Dust or Dew: Immortality in the Ancient Near East and in Psalm 49

By Janet K. Smith

An examination of how Psalm 49, in the context of Ancient Middle Eastern literature, offers insight into the development of Hebrew concepts of the afterlife.

ISBN: 9780227680216


Dust or Dew addresses the question of Israel’s unique contribution to beliefs about afterlife in the Ancient Near East as hinted at in Psalm 49. Reading this obscure psalm separately from other diverse contexts is often unrewarding. Dust or Dew shows which other readings, from the literature of both ancient Israel and its neighbors, enriches our understanding not only of the psalm and but also of Israel’s developing concepts of sheol and redemption for the righteous. The Korahite clan of Israel also emerges from the historical shadows as key developers of this tradition. Finally, new light on Genesis 1-3 enriches understanding of Psalm 49, while a survey of the icons of ancient goddess worship informs our understanding of Genesis 1-3.

Additional information

Dimensions229 × 153 mm


Trade InformationJPOD

About the Author

Janet Smith is a former geologic draftsperson and illustrator. She holds a PhD in Hebrew Bible from Union Institute & University.


List of Abbreviations

1. Introduction
2. A Review of Literature on the Afterlife
3. Who Were the Korahites?
4. A Pilgrimage through the Korahite Psalter
5. Psalm 49: A Translation and Commentary
6. The Grim Afterlife of the Ancient Near East
7. The Path of Death or Life in the Hebrew Bible
8. Conclusion

Index of Ancient Documents
Index of Authors
Index of Foreign Gods and Goddesses


Endorsements and Reviews

Janet Smith offers a fresh perspective on the difficult and complex question of death and ‘life after death’ in the ancient world of the Bible. She has in purview the large sweep of Ancient Near Eastern religion. But she goes about the issue in a proper way, focusing on texts (the Psalms and particularly Psalm 49) and on the sub-community from which these Psalms arose. She studies the ‘Psalms of Korah’, a group whom she identifies as the ‘custodians of the hope of a future redemption for the soul from sheol’. Her work leads her to conclude, against mythological speculation, that ‘life after death’ in ancient Israel concerns the victory of God in the world. Her careful reading of texts will serve well a rethinking of the ‘this-worldly, bodily’ form of Israel’s faith in ‘the God of life.’ The last word, she affirms, belongs not to death, but to life!
Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary

Janet Smith skillfully collects bits of scattered information about Ancient Near Eastern beliefs in the afterlife and examines their connection to the theology of the ancient Hebrews. Her work uncovers new and significant discoveries that relate to the Psalms and the Hebrew theology of the afterlife. Janet’s research is comprehensive, her arguments are convincing, and her conclusions are well supported. Dust or Dew makes a significant contribution to the field of ancient near eastern and biblical studies.
Lee Roy Martin, Pentecostal Theological Seminary, Cleveland, Tennessee

What was the early Hebrew concept of the afterlife? The Hebrew Bible is filled with references to sheol, but rather than offering a systematic understanding of the afterlife, these references are often contradictory. Drawing on the best scholarship, Smith focuses on Psalm 49, which she interprets in light of biblical and Near Eastern texts. She concludes that there is ‘a clear sense of trajectory from the vaguest … ideas of a grave-like sheol transitioning to a confidence that righteous individuals will be immediately taken from sheol’. This book is a must for all theological libraries and religious studies programs as well as biblical scholars interested in the biblical understanding of the afterlife.
D. William Faupel, Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington DC

… presents a much-needed comparison of Psalm 49 and its afterlife themes with Ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife. … Smith has accomplished a great deal of work and made many timely connections between the beliefs of Israel and her neighbors.
Lindsey Arielle Askin, in Reviews in Religion & Theology, Vol 20, Issue 2

This interesting book … offers new insights into the somewhat elusive theology and eschatology of Ps 49. … this careful, comparative investigation is of high interest and suggests new paths of inquiry, especially with regard to the relation between Hebrew notions of afterlife retribution and Zoroastrianism.
Ilaria L.E. Ramelli, in Review of Biblical Literature, March 2013

[Smith] has achieved an impressive breadth of reading … She has initiated an important work on an important topic.
Sue Gillingham, in Journal of Theological Studies, Vol 64, No 2

In her free-ranging treatment of conceptions of death and the afterlife in Israel and the ancient Near East, [Smith] pulls together a wide variety of sources.
Davida H. Charney, in Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Vol 75

… an original examination of how Psalm 49, when read in the context of the literature of the Ancient Middle East, reveals new insights into the development of Hebrew concepts of the afterlife.
Theological Book Review, Vol 25, No 2

This is an imaginative and engagingly written study that is open about its own commitments, and abreast of a wide range of literature and ideas.
Brian Kelly, in Evangelical Quarterly, Vol 86, No 2