We’re at the point now in our intermittent forays into the biblical realm of the dead to flesh out (again, pardon the pun) who’s who in the Underworld. I noted at the start that I wanted to start with the term metim to see if that term spoke of the human dead, as opposed to non-human spirits. More precisely now, I wanted to see if the term was distinct from ʾôb / ʾôbot. I think a good case can be made for that, and so now I’m ready to make a working list of the inhabitants of the Underworld. I’ll be bringing in terms I’ve not discussed thus far, so be prepared for that. Here they are:
1. The human dead
- This is by far (and perhaps exclusively) the referent of the term metim.
- This term, then, would be a term that, in contexts that describe an ongoing afterlife in the Underworld / realm of the dead, would describe a ghost-the spirit of a departed dead person. Term number also describes a human ghost.
2. The dead kings of old / the dead Rephaim
- This category presents a difficulty, and so we’ll be discussing it further. Rephaim could of course die, so it is no surprise that the word metim is used in connection with them. There are questions to address with respect to the Rephaim: (a) should they be viewed as merely and only human or, since they are also one of the giant clans that descended from the nephilim,1 should they be viewed as part human and part divine; (b) when one of the Rephaim was killed, should the departed spirit be viewed as a demon? This was the view of 1 Enoch, for example (demons are specifically said to be the departed spirits of the nephilim giants); (c) are there any biblical texts that have the Rephaim not only as the dead warrior kings of old, but as demonic spirits. For sure the Rephaim are among the giant clans descended from the nephilim, but are the dead Rephaim also demons?
3. The offending divine sons of God of Genesis 6 infamy (a.k.a., the “Watchers”)
- Jewish tradition is consistent that these beings were imprisoned until the time of the end. Although we are not given this detail in the OT, the NT tells the same story. 2 Peter 2:4 says that “the angels that sinned” were cast into “Tartarus.” This is precisely the Greek word that Jewish texts (like 1 Enoch in Greek) use to describe the place where the sons of God who sinned in the Genesis 6 story were imprisoned.
4. The spirits who have knowledge (“the spirits; that is, the knowing ones”)
- This is terminology frequently used in passages that condemn mediums and their activities.
- There is no evidence that this term is used for human dead (see below). These are non-human spirits.
Deuteronomy 18:9-13 (my translation):
9 “When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. 10 There shall not be found among you anyone who passes his son or his daughter through the fire, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or makes potions from herbs 11 or a spell binder, or one who consults a non-human spirit that has knowledge (šōʾēl ʾôb yiddĕʿōnî), or who inquires of the human dead (dōrēš el-hammētı̂m), 12 for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD. And because of these abominations the LORD your God is driving them out before you. 13 You shall be blameless before the LORD your God, 14 for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to those who practice divination. But as for you, the LORD your God has not allowed you to do this.
NOTE: verse 11 distinguishes the spirits who have knowledge from the dead. I would argue that the these spirits are non-human entities and that the dead are the human dead.
Leviticus 19:31 – “Do not turn to the spirits (ʾôbôt), to the ones who have knowledge (yiddĕʿōnî); do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them: I am Yahweh your God.
Leviticus 20:6 – “If a person turns to the spirits (ʾôbôt), to those who have knowledge (yiddĕʿōnî), whoring after them, I will set my face against that person and will cut him off from among his people.
Leviticus 20:27 – “A man or a woman who is with a spirit (ʾôb) or one who has knowledge (yiddĕʿōnî) shall surely be put to death. They shall be stoned with stones; their blood shall be upon them.”
Isaiah 29:4 – And you will be brought low; from the earth you shall speak, and from the dust your speech will be bowed down; your voice shall come from the ground like the voice of a spirit ((ʾôb), and from the dust your speech shall whisper.
NOTE: Lev 20:27 makes it clear that the ʾôb / ʾôbot can possess human beings (the medium), and Isaiah 29:4 has the ʾôbot coming from up out of the ground (i.e., from the Underworld).
- The word ʾiṭṭîm is used only once in the Old Testament, Isaiah 19:3. This is the Hebrew equivalent of ʾetemmu (notice the consonants between the Hebrew and Akkadian term are identical), the most commonly-used term in ancient Mesopotamia (Akkadian) for “ghost” as in “departed spirit of a human being.”2 English translations are frequently of poor quality here, so I’ll give my translation with the Hebrew words of importance-you will recognize them by now:
Isaiah 19:3 – “and the spirit of the Egyptians within them will be emptied out, and I will confound their counsel; and they will inquire of the idols and the ghosts (ʾiṭṭîm), and the spirits (ʾôbôt), the knowing ones (yiddĕʿōnî).
NOTE: The ʾiṭṭîm are grouped together with other terms for non-human entities in this passage, including idols, which were thought to be inhabited by the god(s).
- There are a couple words for “demon” in the Old Testament (that are found more widely in literature in literature of Israel’s neighbors, like Mesopotamia):
- šedîm (twice: Deut. 32:17; Psalm 106:37)
- lîlît (once: Isaiah 34:14); the term is associated with the night and with winds; usually viewed as a demonic spirit for that reason. Referred to as a demon in Akkadian literature.
Should “Rephaim” be listed as a term for demon? I’ll address that possibility in the next installment. We’ll also hit on ghost terminology in the New Testament before we wrap this up.
1. I think we can say that there is scriptural warrant for distinguishing ghosts from demons. There are, in point of fact, references to ghosts in the Old Testament and those ghosts are the departed spirits of the human dead, not demons.
2. It is interesting that, while the OT says mediums can be possessed by non-human spirits (ʾôbôt; Lev. 20:27), it never says mediums can be possessed by the spirits of human dead. Perhaps this can form the basis of viewing whatever happens at a séance (in instances where the medium is “indwelt” by the contacted entity) as more likely demonic than true contact with the human dead.
3. Recall from an earlier post that Ecclesiastes 9:5 and Isaiah 8:19 suggest that the departed human dead aren’t very good sources of information-but the non-human spirits are called “knowing ones.” It seems we should be suspicious of knowledge gained from alleged contact with the (human) dead-scripturally speaking, the odds are in favor that the contact was made with non-human spirits.