This impressive collection of 27 articles is the result of an international conference on conceptions of death and the afterlife in the ancient Near East held in Leipzig in 2007. Already a quick survey of the volume shows that death was a central issue in ancient Near Eastern thought. The material evidence from 3000 to 1000 bce witnesses to various different concepts and cultural strategies that arose from reflection on death, dying, and what may happen afterwards. The papers gather insights from theological, religious-historical, archaeological, and iconographic perspectives. A particular strength of this collection is its relatively narrow thematic focus. Many articles revolve around the same texts, providing the reader with complementary approaches and insights to the same material. Given its immense length of over 700 pages, the following review will be restricted to brief abstracts of the individual contributions. The articles gathered here are subsumed under the following six categories:
1. The individual and his death—general aspects;
2. Good and bad death—on evaluating death;
3. Rituals of burial and mourning—coping with death through ritual, part 1;
4. Post-mortal existence—cosmological and theological perspectives;
5. Connections between the living and the dead—coping with death through ritual, part 2;
6. Conceptions of death and the afterlife in the ancient Mediterranean—comparative aspects.
Johannes Schnocks reads Psalms 88, 89, 90, 102, and 103 in regard to their statements on human mortality. His article “Vergänglichkeit und Gottesferne” shows that even though the limited lifespan of human beings is part of the divine order of creation, human transience and frailty are seen as a sign of God’s absence. For the psalmist in Psalm 88, the breaking down of life is an indication of God’s wrath. The fact that God’s relation to time is completely different than that of human beings remains an ambivalent fact for theological reflection. The psalms develop a response to this dilemma by calling for an approach to life that is able to see the enacting of God’s covenantal promises within mortal existence. At the same time, mortality is seen as an opportunity for God’s grace, as God knows the transience of human existence. This aspect is also at the center of Psalm 78, to which Schnocks unfortunately does not refer. He rightly points to Psalm 103 as a high point in the theological reflection on death and dying in the Psalter.
Job’s desire to die is a motif unique to the book of Job. Christian Frevel’s “Dann wär’ ich nicht mehr da” examines the role this motif plays in the book of Job’s overall rhetorical strategy. Job wishes for his death, yet at the same time he denies that God might grant this wish. The desire to die is best understood as an accusation against God, with which Job insists that God end the suffering he caused. Job argues that God would suffer a great loss through his death because God has no access to the netherworld (Sheol); his death would thus rob God of any chance to undo the injustice inflicted upon Job. Job does prefer death to his life of suffering. However, he ultimately hopes that God will restore justice to him in this life. Frevel’s detailed observations are a pleasure to read. It would also have been interesting to include an analysis of Job 3 and the question of Job’s cursing the day of his birth in his arguments.
According to Rüdiger Lux, “Tod und Gerechtigkeit im Buch Kohelet,” the concepts of dust and breath/spirit that close both the first (1–3) and second (4–12) main sections of Ecclesiastes are important structural components in the book. Chapter 3 ends with the skeptical question of whether there is any difference between the fates of human beings and cattle at death. The destination of their breath—be it to God or to dust—is unknown. Whereas death in chapter 3 remains the ultimate empirical boundary, Lux postulates that the end of Ecclesiastes modifies this view by moving beyond empirical verification. Here the text separates human existence into its mortal shell, which returns to dust, and into its breath/spirit, which finds its ultimate dwelling place with God. Lux considers it likely that Ecclesiastes is interacting with early Jewish and Hellenistic beliefs in the soul and may be connected through lines of tradition with Paul’s statement: “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
Talk of death in the Old Testament does not aim to overcome death, but rather to find some kind of arrangement that allows life in the face of death. One particularly striking way of talking of death is the personification of death as a character (Jer 9:20; Ps 49:15; Isa 25:8; 28:15, 18; Hab 2:5). In her article “Der Tod als Figur im Alten Testament,” Stefanie Gulde shows how such personification is also present in surrounding texts from the ancient Near East. Whereas death as an intruder and thief is a common motif, the images of death as a shepherd or death as covenant partner are unique to the Old Testament. Gulde points to the fact that these images remain intelligible up to the present and are thus witnesses to the strength of biblical metaphors. Although personified death may be a tool in God’s hand, death is always seen as negative and useless in itself. Death can, however, point to the greater power of God as the God of life as seen in the reversal of imagery in Isa 25:8: “He will devour death forever.”
In a concordant survey of Old Testament texts, Irmtraud Fischer’s “Ist der Tod nicht für alle gleich? Sterben und Tod aus der Genderperspektive” investigates whether death in the biblical texts has gender specific features. She compares men and women with regard to cause of death, rituals at the end of life, burial notices, and special social roles. In a concluding section she takes issue with the idea that women and death are related motifs.
