A SHADY ARGUMENT FOR THE AFTERLIFE
The Hebrew word rephaim occurs in the Old Testament a total of eight times. The words origin is thought by many to come from the Hebrew word raphah which means to sink. In its use, the word has been translated into the English words; dead, departed spirits, spirits of the dead, shades, or ghost. In several cases, the word serves as a poetic synonym for the Hebrew word muth which means to die or the dead. (see Isa. 26:14; Ps. 88:11) The word is used in figurative, poetic language to speak of the dead or a corpse. The Jewish virtual library says’ “the Hebrew and Phoenician use of rephaim as “shade, spirit,” however, remains problematic. Various attempts have been made to discover an underlying etymology which would account for the development.”
The word rephaim is associated with other Hebrew words such as the grave (Sheol), destruction, (abaddon), going to the pit (bowr), sinking, not coming back to life, not being alive, and being forgotten. In one or two cases the use of the word rephaim is used poetically or figuratively to personify or anthropomorphise a dead body which otherwise would not have movement. A comparable example of this would be in the book of Genesis when God says that the blood of Abel speaks from the ground. We know that the blood of a person does not communicate verbally once spilt on the ground, but we still understand what is being communicated.
Scholarship has been divided on the interpretation of the word rephaim. Some contend that the eight uses of this word provide a solid case for the idea that the Israelite’s believed in a disembodied afterlife much like their neighbouring Near Eastern religions and cultures. While others have suggested that the use of this word is simply a synonym for speaking of the dead. Does the Biblical word rephaim give support to the idea of the immortal soul? These scholars argue that it does because it proves the existence of an intermediate state in which humans survive death in an immaterial underworld.
In his book “Body, Soul and Life Everlasting”, John W. Cooper makes a positive argument for the afterlife, justifying his case by the use of the word rephaim. Cooper concedes that Biblical words like nephesh and ruach should not be used to argue for the existence of an afterlife. He states, “the terms nephesh and ruach ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’, do not denote personal immaterial entities which survive death.” He then turns to discuss the texts that use the word rephaim but quickly concedes their poetic nature and moves on to argue his case by stating that Israel’s practice of necromancy proves their belief in an intermediate state. Cooper believes that the practice of necromancy is valid proof that the Israelites believed in the living dead and appeals to the story of the ‘witch of Endor’ as validation of his belief. However, this line of argument seems to fall short. It could easily be suggested that proving the Israelites practised necromancy (which they did) doesn’t prove it is possible or that anything happens during its practice. The Israelites also worshipped false gods and idols, and most Biblical scholars don’t suggest that as a result of their false worship, we should believe in these false gods.
Circling back then he claims that “the rephaim are neither soul nor flesh”, but he doesn’t explain how he proposes these rephaim exist in Sheol as neither soul or flesh. He also contends that “most Jews were holistic dualists…they believed that souls, persons, existed temporarily without bodies but that both “parts” will be reunited for eternity.” Here Cooper seems to contradict himself claiming on one hand that people become rephaim upon death and are neither body nor soul, and at the same time he claims the Jews believe the dead existed in an afterlife as souls or nephesh.
Cooper is not alone. Robert Morey, in his book “Death and Afterlife” also sees the use of the term rephaim as support for justification of the afterlife. Morey adamantly declares, “at death man becomes a rephaim, i.e. a ‘ghost,’ ‘shade,’ or ‘disembodied spirit’ according to Job 26:5, Ps 88:10, Prov 2:18, 9:18, 21:16, Is 14:9, 26:14, 19. Instead of describing a man as passing into nonexistence, the Old Testament states that man becomes a disembodied spirit. The usage of the word rephaim irrefutably establishes this truth.” Paul R. Williamson also argues for a post mortem existence in his book “Death and the Afterlife: Biblical perspectives on ultimate questions”. Williamson adds, “the fact that even the lifeless and weak rephaim of the Biblical texts tremble before Yahweh (Job 26:5) implies that they were thought to have some degree of post-mortem existence.” Regardless of how a rephaim is described, as a spirit, a soul, or neither, all three of these authors all come to the same conclusion, that the rephaim are conscious people that live in Sheol, which they take to be the realm of the dead.
