What is the View in the Tanakh of Death and the Afterlife?

by Melech ben Ya'aqov
27 October 2004

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There is a common misconception that Karaites do not believe in an afterlife or in the resurrection of the dead. This misconception comes mostly from statements made by Josephus concerning the Sadducees (i.e. Antiquities, Book 18, Chapter 1, Sections 3-4), since the Sadducees are considered the ideological ancestors of the Kariates. In fact, very little is known about the Sadducees and their belief system and it is very possible that the statements made by Jospehus represent the views of one particular group of Sadducees. Indeed, it would be hard for a Karaite not to believe in an afterlife or in the resurrection of the dead, since the Tanakh is filled with references to both, including a direct statement of the resurrection in Daniel 12:2. It should be noted that this is in stark contrast to the doctrine of reincarnation, popular among many Rabbis, for which there is no Tanakhic support whatsoever. In fact, the Tanakh implies just the opposite in several verses: that the life we live is our one and only life, so make the most of it!

Below, I have compiled a list of sources dealing with the issue of afterlife and resurrection of the dead.

Rotem (Broom Bush) overlooking the Herodion, Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, Israel | © Melech ben Ya'aqov, Karaite Insights
Rotem (Broom Bush) overlooking the Herodion, Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, Israel

Deuteronomy 11:13

The Tanakh emphasizes reward and pleasure in this world, not in the afterlife. The Rabbis distort this and overemphasize the afterlife (“olam ha’ba”) and its rewards and punishments.

(13) And it shall come to pass, if you shall hearken diligently unto My commandments which I command you this day, to love YHWH your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, (14) that I will give the rain of your land in its season, the former rain and the latter rain, that you may gather in your corn, and your wine, and your oil. (15) And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you shall eat and be satisfied.

Deuteronomy 18:10

Nonethless, we see from this verse that the Tanakh does believe in life after death. See also Leviticus 20:27.

(10) There shall not be found among you any one that makes his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, one that uses divination, a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a sorcerer, (11) or a charmer, or one that consults a ghost or a familiar spirit, or a necromancer.


When a person dies in the Five Books of Moses, he is “gathered to his people”. Here we see the same phrase used for Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses. It is also used for Ishmael and Aharon.

Genesis 25:8 / Abraham

(8) And Abraham expired, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people.

Genesis 35:29 / Isaac

(29) And Isaac expired, and died, and was gathered unto his people, old and full of days; and Esau and Jacob his sons buried him.

Genesis 49:33 / Jacob

(33) And when Jacob made an end of charging his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and expired, and was gathered unto his people.

Numbers 27:13 / Moses

(13) And when thou hast seen it, thou also shall be gathered unto thy people, as Aaron thy brother was gathered.


A similar phrase, “he slept with his fathers”, is used in the rest of the Tanakh. It is interesting to note that this phrase is used both for good and evil kings. Thus, the Tanakhic view seems to be an amoral afterlife, in contrast to Rabbinical doctrine in which the good go to heaven (olam ha’ba) and the bad go to hell (gehenom). Some examples of the phrase follow.

First Kings 2:10 / David

(10) And David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David .

First Kings 11:43 / Solomon

(43) And Solomon slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David his father; and Rehovam his son reigned in his stead.

First Kings 14:31 / Rehovam

(31) And Rehovam slept with his fathers, and was buried with his fathers in the city of David ; and his mother's name was Naamah the Ammonitess. And Abijam his son reigned in his stead.

First Kings 15:24 / Asa

(24) And Asa slept with his fathers, and was buried with his fathers in the city of David his father; and Jehoshaphat his son reigned in his stead.

First Kings 22:40 / Ahav

(40) So Ahav slept with his fathers; and Ahaziah his son reigned in his stead.

First Kings 22:51 / Jehoshaphat

(51) And Jehoshaphat slept with his fathers, and was buried with his fathers in the city of David his father; and Jehoram his son reigned in his stead.

Second Kings 21:18 / Menashe

(18) And Menashe slept with his fathers, and was buried in the garden of his own house, in the garden of Uzza ; and Amon his son reigned in his stead.


A “History” of Death in the Torah.

Genesis 3:19

Death is first introduced into the world as a consequence of sin. It is an unnatural state.

(19) In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.'

Genesis 6:3

Man’s life is shortened due, apparently, to further sin.

(3) And YHWH said: 'My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for that he also is flesh; therefore shall his days be a hundred and twenty years.'

Isaiah 25:6

Death will eventually be undone.

