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.

In praise of the storm god (2)

In the final lines of Psalm 29 the writer repeats some terms used earlier, connecting the concluding lines with the opening statements. The Psalm begins by ascribing strength to the LORD and concludes with the benediction “May the LORD give strength to his people”. The central section describes the chaos and terror of a violent storm and the conclusion has a call for the LORD to “bless his people with peace”. The two concluding couplets declare that the LORD is enthroned “over the flood”, a term which probably refers either to the primeval chaos in the Canaanite myths or the chaos of the great flood described in Genesis.6 Either way there appears to be a deliberate contrast between chaos and peace and the structure of the psalm forms a tight unit.

Both lines of the penultimate couplet declare that “the LORD sits enthroned”. In the 1960s Sigmund Mowinckel wrote a thorough analysis of what he called the “enthronement psalms” which are characterised by an acclamation that the LORD is King and the use of language pertaining to the ascent of the throne. Mowinckel argued that these psalms had a liturgical purpose in an enthronement festival which he further argued was part of a harvest festival, specifically the Festival of Ingathering, or Tabernacles.7 Significantly, Psalm 29 in the Septuagint has a superscription ἐξοδίου σκηνῆς “at the leaving of the tabernacle”, which could possibly indicate that it was sung on the last day of the Festival of Tabernacles. Strangely, Mowinckel did not identify Psalm 29 as an enthronement psalm, despite these notable characteristics. The Festival of Trumpets and the Festival of Tabernacles are closely associated in the Hebrew calendar, both being in the seventh month. If Mowinckel is right this could also explain the possible connection between seven trumpets and the seven thunders in The Revelation.

Other scholarshave also noted similarities between the enthronement psalms of Israel and the enthronement festivals of Ugarit and identified several features in Psalm 29 which could possibly have Canaanite origins. Some commentators have gone so far as to say that almost every word in Psalm 29 can be found in earlier Canaanite texts. Aloysius Fitzgerald asserted that “it is clear that the typical Canaanite presentation of Baal as the god of the rainstorm which characterizes each of these texts has been used by Israelite poets in speaking of Yahweh, and such connections can be spotted with relative ease.”9 He concluded that Psalm 29 was originally Canaanite and simply adapted for Israelite use by changing “Baal” to the name of the God of Israel. Theodor Gaster argued, perhaps over-enthusiastically, that

There is a complete correspondence in details between the Hebrew psalm and the texts to which we have referred [Enuma elis and the Poem of Baal], and several passages of the former which are at present difficult of interpretation are at once clarified and illuminated by comparison with the latter.10

The introduction to Psalm 29 says it is לדוד ‘of’ or ‘pertaining to’ David.  It is therefore possible that it was composed with reference to an event associated historically with David and David’s two attempts to move the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem might qualify as this historic occasion. In connection with the first attempt to relocate the Ark the Chronicler wrote:

And David and all Israel went up to Baalah [Kiriath-jearim]… to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord who sits enthroned above the cherubim (1 Chronicles 13:6).

The tradition which understood the Ark as the throne of God may have prompted the composition of the psalm for the purpose of commemorating that event. While the first attempt failed the second succeeded, and this may be behind the exclamation in Psalm 29:9 that ‘in his temple all cry, “Glory!”’, referring to the Ark’s eventual resting-place in the Jerusalem Temple. The intriguing superscription in the Septuagint (ἐξοδίου σκηνῆς “at the leaving of the tabernacle”) would therefore refer to the departure of the Ark from its location in the Tabernacle at Kiriath-jearim and the ‘enthronement psalms’ might possibly commemorate the enthronement of the LORD on the Ark of the Covenant.

The main similarities between Psalm 29 and Ugaritic or Canaanite motifs are: (a) the reference to the divine council and the Sons of Elim/El; (b) geographical references in the psalm (Lebanon, Sirion [Mount Hermon], and the Desert of Kadesh [in Syria]) suggesting it may have originated from that region; (c) thunder is representative both of the voice of the LORD and the voice of Baal; and (d) enthronement over the flood in the psalm may reflect Canaanite creation conflict themes. However, Robert Alter has noted that “None of these arguments is entirely convincing.”11

Stela depicting Baal the storm god

Stela depicting Baal the storm god

So is Psalm 29 a Canaanite poem? While Fitzgerald asserted that it is a Baal poem transformed to become a poem to worship the LORD using a simple substitution of Baal with the name of the LORD, the psalm may equally have been intentionally composed by an Israelite using Canaanite ideas and poetic conventions. It is possible that in this psalm the God of Israel is deliberately described in the terms of pagan gods to appeal to Israelites who were tempted to worship pagan gods or as a polemic against Baal worship.12 Leland Ryken thinks that “Psalm 29 imitates (and ultimately parodies) the motifs of Canaanite poems written about the exploits of Baal.”13

