with them in death. Thus, the Akamba people in eastern Kenya speak of death as joining the ‘company of one’s grandfathers’, the venerable forebears populating one’s genealogical tree (Mbiti 1990, p. 152). By the same token, the Nyakyusa people of Tanzania and Malawi comfort the grieving by assuring them that their relative ‘has gone to his fathers’ (Mwakilema 1997, p. 20). It is the same for many traditional peoples of Africa.
In the understanding of many traditional Africans, the realm of the ancestors within the hereafter is a unique place of togetherness and solace within an otherwise barren and hostile netherworld. Amid parching, withering surroundings, it is a place of asylum. It is also a tight-knit, exclusive circle. Only the fortunate dead may rest within its protective embrace.
Among the Nyakyusa people, it is only the lucky who enter Kubusyuka Bwa Banunu
, the pace of reliable and excellent shades who remain connected with their relatives, both the dead and the living (Mwakilema 1997, pp. 43, 50). This division within the hereafter (Kubusyuka
) is a safe space separate from another, much harsher realm of the dead. Dead shades unconnected with their living, ancestral roots go to a dismal place of captivity, called Kubusyuka Bwa Babibi
. Here, they are prisoners under guard, cut off from their folk, irrelevant in their people’s great chain of kinship (Mwakilema 1997, pp. 27–28).
For traditional Africans, physical burial of the corpse with the ancestors is crucial, since it symbolizes and ensures a warm welcome within the ranks of dead kin (Mbisa 1993, p. 20; Mwakilema 1997, p. 50). If someone dies away from home and tribal land, relatives invariably make every attempt to bring the dead body back home to the family’s sacred burial grounds. They travel hundreds of miles, if necessary, to accomplish this. When frustrated in their efforts, they search for some alternative symbolism. The Luo people, for example, bring handfuls of dirt home from their relative’s foreign grave, placing it in the graveyard where they feel that the body really should be lying (Ocholla-Ayayo 1989, p. 49; Ezeh 2003, p. 82).
Proper burial is withheld only from evil people in traditional African practice. In one extreme case, people abandon the bodies of the wicked in the ajo ohia
(‘evil forest’). Dumping souls in this manner symbolizes their exclusion from the company of the living dead. Such spirits will have no asylum from death’s monstrous terrors (Ezeh 2003, p. 61).Care for the Dead
In traditional African religions, care for the dead begins with the sorts of efforts I have just mentioned, aimed at uniting the recently deceased with their dead kin. First and foremost, this means burying them in the family’s ancestral plot. It may mean much beyond this, however, including cleaning and grooming their bodies to meet the ancestors and sending along special greetings with them. Sometimes relatives like to send family news, a reminder of their love, or a request for forgiveness to their kinfolk in the beyond.
The journey to one’s living-dead kin may be a long and strenuous one, so relatives often leave food with the dead for sustenance and for cooking upon arrival in the ancestors’ company. The Ndali people, for example, bury a variety of foods with the deceased, including groundnuts, flour, maize, and beans. They pack these items into small baskets called akashelo
(Mbisa 1993, p. 17).
Proper burial and generous grave goods are important, but care for the dead continues long after all goods have been deposited and all funerary rites concluded. As noted, African ‘umbilical’ connections extend permanently to deceased kin. Living relatives and friends strive to perpetuate a caring and mutual relationship with their departed loved ones, as long as their minds and bodies allow. Most especially this is done through practices of memory and invocation (Mbiti 1990, pp. 21–26).
Africans are intentional about keeping the memory and the name of a deceased relative alive. Physically calling on a person’s name and publicly evoking his or her memory perpetuates his or her personality and character. It allows the living-dead person to keep one foot in Sasa
time, so to speak. Sasa
time is the ‘now period’ experienced by the living. If their people continue raise up their names in their ancestral territories, the dead remain relevant and influential on earth. They are in the homestead, in the marketplace, and in the streets amid the crowds.
As long as their names are remembered, the living-dead remain safely bound up with the community of the living, which Africans identify as the realm where all the real action unfolds. Life under the sun is what is worthwhile and valuable in Africa, what is meaningful and vital. The ongoing life of their clan continues to flow ‘umbilically’ to the departed, as long as their lives are celebrated and venerated in the vital realm of the living. Their underworld milieu is difficult and perilous, there can be no doubt. The faithfulness of their surviving kin, however, keeps their dead souls refreshed.
Lineage structure may determine the type of care that different groups within African society provide to deceased souls. Chief ancestors of large segments of a people’s genealogy may receive a public, communal veneration. The ancestral spirits of individual family lines, by contrast, may receive only the private, concentrated attention of their immediate descendents.
The Akamba differentiate their practices of veneration in this fashion (Gehman 1989, pp. 151–52). The entire clan (mbai
) honors their chief ancestors through common libation and food offerings. Subsections of the clan known as mbaa
(‘family branches’) honor individual branch-founders, to whom five generations of progeny trace their decent. In turn, each homestead (musyi
) within a branch directs smaller-scale, family-offerings to an immediate household forefather, presenting them to his spirit at the home’s central pole.The Struggle against Death in the Hebrew Scriptures
The soul’s continuation despite death was assumed in Israelite culture, as it was in Israel’s ancient Near Eastern milieu. Among the ample textual evidence for post-mortem survival in the Hebrew Scriptures are the following passages, which are particularly clear about the matter: 1 Sam 28; Isa 8:19; 10:18; 14:9–10; Ezek 32:21; and Gen 35:18.
The Hebrew belief in a ‘soul’ (נפשׁ) separable from the body would be undeniable even if our only evidence was 1 Kgs 17:17–24, the account of Elijah’s raising of the widow’s son. The wording of Elijah’s prayer to God assures us the boy is indeed dead (v. 20). He does not stay dead for long. Thanks to Elijah’s wonder-working efforts, ‘the child’s soul [נפשׁ] came back into his body and he revived’ (v. 22 NJB). (Prophetic legends about Elijah, such as this one, stem from an indeterminate number of decades after the ninth-century B.C.E. events that they depict. They were eventually incorporated into their present literary context in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E.)
