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This essay describes a common liberal interpretation of the beliefs of the ancient Hebrews concerning life after death. A conservative interpretation is explained elsewhere on this web site.

bullet Judaism before 623 BCE. The ancient Israelites originally followed a polytheistic religion; their beliefs were identical to other Semitic peoples. The dead were believed to have led type of shadowy existence under the earth, without energy, and separated from God. People worshipped both their ancestors in the underworld and many Sky Gods in heaven.
bullet Judaism from 623 to 586 BCE: from the introduction of monotheism to the Babylonian captivity. Belief in the gods of the underworld and ancestor worship ended. Polytheistic belief was abandoned. Yahweh alone is worshiped. They continued to believe that the dead lead a shadowy, totally isolated existence under the earth in Sheol, cut off from their relatives and from God.
bullet Judaism from 586 to 332 BCE: from the Babylonian captivity to the Greek invasion: Zoroastrian religious ideas are incorporated into the Jewish beliefs about Sheol. The faithful dead are viewed as being resurrected, to live a second life in a cleansed Jerusalem for 500 years. Then, they die, are annihilated, and are no more.
bullet Judaism during and after the Greek occupation. All the dead will be resurrected. They will be judged by God and sent either to an eternal reward or never-ending punishment. The Christian religion, having been founded by Jews, continued much of this belief system.

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Beliefs in Israel, up to 623 BCE:

Centuries ago, scholars coined the term "Semitic" to refer to a group of civilizations in the Middle East which originally shared a similar language, culture and religion. These included the Assyrians, Babylonians, Canaanites, Hebrews, Phoenicians, etc. Prior to the official introduction of monotheism in ancient Israel by King Josiah in 623 BCE, Jewish beliefs about their Gods, the universe, and life after death appear to have paralleled closely those of the other Semitic cultures. The people interacted with the many "sky gods" in heaven and the "infernal deities" in the underworld:

bullet The universe was conceived as consisting of 4 layers: a more or less flat earth floating on water, large caverns under the earth, a sky in the form of a dome over earth, and a heaven above the dome. Multiple "sky gods" resided in heaven. A set of infernal deities lived under the earth, ruled over by a deity named "Mot".
bullet At a person's death, their soul went to live underneath the earth, in a place called Sheol, or "the Pit" or "Earth." (A person's "soul" was believed to represent both their body and spirit).
bullet Various English Bible version translate the Hebrew word "Sheol" as Grave, Hell or Pit; some leave it as Sheol.
bullet Some of the dead became minor deities in Sheol. Their descendents who placed regular offerings of food and water on their tombs would reap blessings from these gods. Those who ignored their ancestors would be ignored or even harmed as punishment.
bullet The dead who received regular offerings from their descendents occupied the upper levels of Sheol, where life was easier. Those who were not remembered sank lower in the depths of the Pit. Those who had been improperly buried were sent to the lowest, most unpleasant area.
bullet The people worshiped multiple sky gods in public rituals.  They also communicated with the gods of the netherworld in private, family rituals in which their ancestors were venerated.
bullet The dead could also be accessed through necromancy. 1 Samuel 28:7-20 describes how King Saul persuaded a medium at Endor to contact the spirit of the deceased Samuel in order to predict the future.
bullet If some favor was to be asked of the gods by the entire nation or community, the the priests conducted a public ritual. Adequate rain to grow the crops, or victory over neighboring tribes were common examples. If a favor for a family or an individual was sought, then a private ritual was conducted, to seek support from some of the inhabitants of Sheol. A long life and many children were common examples.
bullet The dead of all nations and all walks of life were sent to Sheol. There was no judgment day. All individuals ended up in Sheol after death - both those who had led a righteous and those who were evil while on earth. See Genesis 42:38 and Numbers 16:30-33.
bullet They believed that the inhabitants of Sheol were abandoned forever:
bullet A Psalm for the Sons of Korah petitions God to save the writer from his expected death. " life draws near To Sheol. I am reckoned among those who go down to the Pit; I am a man who has no strength, like one forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom thou dost remember no more, for they are cutoff from thy hand." Psalms 88:3-5
bullet "You [God] restored me to health and let me live...In your love you kept me from the pit of destruction...For...those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness." Isaiah 38:16-18. (NIV)
bullet Since the plight of the dead was so discouraging, ancient Israelites believed that God rewarded a righteous man with a long life and many offspring. This is mentioned frequently in the Hebrew Scriptures, including  Psalms 127:3-5.
bullet The ancient Hebrews had no concept of heaven. The dead who had led the most righteous lives were not taken to be with God after death. (Enoch and Elijah were exceptions. They were directly taken up to heaven to be with God. They never died; they never went to Sheol). See Genesis 5:24.
bullet Most writers of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) portrayed Sheol as a grim place. Its inhabitants were seen as living a type of shadowy existence for all eternity. It was dark. "The dead existed without thought, strength, or even consciousness." 1
bullet Sheol is not at all related to the Christian Hell. There is no unending torture of humans there; just a ghostly existence. In its original form, there was a great deal of interaction between people living on earth and the inhabitants of Sheol.

