Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Life after Death, Part 8

For the immediately preceding post in this series, click here.

To back up for a moment to some basics, one thing that the story of the Medium of Endor in 1 Samuel 28 demonstrates is that biblical scholars are silly to keep claiming that the ancient Hebrews conceived of the soul (נפשׁ) as mere breath, the mere presence of psychosomatic life within a body, or, at best, a sort of impersonal life-force. Samuel appears here as a fully personal yet immaterial being, separable from his corporeal body. This fits with the view of souls in such places as Isaiah 10:18; 1 Kings 17:21-22; Genesis 35:18; and the language about dead King Panammu's soul in the Aramaic Panamuwa Inscription (KAI 214).

Let us return to the problem that Samuel actually returns from the dead in 1 Samuel 28.

A plain literary reading of the narrative leaves little doubt that although God had forbidden necromancy (v. 9), God allowed Samuel to appear as a final judgment upon Saul. Bible does not condemn necromancy because belief in the afterlife is a sham and fraud, but because accessing the preternatural powers of Sheol is to become entangled in that which is unclean and potentially idolatrous.

As a way of slapping necromantic arts in the face, Samuel appears suddenly (the Hebrew of v. 12 uses the waw-consecutive). The medium never gets the chance to exhibit the sorts of possession behavior that we find in the African parallels (jumping like a frog; banging one's head hard on the floor; losing awareness of what one is saying).

Samuel's shocking appearance is a plus for scholarship, as it allows us to confirm some of the observations I made in previous posts. In particular, it is clear that Samuel has not been ensnared in the lonely, murky depths of Sheol but has been bundled in relative safety. He is not emaciated, soaked with water, or caked with dust. He is not in rags, has not lost his voice, and is not even cut off from God's words and plans (he can do far more than chirp and mutter--he can still prophesy!). In short, none of the very real fears about a fate in the bowels of Sheol have overtaken Samuel. The Hebrew Bible really does support the idea of a "bosom of Abraham"!

Notice the plural language in 1 Samuel 28:13. It's easy to miss this plural language, because all the major English translations ignore it! You can see in the image above, however, that Samuel emerges from the hereafter along with a full company of souls. Interpreting the text from an African perspective, Temba Mafico immediately recognizes this entourage. They are Samuel's kin and forebears, to whom he has been gathered, especially the family elders, who hold each other in safety in the hereafter.

Most western scholars have missed this clear piece of data, but Africans are able to understand this text. Among the Ndali in southwest Tanzania, for example, relatives speak greetings to take to the entourage of living-dead ancestors over the body of the recently deceased family member. Such words, spoken to the corpse, include requests for forgiveness, news about current disturbances in the family, and notifications of problems facing the household.

Such an entourage of the deceased is mentioned at ancient Ugarit at KTU 1.161. Old Babylonian records similarly speak of death using language of the deceased's ancestors/gods leading him/her away.


Blogger Dr. Joseph Ray Cathey said...


I am beginning to see a joint article here from these posts - maybe something in the JSOT. I think you are absolutely right - attentive exegesis to this passage points us to the fact that Samuel dashes our guild's understanding of the HB/OT conception of life after death. I will contend as I think you have begun to demonstrate here - and I might note other places in the HB - that the souls are not some mere breath or vapor. Rather, especially adherents to Yahwehism could look to hints in the HB of a place of solice with Yahweh. Indeed, Samuel does appear revived by the hand of Yahweh and I simply loved the art work here. What is missed I think in much of the exegesis of this passage - but what you nailed - is the fact that when Samuel comes back he does so just as powerful as he was in life - if not more powerful. He speaks with all the authority of Yahweh to the apostate Saul. We know this by both his appearence (as an elohim) but also by Saul's reaction. Notice that he all but embraces Samuel's prophecy. Why? Because he recognized the old prophet's voice and vigor from days gone by - in short he knew that he had heard the voice of Yahweh through Samuel.

Excellent work here - I am quite excited by your posts.

Wed Oct 11, 08:35:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Thanks Joe! I would love to talk more about a joint article. --S.

Wed Oct 11, 10:27:00 AM GMT-5  

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