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Returning from the Dead in the Hebrew Bible

In thinking about Sheol and death in the Hebrew Bible, it is worth reflecting on passages where the dead come back to life or are contacted by the living.  This does not happen much at all – a couple of instances of resuscitation and one of necromancy.

Probably the most famous resuscitation – the bringing back to life of a dead person – involves the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings 17:17-24.   Elijah has been helping an unnamed widow from the town of Zarephath, miraculously providing her and her son with food during a divinely-mandated drought/famine (which the prophet brought to teach the wicked King Ahab a lesson).   But the boy dies.  The widow is understandably distraught – the prophet was supposed to be helping her and now her son has died.  Some help.

Elijah takes the boy, though, and raises him from the dead.  The woman responds appropriately, declaring him Elijah a man of God who speaks the word of God.

In 2 Kings 4:32-37 a similar story is told about the prophet Elisha – who, had been Elijah’s protégé and then “took up his mantle” when Elijah flew off to heaven without dying): he too raises a boy from the dead (using a similar technique to Elijah).

(SIDENOTE: Elijah in 2 Kings 2:1-12 and much earlier Enoch – apparently, not quite so obviously – were both taken up to heaven without dying.  Christian readers often take this to mean that they were distinct among humans because they were allowed to “go to heaven” still as mortals, as opposed to everyone else who has to die first.  But actually that may not be what is going on.  Rather, these are the two figures in the Hebrew Bible who do not end up in Sheol.  They end up with God up above, instead of with the dead down below.   That is SO much more significant than simply going to heaven ahead of time.)

(SECOND SIDENOTE …

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Is Mark’s Gospel Unsophisticated?
The Afterlife in the Hebrew Bible: Sheol

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    stokerslodge  March 30, 2017

    Bart, when the gospels refers to evil spirits are they referring to the spirits of humans who have died, or to fallen angels , what was the commonly held view with regard to people who were though to have been possessed by these spirits?

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  March 30, 2017

    Is the Witch of Endor an Ewok?
    Sorry, had to do it.

    Incidentally, Endor in Hebrew means “generation spring” or, more accurately, “ancient well”. Sounds exactly like the type place one would find a hag.

    The Hebrew word used for her necromancy is interesting. The expression is בעלת-אוב — Be’alath ‘ov — which quite literally means raise up a ghost.

  3. John4
    John4  March 30, 2017

    Aw, gee, Bart! Ya left out the *best* one: dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2017

      I’ll be getting to dem bones…. (which, in Ezekiel, are simply a metaphor for “dead” Israel)

      • John4
        John4  April 4, 2017

        Well, I’ll very much look forward then, Bart, to your discussion of Ezekiel’s dry bones. Thx! 🙂

  4. Avatar
    Jon1  March 30, 2017

    What did you mean when you said that the taking up into heaven without dying of Enoch and Elijah to be with God “is SO much more significant than simply going to heaven ahead of time”?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2017

      Just that there’s a big difference between going up to be with God some years ahead of time and *never* going up at all (the latter would be the case if they died and went to Sheol; instead they were taken to heaven)

      • Avatar
        Jon1  March 31, 2017

        Bart,

        How did Jews make sense of Enoch’s and Elijah’s bodies being in heaven? Did Jews think Enoch and Elijah were in their earthly bodies up there and getting older and older, or did Jews think Enoch and Elijah were in their final immortal physical bodies up there, as in what Jews expected at the end times general resurrection?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 2, 2017

          Later traditions indicate that they were given immortal physical bodies that were glorified: Enoch becomes a divine angelic being.

          • Avatar
            Jon1  April 2, 2017

            Do you have the reference and approximate date of the tradition that Enoch had been given his final immortal physical body in heaven?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 3, 2017

            The main text is 1 Enoch, which is certainly pre-Christian. I discuss it in my book How Jesus Became God.

