by Kevin L. Hester
Dr. Matthew McAffee, Provost of Welch College, provided one of the more technical and stimulating papers at the 2017 Theological Symposium. His paper entitled, “Losing Favor with the Gods: Divine Judgment in the Old Testament World” analyzed Northwestern Semitic funerary and monument inscriptions to shed light on certain understandings of death and judgment in the region. His review of several Phoenician and Old Aramaic inscriptions documented a close association between the memory of an individual and his or her rest in the afterlife.
He notes the Semitic penchant for parallelism in several curses offered against those who would disinter the remains of the dead elite or efface their monuments. Robbers and enemies were warned that to “disturb” the grave of the dead was an abomination to the Gods and would place them under divine judgment (3) . Just as such offenders disturbed the rest of the body in the grave, they would find no rest in life or death.
The same parallels may be seen at work in warnings and curses related to the expungement or alteration to inscriptions bearing the names of the dead. Images and inscriptions in this context were viewed as inseparable from the person represented. Erasure of such names led to the loss of such individuals from memory and unsettle their restful place in the afterlife. The curses upon the offenders were likewise dedicated to cutting off their “seed” (children/memory) and will find no place among the dead (10-11). Those who “blot out” or sponge away the names of others will find themselves wiped away (12). In a similar fashion, to delete the memory of a previous ruler by destroying or removing an inscription or monument will lead to the removal of the offender’s place among the living (12). They would be “cut off” and brought to an end (13-14).
McAffee then draws out a number of biblical parallels with this mindset. These are especially visible in Old Testament passages related to judgment. Psalm 49 warns those who follow after riches that they will be “prevented from having a dwelling place among the dead” (15). In Exodus 32 following the incident with the golden calf, Moses responds to God’s intention to wipe out the Jewish people with a request to instead “blot out” his name from God’s “register” (15). God’s response is relenting and he decrees that He will only blot out from this document those who have sinned (Exodus 32:31-33). McAffee also connects the judgment of being “cut off” with the high-handed sin referenced in Numbers 15. Here we read that those who sin against God will be “cut off from the midst of his people” (16); and, “cut off from the covenant community” (17).
While McAffee sees a number of parallels and similar language he also hastens to point out a clear distinction between the Jewish people and other aspects of Northwest Semitic culture. Though the Old Testament often uses similar language and concepts to describe divine disfavor it also recognizes that the ultimate significance in divine judgment is one’s removal from the covenantal people of God. Worse than losing one’s progeny or one’s life, was the loss of his or her place in God’s merciful covenant. Thus, the language of the Old Testament, in distinction from the culture, focuses upon the idea of a personal relationship with God. Such warnings therefore find different ultimate resolutions serve “as a means of fostering covenantal community” (17).
McAffee’s work is important from a scholarly perspective for at least two reasons. First, in distinction from much of the modern consensus on Northwest Semitic views of the afterlife, he continues to document that there was indeed a recognition of continued personal presence in the afterlife. Second, his documentation of funerary, inscriptional, and monumental parallels in the language of divine judgment should spur continued research on the meaning of Biblical warnings that employ similar warnings.
From a more practical perspective, I believe that this article also demonstrates some theological truths that will be helpful for all of us to remember. The first of these relates to revelation. God does not speak to us in revelation in words or in language that we cannot understand. Indeed, God revealed Himself to the Jewish people in the midst of their culture. He did not hesitate to use previous terms and concepts, but drew appropriate parallels and worked to redefine erroneous ideas in the context of His revelation. As we work to proclaim the Gospel to our own culture and those with which we come into contact, we must do the same.
Proclaiming the Gospel is possible because God has preserved aspects of His truth among all men. He has set “eternity in their hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Sin has clearly twisted this revelation of God (Romans 1), but there remain several contact points for the Gospel. Our presentations should therefore build upon these remains, but work to correct corrupted cultural ideas and expressions with the truth of God’s word.
Finally, I find it interesting that the Jewish people recognized that the ultimate judgment was the loss of an individual relationship with God. This Biblical truth demonstrates the significance of the human person created in the image of God. We were designed for this purpose and in it we find our true significance. Whether we are remembered by those in this life is unimportant. We only need to be remembered by the eternal God. Lasting peace and rest is afforded to us not through memory, not through monument, but through the everlasting promise of God’s covenant.
 All page numbers are derived from the Symposium Digest.