Ute Neumann-Gorsolke and Annette Krüger both present detailed studies of specific Old Testament expressions. Neumann-Gorsolke shows how many texts point to the fear of dying an untimely death without offspring or honor. Several parallels to this fear exist in the surrounding literature. If death is unavoidable, it should at least be a good death that follows a good life. Such a good death is described as a life that ends “old and full of days.” This phrase, also known throughout the ancient Near East, is only used in connection with male characters in Genesis and the latest books of the Hebrew canon. Neumann-Gorsolke proposes that this phrase was coined within Priestly literature and was then adopted in Job and Chronicles. It ultimately points to God, whose presence is the decisive ingredient of a fulfilled life. Krüger examines the expressions “be gathered to one’s ancestors” and “lie with one’s fathers.” Following a canonical survey and syntactic-grammatical analysis, she compares these phrases to parallels in Mesopotamian and Egyptian literature and concludes that this concept originated in Palestine and may already be found in the Tel Dan inscription. In the Old Testament the expression “be gathered to one’s ancestors” is primarily found in Priestly literature. The older expression “lie with one’s fathers” is a feature of Deuteronomistic literature.
Even though Old Testament texts mention an ideal time span for a full life (Ps 90:10), Martin Leuenberger maintains that the richness of a life takes precedence over its length. Against this background his article, “Das Problem des vorzeitigen Todes in der israelitischen Religions- und Theologiegeschichte,” pursues the question of how reactions to untimely death developed in the religious history of Israel. Based primarily on a study of Psalms texts, he suggests a diachronic theological development from the early Iron Age to the Hellenistic period. Leuenberger describes how antagonism between YHWH and the sphere of death leads the praying subject to hope for God’s salvation from an untimely death in many early OT texts (Psalms 18; 30). In the late Iron Age, YHWH himself rules over death and thus becomes responsible for the curse of untimely death (Psalm 88). In the exilic-postexilic period, lament over untimely death is subsumed in the general lament over human transience (Psalms 39; 90). From the postexilic period to Hellenistic times, the despair over death is superseded by a belief in the afterlife (Psalms 49; 73; 22; Daniel 12; Isaiah 25).
Suicide is a very unusual form of death, also in the Old Testament. Jan Dietrich’s “Der Tod von eigener Hand im Alten Testament und Alten Orient” focuses on this specific topic. He distinguishes between suicide as escapism due to existential failure, military disaster, economic or social crisis, suicide as a result of a judicial verdict, suicide as aggression towards others, and suicide as a sacrificial action. The particular strength of this study is its collection of “case examples,” not only from the Old Testament but also from the wider ancient Near Eastern context. While suicide plays a similar role in various ancient Near Eastern texts, military suicide is hardly mentioned in Egyptian and Assyrian texts, quite in contrast to the biblical material. Dietrich interprets the various forms of suicide as particular biographical accents that carry specific meaning. Taking one’s own life is not done for the sake of death, but for the sake of honor in life.
Angelika Berlejung, “Bilder von Toten—Bilder für die Lebenden,” focuses not on texts, but rather on images of death and dying. Including a wealth of illustrations, her article demonstrates how images do not depict reality but rather construct it. The material she presents shows clearly that images of death do not instill compassion for suffering and pain; there is also no evidence for the depiction of peaceful, natural deaths. The images do not convey the general human experience of dying. Instead, the visually depicted deaths are the violent result of standing in the way of a human or transcendent power. We encounter pictures of contorted, limp bodies that are killed by soldiers or animals, executed, or presented to ruling gods. Very often, a ruler is depicted as standing over his dead or dying enemy. Death thus becomes a topic in the context of ruling power and triumphal victory. These images of death construct social roles, group boundaries, and conceptions of the enemy. In a binary interpretation of reality, they contrast the aggressive triumph of the victors with the contorted brokenness and submission of the vanquished. No attention is paid to maintaining a modicum of human dignity for those who are killed.
Jens Kamlah gives an overview over the archaeological evidence on burial practices in Israel and especially Judah from the Iron Ages. He discusses evidence from Tell es-Sa‘idiyeh, Tell el-Mazar, Beth-Shemesh, Tel ’Etun, Ketef Hinnom and several other sites. His main concern is whether the archaeological material reveals evidence of a death cult, and he concludes that there is no archaeological support for any kind of cultic ancestor worship in Israel or Judah. Yet the material points to several distinct burial rituals that at least indicate certain beliefs about the afterlife. It is clear that the role of family is central for all burial practices and that we can assume the belief in some kind of continued existence after death. The archaeological material is not able to give any more detail about how this existence was imagined.