Death does not terminate the soul (נפשׁ) in Israelite thinking, but it certainly enfeebles and threatens it. Not merely a murky gloom, Israelites experienced the underworld as an animate, malevolent menace. Its slithering mire relentlessly entangles souls with shaky footholds in the land of the living. Striking unexpectedly in the world, death’s grim appearance immediately defiles and pollutes all with which it comes in contact. For good reason, firm biblical strictures limit contact with corpses. The experience of death was an entirely unwelcome and tragic fate for the Israelite (Kellermann 1976, pp. 262–63). It had nothing to do with a journey to the elysian fields of classical mythology, as twentieth-century biblical theologians rightly stressed.
One of the darkest aspects of death was its threat of severing its victim from kinfolk and neighbors. Life and death were highly relational
events in traditional Israel, bound up in community. Security and joy derived from life lived on ancestral land in the company of kin. For a soul to become alienated from the ties of kinship and patrimony was unnatural and terrifying. Biblical writers from across Israelite history refer to such a fate as being ‘cut off’ (גזר, see Lam 3:54; Ps 31:22; 88:5–6; Ezek 37:11; כרת, see Exod 31:14; Lev 20:2–3).
With good reason, biblical eschatology over time develops a firm conviction that God will eventually destroy death. It will not forever cast its shroud over the joy of human, embodied togetherness. Hosea 13:14a understands God to be capable of subduing and destroying Sheol. Isaiah 25:8 goes farther, declaring that this potential of God will surely blossom in full realization. Death, well-known for a voracious appetite (e.g. an infamous trait of Mot, the Canaanite god ‘Death’ [see Pritchard 1969, p. 138]; cf. Isa 5:14; Hab 2:5), is about to get its pay-back. It is going to be swallowed up for all time.
From the same general era as Isa 25:8, postexilic editing added to Ps 22 describes a coming universal embrace of the Lord, which will include not only all nations of earth but also all peoples in the netherworld (vv. 27–29). The thought of Ps 22:29 is captured well by the NAB version: ‘All who sleep in the earth will bow low before God; All who have gone down into the dust will kneel in homage’. In like manner, Isa 26:19 (another postexilic text) speaks specifically of the rising of the corpses of dead Israelites, namely, ‘your dead ones’. Far from mere metaphor, Isa 26 anticipates a vision of actual resurrection that forms a basis for the well-know resurrection faith of Dan 12:1–3.
Israel was long familiar with the idea that the dead could be awakened (cf. 1 Kgs 17:17–24; 2 Kgs 4:8–37; 13:21; Hos 6:2; Ezek 37; Isa 53:9–10). So too, from early on, a core biblical ideal entailed the joy and fulfillment of embodied human community. In the Second Temple period, in texts such as Dan 12:1–3, these ideas and ideals joined up and surfaced in Israel’s conscious faith. Deep currents within Israelite tradition flowed together and poured forth in an explicit expectation of eschatological resurrection. God’s reign would only come in fullness, the Scriptures now declared, when earth finally beholds a collective end-time raising of the dead.[n. 1]An Alternative to Sheol?
The expectation of a coming resurrection of the faithful became a deep and central tenet of Judaism and Christianity. For the traditional, preexilic Israelite, however, the immediate crisis associated with death was the grim prospect of Sheol, not the question of where one would stand at God’s raising of the dead. Figures such as Ruth, Samuel, and David must have fretted about avoiding the clutches of Sheol, not about escaping an end-time judgment.
A commonplace idea of biblical scholarship has been that dank, benumbing Sheol was the acknowledged destiny of each and every Israelite. The interpretation is unlikely. All Israelites must have worried about going to Sheol, but it is highly doubtful that they all ended up there.
Consider the biblical evidence. Several biblical texts understand the netherworld to contain tiered strata, with remote recesses reserved for particularly lost souls. According to Ezek 32:23 and Isa 14:15, the egregiously vile may end up deep down in death’s abyss. If Ezekiel and Isaiah can speak of ‘the uttermost parts of the Pit’, it is hardly a stretch to imagine other, more proximate strata of the afterlife. In such higher, brighter regions of death, the beloved of God who have passed on from this world might find certain niches of asylum.
The biblical texts neither equate the afterlife with Sheol nor consign souls to Sheol in a haphazard manner. Rather, they tend to reserve the language of Sheol for describing the fate of lives gone horribly awry. Sinister people have Sheol as their fate, not the godly, though when in dire peril the latter may feel Sheol-bound. Rarely, if ever, do the biblical texts imply that humanity in toto
is fated for Sheol’s imprisonment (see Barr 1992, pp. 29–30; Johnston 2002, pp. 79–83; Levenson 2006, pp. 67–81).
God is too much on the side of life for that to be the case. God is the ‘fountain of living water’ and desires people to ‘choose life’ (Deut 30:15, 19; Ps 36:9; Jer 2:13; Ezek 18:23; 33:11). The Lord is known as one who will ‘devise plans so as not to keep an outcast banished forever from his presence’ (2 Sam 14:14).
One of the speeches of Bildad the Shuhite in the book of Job illustrates the general biblical picture. Job, afflicted and struggling, presents a powerfully grim vision of the prospect of Sheol (Job 17:10–16), and Bildad, one of his interlocutors, waxes eloquently in agreement. Upon close inspection, however, Bildad’s words imply that if Job is indeed headed for Sheol, then he is not as innocent as he claims. Bildad understands Sheol’s grim fate to pertain solely to the wicked. (For this argument, see Levenson 2006.)
Descent into Sheol, Bildad affirms, does indeed entail being torn from one’s roots and dragged before ‘the king of terrors’ (Job 18:5–21). But for Bildad, this is a fate to be feared by the ungodly alone (Job 18:21). The dark bowels of Sheol are the prison cells of unfortunate, godless souls. ‘The light of the wicked’ surely does fail, according to Bildad, but not that of those who know God (Job 18:5; see Levenson 2006, pp. 68–70).
