Jewish views of the afterlife – Biblical teachings

Larger article here – Jewish views of the afterlife (main article)

Simcha Paull Raphael writes (lightly adapted from his book) –

Biblical Judaism, the Israelite religion, was concerned exclusively with the collective destiny of the nation and not with the postmortem fate of the individual Israelite per se.

In patriarchal and Mosaic times, even in the days of the Israelite tribal confederacy, the Bible has little to say about the fate of the individual after death. There is not even a clear conception of an individual apart from the collective, nor any idea of a soul separate from the body. These are notions that emerge later in the biblical era.

It is after the sixth century B.C.E. do clear conceptions of an afterlife fate for the individual begin to appear within Judaism. Even then, concern with the collective destiny of the Israelite nation – eschatological teachings on messianic redemption and resurrection of the dead – remains the central foundation of Judaism’s worldview.

The family tomb

The Avot אבות – Abraham & Sarah, Isaac & Rebekah, and Jacob, Leah & Rachel – are the founders of biblical Judaism.

They lived during the seventeenth or sixteenth century B.C.E.

“I am about to be gathered to my kin. Bury me with my fathers in the cave which is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, the cave which is in the field of Makhpelah, facing Mamre, in the land of Canaan, the field that Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite for a burial site—there Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried;
there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried; and there I buried Leah—the field and the cave in it, bought from the Hittites.”
When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed, and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 49:29—31, 33)

Here, to die is to return to the company of one’s ancestral family.

All the patriarchs and matriarchs, with the exception of Rachel (see Genesis 35:19-20), were buried in the family grave, the Cave of Makhpelah.

This phenomenon of a family tomb recurs for centuries in biblical times. Image, Woodcut by Gustave Doré depicting the burial of Sarah in the cave

King David was laid to rest in the Citadel of David, another family tomb (1 Kings 2:10), where later kings of Judah were buried.

Funerary Practices: Bamot

Another element from the early biblical period that sheds light on beliefs in a postmortem realm are the bamot, or “high places.” The bamot were sanctuaries of cultic worship, originally for Canaanite deities. Later, Israelites repurposed some of these for use in worship of and sacrifice to God.

The Israelite religion retained elements of local, Canaanite worship for centuries. (Which is not surprising. The Torah clearly repurposes previous rituals but transmogrifies them into ethical monotheism.)

Condemned repeatedly by later biblical writers, whent hey were misused, bamot nonetheless were important centers of Israelite religious worship.

Structurally, the bamot were large elevated platforms, ranging from six to twenty-five yards in diameter. They were built of stone, approximately six feet above the surrounding ground, with a flight of stairs leading up to the platform.

This rock-hewn altar was carved out of limestone and was approximately 8 feet on each side and 5 feet high. It is located about a mile from Shiloh, and the four corners point to the four directions on a compass (Exodus 27:1-2). The remains clearly demonstrate that animals were sacrificed on this high place. Photo: Yoel Elitzur.

There are many similarities between these bamot and ancient near-eastern funeral mounds; certain biblical texts (e.g. Ezekiel 43;7) refer to bamot both as cultic sites and as burial sites.

High Place, Bamot – Wikipedia

High Places, Altars and the Bamah

Three Altars Shaping Jews’ Connection to Gd

Necromancy, Ob אוֹב , and Familiar Spirits

The story of Saul and the witch of En-Dor is a classic example of biblical evidence alluding to an ancient practice of communing with the dead. In the face of a military crisis, King Saul sought out a woman who could contact the spirit of the deceased prophet Samuel on his behalf.

Boydell, John; Boydell, Josiah; Sharp, William; West, Benjamin; Saul and the Witch of Endor;
Credit line: (c) Royal Academy of Arts / Photographer credit: Prudence Cuming Associates Limited

In 1 Samuel 28:7, Saul gives instruction to his courtiers to find for him a baalat eishet ob, literally “a woman who has mastery over ob אוֹב .” The term ob can be translated as “familiar spirit” or “ghost.”

The Witch of Endor (Hebrew: בַּעֲלַת־אֹוב בְּעֵין דּוֹר‎ ) is a woman who, according to the Hebrew Bible, was consulted by Saul to summon the spirit of the prophet Samuel. Saul wished to receive advice on defeating the Philistines in battle, after prior attempts to consult God through sacred lots and other means had failed. When summoned, however, the spirit of Samuel only delivers a prophecy of doom against Saul. This event occurs in the First Book of Samuel; it is also mentioned in the deuterocanonical Book of Sirach.

What is implied by baalat eishet ob is an individual who has the ability to contact and communicate with ghosts, or spirits of the deceased.

In a number of places, ob is a spirit of the dead; elsewhere, it is understood as the individual who engages in contact with these spirits, that is, a medium or necromancer.

On the other hand, in the following passages ob is used in a different sense, as one who communicates with the dead. Thus, in 2 Kings 23:24 Josiah also did away with the necromancers (ha-ovot, plural of ob) and the mediums (ha-yidd’onim, הַיִּדְּעֹנִ֖י ), the household gods (teraphim, תְּרָפִים), and the fetishes—“all the detestable things that were to be seen in the land of Judah and Jerusalem.”