          • Avatar
            Jon1  April 12, 2017

            Bart,

            One thing I have been struggling with is, when the first follower of Jesus had the very first post-mortem bereavement hallucination of Jesus and concluded that he was bodily raised from the dead and the general resurrection had begun, how did he then make sense of the fact five minutes later when he walked out of his hut that nobody else was resurrecting from the dead? It seems to me that your hypothesis must have a component that involves vindication and reward for the righteous that allows for a Messiah figure being resurrected into his final immortal body out of sequence from the general resurrection. Can you please expound on this? Is vindication and reward for the righteous how Jesus’ followers explained to themselves their belief that Jesus was resurrected but nobody else was coming out of their graves?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 12, 2017

            Yup, it’s a big question. My sense is they thought it was all coming very soon — hence their urgency to convert others before it was too late. But the “delay of the Parousia” is one of the biggest — maybe the biggest — issues in earliest Christianity.

          • Avatar
            Jon1  April 12, 2017

            Thanks Bart, but I think you missed my second question: In your opinion, is vindication and reward for the righteous how Jesus’ followers explained to themselves how Jesus could be resurrected up to heaven to be with God but nobody else was yet coming out of their graves? If not, how else could Jesus’ followers explain the delay? There had to be some reasoning involved, otherwise it seems they would have just concluded that they were mistaken and that their post-mortem bereavement hallucination was just a figment of their imagination.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 13, 2017

            Yes, that’s right. Why did they think there was a delay? They never say. Well, they may have said a *lot*, but we don’t have a single writing from any of them! Later Christians had other explanations — e.g., that God wanted people to convert prior to the general resurrection, and that couldn’t happen if it all happened five minutes later.

          • Avatar
            Jon1  April 13, 2017

            So just to clarify, are you saying that traditions like the bodily assumption up to heaven to be with God of Enoch and Elijah provided a generalized example of vindication and reward for the righteous that Jesus’ followers then used to make sense of Jesus’ special resurrection up to heaven to be with God that was obviously out of sequence from the general resurrection?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 15, 2017

            Yup, something like that.

          • Avatar
            Jon1  April 15, 2017

            Bart,

            You said 1 Enoch had the tradition of Enoch being given his final immortal physical body in heaven, but your book How Jesus Became God (pg. 60) says this is in 2 Enoch. Are you saying there is another reference in 1 Enoch also?

            One other question. The references you give from 2 Enoch (pg. 60 in your book) seem pretty much a slam dunk that some Jews thought Enoch had received his final immortal body in heaven (i.e., his “general resurrection” body). Do any scholars at all dispute this (like N.T. Wright or William Craig), and what are their basic arguments?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 16, 2017

            Sorry, I’m on the road just now and don’t have access to my books — so I’m not sure if I was thinking of a passage in the Similitudes where Enoch is declared the Son of Man, or something else! I don’t know that scholars have disputed the 2 Enoch passage.

          • Avatar
            Jon1  April 16, 2017

            Since you are on the road, below are the passages from 2 Enoch that you quote on pg. 60 of your book. You think the passages below show Enoch getting his final immortal body, but a guy like N.T. Wright (or Wrong) would probably say Enoch is just being made a spiritual angel and has not yet received his final immortal body. Why is your interpretation more correct than the other, or is this one of the those cases where scholars read into a passage that which suits them most?

            2 Enoch 22:8-9: “And the Lord said to Michael: Go and take Enoch from out (of) his earthly garments, and anoint him with my sweet ointment, and put him into the garments of My glory….I looked at myself, and (I) was like (transfigured) one of his glorious ones.”

          • Bart
            Bart  April 18, 2017

            Yes, he is not being given the temporary body of an angel. He is actually *transformed* into one.

          • Avatar
            Jon1  April 18, 2017

            The way you worded your response is sort of fuzzy. Can you please answer two clarification questions:

            1] You think Enoch being transformed into an angel (in 2 Enoch 22:8-9, quoted above) entails Enoch getting his FINAL IMMORTAL BODY, that is, the SAME type of body everyone else will get at the general resurrection. Do I got that right?

            2] You are not aware of any scholars (even N.T. Wright) who disagree with the conclusion above. Do I got that right?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 20, 2017

            1. Yes 2. I don’t really know!

          • Avatar
            HistoricalChristianity  April 18, 2017

            Enoch in Genesis may simply be a popular idea of mythology. The gods took him to be one of their helpers. Language ambiguity allows that. Since El was the name for the head of the Canaanite pantheon, but el was also a generic word for a god, then its plural can be interpreted as Elohim (which perhaps began as a reference to the entire pantheon) ot as the gods.