If those who die blessed by God might manage to avoid Sheol, how specifically do they do it? Where do their souls actually end up?[n. 2]
Using our comparative model as a lens, let us examine the archaeological and textual evidence that traditional Israelites looked to the bonds of kinship as a means of refuge in the hereafter. A look at the evidence of funerary and memorial customs surrounding the departed helps show how this hope worked in the life of the people.Burial on Ancestral Land in Israelite Society
The traditional, pre-monarchic society of ancient Israel organized itself based on kinship, just as many traditional African societies do. People related to each other, made group decisions, organized their economy, and rallied for military defense with continuing reference to lines of genealogy. Kinship was something far more visible and concrete in village Israel than in the modern West. As in many traditional societies, the phenomenon was tightly interconnected with ongoing possession of inherited, ancestral land (‘patrimony’).
Up and down the genealogical trees of old Israel, kinship segments were firmly vested in land passed down from generation to generation. Staying connected with the land of one’s tribe, clan, and family was essential to everyone. It was what each person counted on for a livelihood, for use in supporting relatives, and, in general, as the material basis upholding community.
The way that kinship and landed patrimony upheld and nurtured community in the villages of Israel was not lost on the proponents of the Sinai covenant. Those who championed the covenant associated with Moses, Hosea, and Jeremiah envisioned the ideal life of Yahweh’s vassal people as life supported by kinship and ancestral patrimonies.
One would never want to be cut off from one’s land and from one’s land-based support-structures. To leave one’s ancestral territory and homestead would be to lose the bonds of love that defined and nourished the self (e.g. 2 Sam 14:16). A large part of death’s terror was its threat of cutting a soul off from the verdant life of a genealogical tree planted on ancestral soil. In defiance of this threat, the fervent hope of each traditional Israelite was to find burial on ancestral land (Gen 23:20; Josh 24:30, 32; Judg 2:9; 1 Sam 25:1; 2 Sam 17:23; 19:37; 1 Kgs 2:34). When this hope failed for whatever reason, it was understood as a horrific curse (2 Kgs 9:10; Jer 8:2; 16:4; 22:19; 25:33).
A fine biblical illustration of these Israelite values occurs in 2 Sam 21:1–14, which recounts the care given by Saul’s wife Rizpah to her dead sons. The core story within chapter 21 is old, at variance with the law of Deut 21:22-23, which it appears to predate. It is replete with archaic notions and concerns that easily fit Israel’s early monarchic period. As the narrative unfolds, Rizpah goes to extremes on behalf of her dead, who have suffered execution and exposure by King David’s command. She spends months in the outdoors preventing scavenger birds and wild animals from tearing at their bodies and eating them. Her desperate measures surely aim at the welfare of her sons’ dead souls. They go far beyond mere matters of honor, and they seem to please God, who sends some long-overdue rain (2 Sam 21:10a).
God is not fully satisfied until a traditional burial of the dead bodies is accomplished. It is only once the bodies of Rizpah’s sons and all their dead kin lie interred in the land of their tribe and in the tomb of their grandfather that God responds to entreaty and restores the land to prosperity (2 Sam 21:13–14; cf. West 2004, pp. 102–103).
The archaeology of Judahite tombs confirms that burial on ancestral land was Israel’s ideal. Judah’s traditional populace tended to bury its dead close by their settlements. People placed their tombs near home and village, hallowing out chambers or selecting caves in the slopes supporting their settlements or in nearby cliffs (Bloch-Smith 1992, p. 51).
All of this resonates strongly with our comparative model based on African religions. In traditional Africa, burial on ancestral land is of such existential moment that any alternative disposition of a corpse is unthinkable. To have one’s body separated from one’s ancestors’ graves would be to sever the ties that form one’s identity and that maintain connectedness and harmony between the generations (Menkiti 1984, p. 172; Mbiti 1990, p. 26).Burial in Conjunction with Segmentary Genealogy
When possible, Israelites preferred for the bodies of near relatives to lie in a shared burial chamber (Olyan 2005, pp. 603–604). Kin should lie buried together, traditional Israelites believed, especially closely related kin (see, e.g. Gen 47:30; Judg 8:32; 2 Sam 2:32; 17:23; 19:37; 21:14; 1 Kgs 13:22; Isa 22:16). Archaeological study confirms this value seen in the texts. Judah’s populace buried people together based on family relations, so that we find males and females of varying ages all interred in the same tomb chamber (Bloch-Smith 1992, p. 49).
Most immediately this ideal applied to a contemporary generation of a family. To accommodate the value, bench tombs
became the overwhelmingly preferred means of interment for Israelites in the southern kingdom from the eighth century B.C.E. The chambers in this type of tomb had burial benches lining their walls, each bench for a single corpse. As they expired, immediate family members would fill these benches and lie together in death (Eichrodt 1967, vol. 2, p. 213; Bloch-Smith 1992, p. 137; Nutkowicz 2006, pp. 83–119).
Tomb 8 from the late Iron Age cemetery at Gibeon is a typical Judean tomb (Eshel 1987). It consists of a single, square, rock-hewn chamber, with benches along its three inner walls. Four rock-cut steps lead up to the tomb’s entrance, and the wall opposite the entrance has carved niches for lamps.
Family ties extended back in time in Israelite society, giving a powerful depth dimension to kinship. Israelites believed that one’s remains belonged not only in the company of contemporary family members but also with the remains of the group’s deceased forebears. The chambers of Israelite tombs contained special bone repositories so that this would be possible. Such an area might be in one of a tomb’s corners or in a hollowed-out space under one of its burial benches. Tomb 8 at Gibeon has a repository consisting of a hewn pit in the far right-hand corner of the chamber.
In Israelite culture, bodies normally remained on burial benches only long enough for decomposition to reduce them to skeletons. To make room for more recently deceased relatives, the living would periodically transfer bones from the benches to the repository areas within the tombs.
Bone repositories in tombs were areas for the gathering of bones of multiple generations of family members. They were large enough to accommodate the bones of an entire Israelite family line. In tombs with multiple rooms, the repositories might even extend through a wall and under a bench in an adjoining room.
