Philip S. Johnston. Shades of Sheol: Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic; Nottingham, England: Apollos, 2002.
I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this book. Click here to see InterVarsity’s page about it.
What happens to the dead, according to the Hebrew Bible? Do they all go to Sheol? Do they go to heaven or hell?
Someone recommended Johnston’s Shades of Sheol to me a while back. He said that Johnston’s argument was that, within the Hebrew Bible, the wicked dead were believed to go to Sheol, whereas the righteous dead were thought to rest with their ancestors. I was not convinced by this argument, to tell you the truth. For one, there were righteous people within the Hebrew Bible who seemed to go the Sheol, or who expected to go there. I think of Samuel (I Samuel 28:7) and Jacob (Genesis 37:35). Second, there were wicked people within the Hebrew Bible who were said to go to their fathers after they died. These include Jeroboam (I Kings 14:20), Omri (I Kings 16:28), and Ahab (I Kings 22:40). (My own reading of Johnston’s book ended up being a bit different from that of the person who recommended it to me: Johnston seemed to me to be arguing that the wicked dead in the Hebrew Bible went to Sheol, while acknowledging that some of the people said to rest with their fathers after death were wicked.)
At the same time, I had problems with the idea that the predominant view in the Hebrew Bible was that all dead people went to Sheol, whether they were righteous or wicked. There are Psalms that appear to depict Sheol as a place where the wicked go, and as a place from which the Psalmist desires God’s deliverance. Would that message make sense, if the Psalmist assumed that everyone ended up in Sheol sooner or later, anyway? I recently read Jon Levenson’s 2006 book, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel (see my review here). Levenson’s argument was that a prominent message within the Hebrew Bible was that only the wicked or those who died prematurely went to Sheol after they died, whereas the righteous lived a long, full life with lots of progeny.
Johnston’s arguments in Shades of Sheol overlapped a lot with those of Levenson in Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel, and this is not surprising, since Levenson frequently interacted with Shades of Sheol as a scholarly source. Here are examples of where they overlap:
—-Both Johnston and Levenson argue that Sheol was for the wicked dead or those who die prematurely, whereas the righteous within the Hebrew Bible often live a long, full life; the Psalmist, according to Johnston, feared Sheol because he believed that he himself was a sinner, who was suffering for some sin that he had committed.
—-Both both Johnston and Levenson question the notion that ancient Israelites were obsessed with death, noting that necromancy is not mentioned that often in the Hebrew Bible. Against those who contend that this was because later editors sought to expunge traces of paganism from the Hebrew Bible, Johnston (and Levenson, if I recall correctly) noted that other pagan practices are explicitly and frequently criticized in the Hebrew Bible that is before us, and so the relative dearth of references to necromancy indicates that it was not commonly practiced in ancient Israel, not religious suppression. For Johnston, the Hebrew Bible was largely preoccupied with this life rather than any hereafter.
—-Both Johnston and Levenson question the idea that the Jews inherited the concept of personal resurrection from the Zoroastrians, noting differences between the Jewish and the Zoroastrian concepts. For Johnston and Levenson, the concept of resurrection within Jewish religion was probably an outgrowth of earlier ideas in the Hebrew Bible: that God could bring life out of death. Neither Johnston nor Levenson argue that personal resurrection was a part of earlier ancient Israelite belief, for they contend that it was not. Yet, they maintain that personal resurrection may have developed from earlier ancient Israelite belief, which entailed God bringing life out of death (often figuratively, or with a broad understanding of death).
—-Both Johnston and Levenson appear open to the possibility that, within some of the Psalms, there was a belief in a blessed afterlife for the righteous.
There were differences between Johnston and Levenson, however. For one, Johnston seems more open to the possibility that the notion of personal resurrection could have become more popular due to the martyrdom that occurred in Maccabean times, as righteous people died prematurely and unfairly, and some looked to an afterlife as a place for justice and reward for the righteous. Levenson, by contrast, notes that writers in the Hebrew Bible prior to the time of the Maccabees acknowledged that righteous people died unfairly and prematurely, so why did the concept of personal resurrection not develop then? Johnston does not rest the origin of personal resurrection within Hebrew religion entirely on Maccabean times, though, for he appears to date parts of Isaiah 26 to the sixth century, and he believes that there may be some movement in Isaiah 26 towards personal resurrection. But Johnston seems to me to be more willing than Levenson to grant an important role to the Maccabean times in Hebrew religion’s acceptance of personal resurrection.
Second, Johnston’s book was much more encyclopedic than Levenson’s book was. My impression was that Johnston interacted with more biblical texts, ancient Near Eastern concepts, archaeology, and previous scholarly arguments than Levenson did. Levenson interacted with these things, too, but Johnston did so more (or so it seemed to me). Levenson’s book was more pleasant for me to read, yet Johnston’s book was fuller in terms of information.
There were still questions that I wished that Johnston had addressed, at least more fully. For example, why have people consulted the dead for information? Why was there a cult of the dead? Were the dead deemed to be more knowledgeable or powerful than the living? If so, why? In addition, the book would have been better had Johnston addressed in more detail why Samuel seemed to be from the underworld, if primarily the wicked went there.
Overall, however, this was a good book, and I am glad to have finally read it.