Hebrew Thought of Life and Death

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Old Testament


What was the Hebrew thought of life and life after death? Did it change with time?


Unlike Christianity, which has a very well-developed theology on the afterlife, Judaism has no such uniform doctrine. And what is there seems to have been highly influenced by the effects of Hellenism during the Second Temple period. The Hebrew Bible is devoid of concepts such as the immortality of the soul, salvation of the soul, or a spiritual afterlife. These are Greek influences.

Regarding the afterlife, the Hebrew Bible talks about Sheol (Hades in Greek). It is sometimes referred to as the pit or the grave. It is a shadowy place where people stay after they have passed on from this life or "fallen asleep." It is not a place of punishment, though Yahweh is not there. No one comes back from Sheol. The person's identity remains, but they are, literally, a shadow of themselves. It is a diminished existence with no hope of any comfort or a future. Psalm 30:9 pretty much sums it up: "What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?" It is not a very positive or uplifting experience. The Greeks, on the other hand, believed that death released the soul that went forward to dwell in a forever, spiritual existence.

Judaism focuses on one's life, not one's death. It is in life that one could be obedient to God's commands. It is in life that one could praise God. It is in life that one could receive God's blessings and experience His promises. Yet, this also raises some difficulties for the faithful. If life on earth was the end all and be all, how does one understand the person who is living a righteous and good life but still suffering? The Book of Job wrestled with that question, as did the author of Ecclesiastes. Job remained faithful despite his circumstances; the Preacher recommended people "eat, drink, and be merry" during the short time they have on earth. Neither could give a definitive answer to the question as to why one should be righteous since all experience the same death eventually.

Things began to change during the Second Temple period. During the destruction of Jerusalem and the loss of everything held dear by the Hebrew people, the prophets began to refine the notion of retribution and individual responsibility. Enemy warriors and wicked kings were sent to Sheol; children would not be punished for the sins of their fathers. Ezekiel's vision of dry bones being restored to life was among the first attempts to describe a resurrection (see Ezek 37:1-14). The Apocryphal book, 1 Enoch, focused on punishment for the wicked/fallen angels.

Major advances continued throughout the intertestamental period. The arrival of Hellenism and Hellenistic principles resulted in Jews being persecuted simply for being Jews. Having to die for one's beliefs impelled people to think deeply about what they were dying for. The Book of Daniel, four centuries after Ezekiel, distinguishes between punishment for the wicked and resurrection for the righteous. Numerous other authors continued to explore the realm of the afterlife. At first, Sheol had separate regions for the wicked and the righteous, but it was not long before Sheol was reserved for the wicked while the righteous went to heaven/paradise.

Yet one should not think that all Jews embraced these developments. The Sadducees were notable for refusing to believe in any resurrection (or angels or demons). For them, the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, was the only authoritative work. Notions of resurrection were recent inventions and did not have the authority of scripture. At the time of death, they believed that the soul expired along with the material body.

During the first century, the Sadducees were the ruling power among the Jews. From their ranks came the high priest and, hence, control of religious law. Influenced heavily by Hellenism, they were very committed to maintaining the status quo, which certainly did not include any revolutionary beliefs about life after death. Nonetheless, the majority of Jews (including the Pharisees) embraced the idea. It had to do with their sense of justice. Life in the first century was so humanly difficult that a just God would simply have to provide some sort of recompense for the righteous. This concept was firmly entrenched by the time of Jesus, who held strongly to the hope of resurrection.

In the centuries that have passed since then, there has been much refinement of beliefs about the afterlife, but there is no one worldview. Some of the various factions among Judaism have intricate descriptions relating to punishments and rewards, but it mostly boils down to one concept: Obedience to the Torah and good deeds will be rewarded in the afterlife; unrighteous behavior will be punished. While the details may vary, the goal is to live a good life. L'chayim! To life!

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