Afterlife in the Old Testament

It is often stated that the Old Testament does not present any view of heaven and hell or life after death.  This is often coupled with assertions that Hebrew authors did not distinguish between body and soul the way that we do.  Now, I do accept the critique that popular American images of heaven as pasty-faced night-robe wearing people on sedatives half-heartedly strumming harps while reclining improbably on clouds owes more to Victorian English book plates than any part of the Bible.  I also accept that most Christians today distinguish too sharply between soul and body (a quibble for another post).  On the other hand, I think what we find in the Old Testament cannot be reconciled with the common assertion that people three millennia or more ago did not conceive of personal continuity after death (apart from the obvious extra-biblical counter-example in the Gilgamesh epic).  Here I wish to focus only on a few verses from Genesis, and in particular on two revealing idioms about death.

A particular idiom is used in Genesis to describe the deaths of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, and Jacob: each, when he died, was “gathered to his peoples” (Genesis 25:8; 25:17; 35:29; and 49:33).  Most English versions prefer “to his people,” but the noun is curiously yet distinctively plural “peoples.”  What does this mean?  It cannot be a euphemism substituted for “died,” because in three of the four occurrences “died” shortly precedes this idiom.  The verb “died” was clearly not taboo for the author.  On the other hand, the idiom does not seem to be a description of burial, given that the act of burying the deceased is indicated separately in three of the four cases.  Indeed, the burial of Jacob is narratively separated from his being “gathered to his peoples” by most of a chapter.  So it’s not simply a colorful phrase to describe some aspect of the body.  What it did mean is difficult to say precisely, except that by death each person joined other people he was associated with.  How else might death result in a gathering, unless there is some sense of non-physical reunion after death and independently of the body?

The independence from the disposition of the body is seen in another phrase which was not as common as the preceding.  When God foretold to Abraham his death, he said, “As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age” (Genesis 15:15).  Jacob mentioned his own upcoming death similarly: “when I lie down with my fathers” (Genesis 47:30).  Since Jacob is asking to be buried with Abraham and Isaac, one might think his use of the phrase simply reflects the practice of dynastic burial.  But in fact, his grammar indicates that the act of “lying down with his fathers” occurs in Egypt, before the burial: “when I lie down with my fathers, you shall carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial place.”  Abraham was not buried with his ancestors, but in Canaan after having left his father’s house according to the Lord’s command (Genesis 12:1).  Indeed, the phrase was also used of Moses (Deuteronomy 31:16), whose burial place was unknown (Deuteronomy 34:6).  This phrase, like the preceding idiom, suggests a hazy concept of reunion with predecessors and other people, independently of the body, after death.  The fact that these are idiomatic phrases further emphasizes that the presupposed views were not idiosyncratic to the author, but were widely held.

Am I saying that the author of Genesis and the people described therein held to the same views of the afterlife that we do?  No, nor need I.  Even Christians today hold all sorts of theories in practice.  Am I saying that they fully understood the notion of spiritual reunion after death?  No, and I suspect we do not fully understand it either.  Views on what happens after we die have certainly changed over time.  My goal in this discussion is simply to suggest that the widespread assertion that the Old Testament authors had no notion of personal continuation after death is demonstrably false.  What notions they did have, and how those notions developed over time, is a more complex question.  But notions of heaven and hell, of personal continuation after death, did not suddenly spring into Judaism during the exilic period from Zoroastrian influence, as one of my textbooks last semester baldly (and ignorantly) asserted.

Requiescat avia mea in pace cum Christo Salvatore suo.

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