Sheol and the afterlife

The Hebrew Bible (the ‘Old Testament’) doesn’t have a hell. At least, it doesn’t have a place where the wicked go to be tormented when they die. There is not even a hint that some people go to heaven at death, while the rest go to ‘the other place’. In fact, according to the Hebrew Bible everyone, good or bad, goes to the same place at death, to Sheol (שְׁאוֹל). The word sheol occurs 65 times in the Hebrew Bible and is usually translated into Greek as hades, and into English as either “hell” or “the grave” (although there is a tendency for more modern translations to leave it untranslated and transliterated as Sheol). However, the way the ancient Israelites thought of sheol was considerably different to the way later Christians often think of hell. 

Everyone goes there. According to the Hebrew Bible everyone goes to the same place at death. When news came to the patriarch Jacob that his son Joseph was dead he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning” (Genesis 37: 35). Using parallelism typical of biblical poetry David described his deliverance from death at the hands of his enemies in terms of being rescued from Sheol:

For the waves of death encompassed me,
the torrents of destruction assailed me;
the cords of Sheol entangled me;
the snares of death confronted me. (2 Samuel 22:5-6).

Interestingly, he thinks of death in terms of destruction rather than conscious existence in an afterlife. Perhaps even more surprisingly Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes) even asserts that animals and humans share the same fate: “For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity.  All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.  Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upwards and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?” (Eccl. 3:19-21).

Sheol is not a place of punishment.

In a long speech in which he longs for his own end, Job describes death this way:

But a man dies and is laid low;
man breathes his last, and where is he?
As waters fail from a lake
and a river wastes away and dries up,
so a man lies down and rises not again;
till the heavens are no more he will not awake
or be roused out of his sleep.
Oh that you would hide me in Sheol,
that you would conceal me until your wrath be past,
that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!
If a man dies, shall he live again?
All the days of my service I would wait,
till my renewal should come. (Job 14:10-14).

There are a few important things we should note from this speech. First, Job describes death as a place where he could hide from God’s anger, not as a place where he would experience wrath or punishment. Second, he describes death as a place of sleep (see more about this below). Third, in the last lines of the extract above there is a possible hint of resurrection (there is a more familiar possible reference to resurrection in Job 19:25-26, although I have explained earlier that I personally don’t see any evidence in this text that Job was expressing his hope in a resurrection, or that his vindication would come after his death). However, the Hebrew word חליפתי (“my renewal” ESV or “change” KJV) could mean that Job is looking for some kind of relief (so ESV footnote).  There isn’t necessarily a sense of “renewal” or resurrection in the Hebrew word, which simply means “change” in the same way we could speak of a change of clothes. The NJPS translates this as “my replacement”, in the sense of a soldier or servant carrying on with their duties until their watch or shift ends when they are replaced by another.

God is there. I sometimes hear people describe hell as a state of being seperated from God, rather than a physical location. But this is not how the writers of the Hebrew Bible understood sheol. A Psalm attributed to David makes the confident assertion that God is everywhere, even in sheol!

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! (Psalm 138:7-8)

Satan is never associated with Sheol in the Hebrew Bible. In popular culture hell is ruled by Satan. Somewhat surprisingly the Hebrew Bible nevers links Sheol with Satan, and, perhaps even more surprising is the fact that the only time the New Testament mentions hell (hades) and the devil together is when it describes both the devil and hell being destroyed together in a lake of fire: “the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever … Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:10, 14). According to this text the devil does not rule hell: he meets his end, together with hell, in a lake of fire. And hell isn’t a lake of fire: on the contrary, hell is destroyed in a lake of fire. Puzzling imagery indeed, and one which deserves more attention. (There is a similar reference in Matthew 25:41 to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” but see my short post here.)