We know that Israelites hoped to remain interconnected with even larger segments of their kin relations than the multiple generations of a single family line (Hallote 2001, pp. 61–62). The evidence of large tomb complexes owned by well-off families leaves little room for doubt. The eighth- and seventh-century B.C.E. cave complex beneath the St. Étienne Monastery in Jerusalem, for example, contains a total of five standard burial rooms arrayed around a common entrance chamber. This elaborate underground structure allowed for several lineage-branches of an entire kin-group to share common interment. (See Bloch-Smith 1992, pp. 221, 237–38; Nutkowicz 2006, pp. 90, 93, figs. 11/1 and 11/2 [between p. 96 and p. 97], fig. 22 [between p. 192 and p. 193]. For a fine overview of this complex, with color photographs, see Barkay & Kloner 1986.)
The several family lines buried in the different rooms of the complex must have been genealogically related. A unique sarcophagi chamber lies to the far east of the other St. Étienne rooms. It stands behind them, accessible only by passing through the sixth numbered room of the structure. It has no repository, and its small number of rock hewn coffins would not have accommodated a family line. Only a few bodies would have lay there, whose remains were never to be moved. The chamber must have interred only the revered remains of ancient ancestors. The natural interpretation is that these persons were the founders and taproot of the entire kin-group buried in the complex (Barkay & Kloner 1986, pp. 34, 39).
As a fascinating parallel, ethnography reveals that some traditional African burial grounds are associated with both family lines and larger genealogical segments of society. Thus, the Ndali not only bury family members together but also strive to inter all members of a given clan in the same special plot, which they call a masheto
. Within the plot, each grave points toward the clan’s place of origin (Kuchifumo
) (Mbisa 1993, pp. 16, 19). As in traditional Israelite burial practice, the Ndali thus nurture a kinship system that extends out beyond the extended family to the entire kin-group.The Gathering of Hebrew Souls to Their People
We have seen that one of death’s worse threats was its power to sever (גזר, כרת, ‘cut off’) the family ties rooted in ancestral land that bundled kinfolk together in community (Exod 31:14; Lev 20:2–3; Lam 3:54; Ps 31:22; 88:5–6; Ezek 37:11). It is rather natural, then, that the biblical texts proclaim that the opposite fate to being ‘cut off’ is to be ‘gathered’ to one’s people. Since cold, dank Sheol’s menace is isolation, its antidote is the warmth of community available in the company of one’s living-dead ancestors, to whom one hopes to be ‘gathered’ (אסף; e.g., Gen 25:8, 17; 35:29; 49:33; Num 20:24; 27:13; Deut 32:50; Judg 2:10; 2 Kgs 22:20).
Interment in a family bench-tomb and, eventually, in the tomb’s repository of bones is highly symbolic of being ‘gathered to one’s people’. It must not be mistaken, however, for the primary reality behind the phrase. The perduring soul’s reunion with living-dead kin is the relevant issue at stake.
Take the examples of Abraham, Aaron, and Moses, all of whom escape Sheol and are ‘gathered to their people’ as living-dead individuals. In the view of the “P” source, the gathering of Abraham to his people is something that his soul experiences (Gen 25:8), not his body, since the latter is laid to rest with no one other than his wife (Gen 25:9–10). By the same token, Aaron and Moses are gathered to their people in experiences separate from the burial of their bodies, which were laid in individual graves outside the promised land (Num 20:24; 27:13; Deut 34:6).
First Samuel 28 gives us a picture of a living-dead soul safe amid the entourage of his departed people. The narrative stems from the traditions and sources eventually incorporated into the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua – 2 Kings) in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E. It certainly reflects Israelite views about matters of death from before the great reforms of King Hezekiah and King Josiah (although its specific reports about King Saul’s actions may or may not be historically reliable). Notice the plural language of both the Hebrew noun and verb in 1 Sam 28:13, which the major English translations inexplicably ignore. When Samuel appears before the medium at Endor, he emerges accompanied by other souls. As the spirit of Samuel rises before her, the medium tells Saul, ‘I see preternatural beings [אלהים] coming up [עלים]’.
Cross-cultural parallels from Africa drive home the force of the biblical hope for ongoing community with kin after death. In Africa, death threatens to rob individuals of their names and family ties so that they dry up and wither into something subhuman (Mbiti 1990, pp. 78, 131, 152, 161; cf. Ezek 37:11; Isa 14:10; Job 18:16). To avoid this, the dead soul must secure fellowship among the departed members of the family.
Dying persons in Tanzania sometimes express assurance of finding such fellowship. They may remind their relatives how soon they will be seeing the ancestors: ‘Listen to my final word’, they may say, ‘I am now about to go home where all my ancestors dwell’ (Mbisa 1993, p. 5; cf. p. 14). Their audience will invariably fall silent and give heed, in order to avoid a poor report being conveyed to their dead kinfolk.
The custom of the Ndebele is for a dying person’s relatives to kill an animal called ‘the beast of the ancestors’. The Abaluyia have a similar rite. The living-dead are present at the deathbed to receive such sacrifices and to beckon their relative into their number. Their welcome assures the person on death’s door that he or she is headed for friendly community, not the foreign, hostile sectors of the netherworld. Among the Ndali people, the recently deceased have their bodies carefully washed and dressed so that they appear neat and clean before their forebears. See the sample discussions of Mbiti (1990, pp. 146, 148) and of Mbisa (1993, p. 15).‘Re-Membering’ the Dead
Being gathered to one’s ancestors was not the only way for Israel’s dead to defend against the dissevering blade of death. They also avoided the dank depths of Sheol through bonds of intimacy and communion with the living, through maintaining ties to kith and kin. Tied to ancestral land and its community life, they remained bound up with their people. As in African religions, the ideal is connectedness and harmony between each family’s many generations (Mbiti 1990, p. 59; Ezeh 2003, pp. 88, 288–90).
Blessed individuals, like a healthy tree, have put forth extensive roots and branches, intermingling their lives inextricably with the life-force of surviving kinfolk and progeny. Buried in the local family tomb, firmly planted on ancestral land, the godly maintain their roots verdant and their branches leafy. Constantly nourished in a traditional mutuality (based on inherited land and caring kinfolk), they are able, in turn, to be a delight and inspiration to the living.