(6) And in this mountain will YHWH of hosts make unto all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined. (7) And He will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering that is cast over all peoples, and the veil that is spread over all nations. (8) He will swallow up death for ever; and the Lord YHWH will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the reproach of His people will He take away from off all the earth; for YHWH hath spoken it. (9) And it shall be said in that day: 'Lo, this is our God, for whom we waited, that He might save us; this is YHWH, for whom we waited, we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation.'


Sheol, the pit of death, is the place where all, good or evil, go when they die. There, deceased humans exist as a wisp of psychic energy known as “rephaim”, loosely translated as ghosts.

Genesis 37:35

First mention of sheol in the Torah.

(35) And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said: 'Nay, but I will go down to the grave (sheol) to my son mourning.' And his father wept for him.

Numbers 16:29

The story of Korach and his congregation.

(29) If these men die the common death of all men, and be visited after the visitation of all men, then YHWH hath not sent Me. (30) But if YHWH make a new thing, and the ground open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down alive into the pit (sheol), then ye shall understand that these men have despised YHWH.'

Isaiah 14:9

(9) The nether-world (sheol) from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming; the shades are stirred up for thee, even all the chief ones of the earth; all the kings of the nations are raised up from their thrones.

Psalms 141:7

(7) As when one cleaveth and breaketh up the earth, our bones are scattered at the grave's (sheol’s) mouth.

Job 3:17-19

(17) There the wicked cease from turmoil, and there the weary are at rest. (18) Captives also enjoy their ease; they no longer hear the slave driver’s shout. (19) The small and the great are there, and the slaves are freed from their owners.


The “rephaim” or, literally, “powerless ones” are the inhabitants of sheol.

Psalms 88:11

(11) Wilt Thou work wonders for the dead? Or shall the shades (rephaim) arise and give Thee thanks? Selah.

Proverbs 9:18

(18) But he knoweth not that the shades (rephaim) are there; that her guests are in the depths of the nether-world (sheol).


A fascinating look at the realm of sheol in the Tanakh is the story of King Saul and the Ov (Witch) of Ein Dor. This proves without a doubt that, in the Tanakhic view, a person exists after his death, but in a reduced state or state of rest.

First Samuel 28:7

(7) Then said Saul unto his servants: 'Seek me a woman that divines by a ghost (an ov), that I may go to her, and inquire of her.' And his servants said to him: 'Behold, there is a woman that divines by a ghost at En-dor.' (8) And Saul disguised himself, and put on other raiment, and went, he and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night; and he said: 'Divine unto me, I pray thee, by a ghost, and bring me up whomsoever I shall name unto thee.' (9) And the woman said unto him: 'Behold, thou knowest what Saul hath done, how he hath cut off those that divine by a ghost or a familiar spirit out of the land; wherefore then layest thou a snare for my life, to cause me to die?' (10) And Saul swore to her by YHWH, saying: 'As YHWH liveth, there shall no punishment happen to thee for this thing.' (11) Then said the woman: 'Whom shall I bring up unto thee?' And he said: 'Bring me up Samuel.' (12) And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice; and the woman spoke to Saul, saying: 'Why hast thou deceived me? for thou art Saul.' (13) And the king said unto her: 'Be not afraid; for what seest thou?' And the woman said unto Saul: 'I see a godlike being coming up out of the earth.' (14) And he said unto her: 'What form is he of?' And she said: 'An old man cometh up; and he is covered with a robe.' And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground, and prostrated himself. (15) And Samuel said to Saul: 'Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up?' And Saul answered: 'I am sore distressed; for the Philistines make war against me, and God is departed from me, and answereth me no more, neither by prophets, nor by dreams; therefore I have called thee, that thou mayest make known unto me what I shall do.'


Jewish Views of the Afterlife by Simcha Paul Raphael, p. 56

In the Tanakhic view, life and death are not irreversible absolutes.

“Death was not conceived of as a complete annihilation, the termination of existence, but rather as a diminution of energy. Life and death were seen as poles of a continuum of vital energy. In life, the energy, or nefesh, was dynamically present; in sickness, it was weakened, and in death, there was a maximum loss of vitality.”


Koheleth’s (Ecclesiastes’) philosophy of death.

A. Amorality of death / afterlife

Koheleth 2:15

(15) Then said I in my heart: 'As it happens to the fool, so will it happen even to me; and why was I then more wise?' Then I said in my heart, that this also is vanity. (16) For of the wise man, even as of the fool, there is no remembrance for ever; seeing that in the days to come all will long ago have been forgotten. And how must the wise man die even as the fool!

Koheleth 9:2

(2) All things come alike to all; there is one event to the righteous and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean and to the unclean; to him that sacrifices and to him that sacrifices not; as is the good, so is the sinner, and he that swears, as he that fears an oath.