Isaiah 8:19 states: “And when they will say to you consult the mediums (ha-ovot) and the wizards, who whisper and mutter, should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?”


Sheol שְׁאוֹל

From the twelfth century B.C.E. onward, new conceptions of life after death began to emerge among the Israelites.

Sheol was a subterranean realm in which the relations and customs of earthly life were reproduced. Upon death, one descended deep beneath the earth and entered the depths of Sheol. In an early biblical text, Jacob says to Reuben: “If any harm came to him [Benjamin] on the journey you are to undertake, you would send me down to Sheol with my white head bowed in grief” (Genesis 42:38).28

Later, by the time of Isaiah, the subterranean imagery associated with Sheol becomes even more descriptive:

“Your magnificence has been flung down to Sheol… underneath a bed of maggots and over you a blanket of worms” (Isaiah 14:11).

Even more, Sheol is envisioned as an all-consuming, cavernous beast, whose “bones are strewn at the mouth of Sheol” (Psalm 141:7); Sheol “has enlarged herself, and opened her mouth without measure” (Isaiah 5:14).

According to the three-tiered ancient biblical worldview, YHVH dwelt in the heavenly sphere, human beings inhabited the earthly realm, and the ancestral dead resided deep within the depths of Sheol.

After death, the individual was completely removed from the human realm in which God’s moral jurisdiction was operant. Thus, Samuel is found in Sheol after his death (1 Samuel 28:3ff.), but it is not a realm of torment or punishment; it is simply the domain of the dead.

The negative, punitive aspects that later characterized Sheol were almost completely lacking in its original conception. Therefore, rich and poor, kings and sinners (Job 3: 11ff.), all went to Sheol upon their death.

What is Sheol?

No Heaven or Hell, Only Sheʾol

Abbadon, Bor, and Shakhat

While Sheol is the term most frequently used to describe the underground domain of the dead, on occasion in later biblical texts three other synonymous terms are used: Abbadon, meaning “ruin” or “destruction”; Bor, meaning “the pit”; and Shakhat, meaning “corruption.”

Abbadon, from the root word meaning “to perish,” appears four times in the Hebrew Bible, in juxtaposition with either Sheol or death. The congruence between Abbadon and a postmortem underworld is apparent:

“Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Abbadon [Destruction]”? (Psalm 88:11).

“Abbadon and Death say, ‘Only a rumor of it has reached our ears’” (Job 28:22).

“Sheol is naked before him and Abbadon has no covering” (job 26:6).

Finally, in Proverbs 15:11, there is a very clear correlation between the two terms: “Sheol and Abbadon lie open before YHVH—how much more the minds of men!”

In Isaiah 14:15, Sheol and Bor appear in parallel juxtaposition, again suggesting a similarity of usage: “You will be brought down to Sheol; to the depth of the Pit [Bor] (Isaiah 14: 15).

The term Shakhat appears in Isaiah 38:17 – You saved my life from the Pit of Destruction [Shakhat].”

Most English translations of the biblical text do not make a clear distinction between Shakhat and Bor, suggesting the similarity of meaning in the two terms; nonetheless, a netherworld of torment is implied. Shakhat, like Sheol, is beneath the earth:

“They will bring you down to the Pit [Shakhat], in the heart of the sea you will die a violent death” (Ezekiel 28:8 ).

“I sank to the base of the mountains; the bars of the earth closed on me forever; Yet you brought my life up from the Pit [Shakhat]” (Jon. 2:6)

The Inhabitants of Sheol: The Rephaim

Those beings in Sheol were given a specific name, at least in later biblical texts, where they are called rephaim—ghosts, shades, or literally, weak ones, powerless ones. In eight different passages, the term rephaim refers quite specifically to the ghostlike inhabitants of Sheol. Thus, for example, Psalm 88:10 states: “Do You work wonders for the dead? Do the rephaim rise up to praise You?”

Sheol, Nefesh Met, and the Biblical Conception of Death

Associated with the biblical conception of Sheol was a very specific understanding of death. Death was not conceived of as a complete annihilation, the termination of existence, but rather as a diminution of energy. Life and death were seen as poles of a continuum of vital energy. In life, the energy, or nefesh, was dynamically present; in sickness, it was weakened; and in death, there was a maximum loss of vitality.

The nefesh hayyah, the living person, dwelt with family clan, tribe, or nation in the terrestrial realm. Upon death, the individual descended into the subterranean realm and as a nefesh met dwelt in the grave, in the family tomb, and eventually in Sheol, the abode of the ancestral dead. Thus, for our biblical ancestors, the termination of earthly life was not in any way a complete or final cessation of being. After the energy required to sustain life dissipated to an extreme, the individual claimed a place in Sheol where existence undeniably continued, but in a weakened, faded condition.43

God’s Power Over those in Sheol

Psalm 49:15 states: “But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol, and will receive me.” And a similar point of view appears in Psalm 116:2: “The cords of death surrounded me and the pains of Sheol seized me. And I called upon the name of YHVH . . . and He saved me.”