This essay continues below.

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Beliefs in Israel, 623 BCE to 586 BCE:

During the 8th century BCE, the Assyrians had reduced Israel to the status of two vassal kingdoms. Some religious leaders viewed this oppression as an indication that they were following the wrong spiritual and religious path. They formed a religious reform movement which scholars now call "Yahweh-alone." This movement raised the status of Yahweh, then perceived as a wind god -- one of many deities -- to the status of the national God of Israel. Although the existence of other sky gods were acknowledged, only Yahweh was to be worshiped. Similarly, interaction with the gods of the underworld was totally discontinued. Ancestor worship was abandoned. The conquering and subsequent destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE by the Assyrians was interpreted by this movement as proof that Yahweh was displeased. King Hezekiah (728-699 BCE), ruler of the Southern Kingdom, attempted to reform the Jewish religion by incorporating "Yahweh-alone" concepts. His "covenant code" appears in Exodus 20:23 to 23:19. It starts with a strong declaration of monotheism. Exodus 22:20 states that anyone found sacrificing to a god other than Yahweh is to be destroyed. Exodus 22:29-30 in effect repeals the previous Semitic custom that the eldest son's prime responsibility was to care for his parents in their old age, see that they are properly buried, and then venerate them after their death. The son's new responsibility is strictly towards God, from the eight day of his life.

King Hezekiah's reforms were not fully implemented until King Josiah announced in 623 BCE that Yahweh was the only god to be worshiped. 2 Kings 22:8 to 23:28 describes how Hilkiah the high priest found the long lost "book of the law" in "the house of Jehovah." This was subsequently authenticated by Huldah the prophetess. The "words of the book of the covenant." were read to the people. Then followed one of the most dramatic examples of religious intolerance in the Hebrew Scriptures. The King ordered all of the temple vessels, altars, idols and other equipment that was used in the worship of Pagan gods and goddesses to be destroyed. The Israelites were worshiping Asherah, Baal, Chemosh, Milcom, Molech, the sun, the moon, the planets etc. at that time, in addition to Yahweh. The Pagan priests were slaughtered. Houses of  prostitution associated with these pagan temples were destroyed.

Although the Hebrews were permitted to leave food and drink at the tombs of their ancestors, all other rituals for the dead were abolished.

Sheol continued to be portrayed as a grim place where people went after death. The belief persisted that its inhabitants lived a type of shadowy existence for all eternity. Their interaction with the living which was frequent in the earlier polytheistic days was absolutely terminated.  Theirs was:

bullet A "land of gloom and deep shadow... where even the light is like darkness." Job 10:21-22 
bullet "...the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward..." Ecclesiastes 9:5.
bullet " the grave [Sheol] where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom." Ecclesiastes 9:10.

The dead were totally isolated from their living descendents. In the 5th century BCE, the author of the book of Job wrote how a dead father was unaware whether his sons were successful or not:

bullet "His sons come to honor, and he knoweth it not; And they are brought low, but he perceiveth it not of them." Job 14:21

All spiritual and religious focus was concentrated on the one God, Yahweh.

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Beliefs in Israel, 586 BCE to 332 BCE:

The Babylonian army conquered the Southern Kingdom in 586 BCE. Jerusalem was destroyed. The Israelites were taken into captivity to Babylon. There, they were exposed to Zoroastrianism, a religion based on the teachings of the Persian prophet and religious reformer, Zoroaster. His date of birth has been variously estimated from 600 to 6,000 BCE. He was the first known person to conceive of a package of religious beliefs, including:

bullet A final judgment will be held of each individual's soul after death;
bullet Heaven exists as a place of reward for the soul of those who have led good lives, faithful to God;
bullet Hell as a place of mild punishment for the soul of the others;
bullet An eventual battle between an all-good God and an all-evil Satan in which God wins;
bullet The earth would be cleansed of all impurities;
bullet Peoples' bodily resurrection, involving the rejoining of body and soul;
bullet People living on a cleansed earth, forever.

