Discuss the world of the dead and life after death in pre-Exilic Israel, with reference to funeral customs and necromancy. Your sources should include archaeology and what we know about the rest of the ANE.



The etymology of ¬šĕʾōl is unknown, but it is possibly from šʾl, having something to do with 'asking' or consulting with the dead. Sheol is used to describe the underworld and is unique among the designations of the netherworld in the ancient Near East. It is a realm below the earth (one is usually described as going down to šĕʾōl [Num 16:30; Job 7:9; Isa 57:9, etc.], also assumed in the designations šaḥat and bôr ‘pit’), where the dead went after death. In the HB, and in greater Syrian-Palestine as well as Mesopotamia, it was not an enviable condition or place of existence, often in parallel with ḥōšek ‘darkness’ (Job 17:13, Lam 3:6), dusty (Job 17:16; 21:26), and silent (Pss 31:17-18; 94:17). It is also a place where knowledge and memory are absent (Ps 6:5; Qoh 9:4-6,10) and one cannot praise Yahweh (Ps 6:5). It was a place of no return (Job 7:9) and described as having gates (Isa 38:10; Pss 9:14).

In the HB, it was considered inevitable. Not quite as negatively, death was also considered sleep and rest (Job 3:13). The afterlife was also a place where one gathered and rested with kin. The phrases “sleep with one’s ancestors” and “gathered to one’s people/ancestors.” This may have its roots in the practice of piling the bones of the deceased in a designated spot in the family tomb after the body had decomposed. The continued peaceful rest and sleep of the dead was dependent upon proper burial and its attendant rituals, and the maintenance of offerings to the dead on the property of one’s own ancestors.

The residents of Sheol could be referred to as ĕlōhîm (1 Sam 28) as well as rĕpāʾîm. Though most recognize that ĕlōhîm can refer to a divine being and is certainly not a negative term, there is dispute over the root and etymology for rĕpāʾîm. This may be related to rpʾ (“healing”) and highlight the power that the dead can have over the living. However, others argue that rĕpāʾîm are depicted as weak (Isa 14:10).

=Ancient Near EastEdit

The idea of the afterlife bears more similarities to the Syro-Palestine and Mesopotamia cultural spheres than Egyptian. The underworld in Mesopotamia was considered to be a walled and gated city that kept the dead from leaving ruled over by Ereshkigal queen of the dead (Gilgamesh also played a role as well). The KTMW stela found at Zincirli seems to indicate at there was a notion that the body and npš were separated at death, since KTMW's npš is placed in the stela.


Death was usually accompanied by tearing of clothes, weeping, and fasting (2 Sam 1:11-12). Sackcloth was also worn as well as ashes (Jer 6:26). Because some types of morning were prohibited (Deut 14:1), like baldness or gashing, these were no doubt practiced. There are plenty of attestations of cutting and shaving of hair as a sign of morning (Micah 1:16; Isa 15:2). Morning could last seven days (Gen 50:10) There were also professional mourners that could be paid to mourn at funerals (cf. Jer 9:16-17).


Proper burial was important for the deceased to find rest in the afterlife. A common punishment or curse was for the body to be exposed and eaten by carrion or animals, depriving them of burial and rest in the afterlife. Cremation was generally not practice in the First Temple period.

In archaeology, they often speak of primary or secondary burials. In primary burials, the body is not moved after initial internment. Primary burials include simple or pit graves, cist graves, jar burials, and anthropoid coffins. Simple/pit graves were dug into the earth or sand, whereas cist graves were lined with mudbrick or stone and sometimes had mudbrick or stones roofs. In jar burials, the deceased was placed inside a jar or possibly two in the case of an adult. Anthropoid coffins, contrary to previous thought that these were used by Sea Peoples, were used by Egyptians in areas controlled by them in the LB and Iron I (Stager, p. 366). Simple/pit graves, and jar burials are limited to lowland areas and are not attested in the highlands. Additionally, cist graves and jar burials reached their high in 12/11th centuries, but tapered off in use during the rest of the Iron age.

Secondary burials occur in rock cut tombs where the dead were initially placed on benches and then the bones were moved (hence the secondary) to another designated area to make room for other family members who have died. It is argued that this is where phrase “sleep” or “gather” to one’s fathers/ancestors come from. Stager and King claim that "most Israelites were buried in family caves and bench tombs" (p.365) Whereas Bloch-Smith notes "Simple burial has been commonly assumed to be the prevalent practice among people without the means for more elaborate arrangements" (p. 27), but there are no known examples of simple graves in the highlands. Thus, one may hold that because we don’t find simple graves that they we have just missed them, or that Iron age Israel didn’t use them. Common grave goods in the tombs were lamps, bowls and jugs, along with household and personal items.