The scholarship on the topic is not unanimously in favour of the previously stated views. While some like Morey believe the use of the word rephaim is a slam dunk argument for a disembodied afterlife, other scholars conclude quite the contrary. For instance, Philip S Johnston, in his book “Shades of Sheol” provides several reasons why we should not take the use of the word literally. Johnston first reminds his readers that the rarity of the word’s usage, eight times in the Old Testament, should be taken into consideration when building a doctrine of the intermediate state. Next, he reminds the reader that the relevant texts in question are all poetic in nature. This is common knowledge and even pointed out by Cooper himself. Third, Johnston says that none of the texts in question describe the rephaim engaging in any post-mortem activity. He points out that the inanimate dead are said to have no contact with the living.
Some may jump quickly to the story of Samuel, Saul and the witch of Endor for support. However, the word rephaim is not used in this text and the word used to describe what the witch sees Elohim is used to describe God and spiritual beings such as angels, not humans. Finally, he adds that the word is used to refer to all people both the wicked and righteous, respectively as seen in its usage in Isaiah. (see Is. 26:14 and 19) This point is important because Biblically speaking; all people go to Sheol. So, however, one defines Sheol; they must apply it to the fate of all people who die.
Samuele Bacchiocchi agrees with Johnston in his book “Immortality or Resurrection”. Bacchiocchi rightly points out the parallelism in the texts. The words rephaim and the ‘dead’ are used synonymously as we will see when we examine the texts for ourselves. He also says that if the dead are roused or awakened, then they have been previously asleep and not conscious. This would put the text in agreement with the many others that describe death metaphorically as sleep. Bacchiocchi says that the metaphor of ‘giving birth’ that is employed by the author means something that didn’t exist is coming into existence or back to life. Bacchiocchi says, “nowhere does the Bible speak of the resurrection as a reunification of the body with the spirit or the soul” Scripture consistently speaks of the resurrection of the dead, and not the reunion of a body and soul or body and spirit. Finally, he suggests that the term ‘dust dwellers’, refers to the Hebrew word aphar which is the same word used in several other texts that describe man’s death as returning to dust or the non-existence from which we came. (see Gen 3:19)
A third author and scholar, Basil F. C. Atkins also thinks the use of the word rephaim should be interpreted synonymously with the dead, and it should not be interpreted as ‘shades’ which suggests a disembodied spirit. In his book “Life and Immortality: An examination of the nature and meaning of life and death as they are revealed in the scriptures” Atkins says, “there is nothing in any of the occurrences that obliges us to put the meaning ‘shades’ upon the word rephaim, and it seems unreasonable to force it upon it in the face of the combined and consistent testimony of the rest of scripture.” All three of these scholars Johnston, Bacchiocchi, and Atkins, come to the opposite conclusion of the initial three scholars that we examined.
Let’s take a look at the eight texts that contain the Hebrew word rephaim and see if we can draw some conclusions.
- DEATH IN THE BOOK OF JOB
Main point: there is no escaping God’s presence.
In the twenty-sixth chapter of Job, the author discusses the greatness of God and the fact that nothing can be hidden from him. There is no doubt that the book of Job is poetic. Some scholars suggest that the entire work is meant to be taken as a non-literal narrative. Here the writer declares that God sees even the dead.
“The dead (rephaim) tremble under the waters and their inhabitants.” (Job 26:5)
While the dead are said to tremble, this does not necessarily infer that they are alive. Other objects such as mountains or rocks are said to tremble or shake Biblically speaking. The idea is expanded on by the author, which helps bring clarification to the thought that is intended. The text states that Sheol (the grave) is naked (Hebrew- arom) before God, and destruction (Hebrew- abaddon) has no covering. Here the author describes the dead as naked and destroyed. Job speaking of his death also says, “Naked (arom) I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there.” (Job 1:21) The reference to nakedness and exposure reminds us of the Genesis account where we read “and the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:25). Later we see that Adam and Eve cover themselves because of their shame, but God still sees them. This same idea is declared by the Psalmist, who says, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the dawn, If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea.” (Psalm 139:7-9). The point both authors are driving home is that you cannot escape the presence of God. Both Job and the psalmist place dead bodies in the depths of the sea, far out of sight from any human eye, but God still sees them.
