Recently on an episode of Faithlife Today, Dr. Michael Heiser shared some unique insights into what the Bible says about ghosts.
“A lot of people think that the Bible really has nothing to say at all about ghosts, but that’s actually mistaken.”
Watch the video (Heiser starts at 2:53):
Elohim—God, gods, and more
Heiser digs into 1 Samuel 28, where Saul summons the spirit of Samuel through a medium. He says, “I have to talk to a man who has died . . . will you call up his spirit for me?” (1 Samuel 28:8, NLT). After he tells her to “call up Samuel,” the medium tells Saul, “I see a god coming up out of the earth.”
To dig into this passage, let’s head to the Faithlife Study Bible, where Heiser wrote an article called “Elohim as ‘Gods’ in the Old Testament” (find it in the study notes here).
The Hebrew word translated as “a god” in 1 Samuel 28:8 is elohim—a word which Heiser says is used to refer to capital “G” God (Yahweh), the heavenly council (Psalm 82), foreign gods (1 Kings 11:33), demons (see note on Deuteronomy 32:17), spirits of the dead (1 Samuel 28:13), and angels (see note on Genesis 35:7).
Heiser explains the diversity of this word:
This variety demonstrates that the word should not be identified with one particular set of attributes: elohim is not a synonym for God. We reserve the English “g-o-d” for the God of Israel and His attributes. Despite their usage of elohim, the biblical writers do not qualitatively equate Yahweh with demons, angels, the human disembodied dead, the gods of the nations, or Yahweh’s own council members. Yahweh is unique and above these entities—yet the same term can be used to refer to all of them.
Ghosts, demons, and evil spirits
The first layer of notes in the Faithlife Study Bible comments on verse 13: “No longer constrained by his human body, Samuel looks like a divine being.” Saul recognizes Samuel, but he no longer looks the same.
In the video, Heiser says, “the passage illustrates that there is a concept in the Hebrew Bible about the disembodied human dead.”
The Bible forbids communicating with “the disembodied human dead,” and Heiser makes sure to point out that he is not at all justifying the medium’s actions, but it is interesting to note that Heiser says that another Hebrew word used in other passages, ʾiṭṭîm (parallel to the Akkadian word for ghost, etemmu), is distinct from this usage of elohim—indicating that what we would call a “ghost” is not necessarily the same thing as what the Bible refers to as an evil spirit or demon.
So why are so many spiritual beings referred to as elohim?
Let’s see what Dr. Heiser says:
All beings called elohim in the Hebrew Bible share a certain characteristic: they all inhabit the non-human realm. By nature, elohim are not part of the world of humankind, the world of ordinary embodiment. Elohim—as a term—indicates residence, not a set of attributes; it identifies the proper domain of the entity it describes. Yahweh, the lesser gods of His council, angels, demons, and the disembodied dead all inhabit the spiritual world. They may cross over into the human world—as the Bible informs us—and certain humans may be transported to the non-human realm (e.g., prophets; Enoch). But the proper domains of each are two separate and distinct places.
Within the spiritual world, as in the human world, entities are differentiated by rank and power. Yahweh is an elohim, but no other elohim is Yahweh. This is what an orthodox Israelite believed about Yahweh. He was not one among equals; He was unique. The belief that Yahweh is utterly and eternally unique—that there is none like Him—is not contradicted by plural elohim in the Old Testament.
All squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. Numerous beings are called “elohim” in the Bible, but only one of those beings is also called God.
In English translations, we typically miss these associations.
Dr. Heiser says, “modern English translations often obscure the Hebrew text’s references to plural elohim. For example, the NASB renders the second elohim in Psa 82:1 as ‘rulers.’ Other translations—more faithful to the original Hebrew—opt for ‘gods’ or ‘divine beings.'”
If you want to start digging into ancient Greek and Hebrew yourself, consider taking Dr. Heiser’s Mobile Ed course, Learn to Use Biblical Hebrew in Logos.