Facing Death (Without Illusion)
Baba Batra 16a, 16b
As a cloud vanishes and is gone, so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up. (Job 7:9) Raba said: This shows that Job denied the resurrection of the dead….Job speaks without knowledge, and his words are without wisdom. (Job 34:35) Raba said: This shows that a man is not held responsible for what he says when in distress.
Throughout most of the Hebrew Bible man's mortality is assumed. While some verses may point to an afterlife, or be interpreted in that way, with the exception of Daniel 12:2 these verses do not require an expectation of life beyond the grave. Indeed, the normative view is just the opposite. All that is hoped for beyond the grave is the continuation of descendants in future generations. When we die we are gathered to our people, specifically our ancestors with whom we share the common destiny of all the living: the grave.
Facing death with recognition of human mortality is too fearful and hopeless a prospect for many. Instead, we have grasped onto "the hope of heaven." When a loved one dies we characteristically say "they have gone to a better place." We even hold firmly to the belief that someday we will be re-united with our loved ones in that "better place." Philosophically we speak of "the immortality of the soul" as of something self-evident, not to be challenged. For those who follow Daniel "the resurrection of the dead" has become an essential doctrine of faith.
[For Talmudic teaching on the resurrection of the dead, see Sanhedrin 90-92b.]
Let's step back into an earlier view of life and death, a view evident in the opening chapters of Genesis, a view which extends at least down to the time of the Babylonian exile. In this view life is the ultimate good, while the finality of death is accepted soberly as the fate of all mankind. What lies beyond the grave, sometimes identified as Sheol, is never associated with "a better place."
Then Abraham expired and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and he was gathered to his people. And his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, which is before Mamre, the field which Abraham purchased from the Hittites; there Abraham was buried, and Sarah his wife. (cf. Gen. 25:17 Ishmael, Gen. 35:29 Isaac, Gen. 49:29-32 Jacob, Num. 20:24-26 Aaron, Num. 27:13 Moses, II Kings 22:20 Josiah)
For the patriarchs, the hope in death was to be “gathered” to their deceased kin. Burial in the family tomb was important but not essential to this hope, as in the case of Moses, whose death and burial took place apart from other family members (Deut. 34:5-6). However, some commentators still look for more. Compare the following view:
“Burial in the family grave served to reconnect the departed one with a society of previously dead ancestors. This society was believed to exist in the tomb itself and perhaps in the surrounding locality. Death itself was not seen as a cessation of existence. On the contrary, to be gathered to one's ancestors implied but a passage to another realm where departed family spirits cohabited and the activities of kith and kin continued within the sacred ancestral society of the family tomb.” (Simcha Paull Raphael, Jewish Views of the Afterlife, p. 45)
If the author had stopped with "another realm" and left out the malarkey about a "sacred ancestral society" I could almost agree with his explanation. The realm beyond death was precisely the unknown, a shadowy existence which was not further described in the Hebrew Bible in pointed contrast to what other cultures taught concerning "the activities of kith and kin" within the grave. That Israelites may have also believed such things does not mean that their superstitions were the Biblical view. On the contrary, the Bible goes to great lengths to supplant such superstitions with a more sober view of death and the grave. It is natural to seek consolation in the death of loved ones; for this purpose all manner of beliefs in an afterlife are introduced; the Bible reduces all of these fanciful beliefs to the simple consolation of being "gathered" through burial to one's deceased kin. Beyond this notion nothing definitive should be read into these scriptures. As the author himself points out later in his book, the Bible specifically condemns the superstitious practice of "feeding the dead" (Deut. 26:14; cf. Hosea 9:4, Jer. 16:6-7, Sirach 30:18), which could be read to imply, if not skepticism toward an afterlife, then at least discouragement of focusing on the afterlife. The Bible also condemns necromancy (consulting the spirits of the dead, Deut. 18:11, Lev. 20:27, II Kings 23:24, Isa. 8:19), another natural response to belief in an afterlife. The Bible does not exclude the possibility that these spirits exist, but it does prohibit any communication with what are popularly believed to be spirits of the dead.
Let's conclude with the example of David.
1. Facing your own death without illusion
I Kings 2:1-3
When the days of David drew near to die, he charged Solomon his son, saying,
I am going the way of all the earth, so be strong and show yourself a man;
And keep the charge of the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, his commandments, his laws, and his testimonies, as it is written in the Torah of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do, and wherever you turn...
I am going the way of all the earth, cf. Joshua 23:14.
What is the way of all the earth? The destiny shared by all forms of life: all life ends in death.
2. Facing the death of a loved one without illusion
2 Samuel 12:19-23
When David saw that his servants were whispering, David realized that the child was dead; therefore David said to his servants, Is the child dead? And they said, He is dead.
Then David rose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his garment, and went to the house of the Lord, and bowed down [worshiped]; then he went to his own house; and when he requested, they set bread before him, and he ate.
Then his servants said to him, Why are you acting this way? While the child was alive you fasted and wept for him; but now that the child is dead, you rise and eat bread.
And he said, While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, Who knows? Maybe God will be gracious to me and the child may live?
But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I am going to him, but he will not return to me.
I am going to him, but he will not return to me.
Does David have in mind a happy reunion beyond the grave? Not at all. He is simply accepting his child’s death without illusion. He cannot bring his child back to life, but he will eventually join his child in death.