- DEATH IN THE PSALMS
Main point: the dead don’t praise God
In the eighty-eighth Psalm, David is seeking salvation from God, so he doesn’t die. David contemplates his death and cries out to God for deliverance.
“Will you perform wonders for the dead (muth)? Do the dead (rephaim), rise up to praise you?” (Psalms 88:10)
David laments about his foreseen death drawing several parallels between Hebrew words, as a good songwriter does. David, a man who is passionate about praising God, laments because praise, which is his heart’s passion, will not be possible once he is dead. Let’s take a look at how David describes death.
Location: the psalmist describes the location he is going to by saying:
- My life is drawing near to Sheol (the grave)
- I am going to the pit (bowr)
- Forsaken among the dead (muth), like the slain lying in the grave (qeber)
- Will your loving-kindness be declared in the grave? (qeber)
A common argument employed by those who believe in a conscious intermediate state is that different Hebrew words are used to describe the grave versus the disembodied spirit underworld. However, at least, in this case, David uses the following words as synonymous; Sheol (the grave), pit (bowr), grave (qeber). David does not distinguish these three places but sees them as three ways of describing the same place.
Description: David describes this place he is going in the following ways:
- People who go there are remembered no more
- They are cut off from your (God’s) hand
- They do not declare gods faithfulness because they are destroyed (abaddon)
- It is a place of darkness
- It is a land of forgetfulness
David the Psalmist does not paint a desirable picture of his death. In the text at hand, he uses the word in question nephesh as a synonym for the Hebrew word muth which is translated the dead. In essence, David is asking, “will God perform a miracle and raise the dead?” Sheol is described as a place cut off from God with no activity or life. David also describes the fact that the rephaim are destroyed (abaddon) just like Job in the previous text.
3-5. DEATH IN THE BOOK OF PROVERBS
Main point: warnings that foolishness leads to death
The word rephaim is found three times in the book of Proverbs. In all three instances, the word is used to employ a warning to the living that their activity in this life is leading to death. The author implements the use of the word as a warning to the living to change or avoid a certain behaviour. None of the three occurrences describes the rephaim as conscious or engaging in an activity. The word describes a dead person.
The first warning is in regards to the adulteress woman. The writer says:
“her house sinks down to death (muth), and her paths to the dead (rephaim), none who go to her come back, nor do they regain the paths of life.” (Proverbs 2:18)
The proverb explains that the dead are in the house of the adulteress woman. The woman’s ways lead to death. In this context, the dead are not spoken of as active in any sense. The proverb provides no home for an afterlife or even a resurrection. Death is portrayed as the opposite of life, and the warning is to avoid behaviour that leads to an early death.
The second text is a warning against the woman ‘Folly’. The proverb says:
“But he does not know that the dead (rephaim), are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.” (Proverbs 9:18)
Just as the adulterous woman’s path leads to death, the dead are said to be in the house of the woman ‘Folly’. The proverb points to the fact that foolishness will lead to death. Again, the dead are not spoken of as active in any sense. All the text says is that the dead are in Sheol.
The third and final warning contrasting the actions of the righteous and wicked. The Psalmist says:
“The acquisition of treasures by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor, the pursuit of death. (rephaim).” (Prov. 21:6)
The point that is being conveyed is that being dishonest and stealing from people will lead to death. The action that is spoken of is the action of someone living that will lead to death. Again, the dead are not spoken of as active in any sense. This concludes the three warnings found in the book of Proverbs. There seems to be no contextual support for translating rephaim as shades or proposing the word supports a disembodied afterlife in Sheol.
6-8. DEATH IN THE BOOK OF ISAIAH
Main point: the wicked die, the righteous are resurrected
The first song found in Isaiah is described as a “taunt against the king of Babylon”. The text in question reads:
“Sheol beneath is stirred up to meet you when you come; it rouses the dead (rephaim) to greet you, all who were leaders of the earth.” (Isaiah 14:9)
Isaiah describes that this song will be sung about the King of Babylon. First, we might ask, should the words of this song be taken literally? If so, we run into problems in the immediate context of the text. In the preceding verse, verse eight, Isaiah says that “the trees rejoice”. How are we to understand trees literally rejoicing? If, however, this phrase is not to be taken literally what justification do we have for taking verse eight figuratively and verse nine literally. The preceding verse leads the interpreter to believe that the dead will not literally ‘stir up to meet’ the king or ‘rouse to greet’ him and the author is not speaking literally.
