The Underworld And The Dead In The Old Testament -- By: Philip Johnston

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 45:2 (NA 1994)
Article: The Underworld And The Dead In The Old Testament
Author: Philip Johnston


The Underworld And The Dead
In The Old Testament1

Philip Johnston

The ancient Israelites, like almost every other people, believed in some form of afterlife. But the precise nature of their belief, the extent to which it affected their life and faith, and its development through time, remain subjects of scholarly discussion. This study focuses on certain key aspects, notably the abode of the dead, the dead themselves, and the significance of both for the living, as portrayed in the Hebrew Bible and indicated by archaeology.

Several widely accepted or increasingly influential views on the underworld and the dead are re-examined and modified or challenged. (i) Most scholars agree that the Old Testament portrays the underworld as the fate of all regardless of their moral or religious standing in life, in contrast with later Jewish and Christian views of differentiated post-mortem fate (ch. 1). (ii) Dahood, Tromp and others argue that there are many more Hebrew references to the underworld and that it therefore held a larger place in Israelite thought than had previously been acknowledged (chs. 2, 3). (iii) Pedersen, Barth and others argue that the underworld was envisaged as a great power overshadowing and invading life, and that many psalmists actually experienced being in the underworld (ch. 4). (iv) Much recent scholarship interprets archaeological and textual evidence to indicate a widespread recognition of and provision for the dead in pre-exilic Israel (chs. 5, 6), emanating in necromancy (ch. 7) and the cult of the dead (ch. 8).

The Underworld

שְׁאוֹל (šĕ’ôl), the uniquely Hebrew term for the underworld, has a distinctive pattern of occurrence which is rarely noticed. Only occasionally is it used in general reference, description or personification, while in nearly two-thirds of the relevant texts (41/66 times), it indicates human fate, that to which the ungodly are consigned (25 times) and which the godly wish to avoid (7 times). Seldom do the righteous envisage descent there, and only in circumstances which arguably were interpreted as divine judgment (7 times). Twice שׁאול is given as the destiny of all, but both texts are qualified, Psalm 89:48f. by the context of judgment and reference to life’s brevity and evil (שָׁולא) and Ecclesiastes 9:10 by hints elsewhere of post mortem judgment. Other less frequent underworld terms (שַׁחַת ,בּוֹר ,אֲבָדִּין) display a ...

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