The article “Trauerriten und Totenklage im Alten Israel: Frauenmacht und Machtkonflikte,” by Silvia Schroer focuses on rituals of mourning with an emphasis on the gender context of mourning and the restrictions on excessive mourning. The Hebrew Bible mentions a wide range of mourning rituals including fasting, tearing of garments, special clothing, abstinence from jewelry and cosmetics, walking barefoot, and covering one’s face and beard. The individual in mourning separates him or herself temporarily from the community of the living. These actions are often accompanied by additional rituals designed to lead the mourner back into this community. It is noticeable that women most often voice public lament; certain texts even speak of professional women of lament (Jer 9:16–20). This specifically female role is also supported by the iconographic evidence. Schroer notes that the written tradition changes this presentation and speaks of men as the subjects of death laments (David, Jeremiah). The restriction on lamenting contained in the Hebrew Bible include limitations of durations (seven days according to Sir 38:16–23) and the prohibition of cutting one’s skin and shaving one’s beard (Lev 19:27). These prohibitions find parallels in a Hellenistic context. Strict regulations also exist for the behavior of priests.
Faced with the difficulty that no single Ugaritic text speaks of the rituals surrounding the death of a king, Herbert Niehr, “Die Königsbestattung im Palast von Ugarit,” presents a valuable collection and analysis of the disparate written and archaeological material on this topic. It becomes clear that the death of a king was seen as inevitable, even though he was considered to be the son of El. Many rituals parallel those surrounding the burial of the god Baal by the high priest Ilimilku. After death the king was laid out, and the ancestors were invited to participate in mourning his demise. Only their assistance prepared the path for the king’s privileged status in the netherworld. This status allowed him to be addressed by his offspring and successors. In the face of scarce evidence from surrounding cultures, Niehr points to the importance of the Ugaritic material for Western Syria, Qatna and Kumidi, as well as the kings of Byblos.
Reinhard Achenbach, “Verunreinigung durch die Berührung Toter,” describes how the ambivalence surrounding contact with a corpse is not motivated by hygienic concerns. Instead, maintaining the purity of the sanctuary constitutes the background for restrictive interaction with corpses in the ancient Near East, including the biblical traditions. Although the separation of YHWH’s sanctuary and the area of burial practices implicated everyone, it was of special concern for priests and Nazarenes and gave rise to a host of purification rituals. Achenbach provides a detailed comparative analysis of various texts on this issue while demonstrating the differences in various traditions (especially Priestly vs. Deuteronomistic texts, as well as the book of Ezekiel). He concludes with a brief summary of comparable material from Greek and Persian contexts.
Certain Old Testament texts describe the netherworld as an area of separation from God. Others portray it as part of God’s sphere of influence. Recent scholarship has explained this tension as the result of a religious-historical development in which YHWH was increasingly given competence over the realm of the dead. Gönke Eberhardt, “Die Gottesferne der Unterwelt in der JHWH-Religion,” builds upon this thesis and suggests that this process began developing by the period of the early Monarchy and was influenced by beliefs in the surrounding world, resulting in a plurality of different concepts. Solar attributes create the cosmological framework enabling God to “see” into the realm of the dead (Prov 15:11; Job 38:16–17; Ps 18:15–16). Many praying subjects in the Psalms describe their existence in sickness or exile as being “in Sheol.” The experience that God as “God of the living” saves the individual from this ostracism leads to the belief that YHWH will also save the individual from the final ostracism of physical death. Eberhardt correctly points out that various lines of development do not result in a single outcome. Different concepts and motifs continue to stand side by side.
Where is the realm of the dead? This question lies at the center of Kathrin Liess’ article “ ‘Hast du die Tore der Finsternis gesehen?’ Zur Lokalisierung des Totenreichs im Alten Testament.” Many texts, not only from the biblical traditions, believe this realm to actually be under the earth (Ps 139:8; Amos 9:2). This localization leads to verbal usage of “descending” or “ascending.” Other texts imagine Sheol to be underwater (Job 38:16–18; Jonah 2:4–7). This vertical perspective, however, is not the only localization of Sheol. An important horizontal distinction is the tension between center and periphery. Whether located at vertical or horizontal extremes, the realm of the dead is separated from the realm of the living by gates, doors or other boundaries. These separations not only distinguish between the living and the dead; they also protect the living from the dead. For the Old Testament material, Liess emphasizes the dynamic and the spatial aspects of the realm of the dead. It is both a place unto itself as well as a force that can reach into the sphere of the living.