Some scholars believe that this text is speaking of the end times, the resurrection of the dead and the final destruction of Satan. If this is the case, a literal translation of resurrection would make more sense. Translating the text this way, the rephaim are active and alive as a result of resurrection, not because they exist in a disembodied afterlife. Many believe that verse eight describes the fall of Satan to earth. The prophet Daniel also describes stars which are believed to be angels that fall from heaven. (Daniel 8:10). This is similar to Luke’s description, where he describes “Satan fall from heaven like lightning.” (Luke 10:18) The book of Revelation describes this event by saying:
“And there was war in heaven, Michael and his angels waging war with the dragon. The dragon and his angels waged war, and they were not strong enough, and there was no longer a place found for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.” (Revelation 12:7-10)
If this text is not about the resurrection and the destruction of the Satan and the wicked, Isaiah’s description of the dead leaves little room for believing the rephaim exist alive in any way in Sheol. Isaiah says that “maggots are laid as a bed beneath you, and worms are your covers”. Here we see a description of decomposition and decay as the worms eat the rotting corpse. Isaiah also says, “you are brought down to Sheol (the grave), to the far reaches of the pit (bowr).” Again, like the other texts, we see the parallelism of the words Sheol and bowr, which is the grave for a physical body. It seems then that taken figuratively as a song, or literally, either as an end-times text or not, the use of rephaim does not lend itself to the support of a disembodied afterlife.
The final two uses of the Hebrew word rephaim in the Bible are found in the twenty-sixth chapter of Isaiah. Isaiah begins the chapter by saying, “in that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah”. (Isaiah 26:1) This opening is similar to the previous text found in. Isaiah seems to have in mind the “day of the Lord” when the dead are raised, judgement takes place, and Gods kingdom of shalom is established on earth. In the previous chapter, Isaiah speaks of this same day saying:
“He will swallow up death for all time, And the Lord God will wipe tears away from all faces, And He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth; For the Lord has spoken. And it will be said in that day, “Behold, this is our God for whom we have waited that He might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; Let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation.” (Isaiah 25:8-9)
Paul also spoke of this future day, saying:
“But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55)
The two texts that follow mention the rephaim speaking of the wicked in verse 14 and then the righteous in verse 19. The first text says:
“They are dead (muth), they will not live; they are dead (rephaim), they will not arise; to that end you have visited them with destruction (shamad) and wiped out all remembrance of them.” (Isaiah 26:14)
Once again, we see rephiam used as a synonym for the word muth, meaning the dead. We are told in the text that they will not rise because they have been destroyed. The Hebrew word used shamad literally means to be extermination or destroyed utterly. This verse establishes the context in which Isaiah will contrast the dead that don’t rise with the dead that will rise. In the second text, Isaiah says:
“Your dead (muth) shall live; their corpse (nebelah) shall rise. You who dwell in the dust (aphar), awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead (rephaim).” (Isaiah 26:19)
This final text reminds us that the dead are not living. Isaiah drives this point home by referring to the dead as nebelah, a carcass or corpse. Here the words muth, the dead and nebelah carcass are used to refer to the same people. Isaiah speaks of these people as those that dwell in the dust, Hebrew aphar. This reminds the reader of Gods promise in Genesis 3:19 that we are dust, and we return to the dust. It is important to note that the Biblical authors associate the dead person with their body and not with a conscious spirit or soul. The prophet Daniel also spoke of this day saying:
“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.” (Daniel 12:2)
Again, we see the language of the earth giving birth. We don’t hear Isaiah speaking of spirits rejoining their bodies. The people are identified not as spirits, or shades, or souls but as their bodies, as corpses. Isaiah describes a resurrection from the dead, not a reunion of body and soul/spirit.
