Heman, the afterlife and the “shades” of the dead (Psalm 88)

Following on from my last post, it seems that while we don’t know the cause of Heman’s death, it appears that he was afflicted with a disease from a relatively early age and had been slowly dying for a long time: “afflicted and close to death from my youth up” (v. 15). It’s possible, of course, that he was exaggerating his situation and may have been overly dramatic (although he did die from it!), but in the process of describing his condition, which as I suggested earlier may have caused an untimely and perhaps sudden death, the writer gives us an interesting list of synonyms for the afterlife.

The Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”) doesn’t say much after the afterlife, and there is certainly nothing to suggest that the writers had any concept of souls living on after death in heaven or hell. The idea of some souls going to a place of reward while others go to a place of punishment is completely foreign to the Hebrew Bible and while it later became popular with Christian and some Jewish writers the idea doesn’t have any roots in the Hebrew Bible. Even the idea of a physical resurrection of the body at some point after death was a relatively late development. The only place in the Hebrew Bible which seems to clearly suggest the idea is the book of Daniel although there may also be a hint of it in Isaiah. Daniel describes a time of trouble such as never was, to be followed by a “resurrection” (12:1-3):

But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.

This text poses a few questions. What does it mean to “sleep in the dust of the earth”? Is the writer describing death, or something else? Is his description of these people waking up similar to Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37), which is a metaphor for the national restoration of the nation of Israel, or is he describing something else?  Who are these “wise” ones who will shine? What does it mean to “shine like the brightness of the sky” or “like the stars”? Is this literal or figurative? The writer of Daniel may very well have been describing the restoration to positions of power or influence of a group he knows as “the wise ones”, in a way similar to Ezekiel’s description of the revival of the nation. Or, he may have been describing the actual coming to life again of people who have died. If the latter, then this is probably the earliest mention of resurrection in the Bible, and, as Daniel was almost certainly written in the period of the Maccabees around 164BCE, it would suggest that the idea of resurrection was a late development in pre-Christian Jewish thought.

There may also be a hint of a similar idea in Isaiah 26:19

Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead.

This verse is part of a poetic description of a time of crisis for the nation of Judah, and, similar to Ezekiel and Daniel, it may be describing a revival of the nation following the crisis. Or, it could be describing a physical bodily resurrection of certain individuals. If so, its position within this poetic piece would certainly be odd. Either way, we can’t be certain. (I dealt earlier with a text in Job which appears to refer to resurrection, and argued that it does nothing of the sort).

Apart from these possible references to resurrection, the Hebrew Bible says nothing about the dead going to places of reward or punishment. In fact, it says little at all about the afterlife. One thing is clear: the writers of the Hebrew Bible thought everyone at death goes to the same place, and this place is most often described by the Hebrew word sheol.

Psalm 88 is interesting because of the number of synonyms it uses for sheol and the way it describes the state of the dead:

  • my life draws near to Sheol (v.3)
  • I am counted among those who go down to the pit (v.4)
  • like one set loose among the dead (v.5)
  • like the slain that lie in the grave (v.5)
  • like those whom you remember no more (v.5)
  • they are cut off from your hand (v.5)
  • You have put me in the depths of the pit (v.6)
  • in the regions dark and deep (v.6)
  • in the grave (v.11)
  • in Abaddon (place of destruction) (v.11)
  • in the darkness (v.12)
  • in the land of forgetfulness (v.12)

While this description doesn’t tell us a lot about sheol it does suggest that normal consciousness doesn’t continue and that people who go there forget and are forgotten. However, in the midst of this description the writer uses a strange expression in a (rhetorical?) question about whether anyone in sheol praises God (verse 10):

Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you?

The expression here translated “the dead” appears earlier in verse 5 where it is translated the same way  – it is a common Hebrew word for the dead, מתים metim from the root meaning “to die”. But it is followed here by a term translated variously as “the dead” (KJV), “the departed” (ESV), or “the shades” (NRSV). Here the word is רפאים rephaim. This word is used in the Hebrew Bible as a person’s name, and for a race of giants who inhabited the land before the conquest under Joshua [1]. There are also a few places where it seems to refer to the dead [2].  Its meaning is uncertain and some translations use the term “shades” (a popular Hebrew dictionary gives the translation “shades, ghosts, name of dead in She’ôl” [3]). However, the Septuagint, an ancient translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, presents a completely different idea:

Wilt thou work wonders for the dead? or shall physicians raise them up, that they shall praise thee?

Where does this translation “physicians” come from. The Hebrew word רפאים rephaim comes from the root רפא rapha = to heal and the plural noun for physician or healer would be spelled the same way as our word for “the departed” in verse 11. It’s understandable why the Septuagint translators thought the writer of Psalm 88 was asking a rhetorical question and saying something like “once someone is dead surely it’s too late for a physician to work a miracle!”