Sheol is for sleeping. The New Testament refers to death as sleeping and the image is almost certainly drawn from the Hebrew Bible. For example, Bathsheba describes David’s death as the time “when my lord the king sleeps with his fathers” (1 Kings 1:21). The New Testament draws on this terminology in a speech by Paul: “For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption” (Acts 13:36). Earlier in the same book of Acts is a speech by Peter, and both speeches refer to a Psalm attributed to David:

For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
or let your holy one see corruption. (Psalm 16:10).

In the speech by Peter he quotes this Psalm and says “David did not ascend into the heavens” (Acts 2:34). He was firmly of the view in the Hebrew Bible that everyone, good and bad, go to the same place at death, to sheol, and that not even King David went to heaven.

The patience of Job

The Patient Job, Gerard Seghers (1591–1651). In the public domain, wikimedia commons.

There is a popular expression that someone has “the patience of Job,” probably based on a reference in the New Testament letter of James: “You heard about the patience of Job” (James 5:11). Job’s patience had apparently become proverbial by the time the letter of James was written, probably around the middle of the first century CE. But when we read the biblical book of Job we are hard-pressed to find much evidence of Job’s patience. The Greek word (ὑπομονή hypomonē) translated “patience” in James could equally mean “endurance” or “steadfastness”, but these are hardly major themes in Job either. Job is hardly a paragon of patience or endurance. In fact, he even protests that he has every right to be impatient! “Why should I not lose my patience?” (Job 21:4 NJPS). He constantly protests his innocence, complains that he is suffering without cause, and demands justice. The only time the word ὑπομονή hypomonē appears in the Greek version of Job is to say that God is wearing out Job’s patience, like water wears down rocks (Job 14:19LXX)! So where did James get the idea that Job was a model of patience or endurance?

David deSilva [1] argues convincingly that, rather than quoting from the biblical book of Job, James was more likely  referring to the Testament of Job (hereafter TJob), a pseudepigraphical work probably written in the first century BCE or first century CE.  TJob is based on the canonical Job but the emphasis is different: this Job is a model of endurance, and the word ὑπομονή hypomonē used by James occurs several times throughout the book. DaSilva points to linguistic similarities between James 5:7–11 and TJob and argues that James learned a version of the story of Job from a tradition beyond the canonical Job that came to written expression in TJob, which “presents a fully developed picture of Job as an athlete of endurance, holding on to his commitment to obey the One God and empowered to bear any temporal loss by God’s promise of a future reward for the righteous”. James’s brief reference to the patience/endurance of Job would presume that his audience knows the reshaped Job story from a version such as  TJob and that it is this tradition, rather than the biblical book of Job, to which he refers.

[1] “The Testament of Job: Job Becomes an Example of Patient Endurance”, chapter 9 in The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James, and Jude: What Earliest Christianity Learned from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 237-251.

To speak well of God (2)

Jonathan Stone makes a great point about Job 42:7 in an article on his blog here.

After the LORD had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.”

The underlined words translate the Hebrew כִּי לֹא דִבַּרְתֶּם אֵלַי נְכֹונָה כְּעַבְדִּי אִיֹּֽוב

Jonathan writes:

“The key is found in the preposition about. God tells Eliphaz that he is angry with him and his friends because they have not spoken the truth about God, as did Job. If you take the time to actually read the book you will know that something seems wrong here. Job said a lot of things. A lot of what he said was specifically about God, but very little of it sounds like the truth about God. In contrast, read the speeches of Job’s friends. They exalt God. They speak of his justice. They talk about his infinite power. They proclaim his endless wisdom. They say a whole lot about God. And it all sounds like the truth. What is going on here?

“As it turns out the Hebrew preposition translated about is a common one, ‘el. It is used hundreds of times in the Hebrew bible, and it can be translated about. However, you will only find a couple of examples where it is translated that way. Every other time it is translated to. In other words, the better translation is this:

“After the LORD had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth to me, as my servant Job has.”

“Interesting. One little pronoun. Yet, it changes our understanding of the entire book of Job. We do not think of the power of prepositions as English speakers. But there is a world of difference between speaking the truth about God and speaking the truth to God.”