Textual evidence from across Israelite history attests to these ideas. The ‘numinous spirits of the netherworld’ are ‘true heroes’, the psalmist declares; ‘everyone takes pleasure in them!’ (Ps 16:3). In a memorable poetic text in Jeremiah, Rachel, long deceased, weeps for her offspring when things go horribly wrong for them (Jer 31:15). The wicked in Sheol, by contrast, inspire and benefit no one. According to numerous biblical texts, their memory is lost to the world (e.g. Job 18:17; Ps 34:16; 88:5; 109:13).
To show faithful, covenant-keeping love to the departed was a tremendous virtue in biblical Yahwism. Note how Naomi praises Ruth and Orpah for their loyalty to their dead husbands (Ruth 1:8). Though the grave had separated them physically from Naomi’s sons, Mahlon and Chilion, the wives continued to act on their behalf. This was of indubitable benefit to the dead.
The tale of Ruth, which is notoriously hard to date, probably stems from late-monarchic or early-exilic times, but evinces customs and beliefs from preceding eras (cf. Ruth 4:7). As its narrative proceeds, Ruth makes hugely sacrificial efforts to ensure Mahlon’s connectedness with the living. Even after her own eventual demise, she wants ongoing ties with living family maintained for him. Soon, the Lord, ‘whose kindness has not forsaken…the dead’, provides a way forward (Ruth 2:20). By the close of the book, dead Mahlon is assured permanent asylum in the netherworld.
Thanks to Ruth’s persistence and the Lord’s work behind the scenes, Boaz redeems Mahlon’s land and assures him an heir, so that his name, memory, and patrimony will remain perpetually bundled together. Thus, Mahlon will forever enjoy fellowship with living kin dwelling securely on an ancestral territory (Ruth 4:5). He will remain remembered and connected, not shepherded away by Death, the one whom the Banyarwanda of Africa call ‘the one with whom one is forgotten’ (Mbiti 1990, p. 79).
The deceased, our evidence attests, have a means of sustenance in death—namely, remembrance
by kin. Asylum and refreshment are available to them, if their offspring and community maintain loving ties. The details come to life when viewed through the lens of our comparative model based on African cultures and religions.
The biblical texts hint at several traditional practices that supported ties with the dead. Descendents and supporters could burn spices for their forebears (Jer 34:5; 2 Chr 16:14; 21:19). They could leave food at their graves, as biblical Yahwism allowed (as long as the grave-food was kept separate from tithes; see Deut 26:14). Above all, progeny could commit to keep their memory alive, to preserve ‘name’ and ‘remnant’ for them on the face of the earth (Gen 21:12; 48:16; Deut 25:6; 2 Sam 14:7; cf. 2 Sam 18:18; Job 18:19). Ideally, this entailed maintaining their names on their ancestral land (Ruth 4:5, 10; Num 27:4), so that they remained known in the streets and at the town gates of their home territories.
The Hebrew Bible pairs memory
as synonyms (cf. Job 18:17; Ps 135:13; Prov 10:7) and assigns rich nuances and associations to both terms. To perpetuate the name of one’s dead relations (e.g. Deut 25:6; Ruth 4:10) is to perpetuate their memory, character, and essence among the living. This entails powerful and effective action on their behalf, not any mere memorializing as we understand it in the modern world. African religions provide a parallel. In Africa, to perpetuate the names of the departed is to grant them ongoing continuation both
in the hereafter and
in the memory of the living. It is to externalize
their ongoing existence on earth, so they remain relevant to embodied communal life (Mbiti 1990, p. 25; Ezeh 2003, pp. 51–52).
A commonplace view of biblical scholars is that remembering the dead means simply maintaining their legacy or, at best, providing for a quasi-continuation of their existence in the lives of their progeny. Such understandings fail to grapple with the full power of memory in biblical Israel. To remember the dead was to demonstrate loyalty to them; indeed, it was to extend them loving-kindness.
As in Africa, externalizing
the spiritual existence of the dead, keeping them relevant and influential under the sun, was crucial. In biblical theology God’s sovereignty is concentrated in this world, not in the hereafter. The reign of God always and everywhere entails living, breathing, public human community. Participating in God’s reign, the Scriptures insist, means staying connected with embodied life here on earth. It was this biblical ideal that eventually blossomed in the Second Temple doctrine of the resurrection.
The boundary between individual and group was certainly more fluid for ancient Israelites than for modern westerners, but we must not imagine individuals’ postmortem welfare was unimportant to them. ‘O LORD, rescue my soul
’, the psalmist prays, ‘for there is no [public] invocation of you in death’ (Ps 6:4–5; emphasis added). Obviously, the suppliant’s concern is for his or her own soul.
Or, take the example of the literary character of Jacob. The ancestor knew his line would continue after his demise, but that fact alone did not suffice to give him peace. Rather, he passionately desired to ground his personal postmortem security in his people’s new life together in the promised land (Gen 47:29–31). ‘When I lie down with my ancestors, carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial place’, he demands. Beyond a doubt, Jacob shows a deep concern for a personal
afterlife (the fate of his own personality).
Again, Ruth 1:17 similarly reveals a concern for a person’s individual fate after the end of life. Ruth promises Naomi that not even death will extinguish their relationship. In this promise, she cannot be referring to some quasi-continuation of life in the recollections of descendents. There is absolutely no prospect of descendents for either of the widows at this point in the book.
Beyond matters of legacy and quasi-continuation, to attend to a person’s name and memory meant to reach out to that person in the beyond. It meant to invoke and heighten ongoing relationship and mutuality (cf. Ps 30:5; 97:12; Isa 26:8). Though rarely translated well, the Hebrew of Ps 49:11 directly attests to the practice of invoking the dead by name on earth. It demonstrates that memory in biblical Israel did not entail simple recollection but dynamic encounter.
Note also the instructive parallel from Israel’s ancient milieu found in the eighth-century Aramaic Panammua Inscription (KAI
214.16–17, 21). In the inscription, Panammua virtually cries out from the grave for his successors to keep invoking his name
to preserve his soul in peace (see Spronk 1986, pp. 207–8; Lewis 1991, p. 605; Nutkowicz 2006, pp. 251–52).