So where did the translation “the departed” come from? The references to the race of giants may provide a clue, as do the so-called Rephaim texts from Ugarit. These texts, in Ugaritic, a semitic language which has many similarities with Hebrew, refer to a group of people called rephaim whose identity is still a mystery, but may be a group of princely or divine beings, or the spirits of the dead. Some scholars argue that these Ugaritic texts are “conclusive” in identifying the rephaim as the spirits of the dead [4], while others argue from the same texts that they are almost certainly gods, minor deities who served as acolytes of Baal, or cultic functionaries who accompany the king [5]. The connection between them, and with the root רפא to heal is most likely that one of the titles of El was “the healer” (which was also a title of YHVH, the god of Israel, e.g. Exodus 25:6), from the same root, so his acolytes were also described as “healers”. By extension, it is argued, the term for these gods was eventually also applied to (some of) the dead who also took on a god-like status.

In my view, the Septuagint translation is most convincing. It suggests that at the time it was translated (3rd century BCE), there was no still place in Judaism for “departed spirits” in sheol and that the dead had no memory or ability to praise God.

_________________________________

[1] Gen. 14:5; 15:20; Deut.2:11, 20; 3:11 ,13; Josh. 12:4; 13:12; 17:15.

[2] Isa. 14:9; 26:14, 19; Ps. 88:11; Prov. 2:19; 9:18; 21:16; Job 26:5.

[3] Brown, Francis, Samuel R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906.

[4] For example, Koehler, Ludwig and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Study ed. Leiden: Brill, 2001.

[5] L’Heureux, Conrad. “The Ugaritic and Biblical Rephaim.” The Harvard Theological Review 67, no. 3 (1974): 265-274. 

 

The Ezrahite Psalms (88 & 89)

Two psalms are attributed to “Ezrahites” – the superscription to Psalm 88 says it is “A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite” and Psalm 89 “A Maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite”. Book III of the psalter (Psalms is made up of 5 books) concludes with these two psalms.

Psalm 88, as it stands in the Masoretic Text and all the ancient versions, attributes authorship to both “the Korahites” (בני קרח is literally “sons of Korah”) and to “Heman the Ezrahite”. James Thirtle [1] argued that the phrase “A song, a psalm of Korahites”, should be placed at the end of Psalm 87 which is explicitly described in its superscription as “Of the Korahites; a psalm; a song”, leaving the title “a maskil of Heman the Ezrahite” in place as the title of Psalm 88. He cited Franz Delitzsch who commented that there are here “alongside of one another two different statements” as to the origin of one psalm, and asked “which notice is the more trustworthy?” [2] This explanation creates the difficulty that Psalm 87 would then be the only psalm to have an almost identical description in both its superscript and postscript, although this would be less of a difficulty than Psalm 88 being attributed to two different authors, and it frees Psalm 88 from its awkward association with the Korahites as it differs from the other Korahite psalms in content. [3]

Psalm 88 is distinguished as possibly the most negative, pessimistic psalm in the Bible! The writer complains that his life is miserable, that he is at the point of death, and, in a very Job-like way, describes his situation as being abhorent to his companions who shun him. He further complains that God has turned away from him, and blames God for his misfortunes. It ends abruptly without a glimmer of hope.

It’s not unusual for writers of Psalms to complain about their situation. In fact, “complaints” are the largest category of psalms. Typically, however, these psalms end with the writer turning to God in their misery and praising him for delivering them from their calamity. Not Psalm 88! Heman doesn’t have a positive word to say about his situation and he has apparently has no reason to praise God. So what went wrong? Why is this psalm different? My theory is that it’s an unfinished work and that the writer died before it was completed. Having described his situation as worsening, and complaining that he was at the point of death, it makes sense that he abruptly died!

Perhaps Psalm 89 was an attempt by a relative to “balance” the despair and hopelessness of Heman’s complaint with a more positive and hopeful psalm. It opens by praising God for his steadfast love and is mostly positive throughout.

 

[1] James William Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms: their Nature and Meaning Explained. London: Henry Frowde, 1904, p13-14

[2] Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on Psalms (trans. Bolton; Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprint 1973), vol iii, 24

[3] Bruce K. Waltke, “Superscripts, Postcripts, or Both,” Journal of Biblical Literature 110, no. 4 (1991): 592

SBL International Meeting in Berlin

I am planning to be at the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) International Meeting in Berlin Germany this coming August. If anyone who reads this blog also plans to be there I’d love to meet up.

I will be presenting a paper on my research in Jonah:

“Should not I pity Nineveh?” – the concluding conundrum in the book of Jonah

Abstract: The book of Jonah is one of only two biblical books which end with a question in most English translations. Arguably, the most sophisticated theology in the book is also expressed in the form of a question (“Who knows? God may turn and relent …”).