Jonathan is correct. The Hebrew word אֵלַי could be translated as “to me”, rather than “about me” although I haven’t (yet) come across a translation that renders it “to me” in Job 42:7. It does make good sense in the context to translate it as “to me” so that it was the forthright, blunt, robust manner in which Job spoke to the Almighty which was being commended, rather than what he actually said. The Hebrew word אל (el) is primarily a preposition denoting ‘motion to or direction towards (whether physical or mental)’ while a similar word עַל  (al) would be more often used to convey the meaning ‘in regard to, concerning, or on account of’. I checked this with Professor Ian Young, chair of the Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies at the University of Sydney. His answer to me was that there is a very common interchange in the texts between el and al, and hence the translations might be taking it in that sense, and there are a couple of examples of al being interchanged for el in the prose frame of Job. I’ll do what I can to check this further.

Thanks Jonathan for bringing this to my attention.

The role of Elihu (1)

My apologies for the long pause since my last post. I was distracted (best excuse I could come up with). However, I took the opportunity to do some rethinking about Job, particularly Elihu’s role, so I now have even more questions about the book than I did before. I really want to get on and explore some other subjects on this blog, but I somehow feel like I need to resolve some things about Job before I do and not leave too many threads hanging loose. The ‘loose threads’ actually tie in with other subjects I’ve been thinking about, so I will attempt to connect them in  coming posts.

Elihu’s role in the Book of Job has been debated over the centuries and opinions vary widely. Some scholars see Elihu’s role as an advocate for the position taken by The Adversary in the prologue, while others see him as a spokesman for the LORD, and his speech as a kind of prelude to the LORD’s own speech.

There are several interesting things about him.

  1. Of all the characters in the book it seems that he is the only one with a Hebrew name.
  2. He doesn’t get a mention in the prologue and then appears suddenly. Once he has finished speaking he disappears without any further mention of him.
  3. Job’s three friends are condemned by the LORD, but Elihu is neither condemned nor commended.
  4. Job intercedes for his three friends so that they obtain forgiveness, but not for Elihu. Did he not need it, or did he miss out on it because he disappeared? Or was Elihu added to the book by a hand later than that of the prologue and epilogue?
  5. Elihu’s speech takes a prominent position in the book, between Job’s ‘oath of innocence’ and the appearance of the LORD. Why was it given such prominence?

Moses ben-Maimon (aka Maimonides 1135-1204), in The Guide for the Perplexed, understood the speeches of Job’s three friends to represent the major philosophical views of the time while Elihu presented a new paradigm. Elihu represents an ‘Israelite’ perspective, against the traditional wisdom of the ancient Near East of which the three friends are archetypes. The fact that many of Elihu’s arguments, and actual words, mirror those of the three friends is probably suggesting that while Elihu’s ‘new paradigm’ is more recent, contemporary, and therefore ‘younger’, from the writer’s perspective it was still influenced by, and therefore a reflection of, the traditional thinking. Elihu’s arrogance was in arguing that he was presenting something new while he was actually mirroring old thinking.

What I find really remarkable is that scholars and commentators often see Elihu as a spokesman for either the Adversary, or the LORD. Is it that hard to see the difference between the two? Perhaps it is.

I know that my Redeemer lives

Job 19:25-26 are some of the best known words from the Book of Job, having been popularised by Handel’s Messiah

25 For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
26 And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God,
27 whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.  (ESV)

It is usual for Christians to read this as prophetic words by Job, referring to his future resurrection, to interpret “redeemer” as a reference to the Messiah, Jesus, and to see this as Job’s vindication at last in the Final Judgment.

