by Hiram R. Diaz III
§ 1. Sleep: A Pan-Testamental Euphemism for Death
A. The Old Testament
Canonically speaking, if Job is the oldest book in the OT canon then his text is the first to employ the sleep euphemism. Job declares that if he had been born a stillborn infant then “[he] would have slept; [he] would have been at rest.” And later, Job states that he will “sleep in the dust”:
a man lies down and rises not again;
till the heavens are no more he will not awake
or be roused out of his sleep.
Historically, however, the first use of sleep as euphemism for death is found in Genesis 47:30 where Jacob told Joseph:
…let me lie [i.e. sleep] with my fathers. Carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burying place.
Jacob identifies his dying as sleeping with his fathers, a reality which is distinct from his being buried in their burying place. The euphemism appears again in Deuteronomy 31:16, where the Scripture reveals:
…the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, you are about to lie down [i.e. sleep] with your fathers. Then this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break my covenant that I have made with them.
In 1st & 2nd Samuel, 1st & 2nd Chronicles, and 1st & 2nd Kings the euphemism appears more frequently. In its first appearance, God promises David
When your days are fulfilled and you lie down [i.e. sleep] with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you…and I will establish his kingdom.
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
The euphemism appears again in 1st Kings 1:21. As King David lay dying, Bathsheba entreated him to make Solomon his successor, arguing that if he did not then
“…it will come to pass, when my lord the king sleeps with his fathers, that I and my son Solomon will be counted offenders.”
1st Kings then goes on to use the euphemism ten more times. We are told twice that “David slept with his fathers.” This is followed by the revelation that Solomon, Jeroboam, Rehoboam, Asa, Baasha, Omri, Ahab, and Jehoshaphat did so as well. Likewise, 2nd Kings reveals Joram, Jehu, Jehoahaz, Joash, Jehoash, Amaziah, Jeroboam,
Azariah, Menahem, Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah, Manasseh, and Jehoiachin all “slept with [their] fathers.” 2nd Chron reports the deaths of many of these kings via the use of the sleep imagery as well. The euphemism was in wide usage in through the history of Israel’s kings, and even through her exile, appearing lastly in the book of Daniel where the dead are referred to as “those who sleep in the dust of the earth.”
B. The New Testament
Sleep as a euphemism for death is also found in the New Testament, starting with the Lord Jesus himself. Christ identifies Jairus’ dead daughter as “not dead but sleeping.” Similarly, his friend Lazarus, who had died, he describes as one who had “fallen asleep.”
Outside of the words of Christ, the euphemism’s first appearance is in Matthew 27:52, where we read of the resurrection of “the saints who had fallen asleep.” In the book of Acts, Luke informs us that after Stephen was stoned and prayed for Christ to receive his spirit, “he fell asleep.” Several chapters later, Luke gives the account of Paul’s preaching in Antioch where the apostle taught that:
“David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption.”
Sleep, then, was used by Christ, Matthew, Luke, and Paul as a euphemism for death (i.e. physical death).
Thus, in 1st Corinthians 15 Paul uses the euphemism again four times, writing:
1. …some have fallen asleep.
2. [If Christ has not been raised, then] those who have fallen asleep have perished.
3. …Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep…
4. …we shall not all sleep…
The apostle uses it four times again in 1st Thessalonians:
1. But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep…
2. Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.
3. ...we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.
4. ...whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.
Lastly, the apostle Peter also uses the euphemism. Peter reveals that in arguing against the return of the Lord Jesus Christ, the wicked would claim that “...ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of the creation.”
Throughout the NT, we see that death is euphemistically identified as sleep by the Lord Jesus Christ, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, and the enemies of the church of which Peter prophesies.
 Job 7:21. KJV.
 Job 14:11-12.
 שָׁכַב (shakab)
 שָׁכַב (shakab)
 שָׁכַב (shakab)
 2nd Sam 7:12.
 Ps 13:3-4.
 1st Kgs 2:10 & 1st 11:21.
 1st Kgs 11:43.
 1st Kgs 14:20.
 1st Kgs 14:31.
 1st Kgs 15:8.
 1st Kgs 16:6.
 1st Kgs 16:28.
 1st Kgs 22:40.
 1st Kgs 22:50.
 2nd Kgs 8:24.
 2nd Kgs 10:35.
 2nd Kgs 13:9.
 2nd Kgs 13:13.
 2nd Kgs 14:16.
 2nd Kgs 14:22.
 2nd Kgs 14:29.
 2nd Kgs 15:7.
 2nd Kgs 15:22.
 2nd Kgs 15:38.
 2nd Kgs 16:20.
 2nd Kgs 20:21.
 2nd Kgs 21:18.
 2nd Kgs 24:6.
 cf. 2nd Chron 9:31, 12:16, 14:1, 21:1, 27:9, & 32:33.
 Dan 12:2.
 Matt 9:24; Mark 5:39; Luke 8:52.
 John 11:11 & 14.
 Acts 7:59.
 Acts 7:60.
 Acts 13:36.
 1st Cor 15:6.
 1st Cor 15:18.
 1st Cor 15:20.
 1st Cor 15:51-52.
 1st Thess 4:13.
 1st Thess 4:14.
 1st Thess 4:15.
 1st Thess 5:10.
 2nd Pet 3:4.