Death in the Hebrew Bible is understood as the end of existence.
Félix H. Cortez
Just before the liberation of Paris during World War II, a French play about hell, Huis clos (“no way out”), was performed. Written by the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, it describes the destiny of three damned souls—Garcin, Ines, and Estelle. Brought to hell by a mysterious valet, they all assume that an eternity of medieval-like tortures awaits them because of their sins, but are surprised when they find themselves led to a plain room furnished in Second French Empire style. As time passes, however, they realize that this place is truly hell. The constant lies, manipulations, threats, and betrayals toward one another become unbearable. They hate one another, but cannot escape. There is no exit. Even death is not an option. They try but cannot kill one another or themselves because they are already dead. They are forever stuck with one another. An interesting story, but it raises disturbing questions regarding our destiny as well as our present existence in community with others.
The aim here is to present the Hebrew Bible’s perspective on death and its implications, especially for the righteous. Is death the end of a person’s existence or merely a transition from one mode of existence to another? Where do the dead go? How does God relate to the dead, their souls, and their physical bodies? Jewish reflections about death and its implications for the righteous and the wicked inevitably included speculation regarding the possibility of an afterlife. The Bible seems to speak of hell as a destiny in some cases, but what kind of place is this? Is it a place of conscious existence? Many different answers have been given to these questions.
In seeking to understand how the Hebrew Bible answers these questions, it must be remembered that Jewish attitudes toward death can be better understood within the larger context of beliefs about death and the afterlife that prevailed in the surrounding cultures. Taking into consideration the surrounding conceptual environment also enables us to see more clearly the unique Hebrew contribution to this topic.
The Nature of Death
The Hebrew root for death and dying occurs one thousand times in the Hebrew Bible.1 However, it refers only to the fact of death; it does not help to understand its nature. Synonyms describe death as expiring, lying down, or departing. In some instances, sleep is also a synonym for death.
Probably the best explanation of death from a Hebrew standpoint is simply to describe it as the reversal of God’s creation of human beings. According to Genesis 2:7, God created Adam by integrating the dust and the breath of life. Later, God explained to Adam that if he sinned by eating the forbidden fruit, he would die (2:16, 17) and return to the dust (3:19). This implied a process of disintegration. Thus, quite correctly and illuminatingly, a few biblical passages describe death as the disintegration of the human being, as the departure of the breath of life and the return of the body to the dust of the earth (Ps. 104:29; 146:4; Eccl. 12:7).
Some have understood these passages differently. They argue that what departs is not the breath itself but the soul, and understand “soul” in the Platonic sense of a divine, immortal entity separable from the body. In this conception, the soul is released from its body prison and returns to God. Nevertheless, the Hebrew words used to denote what departs at death do not denote an immortal entity separable from the body.
The term ruakh, often translated “spirit,” has a broad range of meanings. It may signify breeze, wind, breath, sense, mind, and heart. It is not always clear which nuance is meant. When referring to humans and animals, the ruakh is something God gives or removes, causing them to live or die. The ruakh finds concrete expression in the action of breathing but cannot be reduced to it. When referring to human beings, it emphasizes the inward spiritual core of a person—thoughts, emotions—often in contrast with the physical, external aspect (Isa. 31:3). Ruakh as life energy can come only from God because He is essentially life, and only He can give life (Deut. 30:19; 1 Sam. 2:6; Job 12:10; Ps. 36:9).2 Note, however, that ruakh does not inhabit the body but only animates it. It does not have life independently. Therefore, what returns to God at death is not a discrete thinking, feeling entity but the life energy that God gave from the beginning. This finds concrete expression in the cessation of breath, at which point thoughts and feelings cease as well (Eccl. 9:5, 6, 10).
The term nefesh (“life,” “person”) also has a broad range of meanings, including the throat, neck, a living being (including animals), breathing, a person, oneself, life, desire, and even a corpse. In Genesis 2:7, the nefesh is the result of the integration of God’s breath and the dust of the ground. Thus, humans do not have a nefesh but are nefesh. The nefesh is a composite entity that ceases to exist at death when it disintegrates. Nefesh does not denote the “inner self,” or something a person has inside, but the way a person is; it describes the person as a living or desiring being. As Karl Ulman clearly explained, the Platonic notion of an immortal soul that is liberated at death is not found in the Hebrew Bible.3 Thus, in 1 Kings 17:21 and 22, what returned to the dead boy when Elijah prayed for him was not his soul (KJV), but his life (NASB, NIV, NLT, NRSV); and what departed from Rachel in Genesis 35:18 as she died was not her soul but her breath (NIV, NLT).