The Hebrew word translated “redeemer” is גאל go’el and is used most frequently in Isaiah (24 times) with reference to the God of Israel. So it appears on the surface that Job is expressing his confidence in God and his assurance of eternal salvation. The word is translated in various ways, including “my Avenger” (Leslie Wilson), and “my vindicator” (JPS and Marvin Pope). Some scholars see the words “engraved in rock” in the previous two verses to be a permanent and continuing vindication of Job, and hence his go’el. Some see The Vindicator as a sort of counterpart to The Prosecutor (ha-satan) who accused Job in the Prologue, Job’s Defence Counsel.  If so, his identity is unknown.

It is possible that there are two forensic terms here: גאל go’el and אחרון akharon (translated “at the last” in the ESV). Both terms appear in parallel in Isaiah 44:6 and Marvin Pope notes the Talmudic and Mishnaic usage of the related term אחראי in the sense of ‘guarantor’ [1].  אחרון acharon literally means “the last (one)” and in a forensic sense refers to a guarantor, the last resort for payment. Many commentators, however, read this as an eschatalogical reference to “the last days” (although “days” is unstated) and hence interpret this as an after-death resurrection experience. It could just as easily mean “at the end” or “at last”(in the sense of “eventually”).

Robert Sutherland [2] also understands the Hebrew word קום qum (“he will stand” ESV) as ‘a legal term meaning “to stand up in court” as an “advocate”.’ If he is correct then this reinforces the forensic nature of the text. In fact, as Norman Habel has rightly pointed out, the whole of the Book of Job is “a legal metaphor”. The idea of a lawsuit against God was first mooted in Job’s second speech in the second cycle, and here he continues the theme by expressing his desire that a Vindicator or Advocate will eventually stand up to argue his case. This fits with his previous longing for an advocate (Job 9:33; 16:19). Sutherland argues that this Advocate is none other than God himself and sees no difficulty in God being the Judge, the Advocate and the Defendant all at once. “Job’s complaint has become an appeal to God, through God and against God” [3]. I personally don’t find Sutherland’s argument here convincing. To me this text reads more naturally as Job saying “I am confident that eventually someone will stand up and speak in my defence and vindicate me [my Vindicator and Guarantor], and that I will have my day in court.” Interestingly, Job’s vindication happens, unexpectedly, at the end of the book, but without the appearance of an Advocate.

I personally don’t see any evidence here that Job was expressing his hope in a resurrection, or that his vindication would come after his death, especially as he later refers to the terrors and finality of death (23:14-17; 26:6; 30:23). The Hebrew Bible has very little to say about the afterlife and Psalm 16:10-11; 49:15; 73:27-28; Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:2 are probably the only texts which refer with any certainty to an afterlife. In the context, it would be odd if Job was here putting his hope in vindication in an afterlife. As P.S. Johnston has rightly pointed out [4]:

‘Job still continues his legal argument after chapter 19: he wants to find God, present his case, be acquitted, be tested and emerge like gold (Job 23:3-10). His defiant summation still longs for fair judgment and a divine hearing (Job 31:6, 35). What Job “knows” in Job 19:25 affects neither this subsequent argumentation nor the closing chapters of the book …’

Some commentators argue that the words “after my skin has been thus destroyed” necessitate a reference to resurrection. It could equally be a reference to his extreme suffering and physical deterioration [5]. And while scholars differ as to whether מבשרי mib’sari means “in my flesh” or “without my flesh” the context seems to demand, as Gerald Wilson puts it, “that Job would be expressing in these verses his heartfelt desire that even though he has come so close to death and has almost no hope left, that even now – in this life – God might appear and provide vindication.” [6]

I do not see this text as eschatalogical or messianic. My reading of these verses therefore would along these lines:

“I am confident that eventually someone will stand up and speak in my defence and vindicate me, and that I will have my day in court. But I want to face God myself while I am still alive, and not be defended by an unknown advocate after I am dead.”

Job got his wish: the LORD soon speaks from the whirlwind, and Job is vindicated.