The first Jewish writer to incorporate some of the ideas of Zoroastrianism was the prophet Ezekiel. He was a prophet from the Southern Kingdom of Judah whose ministry lasted from circa 593 to 570 BCE. Ezekiel prophesized doom on the countries surrounding Judah, and on the eventual restoration of Jerusalem, including the rebuilding of its temple. He incorporated the Zoroastrian concept of bodily resurrection in which the dead are restored to life, to live again on a purified earth. In Ezekiel 37, the prophet describes a typical Zoroastrian funeral ground. (The Zoroastrians did not bury their dead, but laid the bodies out on the surface of the earth, so that the scavenging animals and birds will pick the bones clean. The animals left behind a land covered with a scattering of dried-out human bones.) Ezekiel continues by describing a Zoroastrian vision of the resurrection: Jehovah reassembles the bones, adds sinews, flesh and skin. Finally God puts breath in the bodies so that they might live again.

A belief among Jewish writers of the time was that only the faithful would be resurrected and restored to live in the newly purified Jerusalem. The faithful dead would be released from Sheol. According to the Book of Enoch, they would live a comfortable life on earth for 500 years. (Enoch was written during the inter-testamental time between writing of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.) Whatever difficulties that the resurrected had experienced before dying would be more than compensated for by half a millennium of peaceful existence. Eventually they would die, be annihilated, and be no more.

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Beliefs in Israel during the Greek occupation:

After the invasion of Palestine by Alexander the Great and his conquest of Israel in 332 BCE, the Hellenization of the Jewish people began. 1 This process reached a peak about 169 BCE under Antiochus.  Jewish thought absorbed many Greek theological beliefs. One was the belief -- a radical concept to the Jews at the time -- that all people would not be treated equally at death. Some would be rewarded while others were punished. The wicked would be consigned to different locations from the honorable. The blasphemers would be sent to a cursed and flaming gorge. The selection criteria appears to be totally based on the individual's deeds while on earth.

The book of Daniel appears to have been written approximately 165 BCE, probably as an effort to raise morale among the Jewish guerrilla fighters during the time of the Maccabean revolt. Some of the books of the Apocrypha also date from this time, or later. Some passages illustrating this new concept of eternal life are:

bullet Daniel 12:2: A description of some of the dead awakening to be judged and sent to their eternal reward or punishment is found in the book of Daniel: "many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to everlasting life and some to the reproach of eternal abhorrence."  (REV) Unfortunately, Daniel does not discuss what happens to the third group of individuals -- those who remain asleep.
bullet Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9: This is one of the books in the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha is a collection of books written during in the inter-testament time between the writing of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. They are recognized as scripture by the Roman Catholic church and some Orthodox denominations. This book was written circa 50 BCE, during the period of Hellenistic influence. It describes that: "...the souls of the just are in God's hand; no torment will touch them...they are at peace...they have a sure hope of immortality; and after a little chastisement they will receive great blessings...They will be judges and rulers over nations and peoples, and the Lord will be their King forever."   H.N. Richardson commented on this passage: "The death of the righteous is only an illusion. In reality, they will possess everlasting felicity, share in the government of God's kingdom and enjoy his love." 2 Verse 9 describes how "the godless will meet with the punishment their evil thoughts deserve, because they took no heed of justice and rebelled against the Lord."
bullet Wisdom of Solomon 5:15: "...the just live forever; their reward is in the Lord's keeping, and the Most High has them in his care." (REV)
bullet 2 Maccabees 7:9-14: This is another Apocrypha book. King Antiochus was attempting to force the Jews to abandon the Mosaic Code by eating pork, not observing the Sabbath etc. One man, while being tortured to death said: " are setting us free from this present life, and the King of the universe will raise us up to a life everlastingly made new, since it is for his laws that we are dying." His brother said to the king: "Better to be killed by men and to cherish God's promise to raise us again! But for you there will be no resurrection."

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  1. Russell Shorto, "Gospel Truth," Riverhead Books, New York, NY, 1997. Page 65 to 80
  2. C.M. Laymon, Ed., "The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible," Abingdon Press, Nashville TN, (1991), Page 546

Copyright 1997, 1999 to 2001 incl. and 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2004-MAR-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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