But do the translators interpret the concluding verse correctly? As the phrase lacks the usual interrogative markers some scholars have challenged this common reading and have argued that it is declarative.  This paper looks at the function of questions in the book of Jonah, and examines whether the conclusion is best read as interrogative or declarative within this context. It has been argued that a declarative reading of this phrase would reverse its meaning and the theology of the book of Jonah and that this alone would invalidate an affirmative reading. However, the use of irony in a work frequently acknowledged to be replete with irony, satire and comic elements should influence our reading of the conclusion. If the conclusion to the book is an affirmation, rather than a question, could God’s lack of concern for Nineveh be read as a further irony?

This paper looks at the use of irony, satire and comic elements in the book and how an affirmative conclusion works in this context, and offers an interpretation of the theology and message of the book which is consistent with an affirmative conclusion.

The binding of Isaac (2)

I think the Medieval Jewish commentator Maimonides was on to something when he argued that Abraham ‘misunderstood’ God when he attempted to sacrifice Isaac. A variation of the idea was proposed in an article by Curt Leviant titled “Abraham’s Failed Test” [1]. Leviant emphasised the importance of reading the story in context, and pointed to an earlier dialogue between God and Abraham when Abraham ‘negotiated’ with God to save the corrupt city of Sodom if there was even just a handful of righteous people there. Throughout the story of Abraham in Genesis there is an interesting sub-theme in the way God talks with Abraham. The story begins with God telling Abraham (then named Abram) to leave his home-city of Ur and his relatives and travel to a place he would show him. The journey takes many years as Abram stops along the way, and takes family members with him. God doesn’t speak with him again until he reaches the ‘promised land’ and parts company with his last relative, his nephew Lot. Thereafter we find God speaking with Abraham with increasing frequency. But after the attempted sacrifice of Isaac the communication stops – God never speaks with him again. Even the order not to kill his son comes through an angel, rather than God himself. It seems that God was disappointed with Abraham and never spoke to him again.

But that’s not all. It also seems that his wife Sarah didn’t speak with him again. At the end of the story about the binding of Isaac the writer tells us that Abraham went to live in Beer-Sheba (Genesis 22:19) but soon after we find him travelling to Hebron where his wife Sarah had died (23:1).  They weren’t living together apparently. Why not? Was Sarah annoyed with him because of his attempt to sacrifice her only child? We don’t read of any interaction between Abraham and Isaac either. Abraham arranged a marriage for him, but Isaac appeared to be living away from his father. Reading between the lines it seems the family was fractured and Abraham’s relationship with God deteriorated.

If this was a ‘test’ it appears, as Leviant suggested, that Abraham failed the test. He should have negotiated with God, as he did for the corrupt city of Sodom. Or, if he misunderstood, as Maimonides suggested, then God was disappointed, or annoyed, that Abraham didn’t speak up for his son’s life as he did for Sodom. Either way, the story highlights that the ‘heroes’ of the Hebrew Bible are mostly deeply flawed men. They are not meant to be role models, but examples of how God works to achieve his purposes through people who are hardly ideal, often flawed, sometimes corrupt or incompetent, and always very human.

  1. Leviant, Curt. “Abraham’s failed test.” Midstream 56, no. 3 (2010): 31. 31

The binding of Isaac (1)

Sacrifice of Isaac

Sacrifice of Isaac (Sacrificio d’Isacco) by Caravaggio c. 1598

How could a good God tell a father to sacrifice his son? I’ve heard it asked several times (mostly by atheists) referring to the biblical story of Abraham’s (attempted) sacrifice of his son Isaac. It comes across to me as a smug question, but not a clever one.

Richard Dawkins referred to it as a “disgraceful story” and as “child abuse”. He said “As it turns out God was only joking after all, ‘tempting’ Abraham, and testing his faith. A modern moralist cannot help but wonder how a child could ever recover from such psychological trauma. By the standards of modern morality, this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defense: ‘I was only following orders.'” [1]

Let me say first that while Christians often speak of the sacrifice of Isaac, Jews generally refer to this incident as the Akedah – the binding of Isaac (as Isaac wasn’t actually sacrificed). To me, there are a couple of really interesting things about the binding of Isaac. First, it portrays Abraham in a bad light and I think it’s significant that the Hebrew Bible portrays its main characters as deeply flawed human beings, not as ‘saints’ or extraordinary people. Second, this story forms part of a book which condemns human sacrifice. So why would a book which condemns child sacrifice include an incident where one of its ‘heroes’ appears to be doing just that?

