“Do not turn to spirit-mediums
don’t seek them out,
to be defiled by them;
I am YHVH your God.”
Verse 31 is an admonition to stay away from “spirit-mediums” and “sorcerers“.
Some translations may use the words “ghosts” or “familiar spirits“.
The idea behind this commandment is to not in any way attempt to communicate with spirits of the dead.
Does this ruling imply that communication with the dead is even possible?
The truth is the Bible tells us precious little about the afterlife and the TANAK (Old Testament) has practically zero information on the subject.
You will not find anywhere in the Torah or anywhere else in the Old Testament for that matter the concept of dying and going to heaven.
This isn’t because the Hebrews didn’t worry about what happened after death.
Like all human beings, they were concerned about what could possibly happen to them after their existence on this earthly plane ended.
However, just because God warns us against using mediums or sorcerers to conjure up “deceased spirits” is not necessarily scriptural evidence that “ghosts”, meaning the spirits of those who have gone to the grave, actually exist.
Rather, I think the Lord wants to protect us from coming into contact with a demon who is PRETENDING to be the spirit of a deceased person.
This is sort of like a bait-and-switch play by the devil.
A demon is NOT the spirit of a deceased person but an angel from heaven that fell from grace due to its decision to side with Satan when he rebelled against the Living God.
What Christianity has done since around the 4th century AD is take what has been revealed in the New Testament and then read it back into the Old Testament.
Because of this, gentile churchgoers, when reading the Old Testament will say that certain words that refer to the afterlife in the OT are referring to heaven or hell but that’s just not the case, and any competent Jewish scholar will tell you so.
The idea of a man after death going up to heaven to be with God, or descending down to some area where the devil and his minions reside was NOT spoken about by the inspired writers of the Hebrew Bible.
While we will see the ideas of death and the afterlife evolve as we move through the OT Scriptures, we will never find a specific thought about man going to heaven to be in God’s presence after his death.
It is at this point, that I have to introduce an important Hebrew word.
That word is SHEOL.
Any ideas about death in the TANACH revolve around this word.
It’s important to understand that SHEOL was NOT hades or hell, but it wasn’t a desirable place either.
It was just considered that inevitable place where all men go after they die, in other words, the GRAVE.
It didn’t matter whether you had lived a good or bad life, or whether you were a Hebrew or a gentile, SHEOL was the place where all men ended up after death.
SHEOL represented the end of physical existence.
The ancient Hebrew’s understanding of an afterlife in some kind of underworld was hazy at best.
And no doubt their beliefs were heavily influenced by the four centuries they had spent in Egypt where a quite advanced and practiced doctrine of death, the underworld, spirits and reincarnation had developed.
In fact, the whole purpose of the pyramids was to build a place where the spirits of the departed kings, queens, and other aristocracy could go and live out a comfortable and safe after-death existence.
“Ancestor worship” was also a common practice in pretty much every known culture during Bible times.
However, “ancestor worship” wasn’t always about “worship”.
In some cases, it was just about paying respects and honoring the spirit of the deceased out of an obligation to do so.
In other cases, it was about getting the dead person’s spirit to contact a god of the underworld who they were intimate with in order to get that god to do something for you on the earthly plane.
Understand that it is a matter of historical fact that the ancient Hebrews incorporated ancestor worship into their afterlife beliefs.
There are references to ancestor worship in many passages of the Bible.
Recall Jacob and Joseph insisting that they be buried OUTSIDE of Egypt with their ancestors so they could commune with them after they died.
Now don’t get me wrong and think that I’m saying the ancient Hebrews’ beliefs about death were in the mold of Egyptian theology.
A major difference is that for the Hebrews, not only was death considered a negative thing, but any perceived life-after-death existence wasn’t exactly viewed in a positive light either.
For the Hebrew, it was THIS EARTHLY LIFE that was considered to be the most prized and highest form of existence for a human being.
Death was just an unpleasant fact of life that had to be grudgingly accepted.
For the Hebrew, living a LONG life was considered to be a sign of God’s blessing and dying at a young age was considered to be a curse from God.
Until we get into the New Testament, an Israelites’ greatest hope after death was to be able to “sleep with one’s ANCESTORS”, a phrase whose meaning is still hotly debated today.
For the Hebrew, “sleeping with one’s Ancestors” was to be in a forever peaceful state as opposed to being in a state of torment or anxiety for all eternity.