Death is described as being “gathered to” the ancestors, but there is no indication as to what this phrase originally meant. Isaiah’s and Ezekiel’s descriptions of the “dead” welcoming the fallen king of Babylon (Isa. 14:9–11) and Egypt (Eze. 32:17–22) are not factual descriptions of real gatherings in the realm of the dead. Isaiah 14 is expressly described as a taunt song (vss. 3, 4) and is, therefore, highly figurative. Sheol, the realm of the dead (on which see below), is personified. It is “‘stirred up’” and “‘rouses the shades [the dead].’” The dead come and say to Babylon, the haughty oppressor, “‘You have become like us!’” Instead of the splendor of your court, you will have silence, a bed of maggots, and a covering of worms (vs. 11). This is not a factual description of the afterlife, but a poetic taunt to mock the fall of the one who wanted to be like God and sit on His throne (vss. 12–15). Similarly, the “mighty chiefs” in the “dirge” of Ezekiel 32 say of Egypt, “They have come down, they lie still.” This affirmation confirms the view that “inactivity” is the norm in Sheol. The expression “was gathered to . . .” simply means “died.” This understanding is supported by the fact that the expression gathered is used throughout the Hebrew Bible on its own (Eze. 34:29; Hosea 4:3), without qualification, or in parallel to “perish” (Isa. 57:1).
This notion of death agrees with the original depiction of humankind in Genesis as not inherently immortal. They could “live forever” if they continued to eat from “the tree of life” (Gen. 3:22), but Adam’s and Eve’s sin resulted in their expulsion from the Garden of Eden and the rescission of their access to the tree of life. As a result, humans would inexorably return to the dust from which they came and cease to exist (3:19).4
The Hebrew Bible, then, presents death as the end of existence. It makes no reference to religious ceremonies in connection with death or burial, nor does textual or archaeological evidence suggest any continued interest in the remains of the dead. Descriptions of the dead do not suggest that people enter a new form of existence when they die. They cannot praise God (Ps. 6:5; 30:9; Isa. 38:18); they do not love or hate; they do not participate in what happens under the sun; they do not think, work, have knowledge or wisdom (Eccl. 9:5–10). In short, there is no life after death.
“‘For now I shall lie in the earth; you will seek me, but I shall not be’” (Job 7:21, NRSV, italics supplied).5
“‘Turn your gaze away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more’” (Ps. 39:13, italics supplied).
Job compared the dead to a cloud that vanishes (7:9), a shadow that flees (14:2), or a river or lake that dries up (14: 11, 12). Similarly, the dead are likened to a dream that ends (Ps. 90:5). Life is transient, like the grass and the flower in the field (Isa. 40:6). The dead are “like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up” (2 Sam. 14:14).
The Meaning of Death
The Hebrew Bible consistently presents death as the common destiny of all human beings, whether rich or poor, powerful or weak, virtuous or wicked. A variety of attitudes toward death is displayed by the different writers, reflecting the diversity of situations and experiences they faced. For some, death is the end of a process in which human faculties gradually diminish until finally they cease and the person reaches the natural end of life (Num. 16:29). Humans are dust, and to dust they will return (Gen. 3:19). For the blessed, death is the peaceful end of a happy and fulfilled life. For others, death may be welcomed as relief from the inequalities and harsh realities of life. Thus, death is compared to sleep (Job 14:12; Ps. 13:3) and rest (Job 3:17–22).
More commonly, death is described as a bitter enemy (Job 18:14). It is personified as a hunter who traps (Ps. 18:4, 5; 55:4), a marauding shepherd who plunders (Ps. 49:14), or an insatiable glutton who devours (Job 18:13; Prov. 30:15, 16). Death is unclean (Lev. 11:24–40), standing opposite to God in the “spectrum of sanctity” (holiness-cleanness-uncleanness). This gradation mirrors the spectrum of life in which Yahweh as the source of life is supremely alive (Yahweh-living-dead). Like uncleanness, death separates the individual from the community (2 Sam. 12:23) and, more importantly, from God.
