Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 5 (2004-2005) - Review

Philip S. Johnston, Shades of Sheol: Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002).  Pp. 288.  Paper, US$22.00.  ISBN 0-8308-2687-4.

            This volume builds upon Johnston’s 1988 Belfast MTh thesis and his 1993 Cambridge PhD dissertation, but constitutes a substantial reworking and expansion of that material.  The result is a comprehensive study that is accessible to non-specialists without sacrificing extensive interaction with scholarly literature on the subject.  The material itself is organized under four main categories: Death, The Underworld, The Dead and The Afterlife.

            The first two chapters discuss Death in the Old Testament and in Ancient Israel respectively.  The Hebrew Bible reflects a diversity of views, so it is difficult to identify a single understanding of death, but it was viewed as the natural end of one’s life and an early death was unwelcome.  Death was not a common means of reuniting with those already deceased: the phrase “gathered to his peoples” is only used of the patriarchs, Moses and Aaron, while “slept with his fathers” was originally used of royalty; although it later became more widespread, by then the phrase simply connoted a peaceful death.

            The ancient Israelites had a variety of mourning customs.  Initial reactions to death included weeping, ripping clothes, wearing sackcloth, sleeping on the ground and going barefoot; the latter two reflect an identification with the situation of the deceased.  Such actions were generally accompanied by fasting (perhaps followed by a feast), stylized lamentation and a simple funeral ceremony conducted by the immediate family, with internment on family land, often in caves.  Burial sites frequently contained bowls and jugs but Johnston finds no evidence of ongoing provision of food and drink for the dead.

            The most common term for the Underworld itself is Sheol but even it appears infrequently.  The term never appears in third person narrative nor legal material, but only in first person contexts: i.e., an individual encounters Sheol directly and personally.  Clear synonyms include bôr, ʾēr, and šaat (all meaning “pit”) and ʾăbaddôn (“destruction”); Johnston also considers a number of texts in which either earth\ground or water may also be synonyms for Sheol but concludes, “Water, like earth, is associated with the underworld, but is not confused with it.” (p. 124).  Descriptions of Sheol are sparse, but it is a place where existence simply continued, without any vital experience for the dead.  The term itself may have derived from the god Šu-wa-la, mentioned in texts from Emar, who is either a minor underworld deity or another name for Ereshkigal, the Queen of the underworld, but any divine associations had been lost by the Israelite period.

            The Dead themselves are called either ʾʾîm (usually translated “shades”) or, rarely, “gods.”  In the Hebrew Bible, in addition to ʾʾîm meaning the dead, it also refers to certain ancient peoples (e.g., Gen 14:5; 15:20; Deut 2:11, 20) and possibly some later Philistines (e.g. 1 Chron 20:4, 6, 8) but the connection with the dead is confirmed by the Ugaritic texts as well as two Phoenician and one Punic inscriptions.  As for the term “gods,” three texts use it to mean the dead: Psalm 106:26 understands the Moabite gods in Numbers 25:2 to be the dead, “gods” rise from the underworld in 1 Sam 28:13 and Isa 9:19 uses the term when describing the people consulting the dead.  On the other hand, Johnston rejects such a connotation in 2 Sam 12:16; 14:16 and Isa 19:3.

            Since necromancy is prohibited in a number of texts Johnston concludes it was not widespread in ancient Israel.  He argues that texts such as 1 Sam 14:31; Isa 28:7-22; 46:1-9; 65:4 may refer to necromancy, but even if they do it is not the central concern, and that clear instances like 1 Samuel 28 are aberrations that do not reflect “mainstream” Israelite practice or belief.  Similarly, the dead were clearly honored in ancient Israel, as witnessed by respect for the body, kinship names, memorial pillars and sacrifices, etc., but these practices do not constitute worship of one’s ancestors, and Johnston finds all proposals in this regard unconvincing.

