A Biblical View of Ghosts, Part 1

Posted By on May 1, 2008

This might seem like a weird way to kick off the Naked Bible blog, but it’s actually a good subject for illustrating what will make this blog different than any other Bible study blog on the web. How? Just stay with me through the series.

Christians typically assume (and I hope you’ve heard the old bromide about what happens when we assume things) that ghosts are demons. This is simply not true, and it is demonstrably untrue with respect to the biblical text (both testaments).

If you don’t believe that, here’s a quick proof before we actually get into the topic. In Matt. 14:26 the disciples react in fear when they see Jesus walking on the water. They scream out, “It’s a ghost!” The Greek word for “ghost” here is phantasma. Any Greek-English dictionary (lexicon) or Strong’s number search will reveal to you that this isn’t the Greek word for “demon” in the New Testament. The disciples had a category for “disembodied spirit of a dead person” (a ghost). They didn’t just think in demonic terms.

We’re going to start with the Old Testament, though-that three-quarters of the Bible that so often gets deliberately ignored (hey, I’m an OT scholar, so it’s personal) or is just too “weird” to try and understand. There are actually a number of terms in the Hebrew OT for “inhabitants of the spiritual realm / the place where you go when you die.” They include:1

ob – a spirit that could be contacted by a medium, or a possessed medium.

yiddeoni – a spirit that has knowledge humans do not.

metim – spirit of the dead

ittim – ghosts

elohim – gods (bet this one surprised you)

rephaim – spirit of a dead giant-warrior or “gibbor”(another surprise I’ll bet)

shedim – demons

I’m actually working on an article for a scholarly journal related to some of these terms, so that’s another reason for this topic. A lot of the scholarly literature suggests that a clear distinction can’t be made between obot (plural of ob) and metim. I think that the former refers to non-human spirits (essentially demons, and so the word is a synonym of shedim) and the latter are the disembodied spirits of human dead (i.e., ghosts). If this distinction can be clearly made-that there are non-human spirits and ghosts, and those are separate categories-we’ll have a good bit of data to begin thinking about a biblical view of ghosts. Anyway, you’ll get to see my theory live or die here, up close and personal.

We’re going to begin our study by locating every place in the OT where metim occurs (or the singular form, met). To do this I’ve searched for the Hebrew term in my Libronix software (Logos Bible software) and, through the magic of the ESV reverse interlinear, the results are displayed in English. You can download a PDF of the results here (I chose to align the hits for you, so that’s the reason for the column-like display). In my next post, we’ll start digging in-but go ahead and take a peek for yourself.

  1. I’m not aiming for completely correct transliteration here, for those who care, due to the font issues.

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19 Responses to “A Biblical View of Ghosts, Part 1”

  1. CatherineB says:

    What about angels, don’t they live in the spiritual realm? Are these the elohim? I thought elohim were different than angels, but I can’t remember…

  2. MSH says:

    Yes, angels are elohim since elohim is a “place of residence” term – it designates an entity that properly “resides” in what we think of as the “spiritual world.” We have to remember, though, that the “spiritual world” has its own geography, so to speak. The “other side” has heaven and hell in simplest terms, but it is far more complex than that. For instance (and we’ll be covering all this kind of thing eventually), is there a distinction between “the realm of the dead” in the Old Testament and the grave? Many scholars don’t think so; that is, they don’t think there is an afterlife in the OT, just the grave. They base this on the word “Sheol.” They argue that the place of the dead is that hole in the ground, and that’s it. No heaven, no hell – until the New Testament. I disagree. This first post is just one aspect of a much bigger subject (the afterlife). Right now, I’m not focusing on the geography but who the characters are, and even narrowing that to get at “ghost terminology.”

  3. Cephas71 says:

    Interacting with dead ancestors was a practice that occurred among the Aramaean royalty. Pannammu entreats his sons to invoke the name of the god Hadad and his own name after his death. Don’t we see a very similar thing happen in 2 Chronicles 16:12 where Asa seeks “help” for his diseased feet? Is it possible that the word ropeim should be correctly seen as repaim (dead ancestors)? The text clearly contrasts Asa going to this group versus going to Yahweh. The verb “drs” occurs here for “seek help” and that word is often used in connection to divination. Plus the overall implication is a negative rebuke of what Asa has done – “in his disease, he did not seek Yahweh…” My questions are: Do we see Metim occur at all in this context? Do you agree that repaim is a better read here given the context? What would be the difference between repaim and metim?

