Ghosts in the Hebrew Bible

“The dead don’t talk. I don’t know why.”

So says Odd Thomas, the hero of my favorite cotton candy novel. It’s a book about a twenty year old short-order cook who sees dead people. (No, it is not like TheSixth Sense). I was so caught up in Odd Thomas a few semesters ago that I chose to write an exegetical paper on Isaiah 8:11-22 primarily because it has the word אוב in it. The translation of this word is difficult. It is not always easy to determine whether it means “ghost” or “medium,” one who conjures spirits. In a recently published article Andrés Piquer Otero describes the Hebrew word אוב as “a mystifying puzzle.” One thing is for sure: whether directly or indirectly, in the Hebrew Bible the dead do talk.

I’ve mulled over אוב for quite a while, and this is my conclusion:

Though the etymology of II.אוב is uncertain, a rubric for understanding the word can be constructed based on its usage in the Hebrew Bible. אוב should be understood to refer to a ghost in contexts (A) where an אוב is described doing things that no living, human medium could do, (B) where אוב is parallel to chirping sounds, (C) where אוב stands parallel with other spiritual entities or things, and (D) where there is a clear agent-object distinction and אוב is the object. A potential fifth category would include contexts where אוב is the object of verbs of seeking.

אוב should be understood to refer to one who conjures the spirit of a dead person, a medium, in contexts (A) where a living, human being is described as אוב and (B) where a person increases or decreases אובות in a measurable way.

For an explanation click here.

3 thoughts on “Ghosts in the Hebrew Bible

  1. If you haven’t already, you may want to check out Hoffner’s 1967 JBL article, which presents a third option based on cognate literature.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I had read his article in TDOT on אוב, but not the JBL article. In the JBL article he goes into more detail, laying out his understanding of the words etymology and arguing that originally an אוב was a “ritual hole in the ground dug to give infernal deities and spirits of the deceased access to the upper world for a brief interval of time” (401).
    However, he also notes, “In time the name which at first designated only the pit itself came to be applied to the spirits which issued from it…” (401)
    So, as you said, “pit” is another option, but I don’t know if any of the OT occurrences of the word necessarily mean “pit.” The first time I went through all the references I dismissed the idea. I don’t remember why. I’ll have to take another look. Maybe in 1 Sam 28:7, with the phrase בעלת־אוב, as Hoffner argues. But then again in the next verse I think it clearly means “ghost.” The idea that in v.7 it refers to the pit and in v.8 the spirit is certainly not impossible because it seems בעלת־אוב was sort of a technical term.
    Are there any places where you think אוב means “ritual pit”?

  3. Yeah, I definitely find merit in that “technical” usage for 1 Sam 28:7, but I don’t see the need to maintain hard and fast semantic lines between the designations, at least in some HB references. Ambiguity may, in fact, be tacit in other references, like Is 19:3 and 1 Chr 10:13 (e.g. in Is, notice the potential parallelism between instruments and individuals “idols/ghosts [the latter an Akk loanword] and pit/spiritists). Since אוב is often collocated with ידוני, a term we often translate “spiritist,” we often just assume אוב must refer to an individual, but the cognate evidence combined with the -ōn abstract suffix on ידוני should at least cause one to pause.

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