            Finally, Johnston address the question of an Afterlife, a late development in Israelite religious thought.  Although Elijah and Elisha bring dead children back to life, Enoch “walked with God” and Elijah ascended in a flaming chariot, none of these were considered normal nor hoped for by others.  The only clear references to bodily resurrection occur in Isa 26:19 and Daniel 12:2; extra-biblical references to resurrection (e.g., 2 Macc 7; 14; 1 Enoch 51:1; 61:5; 62:15, 4Q521:12, etc.) date from the 2nd century BCE on, which is consistent with the date of the two biblical texts.  Despite afterlife beliefs in the surrounding nations, however, Johnston finds little evidence of direct influence and instead claims that Israel’s eventual belief in an afterlife is rooted in its experience of YHWH’s faithfulness and ongoing presence in their history, eventually understood as extending beyond death itself.

            While Johnston is to be commended for the breadth of his study, his treatment is coloured by the presupposition of a “yahwistic orthodoxy” from early in Israel’s history: “yahwism was or should have been the norm, unlike [Israel’s] neighbours” (p. 17).  Specifically, since he considers monotheism characteristic of the pre-exilic period (e.g., pp. 69, 221, etc.), any belief or practice contrary to monotheism is either misunderstood by scholars or non-Israelite.  Thus, he frequently concludes a chapter by asserting that the ancient Israelites were more interested in YHWH than death or the dead or the underworld, etc. (see, e.g., pp. 46, 65 and 124 respectively).  But the majority of scholars date Israelite monotheism to the 7th-6th century BCE at the earliest, in which case Johnston’s evaluation of the material is based on a form of yahwism that did not exist at the time of at least some of the texts he is discussing.

            Johnston’s desire to make “orthodox” faith in YHWH determinative sometimes leads to an unbalanced evaluation of the evidence.  For instance, as noted above, he views the prohibitions against necromancy as evidence that it was rarely practiced in Israel, and on the rare occasions it was done, he considers it heterodox.  However, many scholars would take the opposite approach, arguing that laws are usually formulated in response to actual practice.  Thus, the fact that a practice is condemned suggests that it occurred frequently enough to come to the legislator(s)’ attention.  Similarly, he argues that since grave offerings are not condemned they must be compatible with yahwism, and therefore cannot constitute veneration of the dead.  This fails to consider that an early, non-monotheistic form of yahwism may have allowed for ancestor worship.  Johnston’s ultimate conclusion concerning grave offerings may well be correct, but is based on shaky grounds.

            More problematic is Johnston’s view of individual fates.  He claims that “those destined for Sheol are predominantly the ungodly . . . . identification of the underworld with the wicked is paramount” (p. 81) whereas “the righteous only envisage Sheol when they face unhappy and untimely death, which they interpret as divine punishment” (pp. 81-82, emphasis added).  Psalm 89:48-49 and Qoh 9:7-10 are presented as the only two exceptions where Sheol awaits all (see pp. 82-83).  In other words, faith in YHWH entails a separate fate from those without such faith, and the latter’s fate is a form of punishment.  This comes close to asserting a notion of hell without quite doing so, and to be fair, Johnston does not suggest a comparable “heaven” for the righteous.   However, his evaluation of the righteous in relation to Sheol is incorrect.  While those in question do see Sheol as a negative thing, that is because it is linked to an early death.   Contrary to Johnston, there is nothing in the texts he lists on p. 80 (Gen 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31; Job 14:13; Ps 88:3; Isa 38:10) to indicate that the descent of those righteous individuals to Sheol is “divine punishment.”  In fact, in Job 14:13 Job asks that God put him in Sheol as a place of hiding from divine “wrath,” while the underlying premise of the entire book is that Job is a truly righteous individual and that what has happened to him is precisely not divine punishment.  At the same time, Johnston fails to consider texts such as Ps 139:8 where the pious psalmist’s resting in Sheol is not punishment, but rather a place of union with YHWH.  In short, Johnston’s perceived dichotomy in the fates of the wicked and righteous cannot be supported from the texts he himself cites.

            Thus, although Johnston’s treatment does deal with all the relevant texts and issues, his evaluation of the evidence is flawed at times.  As such, this book will not replace earlier works such as Theodore J. Lewis, Cults of the Dead in Ancient Israel and Ugarit (HSM 39; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989) and Brian B. Schmidt, Israel’s Beneficent Dead: Ancestor Cult and Necromancy in Ancient Israelite Religion and Tradition (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1996).  Indeed, Lewis and Schmidt have to be used alongside Johnston as an occasional corrective.

John L. McLaughlin
Faculty of Theology
University of St. Michael’s College