In biblical parlance, memory
is a loaded term that is all about guaranteeing and maintaining personal connectedness. In Amos 1:9 and Ps 137:6, memory is about loyalty and faithfulness in relationships. In the poetry of Ps 8:4, ‘remember’ is a parallel idea to ‘care for’, ‘look after’. In many such texts, to remember
is to reach out and unite in solidarity, and come to the aid and rescue if need be. It is thus not surprising that repeatedly in the Scriptures the saving actions of God are preceded by divine ‘remembering’. When the ark and its passengers were surrounded by chaos and death, for example, it was memory
that led to the preservation of Noah, his family, and all the many animals (Gen 8:1).
A literal re-membering
of the dead in biblical Israel was a reestablishing of links with those who had passed on, a deliberate reconnecting of all the members of a family, living and dead. It was a re-actualizing of the family ties that bind all members of a lineage across time.
As long as the name of the deceased endured among the living, there was ongoing communion with God and God’s people (cf. the ramifications of an abiding name in such passages as Pss 102:12; 135:13; Isa 48:19). By contrast, to have your name blotted out was to have your connections with kith and kin severed (cf. Ruth 4:10; Ps 34:16; 109:13). It was to lose all share till the end of time in that which goes on under the sun (Qoh 9:6; Isa 14:22).Burial Deposits in Israelite Graves
The material objects discovered in Israelite tombs show that relatives burned a great deal of oil and spices during funerary procedures and that they provided their dead with food. Bowls and jugs are prominent among traditional Israel’s grave goods, and the amount of pottery contained in tombs is sometimes surprising. Tomb 11 at the Iron Age cemetery of Gibeon, for example, had over 500 pottery objects inside it (Eshel 1987, p. 1).
The pottery left in Israelite tombs contained food and drink, likely intended to benefit the dead in the period immediately after interment. If our social-scientific model is any guide, these food deposits were for nourishing deceased persons as they made their way to the ancestors. A parallel from African religions is the ox or goat that the Ndebele call the ‘beast to accompany (the deceased)’. Relatives kill this animal after burying their family member, with the thought that it will provide food for the upcoming journey. Other tribal peoples place coins, tobacco, or beads in a deceased person’s coffin as ‘fare’ to the afterlife or as gifts for the ancestors. See Mbiti (1990, p. 147) and Ezeh (2003, p. 80).
In Israel, grave supplies do not seem to have been replenished over time. Apparently the intention was to let departed souls transition away from physical nourishment and increasingly into the care of the living-dead. Incidentally, the oft-heard suggestion is no longer sustainable that Levantine tombs frequently had holes in their ceilings for feeding libations to the dead (Pitard 2002, pp. 151–55).
Lamps and small jugs for oil numbered prominently among traditional Israelites’ grave goods. Along with pottery bowls, relatives and friends typically left lamps among the burial contents of Israelite highland tombs of the Iron Age (Bloch-Smith 1992, p. 80; Johnston 2002, p. 63; Nutkowicz 2006, p. 127, fig. 25/2 [between p. 192 and p. 193]). In addition, as mentioned above, Israelite tombs sometimes contained niches for lamps carved in the walls.
The practice of leaving lamps for the dead may well correlate with Sheol’s infamous threat of darkness (Job 10:21–22; 17:13; Pss 88:6; 143:3; Lam 3:6). There, even light is pitch-black. Relatives concerned to fence their dead off from Sheol’s suffocating darkness naturally tried to supply them with lights.
Bodies prepared for burial sometimes wore amulets, inscribed with prayers for Yahweh’s protection from the terrors of Sheol. Such written prayers, attempting to ward off death’s evils, occur on a pair of silver amulets from a burial cave in Ketef Hinnom, which dates to the late seventh or early sixth century B.C.E. (Bloch-Smith 1992, p. 235; Nutkowicz 2006, pp. 166–73 and figs. 47 and 48 [between p. 192 and p. 193]). The amulets express the hope that Yahweh’s face will shine on the departed in death, that God’s power and blessing will insulate them from death’s gloom and wormy darkness.Abandoning Kinship for Apostasy
Across the ancient Near East, spirits were understood to become preternatural beings upon death. They seemed to take on a numinous, transcendent character. Thus, a passage at the conclusion of the Baal Cycle from ancient Ugarit places terms such as ‘deceased heroes’, ‘preternatural beings’, and ‘the dead’ in direct poetic parallelism (CTA
6.6.45–47). The same notion was alive and well in Israel, as the Hebrew texts of Gen 31:30; Num 25:2 (cf. the parallel in Ps 106:28); Judg 18:24; 1 Sam 28:13; 2 Sam 14:16; and Isa 8:19 all attest. In each of these verses, dead souls appear to be termed אלהים (‘preternatural beings’).
The numinous aura of the spirit world was a source of temptation for Israel, especially the temptation of necromancy. Many Israelites imagined the dead must have special knowledge, given their preternatural status (1 Sam 28:7; Isa 8:19; 19:3). The Scriptures take issue with this assumption (Job 14:21; Qoh 9:5; Isa 14:10), and, in any event, decry all spiritualities that break troth with God in favor of alternative sources of succor (Deut 18:10–11). Should not the faithful Israelite consult the Lord for guidance rather than dead spirits (1 Sam 28:16)? Is there not a God in Israel? (see Lev 20:6).
Necromancy, biblical Yahwism maintained, entails a radical departure from Israel’s traditional funerary practices based on lineage and family ties. Take Scripture’s most prominent example of necromancy, for example, the story of Saul’s encounter with the medium at Endor in 1 Sam 28. The text may contain some (Deuteronomistic) editing from the seventh century and afterwards (e.g. v. 3), but, as noted above, bears witness to beliefs and attitudes about the netherworld from earlier times. From early on, this text attests, some traditional circles within Israelite society objected to the work of mediums (see vv. 6–7, 16).