[1] Pope, M., Job: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary,  Anchor Bible Vol. 15, 3rd edition, (New York: Doubleday and Co. 1974), 146

[2] Sutherland, R., Putting God on Trial: The Biblical Book of Job 2004, p57

[3] Sutherland, 2004, p58

[4] Johnston, P., “Afterlife” in T. Longman and P. Enns (eds), Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry and Writings (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2008), 6

[5] See Wilson, G., Job New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), 209

[6] Ibid

Satan in the New Testament (2)

The ‘fall’ of Satan

Luke has a pericope which has Jesus sending out 70/72 disciples to the the towns and villages he was to visit. On their return these disciples reported to Jesus that “even the demons submit to us in your name”  (10:17). Jesus responded by saying “I saw Satan fall as lightning from heaven” (v18).

Was Jesus referring to an event which he witnessed in the past? If so, the big questions are “what” and “when”? In the context it would be odd if Jesus was thinking back to an event 4000 years before which gave rise to ‘demons’ (which is how the Book of Enoch interprets Genesis 6:1-8). From what we’ve seen in the Book of Job it would also be odd if Satan was allowed back in the Court of Heaven after he had “fallen”.

It appears from the context that Satan’s fall began with the mission of the disciples as it was Jesus’ immediate response to the report that “even the demons are subject to us in your name”.  If so, his words should be understood as meaning “I am seeing the defeat of Satan in this”. “Heaven” need not be a literal place, at least not in this context. It could be Jesus’ way of saying that Satan has fallen from his position of power. There are two ways we could read this:

  1. “I saw Satan fall from heaven, like lightning” or
  2. “I saw Satan fall, like lightning from heaven”.

If we follow the second reading (which is how the Greek literally reads, although unpunctuated) it would suggest that Jesus didn’t necesarily say that Satan fell from heaven, but rather that his fall was “like lightning from heaven”. There’s a difference. If this reading is correct then Jesus was comparing Satan’s fall to lightning, perhaps suggesting it was (or would be) speedy, visible or dramatic, but not necessarily saying he literally fell out of heaven. Even if a literal fall from heaven was intended, the context would almost certainly dictate that this was a vision of a future event. Jesus may have been recounting a vision where He ‘saw’ Satan’s fall, an event which would find its ultimate fulfilment in the Last Judgment. Incidentally, this was also the way John (in The Revelation) described his visions: “I saw …” In the exorcism of demons Jesus therefore saw Satan’s defeat, not a previous ‘fall’ from heaven.

It is also possible that Jesus was alluding to his second wilderness temptation (the second temptation in Luke’s account – the third temptation in Matthew), where Satan says that all the kingdoms of the world, with their authority and glory, have been given to him (Lk 4:7). Satan claimed to have “all authority”, yet in the sending out of the 70/72 Jesus gives his disciples “authority” over the “power” of the Enemy (v. 19), in anticipation of “all authority in heaven and earth” being given to Him (Matt 28:17-18).

As Jesus’ disciples exercised authority over diseases and demons, the instruments of the Tester, so Jesus was saying that the Tester’s authority would end suddenly. If so, we see here the beginning of Satan’s fall – his real power had been broken – although his final defeat would be yet future.

We also shouldn’t miss the interesting intertextual link in Luke 10:15 where Jesus said “And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to hades”. This appears to be a direct quote from Isaiah 14:13-15.

13 You said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God
I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
in the far reaches of the north;
14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’
15 But you are brought down to Sheol,
to the far reaches of the pit.  (ESV)
The allusion to the Isaiah text about the fall of “Lucifer” (or, the Day Star [Isa 14:12], identified as the King of Babylon in Isa 14:3) is interesting. But if so, he was actually saying that Capernaum, not Satan, would fall like the Day Star. I would be happy for someone to explore this further and tease out this connection.

If this interpretation of the fall of Satan in Luke 10 is correct, then it confirms that Jesus understood the role of the Satan in the same way as he is presented in the Book of Job, namely as an angel who acts as the agent of God in bringing evil on people.