          • Avatar
            Jon1  April 22, 2017

            Thanks Bart. It really is admirable your willingness to communicate with the general public on these issues.

  5. Avatar
    godspell  March 30, 2017

    One can see a lot of ideas in Jewish belief about death and the afterlife that could, with a bit of tinkering, be turned into the resurrection of Jesus, and his sitting at the right hand of God in heaven–without his being a deity himself. Is Jesus not at least the equal of Elijah, Elisha, and Samuel? Therefore, death does not have the same hold on him. The variation in the story is him returning in bodily form–which prefigures the time when all believers shall return. But there were traditions in Judaism that prepared his followers to be receptive to the idea that this had happened.

    So as the story developed in their minds, it would seem to them that Jesus had spent a period of time in the underworld, in Sheol, with the other dead, but had then risen up as a corporeal being, and having conveyed his final message to his followers, he’d gone up into heaven.

    That’s why his body is gone, that’s why the tomb is empty, regardless of whether there really was a tomb or not–there has to be a tomb for the story to be told correctly. If his body had been allowed to rot and be eaten by scavengers, he couldn’t return, because the body and soul are one in Jewish belief. So if somebody told a story about a tomb, afterwards, most of his followers (who would have been too afraid to go up and see for themselves) would accept that as fact, because the alternative would be too horrible to contemplate.

    Is that about right, you think?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2017

      Interesting idea. My sense is that the idea of the resurrection came from another direction — I’ll be talking about it on the blog anon.

      • Avatar
        godspell  March 31, 2017

        I was talking more about where the idea of the empty tomb came from. Christianity was still mainly a Jewish cult by the time of the crucifixion. As Jews, they simply could not believe Jesus had risen if his body was destroyed. So they refused to believe that had happened, and it’s not as if most of them had seen his body afterwards. Maybe none.

        Though that still begs the question of why the first stories have the resurrection revealed first to women. Why would they make that up? Maybe women were the first to have the visions of him resurrected?

        There’s always going to be some questions. It’s like a puzzle where you can make out a general pattern, but the pieces never do quite fit.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 2, 2017

          I’m not sure why you think that Jews could not hold to the view of a physical resurrection of the body after death. That is in fact a well-attested Jewish belief. As to the women, I have a long discussion of that in How Jesus Became God. Maybe I’ll post it here on the blog (in fact, maybe I have already! I’ll have to check)

          • Avatar
            godspell  April 2, 2017

            No, you misunderstand. You said that the idea that the body and soul are separate was a Greek invention. Jews obviously knew that the body decays after death, so for them to believe in bodily resurrection (as I never said they didn’t), they had to believe that God could restore the body to a certain extent. But for them to believe that Jesus could have been eaten by dogs and scavenger birds, and then return in bodily form–that would have been hard. They needed to block that out.

            In more sophisticated versions, perhaps they could say Jesus was given a divine body. But these were simple people, with no education. They were going to take the traditional beliefs very literally. No body, no Jesus.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 3, 2017

            It’s no harder than lots of other resurrections — for example, people who die at sea and are eaten by fish. In the 19th century Christian theologians wrestled with such quesitons. What if someone was eaten by cannibals: how could *both* bodies be raised?

          • Avatar
            godspell  April 4, 2017

            Revelation says that at the end, the sea shall give up the dead. This was an idea that has lasted–burial at sea in the Book of Common Prayer still refers to it.

            Obviously there are problems if you think about it, but that’s true of every article of faith that has ever been conceived in any belief system, ever. These things don’t linger in our collective consciousness because they make sense logically, but because they resonate emotionally. They could not bear to think of his body as having been destroyed. Therefore, they had to believe he’d been buried intact, and raised intact, and gone up into heaven intact. Intact except for the wounds given him in the crucifixion, which I suppose never healed. Neither did those of King Arthur, who shall someday return from Avalon.

            I don’t have to believe in it literally to feel the truth of it. Myth isn’t supposed to be rational. It’s there for the part of us that isn’t rational, just like art and poetry.

