Deeper dives into Bible translations and examining the original language open our eyes to greater clarity in understanding Bible messages as we look at the difference between spirits of the dead, demons, and ghosts.
Unfortunately, some Bible translations interpreted things into English with very broad strokes, losing some of the specificity included in the original Hebrew and Greek languages of the Old and New Testaments.
With that in mind, let’s look at the original language to examine what the Old Testament said about spirits of dead human beings, ghosts, demons, and more.
In a 3-part series of articles entitled “Discerning the Dead,” biblical and ancient languages scholar Dr. Michael S. Heiser explained in great detail the differences in language as it refers to dead human beings, nonhuman spirits, demons, and other beings such as Rephaim and Nephilim.
We highly recommend you check out Dr. Heiser’s complete series (part 1, part 2, part 3) as it goes into much more detail than we can cover here in our overview.
The Hebrew word used in the Old Testament when referring to dead humans is metim. The Hebrew concordance shows seven occurrences in the Old Testament. This would also, in context, describe the spirit of a departed dead person.
The Hebrew word used in the Old Testament is ʾob, a medium, necromancer or spirit, and yiddeoni, a familiar spirit.
These are spirits who have knowledge. Dr. Heiser states there is no evidence that this term is ever used two describe dead humans, but rather, it always describes nonhuman spirits.
Dr. Heiser also notes: “The OT says mediums can be possessed by nonhuman spirits (ʾôbôt; Lev. 20:27), it never says the spirits of human dead can possess mediums.”
This uses the Hebrew word hā’ittîm, which means spirits of the dead or necromancers, and is only found in one place in the Bible, in Isaiah 19:3. In the Akkadian language, Dr. Heiser says it was the most commonly-used term in ancient Mesopotamia for ghosts, referring to the departed spirit of a human being. However, in the Bible, Heiser says: “The ʾiṭṭîm are grouped together with other terms for nonhuman entities in this passage, including idols, which were thought to be inhabited by the god(s).”
According to Dr. Heiser, there are two words used for a demon in the Old Testament, which is also widely found in Mesopotamia Acadian literature and other literature.
The first word is
or shed, as found in Psalm 106:37 and Deuteronomy 32:17.
The second word is lîlî,, which also refers to a female night demon. It is found only once in the Bible, in
Isaiah 34:14. Some render the word as liyliyth, which is where we get the female goddess Lilith, referring to a night demon who haunts the lonely places of Edom. Some believe it was borrowed from Babylonian. Some also say it could refer to a night creature that inhabits desolate areas, such as a screech owl.