The medium at Endor is clearly not involved in the loving care of dead relations. Rather, her necromantic practices rely on a go-between spirit, to whom she is mistress. The Hebrew of 1 Sam 28:7 refers to the medium literally as ‘a wife, a mistress, of a spirit’ (אשׁת בעלת־אוב). Her familiar spirit (אוב) is able to get into her and communicate through her (cf. the Hebrew of Lev 20:27). It allows her to make contact with spirit-strangers, such as Samuel, with whom she has absolutely no genealogical relationship. It is the same with mediums in Africa (cf. Mbiti 1990, pp. 26, 171).
In traditional Israel’s patriarchal society, veneration of the family’s dead was the bailiwick of male representatives (van der Toorn 1996, pp. 55, 214; Hallote 2001, p. 61). To find a woman in the Endor story presiding over contact with the dead signals us of something amiss. Something other than a traditional, family-based care of the dead is going on in 1 Sam 28. This is more evidence that we must distinguish carefully between Israel’s traditional lineage-based veneration of the dead and the apostasy of necromancy.
Necromancy depends on the clairvoyance of dead spirits, but death may tempt the living with other sorts of numinous power (Kellermann 1976, pp. 260–61; Barr 1992, p. 32). Some ancient Israelites found a divinized realm of death to be an effective ally amid the instabilities and crises of life (Ps 106:28; Isa 28:15, 18; 57:9). Some even passed their children through the fire, presenting them as ‘envoys’ to Molek, the infernal god of human sacrifice (Isa 57:5; Ezek 16:20; 20:26; 23:37). These apostates really killed their children at sites such as the Valley of Hinnom southeast of Jerusalem, as recent, monograph-length studies of the Molek cult and its archaeology have shown. They must be relying on death’s animate, semi-demonic force (see Num 19:11–22, which pictures death as a defiling miasma). No matter that its power was gruesome, radically unclean, and defiling (Lev 19:31; Isa 65:4), Sheol must have possessed spellbinding appeal for certain ancients.
As with necromancy, all pacts with death represent a breaking of troth with kin, an abandonment of biblical Yahwism’s traditional support of family ties. To join up with Molek, according to Isa 57:9, is to turn away from the nearer bonds of kinship. It is to sacrifice your children, betraying your own flesh and blood to death. It is to send out ‘envoys’ to a distant land, far from all relatives and patrimonies. Such envoys travel ‘a great distance’; they go ‘down deep [שׁפל] into Sheol’.
Archaeological study suggests that changes in burial practices occurred within some sectors of Israel with the rise of monarchy and societal centralization. These new funerary practices, taken up by some of society’s new elite officers, abandoned old Israel’s kinship-based patterns and represented a tendency toward the very sort of apostasy that we see in Isa 57.
As Israel regrouped as a centralized monarchy, its new practices contradicted and threatened the beliefs and norms of biblical Yahwism, whose traditions were borne especially by the village folk of lineage-based Israel. Biblical Yahwism stressed family loyalty as the means to counter the threats of Sheol, but some of the new elite built individual tombs for themselves located far from kith and kin. Prime among the evidence are the gabled-ceiling tombs of the necropolis from the time of the kingdom of Judah at Silwan, Jerusalem (Ussishkin 1970; Bloch-Smith 1992, p. 139).
The owners of Judah’s new tombs at Silwan, it seems, had no interest in being gathered with their ancestors. Inscriptions outside the burials specifically demand that no one disturb the bones inside (see Olyan 2005, p. 615). There are no repositories in the tombs, nothing to symbolize the soul’s reunification with dead forebears in the hereafter.
Individualized to fit particular bodies, designed for lids to seal off each corpse, and decorated with personal inscriptions, the tombs of Silwan have nothing to do with old Israel’s lineage-based culture and the bonds of kinship. The owners of these tombs have Death as their shepherd, not their kinfolk back at home (cf. Ps 49:14; Isa 28:15, 18; 57:9).
When the eighth-century royal administrator, Shebna, built such an individualized tomb for himself far from his ancestral lands, God was furious. According to Isaiah, God’s rebuke ran as follows: ‘What right do you have here? Who are your relatives here, that you have cut out a tomb here for yourself, cutting a tomb on the height, and carving a habitation for yourself in the rock?’ (Isa 22:16). This verse is likely an authentic prophetic utterance of Isaiah, although editorial work has expanded the text that follows it. In any case, whether a product of Isaiah or his school, v. 16 expresses disgust with an historical Jerusalemite official’s abandonment of his traditional family ties.
To end with this example is appropriate, for it illustrates how Israel’s funerary practices and afterlife expectations were neither uniform nor static. The traditional proponents of biblical Yahwism supported kinship-based practices relating to the dead, but many of their contemporaries wanted more from the dead than loving harmony. Absolute fidelity to God and community was a challenge when death’s numinous assets were constantly beckoning.
A marked threat to biblical Yahwism presented itself with the rise of monarchy and new state-based power in Israel. With time, biblical Yahwism found itself marginalized in the face of swelling centralized power, which had little stake in old Israel’s decentralized, lineage-based customs and symbols.List of References
Astour, MC 1980, ‘The Nether World and its Denizens at Ugarit’, pp. 227–38 in B Alster (ed.), Death in Mesopotamia: Papers Read at the XXVIe Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale
, Akademisk Forlag, Copenhagen.
Barkay, G, & Kloner, A 1986, ‘Jerusalem Tombs from the Days of the First Temple’, Biblical Archaeology Review
, vol. 12, no. 2 (March/April), pp. 22–39.
Barr, J 1992, The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality
, SCM, London.
Bloch-Smith, E 1992, Judahite Burial Practices and Beliefs about the Dead
, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 123, JSOT/ASOR Monograph Series 7, Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield, England.
Brichto, HC 1973, ‘Kin, Cult, Land and Afterlife—A Biblical Complex’, Hebrew Union College Annual
vol. 44, pp. 1–54.
Cook, SL 2004, The Social Roots of Biblical Yahwism
, Studies in Biblical Literature 8, Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta.