This is why the Hebrew Bible celebrates life but not death. Yahweh is the source of life, and “the Israelite loves life; he meets it with optimism; he sees it as a gift of God.”6 This truth is basic to the aphorism that “a living dog is better than a dead lion” (Eccl. 9:4). Creation is also the gift of God, and the supreme blessing is to live long to enjoy it, have many children, and see the fruit of one’s toil. This attitude is exemplified in the description of Job’s life, that of the patriarchs, and that of the righteous in Psalm 128.
The dead are not closer to God. Numerous psalms imply that life is the only forum in which it is possible to commune with God. Thus, the righteous person, in the face of imminent death, appeals to this notion in requesting deliverance from God: “You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11). So, communion with God is possible only in life, not in death. Several passages, in fact, explicitly lament that the dead cannot praise God (Ps. 6:5; 30:9; Isa. 38:18). Life grants the ability to praise Yahweh, but death is perpetual silence.
Sheol and Afterlife
Sheol (“the grave”) is the name given to the realm of the dead in the Hebrew Bible. It is a proper name, not a description. The term is unique. It does not have any cognate in ancient Near Eastern languages, and its etymology in Hebrew is unknown.7 Importantly, it appears only 63 times, in contrast to the root die or death, which appears about one thousand times. Even if we add the several synonyms for Sheol, references to the realm of the dead number only about one hundred.8 Another important fact is that Sheol appears almost completely in psalmodic, reflective, and prophetic literature. It never appears in the narrative accounts of death or in the legal material—including those laws prescribing capital punishment or proscribing necromancy. Sheol appears to be simply a term of reflection and personal engagement and is, to a large degree, poetic.
This is remarkable among the ancient Near Eastern cultures, whose literature shows great interest in the netherworld. Epics about travels to the underworld were common—like the modern rescue in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End of Captain Jack Sparrow from Davy Jones’s locker. There are no such epics in the Hebrew Bible. The realm of the dead is a minor theme, designated by a unique term fitting the unique views concerning it.
From the brief descriptions of Sheol, only a little can be said about it. Sheol is deep below earth. A person “goes down” (1 Kings 2:6) to Sheol at death and “goes up” (1 Sam. 2:6) when rescued, suggesting that it is cosmologically opposite to heaven. It is also theologically opposite to God inasmuch as those who descend to it are separated from Him (Ps. 88:5, 10–12).
As mentioned above, the dead cannot praise God. Therefore, Sheol is an especially fitting end for the wicked who forget God (Ps. 9:17; 55:15); understandably, the righteous shrink from it (Ps. 16:10; 30:3; 86:13). Sheol is, however, still under the dominion of God and provides no escape from Him (Job 11:8; 26:5; Ps. 139:8; Prov. 15:11; Amos 9:2). It is a prison from which no one can escape (Job 16:22) with gates and bars (Isa. 38:10; Jonah 2:6); it is dark, dusty, and characterized by inactivity and silence. The psalmist often describes his experiences of distress and despair metaphorically as being in Sheol, while on other occasions he is distressed “like” those who descend to Sheol (Ps. 28:1). A few times indirect affirmations are made about being in Sheol (Ps. 18:4–6), and sometimes the writer even claims to have been rescued from there by God (Ps. 16:10). Affirmations such as these seem to be merely figurative, not unlike the modern expression “it was sheer hell.” There is no suggestion that the speaker was actually there. Although claiming to be there, the writer can still cry out to God for help, often stating explicitly that he or she is nevertheless alive (Ps. 30:8; 86:2; 88:1–3; Isa. 38:17, 19). Therefore, these are not descriptions of journeying to the realm of the dead and back, but of rescue from an early, untimely death.
Sheol is also described as the destiny of humanity. The psalmist asks, “Who can live and never see death? Who can escape the power of Sheol?” (Ps. 89:48). The expected answer is, “No one.” Sheol, then, is the great leveler. Small and great, slave and free—all are there. Although in later second temple period literature Sheol or Hades was divided into separate compartments for the righteous and the wicked, such divisions never appear in the Hebrew Bible. Significantly, Sheol is also the particular destiny of the wicked and, as such, is sometimes represented in translation as “hell.” When the righteous, on the other hand, envision themselves descending to Sheol, it is always in the context of extreme trial. Their descent to Sheol means an unhappy and untimely death as a result of the judgment of God. It is the place to which God’s judgment on humanity leads.
