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"Shades of Sheol"

Shades of Sheol
November 27th, 2017

The book is very readable, and its arguments are quite clear; even the more technical aspects (kept at a minimum it seems) can be followed with relative ease for a non-expert (if you get confused read it one or two more times, you'll probably get it then). Moreover, the summaries at the end of each chapter aid greatly in understanding what our author, Philip Johnston, is saying.

I like the cover as well.
What is he saying, what are his conclusions? Perhaps most surprising is that the OT writers weren't particularly concerned with what the afterlife was like. This can be seen by comparing what they wrote on the Underworld and how frequently they wrote about the nature of the after life with the ANE generally. Their details are rather sparse and they find few occasions to discuss it, or to shed further light on the topic. No detailed mapping out of the underworld, description of the various entities that governed it and operated there, no developed thought on the powers of the spirits of the dead and how they could affect the living. In fact, what they did say ran contrary to much of what the ANE was saying.

To the OT writers, the underworld or realm of the dead was a place of inactivity and overwhelming weakness. Those in it were mere 'shades', who, if one wanted to contact them in necromancy, had to be awakened, thus indicating that their typical state was sleep-like. The dead were powerless to affect the living, and indeed, they couldn't do anything, even praise God. (Though, the underworld was 'naked' before God, and his power was present even there.)

What of Sheol? What is it? Who goes there? 'Sheol' is a name for the underworld, but given how and why its used, it doesn't refer to the underworld per se. Rather it is the underworld seen as the fate for the wicked and those under divine censure. Now, does that mean that the wicked only go to the underworld? More on that later.

Before we turn to the ultimate fate of the righteous and wicked, let's take a note to see further what this book says of how Israel interacted with the dead. In Orthodox Israelite religion there was no need to interact with them. Worshiping them (as in the cult of the dead) or contacting them (in necromancy) was prohibited.[1] Some Israelites evidently left food for the dead (for their journey to the underworld, not continually as some pagans did), and this practice is mentioned neutrally.[2] But, again, it is something in addition to - even if not inimical to - orthodox Israelite thought. And, even those two prohibited practices are only mentioned (and often there condemned) occasionally, not frequently. Even in their apostate lapses, Israel wasn't particularly interested in the dead.

Now, what of the righteous - do they go to the underworld or no? is Sheol their dwelling place? Many psalms seem to indicate that they expected to be delivered out of Sheol, which they viewed as a most unwelcome fate. However, most of these only refer to deliverance from premature death, not 'ultimate' deliverance from death and the underworld. However, as implied, some seem to envisage that their communion with God will continue on after death; though, what exactly this entails is not spelled out. (But keep in mind that Sheol is presented as a place where the dead do not praise God.)

As time progresses, the idea of resurrection is developed. Some allege that this is largely due to pagan influence - perhaps from interaction with Persian religion during and after the exile to Babylon. However, this is quite unlikely, and in any event unnecessary. Israel had plenty in its own religion and experience to explain the development of resurrection into their theology. First, they knew - and as time went on, more keenly understood - that Yahweh is the sole and all-powerful God, and so that life and death were within his power: he could kill and could make alive. Moreover, in their history they had three recorded resurrections (or revivifications, returns to mortal life) performed by Elijah and Elisha by God's power. And, their constantly being devastated and restored as a nation was the background against which the imagery of resurrection was first employed. From there the natural development was individual and eschatological resurrection. Individual in that it was individuals - and not the nation as a whole in a metaphorical sense - being raised up; and eschatological in that this would not be a return to mortal life, but to perpetual life, and that this would take place at the end of history. This was the idea that was beginning to emerge as the OT comes to completion. During the intertestamental period further speculations were made, but it was left to the NT to flesh out this further - confirming or rejecting as the case may be various intertestamental speculations, drawing out the implications in the OT further - particularly in the case of Jesus Christ.

[1] Necromancy was seen as effective, however.

[2] The practice per se is not condemned, only the using the food used for this purpose in the tithe is.

This post first appeared on Witness Seeking Orthodoxy, please read the originial post: here

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"Shades of Sheol"


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