The Hebrew Bible is incredibly sophisticated literature. Its authors were clearly not stupid. It is inconceivable that they wouldn’t have noticed a glaring ‘contradiction’ like this (if, in fact, it is a contradiction). It seems to me that to dismiss this story as evidence that either (a) there is no god, or (b) if there is a god then he/she/it is ‘immoral’, is to take the lazy way out. I am much more interested in why the authors decided to include a story which portrays their patriarch and their god in such a shockingly confronting way, especially when the same authors condemn the very thing they are reporting.

I think we should take note of the conflicts in the story (call them ‘contradictions’ if you like, although I personally don’t think it’s a good word because they appear to be quite intentional rather than accidental), and there are several of them. Abraham ‘the saint’ is juxtaposed against Abraham ‘the sinner’ on several occasions throughout Genesis and the deliberateness of it has to be saying something. We should also note a couple of ‘contradictions’ within this incident. First, when Abraham arrives at Moriah he tells his servants to wait for them: “I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” We are meant to take note that both Abraham and Isaac would return. Abraham either didn’t plan to sacrifice Isaac, or he fully expected something to happen (the NT says he expected a resurrection) and Isaac would be coming back. So premeditated murder is a long way from the mind of the author(s).

Second, there is the question of why Abraham was initially told by God to do something, but then accepted God’s directive being overruled by an angel, a lesser spiritual being. That also has to be deliberate and shouldn’t be ignored.

The medieval Jewish rabbis pointed out that the Hebrew text doesn’t actually have God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac (although the English translations usually do), and that Abraham ‘misunderstood’. That would go someway further in portraying Abraham as ‘flawed’ and would be consistent with other aspects of the story. It might also explain why the storyteller then has God refusing to speak to the obtuse Abraham, and delivers his next message through his agent instead.

The words “and offer him there for a burnt offering” translate just three words in the Hebrew text (or two actually, because one word is repeated). The Hebrew word translated “offer” was used later in Israel’s history for burnt offerings, but comes from a root which literally means “to go up” (hence it was later used in the evolution of the language for offerings whose smoke ‘went up’). The word is used twice: והעלהו שם לעלה (you may notice the three letters עלה repeated in the first and last word of the phrase – they are just variations of the same word), which might literally mean “offer him there as an offering” (that kind of repetition is not unusual in Hebrew), but could mean, as the Medieval Jewish commentator Maimonides pointed out, an emphatic “bring him up” (the mountain). There was no further instruction about what to do when they got there – Abraham ‘misunderstood’ the intention.

I should clarify that I wasn’t suggesting the translators got it wrong. In fact, the Hebrew והעלהו שם לעלה would quite naturally read as “offer him there as an offering”, especially in light of later usage. In pointing out Maimonides’ alternative reading I was trying to make the point that Jewish, Christian and Islamic scholars have wrestled with the many questions raised by this text for centuries. It doesn’t seem the least bit clever to me that an atheist should raise this incident as some kind of dilemma for believers when believers themselves have been discussing the ethical issues since at least the first century. The point I am making is that the text reads (to me) to be intentionally confronting and that the writer is deliberately raising serious ethical questions. We should note that Genesis is a narrative preamble to a legal document and carefully lays the foundation for why Israel ‘needed’ the law, and why their law should be different to the other ancient near eastern nations (who frequently offered human sacrifices, which Israel’s law denounced). I personally think it is much more enriching to explore the issues that the narrative raises, rather than smugly poking fun at believers as though they hadn’t noticed the problem.

  1. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006), p. 242

… to be continued

I’m still here

A student asked me today if I have any plans to post anything again on my blog. I guess it has been quite a while. My answer to him was that blogs are a real dilemma for PhD candidates. We tend to be pretty focussed on the subject of our research and have a kind of tunnel-vision which sometimes makes it difficult to write (or think) about anything else. On the one hand blogging about other subjects could be a much-needed healthy distraction (although I have no problem finding distractions!) On the other hand, distractions can be very time-consuming so we become riddled with guilt because we are not working on our thesis whilever we write about anything else.

There is also a fear that if we write about our research we will give away our best ideas and someone else will beat us to the post and publish our ideas before we submit our thesis, meaning our work is longer ‘original’. So we want to keep that stuff to ourselves, but feel that the rest is not interesting enough to blog about. Many PhD candidates are strangely silent in the blogosphere, while others seem to find the time and inclination to blog about anything and everything. I don’t know how they do it. Every time I’ve convinced myself to start blogging again the effort lasts a few days or at best a few weeks, and then I fall silent again.

I probably gave him the impression that I’m not likely to be blogging again for a while, so, just to contradict myself, I’m going to post something!

By the way, I’d be interested to hear from fellow PhD candidates, or those who have gone before us, how you feel about blogging while working on a thesis.