          • Avatar
            HawksJ  April 4, 2017

            (I can’t respond one ‘level’ lower, i.e. to your last comment, so I’ll stick it here)

            Bart, you seem to be misunderstanding godspell’s (well-reasoned, imo) point.

            He’s merely saying that since Jews considered the body and soul as one entity, then they wouldn’t be able to conceive of a risen Jesus if his body was unaccounted for. Therefore, they were ‘motivated’ to have a story which explains how the body remained intact (the tomb). He then asks you if you agree that this ‘motivation’ might explain where the tomb story came from.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 5, 2017

            Yes, I agree with that.

  6. Avatar
    rgilmour1719  March 30, 2017

    Bart, what do you make of the book Gospel Fictions by Randal Helms?
    Personally I found it fascinating and previously didn’t realise how much the Greek Septuagint was used by the gospel authors, especially for miracle stories i.e. the Elijah raising the boy from the dead story.
    Do any of your books cover a similar area in depth (how the gospel stories were often adaptations of the Septuagint)
    Thanks,
    Rich

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2017

      I read it many years ago (25?) and remember liking it. But I don’t recall it well enough to say anything specific.

  7. Avatar
    Jason  March 30, 2017

    I think it was Pagels in one of my “Mysteries of the Bible” DVDs who describes the accounts of people in Sheol as “…kind of walking around…” when describing the necromancing of Saul-do we really get a sense of activity of the occupants of Sheol anywhere in the Hebrew?

  8. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  March 30, 2017

    I’ve always been puzzled by 1Sam.28:12. Why would seeing and recognizing Samuel cause her to know that her client is Saul? But a translator’s note indicates that some LXX mss. say “When she recognized Saul.” That makes more sense, but is it likely the correct reading?

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  March 30, 2017

      I am also impressed with the medium’s kindness to Saul after he received the bad news from Samuel. I used that story in a religious ed. class one Halloween to impress upon the children that people are often very kind and compassionate, no matter what their religious practices. Of course, she could also have been doing her best to ensure he did not blame her for his bad fortune.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2017

      Yeah, that part doesn’t make great sense. The LXX is probably trying to *make* sense of it.

  9. Avatar
    mwbaugh  March 31, 2017

    Fascinating. You’ve done a nice job of stripping away preconceptions about these stories.

    Something I often heard in seminary, that I’d interested in your thoughts on, is the idea that Sheol is not really an afterlife. I heard it was sort of an afterlife, where the dead, good and bad alike, lingered for a short time but soon faded away. It may have been more a metaphor than a actual realm of the dead as were found in cultures like Egypt or Greece.

    If this is the case, perhaps the story of Elisha and the widow’s son is not the story of what happens to the soul or spirit after death. If dead is dead and Sheol is a metaphor for dead and gone, this may instead be a story about the sovereign power of God.

    The boy dies. There is no spark of life in the body and no separable soul that can be led to another world or brought back to it’s mortal shell by a psychopomp. He’s dead, pure and simple. Yet, when the prophet calls on God, the boy is given life again, even though there is no process in the culture or religion to explain it.

    The story of the medium of Endor looks to me like there may be a different set of assumptions at play. The fact that there is a medium who is thought to have the power to raise and communicate with the dead in the Canaanite city of Endor [you have no idea how tempting it was for me to wrote “forest moon” in that last sentence 🙂 ]. The influence of a neighboring people with a different idea of life after death had to be a constant reality for the Israelites, and this may be a cautionary tale.

    I hadn’t thought about it until reading your column, but Saul’s reaction certainly is worshipful. He wants to give Samuel divine, or at least greater than human, authority. Because of the show of supernatural power, he shows more reverence to the raised Samuel than he did to Samuel when he was alive. And perhaps that is the point.

    Idolatry was a major concern of the Israelites living among the Canaanites and other local cultures. Maybe the harsh ban on mediums was because of the concern that people would offer the kind of reverence for and reliance on the spirits of the dead that should be given only to God. Maybe the story is suggesting that Saul should have listened to Samuel better when he was alive and had been given a message for him. May the disproportionate awe for the dead Samuel is a kind of idolatry–a shadow of ancestor worship–and part of what the Israelites were struggling to move away from.

    I’m just spitballing, but I hope there’s something in here that is helpful.

