The Fear of Death and Ancient Judaism

Death is the most ordinary of life’s occurrences. It happens all the time, every nanosecond, all across the globe. So why are we so afraid of it?

The fear of death has a long and tangled history. Most of it lies in early Judaism that describes humanity’s natural state as physically immortal. If it weren’t for Eve, we would live forever in the bodies God created for us. But Eve and Adam changed all that and brought on us all death as a punishment, not as a natural end of life, but as a divinely imposed penalty for disobedience.

The ambiguity in the Bible around survival after death, which has absorbed scholars for centuries, is to my mind very troubling. It worsened considerably with the reforms of King Josiah in the 7th century BCE, a time when the Yahweh cult was refashioned to fit monarchy. Under Josiah, mourning rites were curtailed and communication with the dead, a practice that was common for millennia in every household throughout the ancient Near East, was outlawed. Anyone caught practicing necromancy was stoned to death. The chief reason was because the dead were referred to as ellohim, a word that means “gods.” The living believed that people gained wisdom and even special powers after death and looked to their dead family members for help as we do today. Such a belief undermined people’s dependency on the one god and their devotion to him. With the criminalization of afterlife communication, the living’s access to the afterlife was closed. The dead could no long speak and became effectively nonexistent. We are only now beginning to turn this around.

Beliefs about survival in ancient Judaism ranged anywhere from a dark, dank netherworld called Sheol which  in many accounts seemed to have been reserved for the unrighteous, to obscure mentions of being gathered to one’s ancestors after death, a traditional belief which suffered seriously under the reforms, or to a perpetual sleep. The mainstream Temple officials, the Sadduccees, taught that there was no survival after death, according to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus. None of these versions of what happens after we die indicate any awareness of a soul or a transcendent self. The “God of the Living,” as Yahweh was called, dwelled in the heavens like many gods of that time. Humans were not admitted. There was then no expectation of reuniting with the divine after death.

Apocalypticism sought to correct this by promising the righteous a return to Adam’s first state, immortality in the flesh. Here is yet another instance of the ancient Jews refusing to deal with death as a natural and necessary outcome of birth. Those who deserved resurrection do not die but only sleep until the End Time comes. The God of the Living reunites with the dead only after they return to physical form. The ultimate aim of apocalypticism was the permanent eradication of death on earth. This ultimate apocalyptic aim underscores death as contrary to our pristine, God-given states. Until then, the mortal reality was an unsafe universe, a waiting for death in whatever form to seize us.

From this view of death as a punishment for an inborn flaw, as a failure no one escapes, we have inherited a destructive fear of a natural process and obscured any real understanding of immortality.  Without death, the psyche could not grow; it would simply not survive.