B. Duality of the body / soul

Koheleth 3:21

(21) Who knows the spirit of man whether it goes upward, and the spirit of the beast whether it goes downward to the earth?

Koheleth 12:7

(7) And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns unto God who gave it.

C. There is no reincarnation (not to be confused with resurrection)

Koheleth 9:6

(6) As well their love, as their hatred and their envy, is long ago perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.

Koheleth 9:10

(10) Whatsoever your hand attains to do by your strength, do it; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave (sheol), whither you go.

D. Judgment

Koheleth 12:13

Koheleth spends much of his discourse bemoaning the lack of justice in this world, therefore the judgment he speaks about apparently takes place at the time of the resurrection. (See Daniel 12:2.)

(13) The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man. (14) For God shall bring every work into the judgment concerning every hidden thing, whether it be good or whether it be evil.



Ezekiel 37

The prophesy of the dry bones. There is much discussion as to whether these verses are meant to be literal or are meant as a metaphor for the House of Israel. Certainly there is a metaphor here, but see verses 12 through 14, which may very well be literal.

(1) The hand of YHWH was upon me, and YHWH carried me out in a spirit, and set me down in the midst of the valley, and it was full of bones; (2) and He caused me to pass by them round about, and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry. (3) And He said unto me: 'Son of man, can these bones live?' And I answered: 'O Lord YHWH, Thou knowest.' (4) Then He said unto me: 'Prophesy over these bones, and say unto them: O ye dry bones, hear the word of YHWH: (5) Thus saith the Lord YHWH unto these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live. (6) And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am YHWH.' (7) So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, nd behold a commotion, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. (8) And I beheld, and, lo, there were sinews upon them, and flesh came up, and skin covered them above; but there was no breath in them. (9) Then said He unto me: 'Prophesy unto the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath: Thus saith the Lord YHWH: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.' (10) So I prophesied as He commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great host. (11) Then He said unto me: 'Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say: Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off. (12) Therefore prophesy, and say unto them: Thus saith the Lord YHWH: Behold, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, O My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel . (13) And ye shall know that I am YHWH, when I have opened your graves, and caused you to come up out of your graves, O My people. (14) And I will put My spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I will place you in your own land; and ye shall know that I YHWH have spoken, and performed it, saith YHWH.'

More explicit statements of the resurrection and the end of death. Death is an unnatural state to begin with, only brought upon us due to sin. Thus, people don’t really die in the sense of ceasing to exist, rather they “sleep in the dust” as “rephaim”, awaiting resurrection. Though death exists, the soul and existence, being linked directly to Yehowah, are eternal and indestructible. The fulfillment of the mission of humanity on this earth seems to be a return to the “Garden of Eden”, at which time death will be eradicated.

Isaiah 26:19

(19) Thy dead shall live, the dead bodies shall arise -- awake and sing, ye that dwell in the dust -- for Thy dew is as the dew of light, and the earth shall bring to life the shades.

Isaiah 25:6

(6) And in this mountain will YHWH of hosts make unto all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined. (7) And He will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering that is cast over all peoples, and the veil that is spread over all nations. (8) He will swallow up death for ever; and the Lord YHWH will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the reproach of His people will He take away from off all the earth; for YHWH hath spoken it.

Daniel 12:2

The most explicit statement of resurrection in the Tanakh.

(2) And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence. (3) And they that are wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn the many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.


Conclusion — The whole system in a nutshell:
  1. Earth-universe created
  2. Eternal life given in Gan Eden
  3. Sin – death as curse
  4. Life shortened to 120 years
  5. Person dies, descends to sheol to sleep as refaim with relatives awaiting generation of the resurrection
  6. End of days come – dead rise
  7. World re-enters perfect state of Gan Eden without death
  8. Earth-universe destroyed

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This Article Has 4 Comments

Avrom Aryeh-Zuk, New Zealand
I still don't see the references indicating anything but the finality of death. We depart this world and become part of the Shekinah. All things come from the Shekinah and all things return to it. If, as in Saul, a necromancer could tap into the energies that abide within the Shekinah then the sin was not the conversing with the dead but distrubing that which is holy. Just my opinion but that's the way I've learned it. But you are right, it is important to do what is necessary to be done in this life and not think that there is some redemption available in an afterlife.
tom maverick, weatherford
this left me with very little or no comfort at all...sheol seems to be a rather bleak place...not something to look forward to after you die...i pray there is something more than this...Hashem do not let it be so...please help!!!
Life after Death
Dave, Toronto
If God is Merciful, which God is, then the universe will never be destroyed. I believe that even if the earth is destroyed, by that time our technology will allow us to travel to another planet
Life after death
ALfred, Minneapolis
But could not all these references to an after life be metaphorical or poetical?