Cook, SL, & Simkins, RA 1999, ‘Introduction: Case Studies from the Second Wave of Research in the Social World of the Hebrew Bible’, pp. 1–14 in RA Simkins and SL Cook (eds.), The Social World of the Hebrew Bible: Twenty-Five Years of the Social Sciences in the Academy
Eichrodt, W 1967, Theology of the Old Testament
, trans. JA Baker, 2 vols., Westminster, Philadelphia.
Eshel, H 1987, ‘The Late Iron Age Cemetery of Gibeon’, Israel Exploration Journal
vol. 37, no. 1, pp. 1–17.
Ezeh, UA 2003, Jesus Christ the Ancestor: An African Contextual Christology in the Light of the Major Dogmatic Christological Definitions of the Church from the Council of Nicea (325) to Chalcedon (451)
, Studies in the Intercultural History of Christianity 130, Peter Lang, Bern.
Gehman, RJ, 1989, African Traditional Religion in Biblical Perspective
, Kesho, Kijabe, Kenya.
Hallote, RS 2001, Death, Burial, and Afterlife in the Biblical World: How the Israelites and Their Neighbors Treated the Dead
, Dee, Chicago.
Johnston, PS 2002, Shades of Sheol: Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament
, InterVarsity, Downers Grove, Illinois.
Kellermann, U 1976, ‘Überwindung des Todesgeschicks in der alttestamentlichen Frömmigkeit vor und neben dem Auferstehungsglauben’, Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche
, vol. 73, pp. 259–82.
Levenson, JD 2006, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life
, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.
Lewis, TJ 1991, ‘The Ancestral Estate (נחלת אלהים) in 2 Samuel 14:16’, Journal of Biblical Literature
, vol. 110 no. 4, pp. 597–612.
__________ 2002, ‘How Far Can Texts Take Us? Evaluating Textual Sources for Reconstructing Ancient Israelite Beliefs about the Dead’, pp. 169–217 in BM Gittlen (ed.), Sacred Time, Sacred Place: Archaeology and the Religion of Israel
, Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, Indiana.
Magesa, L 1997, African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life
, Maryknoll, New York.
Mbisa, PA 1993, ‘Burial Customs and Beliefs of the Ndali in Christian Perspective’, Diploma in Theology thesis, St. Mark’s Theological College, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Mbiti, JS 1990, African Religions and Philosophy
, 2nd ed., Heinemann, London.
Menkiti, IA 1984, ‘Person and Community in African Traditional Thought’, pp. 171–81 in RA Wright (ed.), African Philosophy: An Introduction
, 3rd ed., Lanham, New York.
Mwakilema, AAB 1997, ‘Death and Life After Death in the Nyakyusa Belief’, Diploma in Theology thesis, St. Mark’s Theological College, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Nutkowicz, H 2006, L’Homme Face à la Mort au Royaume de Juda: Rites, Pratiques et Représentations
, Patrimoines Judaïsme, Cerf, Paris.
Ocholla-Ayayo, ABC 1989, ‘Death and Burial: An Anthropological Perspective’, pp. 30–51 in JB Ojwang and JNK Mugambi (eds.), The S. M. Otieno Case: Death and Burial in Modern Kenya
, Nairobi University Press, Nairobi, Kenya.
Olyan, SM 2005, ‘Some Neglected Aspects of Israelite Interment Ideology’, Journal of Biblical Literature
, vol. 124 no. 4, pp. 601–616.
Pitard, WT 2002, ‘Tombs and Offerings: Archaeological Data and Comparative Methodology in the Study of Death in Israel’, pp. 145–67 in BM Gittlen (ed.), Sacred Time, Sacred Place: Archaeology and the Religion of Israel
, Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, Indiana.
Pritchard, JB 1969, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament
, 3rd ed. with supplement, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.
Spronk, K 1986, Beatific Afterlife in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East
, Alter Orient und Altes Testament 219, Butzon & Bercker, Kevelaer; Neukirchener Verlag, Neukirchen-Vluyn.
Stendahl, K 1984, ‘Immortality Is Too Much and Too Little’, pp. 193–202 in K Stendahl, Meanings: The Bible as Document and as Guide
, Fortress, Philadelphia.
Tappy, R 1995, ‘Did the Dead Ever Die in Biblical Judah?’, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research
, vol. 298, pp. 59–68.
Ussishkin, D 1970, ‘The Necropolis from the Time of the Kingdom of Judah at Silwan, Jerusalem’, Biblical Archaeologist
, vol. 33, pp. 34–46.
van der Toorn, K 1996, Family Religion in Babylonia, Syria and Israel: Continuity and Change in the Forms of Religious Life
, Studies in the History and Culture of the Ancient Near East 7, Brill, Leiden.
West, G 2004, ‘1 and 2 Samuel’, pp. 92–104 in D Patte (ed.), Global Bible Commentary
, Abingdon, Nashville.Notes
1) It is unfortunate that many scholars continue to rehearse the erroneous idea that a resurrection faith entered the Scriptures as a foreign intrusion at a very late date, at the time of the Maccabean martyrdoms. In addition to the contravening inner-biblical evidence, the appearance of the theme of bodily resurrection in pre-Maccabean texts outside the Scriptures, such as 1 Enoch
27:1–4, easily dispels this commonplace misperception.
2) There are a few somewhat obscure hopes for a beatific heavenly afterlife found in the book of psalms (Ps 16:10–11; Ps 49:15; and Ps 73:24–26), but these hopes are never elaborated. The Hebrew Scriptures nowhere develop the notion of a celestial counterpart to Sheol. Rather, what we more generally encounter are realities on this side of death, such as the tree of life
and the temple atop Zion, the cosmic mountain
, that contradict and oppose Sheol. In the biblical texts, the true antipodes to Sheol are found in the world of the living, the favored realm of the Lord, the God of the living (cf. Levenson 2006). Eventually, in the apocalyptic literature, these divinely supported realities will lead to death’s demise. Meanwhile, God remains stronger than Sheol (Job 11:7–8; 14:13; 26:6; Ps 139:8; Prov 15:11; Isa 7:11; Amos 9:2; Jonah 2:2), and can work to protect those souls that go down to death. We find in the texts a widespread emphasis on family ties as the means of God to effect such protection.