In conclusion of examining the texts that contain the Hebrew word rephaim, I see at least five strong reasons why the word should be understood to be referring to dead bodies and not immortal, immaterial souls or spirits. First, the word rephaim is used strictly in poetic and proverbial language with half of its occurrences being found in songs. Second, the word rephaim is used in parallel as a synonym of the Hebrew word muth. Third, Sheol is described as a physical place where dead bodies go. Fourth, the inhabitants of Sheol are description as inactive and decomposing. Finally, the description of a rephaim leaving Sheol seems to indicate the resurrection of a body and not a reunion of body and spirit or soul.
- Rephaim is used strictly in Poetic and Proverbial language, including three songs.
The word rephaim is used in three songs, once in Psalm 88 and three times in Isaiah in two different songs. One half of the word’s usage is found within a song. Three of the other four uses are found in Proverbs as a warning against activity that will lead to becoming a rephaim. Finally, the book of Job uses the word poetically to imply that nothing can hide from the presence of God.
- Rephaim is used in parallel as a synonym of the Hebrew word muth.
In three out of eight uses of the Hebrew word rephaim, the word is used in parallel as a synonym for the Hebrew word muth which describes the process of dying or refers to the dead. The parallelism of muth with rephaim points to the fact that the rephaim are not seen as conscious disembodied souls or spirits, but dead physical bodies that have returned to the dust as a result of the loss of the breath of life. Let’s review the three verses that draw this parallel:
Psalms 88:10 “Will you perform wonders for the dead (muth)? Do the dead (rephaim), rise up to praise you?”
Isaiah 26:14 “They are dead (muth), they will not live; they are dead (rephaim), they will not arise.”
Isaiah 26:19 “Your dead (muth) shall live…….the earth will give birth to the dead (rephaim).”
When we examine how the word muth used in the first several chapters of the book of Genesis, we get a very clear picture of what death is. Understanding the meaning of the Hebrew word muth helps us understand what the Biblical authors meant when they used the word rephaim. Here we see the following progression of narrative thought. First, God warns Adam and Eve that disobedience to his warning will lead to death. Next, Eve repeats this warning with a slight variation to the serpent. The serpent responds by stating the exact same Hebrew phrase that God speaks, but he adds a negative participle to the truth claim and by doing so lies to Eve. As a result of disobedience, God in judgement declares that death is a return to the dust from which man was made. The next several uses of the word become a repetitive chorus in Genesis chapter five of people who die. This chorus comes to a crescendo in Genesis chapter seven when everything that lives and breathes on the earth dies in the flood except for the people and animals saved by the ark built by Noah. Here is the progression of the use of the word from the creation account to the flood:
“but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it dying (muth) you shall die (muth).” (Genesis 2:17)
Eve repeats God’s warning:
“but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die (muth).’” (Genesis 3:3)
“Then the serpent said to the woman, ‘dying (muth) you shall not die (muth).’” (Genesis 3:4)
Death (muth) defined:
“In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, For out of it you were taken; For dust you are, And to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19)
Death begins to take its toll:
“So all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years; and he died (muth).” (Genesis 5:5)
(See also where all these men die (muth): Seth 5:8, Enosh 5:11, Cainan 5:14, Mahalalel 5:17, Jared 5:20, Methuselah 5:27, Lamech 5:31)
“And all flesh died that moved on the earth: birds and cattle and beasts and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, and every man. All in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, all that was on the dry land, died (muth).” (Genesis 7:21-22)
- Sheol is described as:
- A pit- bowr
- A grave- qeber
- A place of darkness
- A place of no return
In summary, Sheol is described synonymously with words that define the grave or a place where a body goes when they die, not a place where a disembodied soul or spirit goes.
- Inhabitants of Sheol are described as:
- Dust- aphar
- Naked/exposed- arom
- Destroyed- abaddon
- Exterminated- shamad
- A corpse- nebelah
- Not remembered or forgotten
- Cut off from God
- Eaten by maggots
In summary, the inhabitants of Sheol are not described as active, conscious or performing any activity. All of the language used points to the decomposition of a physical material body.
- The description of a rephaim leaving Sheol is the process of resurrection:
- Rephaim who are asleep are awakened.
- Rephaim who are dead come alive.
- Rephaim, who are a corpse, rises from the ground.
- Rephaim who are dead are birthed from the earth.
In summary, the description of a rephaim leaving Sheol is a portrait of people who are embodied and dead, not disembodied and conscious.