Klaus Bieberstein, “Jenseits der Todesschwelle,” and Bernd Janowski, “JHWH und die Toten,” examine the relationship between YHWH and death as well as the early development of resurrection hopes in the Old Testament and post-canonical early Jewish literature. Even though YHWH was originally considered to be a god of the living, the idea of God’s sovereignty over the dead had arisen by the time of early postexilic literature. At issue is the question of God’s justice towards those who had suffered and died unjustly (Ps 49:16; 88). Bieberstein presents various texts that struggle with the issue of who will be resurrected and why. His analysis also provides a valuable background to New Testament concepts of resurrection (1 Corinthians 15). Janowski traces how YHWH continued to be associated with additional competences that extended his power over the realm of the dead. This development was not monolithic and led to a plurality of religious beliefs and practices. He concludes that it is incorrect to assume that the Old Testament believed that death was the final end.
The importance and scope of remembering the dead stands at the center of two articles: “Totengedenken im Alten Testament” by Dagmar Kühn and “Totenversorgung, Totengedenken und Nekromantie” by Rüdiger Schmitt. Kühn points to the fact that remembering itself is a central issue for Old Testament thought; this is also true for remembering the dead. Her discussion includes the role of ancestors, of burial rituals, and memorials. Several memory rituals known from the cultural context of the Old Testament appear only at the fringes of the canonical texts. These include images of ancestors, gifts for or meals with the deceased, as well as intercessory prayer for the departed. She concludes that Israel did not have a problem with assuming a relationship between the living and the dead as long as the dead did not rise to a position of rivalry with YHWH. Schmitt also addresses the issue of communication between the living and the dead in the Old Testament but expands his focus to include archaeological evidence from Tell ed-Duweir, Tell en-Nasbeh, Hazor, and Caves I-III in Jerusalem, of which many illustrations are included in the article.
In an attempt to shed further light on the formation of the Hexateuch, Raik Heckl’s “Zur Rolle der Ahnen in der Grundkonzeption der Hexateuchüberlieferung” investigates the changing role of ancestor worship in the religious-historical development of Israel. He emphasizes that this development underwent many changes before culminating in exclusive worship of YHWH. It is thus not surprising that the texts contain traces of traditions that were suppressed along the way. He contrasts the burial narratives of Moses and the patriarchs and concludes that Exod 15:22–27 constitutes an early link between the patriarchal and the Exodus narratives. This connection was aimed at replacing a highly developed worship of the patriarchal spirits with the Moses figure, for whom such worship was made impossible by hiding the location of his final resting place.
In “Das Zerschneiden des Bandes zwischen den Lebenden und den Toten in der deuteronomisch-deuteronomistischen Literatur,” Jan Christian Gertz starts from the commonly accepted theory that the Deuteronomistic literature contests a widely-assumed connection between the living and the dead. He focuses on the reasons behind the cutting of this connection. Although the prohibition of such practices is most often connected to exclusive worship of YHWH and a centralization of cultic practices, Gertz warns against an all-too-simple model of a programmatic opposition between official temple theology and common family piety. Instead, he aims to understand the development of cultic practices surrounding death and dying within larger social and psychological changes.
The last section of the volume addresses comparative aspects between various Near Eastern cultures. Annette Zgoll, “Die Toten als Richter über die Lebenden,” focuses on possibilities of positive communication between the living and the dead in Mesopotamia. These possibilities include messages from the dead either as spontaneous or induced communication. Induced communications are either aimed at information or at action, particularly judicial action. Zgoll also describes the various details of this highly complex judicial process.
Similar to Neumann-Gorsolke, Daniel Schwemer’s “Tod, Geschick und Schicksalsgöttin” examines the misfortune of untimely death; in this case within a Babylonian context. For the Babylonians and the Assyrians, death was the proper and inevitable fate of all human beings. Untimely death, however, was an interruption of this proper outcome and often seen as the result of divine wrath. In an analysis of the ritual text Maqlû as well as several other shorter texts, Schwemer shows how defence rituals were created and executed to ward off severe illness and prevent such an untimely death, thus restoring the proper fate of the individual.
With an incredible amount of material that defies appropriate summary in the short space of a book review, Joachim Friedrich Quack, “Grab und Grabausstattung im späten Ägypten,” demonstrates a growing connection between funerary rites and the Osiris cult up to the Ptolemaic era. The article “Königsgrab und Herrscherlegitimation in Alt-Syrien im 2. Jahrtausend vor Chr.” by Joachim Bretschneider presents a survey of the archaeological findings from the burial sites in Tell Beydar, Ebla, Mari, Tell Bi’a, Qatna, and Ugarit.
Jürgen Zangenberg, “Trockene Knochen, himmlische Seeligkeit,” emphasizes that archaeological evidence is of utmost importance when reconstructing beliefs and practices surrounding death and dying. His study demonstrates a highly complex mix of different approaches to death that are both influenced by surrounding cultures as well as containing unique indigenous elements. One important conclusion is the fact that we cannot speak of a direct continuation between this complexity and resurrection traditions in the New Testament.
Each article includes its own bibliography. The massive volume concludes with a register of biblical and extra-biblical sources as well as subject and author indexes.