My own view is that the Canaanites and Israelites both drew on poetic conventions and literary practices which were widespread throughout the region, producing literature which inevitably had many similarities in language and style but with different purposes and objects of devotion. Psalm 29 was probably written to be used liturgically as part of an ‘enthronement festival’, possibly associated with the Festivals of Trumpets and Tabernacles in the seventh month, commemorating the enthronement of the God of Israel in the Jerusalem Temple, and may have drawn on historic traditions about the relocation of the Ark to Jerusalem by David.

concluded

6 The Hebrew word for “flood” (מבול) occurs only here and in Genesis with reference to the great flood.

7 S. Mowinckel, The Psalms In Israel’s Worship, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1962) Volume 1, 106

8 For example, A.R. Petersen, The Royal God: Enthronement Festivals in Ancient Israel and Ugarit? (Sheffield: Sheffield academic Press, 1998)

9 A. Fitzgerald,  “A Note on Psalm 29” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 215 (Oct., 1974), pp. 61-63

10 Theodor H. Gaster, “Psalm 29” The Jewish Quarterly Review New Series, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Jul., 1946), pp. 55-65 University of Pennsylvania Press, 57

11 R. Alter, The Book of Psalms: a translation with commentary (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007)

12 So argues A.P. Ross , A Commentary on the Psalms, Volume 1 (1-41), (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011), 653

13 L. Ryken, and T. Longman III (eds.) A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 50

David: a benchmark for kings

He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the ways of his ancestor David

In the books of Kings and Chronicles King David is a kind of benchmark for later kings whose reigns are judged as “he did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the ways of his ancestor David”, OR he “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not completely follow the Lord, as his father David had done” (or words to that effect).

Here is an overview of how kings rated according to the David-benchmark:

The phrase הישר בעיני יהוה “he did what was pleasing in the eyes of the Lord” is used of the following kings:

1 Kings 15:11-12 Asa did what was pleasing to the LORD, as his father David had done. He expelled the male prostitutes from the land, and he removed all the idols that his ancestors had made.

1 Kings 22:43-44 [Jehoshaphat] He followed closely the course of his father Asa and did not deviate from it, doing what was pleasing to the LORD. However, the shrines did not cease to function; the people still sacrificed and offered at the shrines.

2 Chronicles 20:32-33 [Jehoshaphat] He followed the course of his father Asa and did not deviate from it, doing what was pleasing to the LORD. However, the shrines did not cease; the people still did not direct their heart toward the God of their fathers.

2 Kings 12:3 All his days Jehoash did what was pleasing to the LORD, as the priest Jehoiada instructed him.

2 Chronicles 24:2 All the days of the priest Jehoiada, Jehoash did what was pleasing to the LORD.

2 Kings 14:3-4  [Amaziah] He did what was pleasing to the LORD, but not like his ancestor David; he did just as his father Joash had done.  However, the shrines were not removed; the people continued to sacrifice and make offerings at the shrines.

2 Chronicles 25:2 [Amaziah] He did what was pleasing to the LORD, but not with a whole heart.

2 Kings 15:3-4 [Azariah/Uzziah] He did what was pleasing to the LORD, just as his father Amaziah had done. However, the shrines were not removed; the people continued to sacrifice and make offerings at the shrines.

2 Chronicles 26:4 [Uzziah] He did what was pleasing to the LORD just as his father Amaziah had done.

2 Kings 15:34-35 [Jotham] He did what was pleasing to the LORD, just as his father Uzziah had done.  However, the shrines were not removed; the people continued to sacrifice and make offerings at the shrines.

2 Chronicles 27:2 [Jotham] He did what was pleasing to the LORD just as his father Uzziah had done, but he did not enter the Temple of the LORD; however, the people still acted corruptly.

2 Kings 18:3-4 [Hezekiah] He did what was pleasing to the LORD, just as his father David had done. He abolished the shrines and smashed the pillars and cut down the sacred post.

2 Chronicles 29:2 [Hezekiah] He did what was pleasing to the LORD, just as his father David had done.

Sirach 48:22 For Hezekiah did what was pleasing to the Lord, and he kept firmly to the ways of his ancestor David, as he was commanded by the prophet Isaiah, who was great and trustworthy in his visions.

2 Kings 22:2 [Josiah] He did what was pleasing to the LORD and he followed all the ways of his ancestor David; he did not deviate to the right or to the left.

2 Chronicles 34:2 [Josiah] He did what was pleasing to the LORD, following the ways of his father David without deviating to the right or to the left.