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 31, 2017

    Another good summary. I look forward to learning more about the appearance of Samuel to Saul because I have always considered this to be a “weird” story and my initial reading of this story as a teenager was one of the early dominoes to fall in my “literal” understanding of the Bible. I remember thinking “What?”

    • Avatar
      HawksJ  April 4, 2017

      {{my initial reading of this story as a teenager was one of the early dominoes to fall in my “literal” understanding of the Bible. I remember thinking “What?”}}

      Me too, Ronald! I also remember wondering, ‘if this crazy story is really true, where did the medium get the the power to speak to the dead?’ According to my Sunday School teachings, such a power could only come from God, and yet this woman was not a Jew.

      Made zero sense. I applied precisely the same ‘logic’ to the story of Pharoah’s magicians turning sticks into snakes. People read that story and it never occurrs to most (apparently) to ask, ‘wait, how the hell did they do that without the power of God?’.

      Both stories just illustrate that all ancient people believed in magic and the supernatural, even wholy outside the power and authority of God.

  11. Avatar
    steveandcris  April 1, 2017

    For myself, Lazarus was always a red flag for me in the Bible. Where was Saint Lazarus? Where was the tradition passed down from family members about the miraculous raising from the dead of their relative Lazarus! Not buying it. Never have. It’s a story that would be retold over and over by THE FAMILY and never forgotten. Ever. My take. Resurrection pretty unforgettable stuff. Am I wrong?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 2, 2017

      I guess you could say that’s how John heard of it! But yes, it would be remarkable that there is no record of it in the Synoptics if it’s something that really happened. It is often thoguht that the story is an evolved version of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16.

  12. Avatar
    steveandcris  April 1, 2017

    Not to mention he himself ever shutting up about it.
    Gospel of Lazarus?

  13. Avatar
    Gary  April 2, 2017

    Here is my favorite Bible resuscitation story:

    2 Kings 13:21: As a man was being buried, a marauding band was seen and the man was thrown into the grave of Elisha; as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he came to life and stood on his feet.

    This one passage should be proof to modern, educated people that “miracles” are not real. The Bible is a book with some real history mixed with a lot of ancient, superstitious, tall tales. The key is: Don’t believe everything you read!

  14. Avatar
    moose  April 2, 2017

    Mr Ehrman.
    Listen to this rabbinical tradition regarding the Necromancer of Endor:
    https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/necromancer-of-endor-midrash-and-aggadah

    “The Rabbis ask why Saul questioned the necromancer as to Samuel’s appearance: did he not recognize the prophet when he arose? They answer that three things were said about the raising of a spirit: the one who raises him, sees the ghost but does not hear his voice; the one who needs him, hears his voice, but does not see him; and the one who does not need him, neither hears nor sees the spirit. Accordingly, the necromancer saw Samuel, but did not hear his voice, while Saul, who requested him, heard Samuel’s voice, but could not see him; and the king’s two courtiers, Abner and Amasa, did not need Samuel, and therefore neither heard his voice nor saw him”.

    This sounds rather familiar to me…

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2017

      Yes, when you put it that way, it sure does!

      • Avatar
        moose  April 6, 2017

        Mr Ehrman.
        I would like to make you aware of some Rabbinical thoughts concerning King Saul and the murder of Ahimelech and the priests at Nob! King Saul ordered the murder of Ahimelech and the priests, but he himself did not participate in the slaughter. King Saul only witnessed from a distance when Doeg, the Edomite, executed the murders.
        But read this Rabbinical tradition:

        “The Jerusalem Talmud relates (Sanh. x. 29a) that when Amasa and Abner, Saul’s guards, refused to be participants in the murder of the priests (I Sam. xxii. 17), Amasa boldly said to the king: “Can you lay claim to anything more than our belts and mantles (our marks of distinction)? Here they lie at your feet!””
        http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/1364-amasa

        King Saul witnessed and agreed in the murder of Ahimelech!
        Amasa and Abner laid down their mantles at Saul’s feet!

        This sounds very familiar to me as well..

  15. Avatar
    llamensdor  April 3, 2017

    This is one of your loveliest, most charming postings–beautifully and gracefully told,

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