In a few cases, Sheol’s inhabitants are referred to as “shades.” The term is apparently related to Phoenician and Ugaritic roots yjsy referred to the dead. In the Hebrew Bible, usage of this word can be categorized into two groups that have very different meanings. In poetic passages, it refers to the dead (Job 26:5), while in narrative passages it refers to an antediluvian race that some take as referring to giants (Gen. 14:5). It is unclear how and why Hebrew writers came to utilize this term in reference to the dead. When so doing, however, the they were not conceived as gods or protectors of the living. Nowhere does the Hebrew Bible describe them engaging in any activity or having any contact with the living. They are not consulted in necromancy, invoked as patrons, or invited to feasts. They are lifeless and weak (Prov. 21:16; Isa. 14:9–11). They tremble before Yahweh and cannot praise Him (Job 26:5; Ps. 88:10). The suggestion in Proverbs that any fool may join them indicates that the term applies to all the dead.
This view of Sheol as the destiny of all without any distinctions led to a conceptual problem. Should the righteous share the destiny of the wicked? Is the hope of the righteous limited to a short life, often beset by suffering and injustice, and extinguished at death? Psalm 49 deals with this problem. Unlike other psalms in which the author asks God to rescue him from Sheol in the sense of being spared an untimely death, the concern in Psalm 49 is the appropriateness of Sheol as a final destiny for those who trust in God. Verse 15 introduces the problem as a riddle. The psalmist argues that the enemies trust in their wealth, but no one can pay the ransom for a human life. Therefore, their trust is foolishness; they will end up in Sheol.
God, however, will do what humans cannot do. He will ransom the righteous from Sheol and “take” the righteous. This is the same verb used to describe the unique fate of Enoch and Elijah, who did not see death (Gen. 5:24; 2 Kings 2:10). The psalmist affirmed, then, that God had provided for him a fate different from that of the ungodly. Similarly, the author of Psalm 73 is troubled by the prosperity of the wicked. Upon entering the sanctuary (vs. 17) he was reminded that God is continuously with him (vs. 23) and that His power and love are stronger than death itself (vs. 25, 26). Thus, the writer concluded that “afterward” (most probably after death) God will receive or take him to glory (vs. 24), but the wicked will perish (vs. 27). Again, the word take (in verse 24) is the same as that used in Psalm 49:15 and for Enoch and Elijah. It is not clear if the psalm refers to being received “in glory” before or after the author’s death. The contrast, however, between the wicked perishing (vs. 27) and the righteous being “taken to glory” suggests that reference is not to honor in the present life but to final destiny. Elsewhere, it is affirmed that Sheol is under the power of God and that He will rescue the righteous from it. God’s radical solution to the problem of the righteous in Sheol is not an afterlife bliss, but the future hope of resurrection. Both life and creation were good in the Hebrew worldview. Therefore, God would again give life to the righteous and renew the creation (Isa. 26:19; Dan. 12:2, 3).
Death in the Hebrew Bible should be understood as the end of existence. It is the disintegration of the person’s whole being, which results a cessation of activities, as well as the person’s relationship to humanity, and his or her relationship to God. Yet, God continues to be faithful to the righteous even beyond death.
For the most part, Sheol is the poetic name for the grave; that is to say, it denotes the realm or resting place of the dead. Sheol is the final destination of all human beings, and nobody can escape from it. In this sense, Sheol is the great leveler of all people. It is dreaded by the righteous because it terminates their sense of God’s presence. Mostly, however, it is used to describe the destiny of the wicked. Essentially, Sheol is the place to which God’s judgment on humanity leads. It is not “hell” in the sense of a place of conscious or eternal existence; to the contrary, it denotes the grave as a place of nonexistence. There are no gods in Sheol, and its inhabitants are not patrons or protectors of the living. References to activity in Sheol are figurative descriptions that emphasize the complete destruction of those who go there. God can, however, rescue the righteous from it (1 Sam. 2:6; Hosea 13:14), and will do so through resurrection (Isa. 26:19; Dan. 12:2).
Félix H. Cortez, PhD, is Associate Professor of New Testament Literature at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A.
NOTES AND REFERENCES