While several kings are commended for doing what was right or pleasing to the LORD, only Hezekiah and Josiah receive the further commendation ככל אשר־עשה דוד אביו they did “according to all that [their] father David did”. On the other hand, some kings are singled out for not following David:

1 Kings 11:4-6, 31-33 [Solomon] He was not as wholeheartedly devoted to the LORD his God as his father David had been. Solomon followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Phoenicians, and Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. Solomon did what was displeasing to the LORD and did not remain loyal to the LORD like his father David …  I am about to tear the kingdom out of Solomon’s hands … For they have forsaken Me; they have worshiped Ashtoreth the goddess of the Phoenicians, Chemosh the god of Moab, and Milcom the god of the Ammonites; they have not walked in My ways, or done what is pleasing to Me, or kept My laws and rules, as his father David did.

1 Kings 15:3 [Abijam] He continued in all the sins that his father before him had committed; he was not wholehearted with the LORD his God, like his father David.

2 Kings 14:3-4  [Amaziah] He did what was pleasing to the LORD, but not like his ancestor David; he did just as his father Joash had done.  However, the shrines were not removed; the people continued to sacrifice and make offerings at the shrines.

2 Kings 16:2-4 Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. He did not do what was pleasing to the LORD his God, as his ancestor David had done, but followed the ways of the kings of Israel. He even consigned his son to the fire, in the abhorrent fashion of the nations which the LORD had dispossessed before the Israelites. He sacrificed and made offerings at the shrines, on the hills, and under every leafy tree.

2 Chronicles 28:1-4 Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. He did not do what was pleasing to the LORD as his father David had done, but followed the ways of the kings of Israel; he even made molten images for the Baals. He made offerings in the Valley of Ben-hinnom and burned his sons in fire, in the abhorrent fashion of the nations which the LORD had dispossessed before the Israelites. He sacrificed and made offerings at the shrines, on the hills, and under every leafy tree.

There appears to be a consistent theme here which determines whether or not a king was commended for being like David, and that is how they dealt with shrines and the worship of other gods. So a king could be commended for doing what was right in the sight of the LORD, yet if they tolerated shrines and sacrifices to other gods they missed out on the added commendation of being like David. This may very well provide a clue for why David was chosen and Saul was ultimately rejected, for while Saul was initially chosen by God, was the LORD’s anointed, had a heart for God, sacrificed regularly and ‘religiously’ and was in many ways a good king, and while his son Jonathan was potentially a good successor, the dynasty of Saul was rejected in favour of David’s. Subsequent kings were judged on whether or not they rid the land of shrines (possibly even including shrines to YHVH in competition with the Temple in Jerusalem) and their tolerance of worship of other gods.

While David was guilty of very serious breaches of the commandments (adultery and murder) according to 1 Kings 15:5 he did “what was pleasing to the LORD and never turned throughout his life from all that He had commanded him, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite”. Whatever David did that was right it was able to “cover a multitude of sins” (to use the words of one New Testament writer in a different context) and to enable God to overlook some very serious wrongs. Were subsequent kings judged by a similar standard? Is it possible that in the final summation of their reigns they were judged solely on the twin criteria of how well they preserved the Jerusalem Temple as the place of central worship, and whether or not they rid the land of other shrines?

David, and God’s heart (2)

In a previous post about 1 Samuel 13:14 I suggested that the Hebrew כִּלְבָבֹו is better translated as “according to his own heart” rather than “after his own heart” so the sentence then reads “the LORD has sought a man according to his own heart [or, will]” meaning simply that Saul’s successor would be a man chosen by God rather than being a comment about the moral character or “heart” of the man so chosen.

Acts 13:22 records a speech by Paul  where he cites this text in 1 Samuel: ‘When he had removed him, he made David their king. In his testimony about him he said, “I have found David, son of Jesse, to be a man after my heart, who will carry out all my wishes.”‘ (Εὗρον Δαβὶδ τὸν τοῦ Ἰεσσαί ἄνδρα κατὰ τὴν καρδίαν μου ὃς ποιήσει πάντα τὰ θελήματά μου). It has been suggested to me that Paul’s citation raises several interesting issues, the most obvious being that Paul is not actually quoting Scripture, or at least no Scripture that we know. These words do not appear anywhere either in the Hebrew Bible or the ancient Greek translation known as the Septuagint. They seem to be a conflation (or mix) of three different biblical texts:

  • Psalm 88:20 “I have found my servant David; with my holy oil I have anointed him” (Septuagint: Εὗρον Δαυιδ τον δουλον μου εν ελαιω αγιω μου εχρισα αυτον. The corresponding Greek of Acts 13:22 is Εὗρον Δαβὶδ)
  • 1 Samuel 13:14 “The LORD sought a man according to his own heart” (Septuagint: και ζητησει κυριος εαυτω ανθρωπον κατα την καρδιαν αυτου. The corresponding Greek of Acts 13:22 is ἄνδρα κατὰ τὴν καρδίαν μου)
  • Isaiah 44:28 “[The LORD] says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall carry out all my purpose‘”. (Septuagint: ο λεγων κυρω φρονειν και παντα τα θεληματα μου ποιησει.  The corresponding Greek of Acts 13:22 is  ὃς ποιήσει πάντα τὰ θελήματά μου)

The words in blue are those loosely quoted by Paul. The first two texts are about David, and the third is about Cyrus, a Persian king. Paul does not quote any of the texts precisely but appears to loosely select words from all three and then blend them together to create a sentence which does not appear anywhere else in the Bible as we have it.

So is Paul misquoting Scripture? It is highly unlikely that Paul had ready access to written copies of the Scriptures while travelling. We don’t know what scrolls the synagogue in Antioch may have had or what access Paul had to them, but we can be certain that Paul did not have the three different scrolls containing 1 Samuel, Psalms and Isaiah in front of him and he wasn’t able to turn up the pages of a Bible like we can. He was undoubtedly quoting from memory so it is not unexpected that his quotations were imprecise.

It would not be unreasonable, or unusual, in a homily to combine two or more different texts on the same subject. In fact, Hillel’s fourth rule of interpretation is known as בנין כתובים משנ אב ‘constructing a leading rule from two passages’. There are several examples of this rule being followed in New Testament texts. For example, Paul argued elsewhere by quoting two texts from the Pentateuch that Christian ministers should be supported financially: ‘For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain” … Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel’ (1 Corinthians 9:9,13-14 quoting Deuteronomy 25:4 and Deuteronomy 18:1-8). New Testament citations of the Hebrew Bible often follow exegetical methods which are similar to the rabbinic use of Scripture. However, in Acts 13:22 Paul seems to go beyond the rabbinic ‘rules’ for interpreting Scripture by adding a third text about Cyrus and applying it to David. The New Testament writers use Scripture in a similar way elsewhere. For example, Matthew quotes a text about Israel coming out of Egypt and applies it to the family of Jesus who were refugees in Egypt (Matthew 2:15, citing Hosea 11:1 ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’). This raises some interesting questions about quotations of the Hebrew Bible or the Greek Septuagint in the New Testament which are worth further exploration.

Was David “a man after God’s own heart”?

I’ve frequently heard it said that, according to the Bible, King David was “a man after God’s own heart” and that despite his serious moral failures (adultery and murder among them) his heart was, after all was said and done, “in the right place” and this somehow compensated for his major faults. But is it actually true? Does the Bible really say that David was “a man after God’s own heart”?

The text that is quoted in support of this claim is Samuel’s words to King Saul in 1 Samuel 13:14 “You have done foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which he commanded you. The Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel for ever, but now your kingdom will not continue; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart; and the Lord has appointed him to be ruler over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.” The story goes on to tell us how David was the man who was chosen to replace Saul as King of Israel, so it’s perfectly natural to read this as meaning David was “a man after [God’s] own heart”.

But the Hebrew doesn’t necessarily read the same way as the English:

בִּקֵּשׁ יְהוָה לֹו אִישׁ כִּלְבָבֹו

The word כִּלְבָבֹו is better translated as “according to his own heart” so the sentence then reads “the LORD has sought a man according to his own heart” (the prefix כ means as, or according to) and a similar expression appears in 2 Samuel 7:21 where כְלִבְּךָ is translated into English as “according to your own heart”, the translators there correctly translating כ as “according to”.[1]

In Hebrew the “heart” is what we would call the “mind” – the seat of thought and intelligence. In other words “according to your heart” means “according to your mind, or will” and “according to God’s own heart” means God has sought out someone in accordance with his mind, or someone chosen by his own free choice.

Interestingly, a similar expression occurs in the Inscription of Nebuchadnezzar where the king refers to himself as “I his eldest son, the chosen of his heart” (column 5, lines 21, 22).

So the point of 1 Samuel 13:14 is that Saul’s successor would be a man chosen by God, by his own free choice, and it says nothing about the moral character or “heart” of the man so chosen.

________________________

[1] The ‘virtually unanimous trend in recent scholarship … understands the phrase “after [Yhwh’s] own heart” in 1 Sam 13:14 as a statement about Yhwh’s choice rather than David’s character’. (Benjamin J. M. Johnson, “The Heart of Yhwh’s Chosen One in 1 Samuel”  Journal of Biblical Literature Volume 131, Number 3, 2012). See also P. Kyle McCarter Jr, I Samuel: A New Translation with Introduction, Notes and Commentary (AB 8; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980), 229.  Since McCarter very few scholars have followed the traditional interpretation.