  4. jschner says:

    When I read your topic my first thought was about the “captives” spoken of by Isaiah that Christ after his death released from prison and taught the gospel.

    Some references from KJV of Isaiah and the NT.
    Isa. 24: 22 as prisoners are gathered in the pit.
    Isa. 49: 9 thou mayest say to the prisoners, Go forth.
    Isa. 61: 1 opening of the prison to them that are bound.
    Luke 4: 18 preach deliverance to the captives.
    John 5: 25 dead shall hear . . . the Son.
    1 Pet. 3: 19 preached unto the spirits in prison.
    1 Pet. 4: 6 gospel preached also to them that are dead.

    Maybe related maybe not to what you are trying to accomplish but I appreciate your work and enjoy your writings and look forward to reading about your latest OT journey.

  5. MSH says:

    For Cephas – Since the root of Rephaim is resh-pe-aleph (rp’), which means “to heal” (often associated with magic or divination) it is possible that the rephaim are not in view (generic healing). It is also possible that only (human) healers are in view (which would still set a contrast – he should have asked God for healing, like Hezekiah did). I think the slimmest possibility is an appeal to underworld healers, but it can’t be ruled out. I’d need more from the context to go that route.

    • Sarah says:

      Rapha (H7496) seems to have suitably ghostly contexts. The root word seems to be H7495 (to heal) perhaps which is hard to understand why !

      Job 26:5 “The departed7496 spirits7496 tremble Under the waters and their inhabitants.
      Psa 88:10 Will You perform wonders for the dead? Will the departed7496 spirits7496 rise and praise You? Selah.
      Isa 14:9 “Sheol from beneath is excited over you to meet you when you come; It arouses for you the spirits7496 of the dead,7496 all the leaders of the earth; It raises all the kings of the nations from their thrones.
      Isa 26:14 The dead will not live, the departed7496 spirits7496 will not rise; Therefore You have punished and destroyed them, And You have wiped out all remembrance of them.

      • MSH says:

        The verb rapha’ in Semitic means “to heal.” In the ancient world it was at times associated with serpents as well. This points to two ancient assumptions: (1) healers had supernatural assistance or a command of “spells” (again, this is a pre-scientific world). And so the association of healing with inhabitants of the “other side” isn’t surprising, given that context. (2) snakes shed their skins, and so were thought to be reborn or regenerated, a healing act.

  6. MSH says:

    to jschner – I’ll have to think about some of these as we go. I already know that I would NOT consider some of them to be referring to disembodied human dead but to other underworld inhabitants.

  7. tcblack says:

    Excellent start Michael. I know it’s a rich and unexplored area and perhaps this is one of the reasons I’m ready to read. I’ve greatly enjoyed reading your papers on the Divine Council so I know you’re not afraid to make people nervous to get to the truth.
    Now, I’m going to get comfortable and wait for the next post.

  8. Jor-el says:

    I recently encountered a study on the Sheddim that elaborates the idea, I’ll just paste the relevant items…

    Shaddai is the plural possessive form of the word shed which is another word for god. The Dead Sea is called “Valley of the sheddim (Siddim)” (Gen 14:3).
    Sheddim is closely related to the hebrew word Shaddai, translated “Almighty” in the phrase “God Almighty”. In these phrases, “Almighty” is a translation of the hebrew word “Shaddai”. One aspect of the meaning of “Shaddai” is brought out by looking at Isaiah 13:6 and Joel 1:15.

    As one is a quotation of the other, only Isaiah 13:6 will be quoted.

    Isaiah 13:6 (addressed to Babylon)

    “Howl, for the day of Yahweh is near; it shall come as destruction (hebrew – “shod”) from the Almighty (hebrew – “Shaddai”).”

    The word translated “destruction” (shod) is related to that translated “Almighty” (shaddai). In one sense, Shaddai represents those who bring destruction. Similarly, the related word Sheddim in Deuteronomy 32:17 can be regarded as things which bring destruction upon man.

    So we may also say that El Shaddai can have the dual meaning of “God Almighty” and “God of gods”.

