The Old Testament Belief in Life After Death

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Life and death, and much more, life-after-death constitute issues that we may never completely comprehend with our limited human intellect. The question of the possibility of an afterlife is one to which most religions have had to provide answers. Judaism, as a religion, at some point in its history had to confront this question. The aim of this essay then is to point out how the Israelites, as a religious people, came to answer this question of the possibility of an afterlife. We would notice as we progress in this essay that the ancient Jewish belief about an afterlife is one of progression from despair of survival after death to a reassuring hope of Yahweh’s justice and power to preserve the souls of the righteous from torment.

The Israelite Conception of Life
The concept of life that we find in the Old Testament is one that is strongly theistic. Life, first and foremost, for the Israelites of the Old Testament era, is to be understood as a gift of God. Life is God’s own creation. With the creation of the universe and all that lives in it came life. The Israelites, undoubtedly from their creation account, understood the universe as the work of God. If the universe and all that is contained in it, including man, is the work of God, then life is not something man has by virtue of himself, but something that is given him, namely a gift. The Israelites believed that man did not just begin to exist spontaneously. Man had an origin. This origin is to be located in Yahweh, the God of the Israelites. Man, as well as woman, is the creation of Yahweh. Thus, to be alive is to have been created by God.

In as much as this exillic (or probably, post-exillic) creation account of the Israelites speaks of life as Yahweh’s handiwork, the Israelites, from their experiences, saw the ephemerality of this life. Hence the psalmist declares:Yahweh, what is human being for you to notice, a child of Adam for you to think about? Human life, a mere puff of wind, days as fleeting as a shadow. [NJB Psalm 144:3-4]

It was in the consciousness of the Israelites that the only kind of life worth living is a life of fidelity to the one true God, Yahweh. As a convenanted people, they believed that the good life consisted in keeping the laws and precepts of Yahweh. Moses’ farewell message to his people sheds light on what the Israelites held to be the right attitude to life: obedience to the laws and precepts of Yahweh. To his people, Moses offered two options, namely life and prosperity on the one hand, death and disaster on the other hand. He enjoined his people to embrace life and prosperity by way faithfulness to Yahweh (NJB Deuteronomy 30: 15-20). Accordingly, the Israelite conception of life was shaped by their relational experience with Yahweh.

The Attitude of the Israelites Towards Death
Death is an inevitable end for man. The Israelites of the Old Testament period knew this much because of their experience over time with the phenomenon of death. In general, the Israelites see death as the normal term of life, hence, they only ask that they be allowed to live out their days in peace. But they elicited varied reactions to the phenomenon of death. Otto J. Baab has postulated that the common form of attitude towards death was that of indifference. He considers this manifest in the following instances, among others: the struggle between Jacob and his brother, Esau, for their dying father’s blessing without minding the fate of their dying father (Gen. 27); Moses’ defense for the established priestly order by a reaction of destruction, without sympathy or pity, against the 250 laymen that revolted against the priestly hierarchy (Numbers 16:30); and Cain’s remorseless attitude towards the death of his brother, Abel, whom he killed. The attitude of indifference here is that of blatant disregard for what becomes of the victim of death, or better still, an attitude of life-goes-on with or without the deceased.

Another form of attitude...
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