In the Book of Kings, YHVH’s power over Sheol and death is expressed through His prophets Elijah (1 Kings 17:22) and Elisha (2 Kings 4:35), both of whom are able to bring the dead back to life.


The Tanakh offers us this story

Elisha came into the house, and there was the boy, laid out dead on his couch. He went in, shut the door behind the two of them, and prayed to YHVH. Then he mounted [the bed] and placed himself over the child. He put his mouth on its mouth, his eyes on its eyes, and his hands on its hands: as he bent over it. And the body of the child became warm. He stepped down, walked once up and down the room, then mounted and bent over him. Thereupon the boy sneezed seven times, and the boy opened his eyes. (2 Kings 4:32-35)

In a similar vein, the story of Elijah reviving a dead child expresses with certainty how it is YHVH’s power, more than Elijah’s, that is at he core of this supernatural feat:

After a while, the son of the mistress of the house fell sick, and his illness grew worse until he had no breath left in him. She said to Elijah, “What harm have I done to you, O man of God, that you should come here to recall my sin and cause the death of my son?”

“Give me the boy,” he said to her; and taking him from her arms, he carried him to the upper chamber where he was staying, and laid him down on his own bed. He cried out to YHVH, and said: “O YHVH, my God, will you bring calamity upon this widow whose guest I am, and let her son die?”

Then he stretched out over the child three times, and cried out to YHVH, saying: “O YHVH, my God, let this child’s life [nefesh] return to his body!” YHVH heard Elijah’s plea; the child’s life [nefesh] returned to his body, and he revived. (1 Kings 17:17-22)

Art – Elijah and the Prophets of Baal, Pieter Nolpe

Was Elijah Permitted to Make an Offering on Mount Carmel?


In Ezekiel, this notion of individualism is carried even further. As a prophet whose writings also date from the time of the Babylonian exile, Ezekiel teaches that every soul is the property of God, not merely that of the family and nation. “All lives are Mine; the life of the parent and the life of the child are both Mine. The person who sins, only he will die” (Ezekiel 18:4).

Now, instead of one’s destiny being mediated through the destiny of the nation, every unique individual stands in a direct and immediate relationship to God. Thus, if each individual stands apart from the collectivity, a new question emerges: who will be punished and who will be saved by God from Sheol? According to Ezekiel, it depends entirely on the quality of the individual life lived:

The person who sins, he alone shall die. A child shall not share the burden of a parent’s guilt, nor shall a parent share the burden of a child’s guilt; the righteousness of the righteous shall be accounted to him alone, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be accounted to him alone. (Ezekiel 18:20)

In the preexilic biblical period, conceptions of the end-of-days were exclusively nationalistic. Since God was a national God, concerned only with the fate of the nation, it was Israel alone that would be redeemed.

Chapter 37 of Ezekiel makes us think of a physical resurrection of the dead – the Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones

The hand of the Lord came upon me…. [God] set me down in the valley.
It was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many of them spread over the valley, and they were very dry.
God said to me, “O mortal [son of man], can these bones live again?”
I replied, “O Lord the Eternal, only you know.”
And God said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Eternal. Thus says the Lord the Eternal to these bones:
I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live again. I will lay sinews upon you, and cover you with flesh, and form with skin over you. And I will put breath into you, and you shall live again. And you will know that I am the Eternal.”
I prophesied as I had been commanded.
And while I was prophesying, suddenly there was a sound of rattling, and the bones came together, bone to matching bone…. I prophesied as God commanded me. The breath entered them, and they came to life and stood up on their feet, a vast multitude.
Ezekiel 37:1—8, 10

Here, Ezekiel’s vision of a resurrection is a national/collective one. Written subsequent to the Babylonian exile, what is envisioned is the total revivification of the fallen Israelite nation.

The conception of resurrection appears again in Isaiah, in a passage that can be dated as late as 334 B.C.E.

Oh, let your dead revive! Let corpses arise! Awake and shout for joy, You who dwell in the dust!—For your dew is like the dew on fresh growth; You make the land of the shades come to life. Isaiah 26:19

Art – Ezekiel’s Vision by Gustave Dore

Alongside this nationalistic conception of the end-of-days, there gradually developed a conception that God’s power had extended to include the whole world. Some prophetic writings reflect a more universal image of the end-of-days.

In Isaiah, for example, it is envisioned that God would eventually become the God of all the nations, with Jerusalem becoming the spiritual center of the entire world:

In the days to come,
The Mountain of the Lord’s house
Shall stand form above the mountains
And tower above the hills;
And all the nations
Shall gaze on it with joy,
And the many peoples shall go and say:
“Come, Let us go up to the Mountain of the Lord
To the House of the God of Jacob;
That he may instruct us in His ways,
And that may walk in His paths.”
For Torah [the instruction] shall come forth from Zion,
The word of God from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:2-3)


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