    Could you give your opinion on whether this can be said to be the correct interpretation of the root word “Shed”

    Thanxs,

    Jor-el

  9. MSH says:

    Jor-el: There is no single “root word” such as “shed.” I’d like to see your source for these ideas. I’d be shocked if the source was a Hebrew scholar. Why do I say this? Like English, Hebrew has homonyms / homographs. The consonants sh-d are a case in point, and this mars the kind of argumentation your source seeks to make. There are actually TWO root forms sh-d, and a third if one counts the hypothetical root sh-d behind the shedim of Deut 32:17 (it is hypothetical since it only occurs in the plural in biblical Hebrew). I have posted the entry for all these homographs at http://www.michaelsheiser.com/TheNakedBible/shd.pdf (from HALOT – Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the OT, the gold standard in lexicons for biblical Hebrew). Actually, the first form in the PDF is also hypothetical (has an asterisk as you’ll note) since it doesn’t have a singular in the biblical, and any verbal original must be guessed at – as the entry does.

    In regard to the interpretive comments, your source commits something akin to what’s called by exegetes the etymological fallacy of “totality transfer” – by taking the meaning of one root (one homograph) and transferring its meaning to all the others (as if there were no homographs). It’s an illegitimate method, and so conclusions drawn from it are also illegitimate.

  10. Jor-el says:

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for the headsup on this issue and for the link to reliable info on this term.

    I actually got this from a variety of sources.

    The 1st was a study by a Christadelphian webpage:

    christadelphian.org.uk/studypapers/zDevilPE.html

    The 2nd was a Christadelpgian forum:

    thechristadelphians.org/forums/index.php?showtopic=9504&st=0&p=280065&#entry280065

    Finally I got another aspect of this from a site, I suspect to be LDS, although it doesn’t say that outright, but no-one else abuses the word “elohim” as I’ve seen them do…

    mirah.dds.nl/lectures/Elohim.html#Shaddye

    Thanks, again, you’re doing important work my friend.

    God Bless,

    Jor-el

  11. Deb says:

    Thanks so much for this blog. This is a topic I am very interested in right now. I’mm a fan of TV’s Ghost Hunters, and this has gotten me into hot water in my church. They teach the “There is only one ghost, the Holy Ghost,and everything else is either an angel or a demon” belief. I can’t fully accept that, and I have been looking for something, somewhere to either prove or disprove that belief.
    I have often argued suing Matthew 14:26, where the disciples say, “It is a ghost.” saying that if there really is no such thing as ghosts, Jesus would certainly know that, and he would have told the disciples that. But I get into trouble for that little interpretation, because that’s not the point of the narrative.
    Anyway, I’m looking forward to studying this topic, and I’m so glad you posted this!

    Deb

  12. Rose says:

    Hi, Mike,

    This is fascinating, but it begs the question: why would God allow the human dead to walk the earth? Please point me in the right direction if this question has already been answered.

    Thank you very much for this blog.

    • MSH says:

      I think this merely reflects what most people across the ages have believed — that the human dead live on in an afterlife and interact with the living. That’s pretty much a ubiquitous belief. Ghosts are a logical part of a belief in an unseen world of the disembodied, and in an afterlife (the afterlife being conceptually joined to the idea of an unseen world of disembodied beings). If God has authority in that unseen world, if he wants to permit “crossing over” he can (and I believe does). But the Bible (and other ancient literature) tells us that the unseen world is also home to malevolent spirits who can apparently take human form and interact with humans (e.g., human speech), so one cannot really know what one is dealing with. Initiating contact with this world is forbidden in the ible, which suggests that it can be done, but ought not to be (it isn’t human turf and cannot be parsed or controlled by humans). I think some of this is dealt with in other installments on that topic.

  13. Ben S. says:

    I’m currently working through the book Rethinking Human Nature: A Christian Materialist Alternative to the Soul by a philosopher. He claims the Bible could be interpreted to support the idea that humans are totally material, and “spirits” like Samuel might be totally material. Is it at all historically plausible to claim the ancient Israelites viewed the dead in materialist terms or is it safe to say this is a case of interpreting philosophy into the Bible?

    • MSH says:

      He’s probably mistaking/conflating the idea of an “intermediate body” (which may or may not even be corporeal, as opposed to merely *visible*) with materiality.

      • MSH says:

        Who’s the author? I know that “non-reductive physicalism” is a view held by several Christian philosophers as an alternative to dualism. Wondering if this is related or a page from that book, so to speak.

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