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.

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[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