Cult of the DeadEdit

The relationship between the living and the dead along with the rituals that might attend this relationship have gone by a number of names in modern scholarship, such as ancestor worship, veneration, maintenance, and the cult of the dead. Did inhabitants of Israel and Judah worship ancestor or consider them divine or semi-divine? Did they need offerings like gods or for some other reason? Schmitt and Albertz differentiate between cult of the dead (which presupposes the divine or semi-divine status of ancestors) and care for the dead (“beliefs and rite spracticed by living kinsmen with regard to deceased ancestors” (Albertz and Schmitt, p. 430)).

Few scholars would dispute that “care for the dead” took place in ancient Israel, though not all subscribe to the existence of a “cult of the dead.” Important evidence for the care of the dead is Deut 26:14, where the one offering tithes must confess that he has not eaten of the tithe in mourning, remove any while unclean, or “give of it to the dead.” This is not condemned in this passage, but appears merely as a stipulation for the tithe. Texts after the HB, such as Tobit refer to offerings to care for the dead, and it seems logical that this tradition is extends further back. It is not known if this occurred regularly, according to a calendar or was only occasional.

Some have interpreted 1 Sam 20:6 (“yearly sacrifice for the entire clan”) which David claimed he need to attend as ritual meal for ancestors. It is not entirely clear if this connected with the cult of the dead (offering to ancestors in similar way and place as to gods) as according to Toorn, or merely a showing of solidarity with the dead as according to Schmitt.

A ritual meal that has funerary connections is the marzēaḥ which is often considered to be a banquet or feast as part of a mourning rite. There is dispute on whether the mazrēaḥ is specifically a ritual meal for the dead or merely the location or a sponsoring institution of feasting. It is attested in LB Ugarit down to 3rd centuary CE Palmyra. Attestations in HB are Amos 6:4-7; Jer 16:5-9.


Throughout the ANE, a comfort of a person was in the afterlife was contingent upon regular offerings by one’s descendants. Gilgamesh Tablet XII is an Akkadian translation of the Sumerian "Gilgamesh and the Netherworld" which tells us about Gilgamesh's conversation with Enkidu after he has seen the underworld. Those with few or no sons had a sorry existence whereas the one with seven sons was "a companion of the gods." This is because there was no one to carry out the proper rituals of care and feeding. In Mesopotamia, those ghosts who had no one to care for them became angry and caused mischief and needed to be appeased through offerings.

The kispu-ritual is well-attested at Mari, and elsewhere that had regular offerings for deceased kings at the beginning and middle of every month. Another kispu-ritual from the OB period called "Geneaology of the Hammurabi Dynasty" not only calls deceased kings to come and eat and drink, but also soldiers who fell in battle and all ghosts who have no one to care for them. There is also a OB genealogy that preserves a kispu-ritual for a private person that extends a few generations. Important to kispu was the invocation of the name(s) of the deceased with a offering of food or drink. Scurlock says "in order to ensure that the ghosts actually received what was intended for them, it was customary to invoke their names while making offerings, A statue of the deceased could also serve to localize the spirit for the funerary offerings." Peripheral Mesopotamian sites such as Nuzi and Emar include the right to call upon the deceased’s “gods and dead” in wills, which may hint at a similar ritual.


Necromany, or what Schmitt calls “interrogating the dead,” was a way of accessing or communicating with the dead. There is only fragmentary evidence for this in the HB, but the clearest example is 1 Sam 28, where Saul consults Samuel through the baʿălat ʾōb (owner/possessor of an ʾōb). The ʾōb is thought be a pit, which allowed access to the netherworld. 2 Chronicles 16 possibly tells of King Asa attempting to consult the rĕpāʾîm instead of Yahweh. Isa 18:19-20 talks of ʾōbōt and yiddĕʾōnîm that could consult with ʾĕlōhîm (ancestral spirits). This data, though sparse, seems to accord with the greater Near East where the dead could be consulted for help or advice.


Albertz, Rainer, and Rüdiger Schmitt. Family and Household Religion in Ancient Israel and the Levant. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2012. Bloch-Smith, Elizabeth. Judahite Burial Practices and Beliefs About the Dead. Continuum International Publishing Group, 1992. Brichto, Herbert Chanan. “Kin, Cult, Land and Afterlife: A Biblical Complex.” HUCA 44 (1973): 1–54. Finkelstein, J. J. “The Genealogy of the Hammurapi Dynasty.” JCS 20 (1966): 95–118. Kennedy, Charles, "Dead, Cult of the" in ABD II:105-108 King, Philip J., and Lawrence E. Stager. Life in Biblical Israel. Library of Ancient Israel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001. p. 363-381 Scurlock, JoAnn, "Death and the Aftelife in Ancient Mesopotamian Thought," in CANE III:1883-1894 Xella, Paolo, "Death and the Afterlife in Canaanite and Hebrew Thought," in CANE III:2059-2070