Were the Dead Divine in Pre-Exilic Israel?

Most informed readers of the Bible are familiar with the witch of Endor’s reference to the deceased Samuel as an אלהים, or “deity.” She uses the plural participle עלים (“ones rising up”) with אלהים, but Saul asks מה תארו “what is his (singular) form,” in response. The participle may then be morphologically assimilating to the plural form of אלהים. Another text that may provide a few more clues regarding Israel’s view of its deceased is found in Ezekiel 32:21, which reads as follows:

ידברו־לו אלי גבורים מתוך שׁאול את־עזריו
ירדו שׁכבו הערלים חללי־חרב

The mighty gods shall speak to him out of the midst of Sheol with those that help him
They descend. The uncircumcised lay down, slain by the sword.

Most translations render אלי גבורים with “mighty chiefs,” or “the strong and the mighty” or something similar, but I don’t believe this reading is warranted. I’m not convinced אל ever means anything other than “divinity,” although it is often presupposed by exegetes. The phrase is the plural of אל גבור, which is found in reference to Hezekiah in Isa 9:6 and in reference to God in Isa 10:21.

The context is a prophecy about the destruction of Egypt, who will descend to Sheol and find the uncircumcised nations of the earth there. I suggest the אלי גבורים are the deceased kings. This would align with Assyro-Babylonian and Syro-Palestinian ideologies concerning kings as deities both in life and death.



10 responses to “Were the Dead Divine in Pre-Exilic Israel?

  • David

    Hi Dan,
    I heartily agree with your assessment here. I believe that in Israel, as in many of the surrounding nations, the royal ideology included some concept of divinity for the king — divine sonship, theosis, angelification, or something similar. You point out Isa 9:6 as a reference to the king, and we can also possibly see this in Psalm 45:3, 6 (in Hebrew vv. 4, 7). I would be interested to see what you think of those verses.
    Going back to the question posed in your title, I do think we are, as you assert, looking at ancestors that have become (if they weren’t already) deified.
    Thanks for these thoughts!

  • Charles Halton

    You should read Jon Levenson on his topic–his Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel deals with these issues. Elohim is a very flexible word whose semantic range is like the English word. “spirit” which can refer to an ethos, a supernatural being, a drink, etc. Lastly, the issue of deified kings in Mesopotamia is complex–their perceptions differed in various periods; there is a volume put out by the Oriental Institute (Chicago) on this topic as well.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for the comment, Charles. I have Levenson’s book on my list, but I really enjoyed Joel Burnett’s A Reassessment of Biblical Elohim and think he’s got the most sound approach so far. I’m sure Levenson will have a lot to add to the discussion.

      Which book are you talking about from Chicago? I’m familiar with this volume, but that’s from the Casco Bay Assyriological Institute and Eisenbrauns.

  • William Hamblin

    Also check out Schmidt, “Israel’s Beneficent Dead: Ancestor Cult and Necromancy in Ancient Israelite Religion and Tradition” (1996)

  • Mike Wilson

    I’m not familiar with biblical Hebrew, is there a separate term for souls of the dead like our “shade” or “ghost”? My suspicion is that the term “el” was applied to all el like beings, what we would call a spirit, like in the Japanese usage of kami.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Hi Mike. Thanks for the comment. A problem we have is that there was little idea of an afterlife in that time period, so we don’t know for sure what we’re dealing with in verses like these. The word אל (“deity” or “divinity”) referred to supernatural beings of a variety of natures. Fundamentally the term likely refers to a powerful being. If we decide that it means something like “spirit,” or “ghost,” then we would have to refer to Israel’s deity as “Yhwh The Spirit,” or “The Ghost of Israel,” or something like that. I referenced earlier Joel Burnett’s book on the usage of אלהים in the Bible, and that’s the first place I would go for a good discussion of the use of the words אל and אלהים in the Hebrew Bible.

      • Mike Wilson

        I would like to mention Deuteronomy 18:11 and Isiah 8:19-20. here the dead are used as a source of oracles, a domain of elohim (gods). In the Isiah passage they are called gods. Given the sources I’ve read, i think the people pf the ancient Middle East viewed death in the Greek Hades way. It was a lousy condition but people still existed as personalities there but there state of being is what we might think a dead person to have. It is dark, underground, they eat dirt, etc. but they could still communicate to the living via magic. In our society we separate spirits of the dead from higher gods by terminology; god, ghost, with spirit meaning any intangible being. the Semites may have had fewer categories. all animate things had a spirit, all intangible beings are gods.

  • anummabrooke

    I’m late to the party, but I agree that any reading of אל/אלהים as “judge(s),” “chief(s)” etc. depends on special pleading.

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