Is Reincarnation in the Bible?
There are no explicit expressions of reincarnation in the Bible. If you were to read it cover to cover, it is likely that nothing would particularly strike you as referring to a doctrine about reincarnation. However, those Kabbalists who believed in it found numerous biblical verses that they interpreted as proof texts for reincarnation in the Bible.
There are a number of different Hebrew terms for reincarnation. The most common is gilgul, the root of which means “revolving.” Some related words are gal, which is “a wave”; galgal, which means “wheel”; and gulgolet, which is a skull or head. In English, other terms for reincarnation are “transmigration of souls” and “metempsychosis.”
Kabbalists saw references to transmigration in the Bible both in verses that they read and in stories that they thought made more sense when considered in light of reincarnation. Kabbalists interpret Exodus 34:4, in which Moses fashions a second of set of tablets like the first, as an allusion to transmigration. They believe that in this story, a second physical form is provided for the timeless spirit of the Ten Commandments, and for that reason it represents an instance of reincarnation.
A few verses later, after a cloud descends on Mount Sinai and Moses is intimately in the Presence of God, the Bible states that YHVH “preserves loving-kindness for thousands [of generations] forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin” (Exodus 34:7). Kabbalists often see transmigration of the soul as supporting the notion of reincarnation.
Some Kabbalists saw the possibility of 1,000 gilgulim (plural of gilgul), others saw 3 as the limit, which is a number mentioned in the continuation of the verse regarding the number of generations that may feel the effects of transgression.
Is Moses in Every Generation?
Another term used for the transmigration of souls in early Kabbalah is ibbur, which came to have a different, though related, meaning by the end of the thirteenth century. Deuteronomy 3:26 uses this root in a verb form regarding Moses. The root (spelled, Ayin, bet, resh) can mean a number of different things, and this verse is usually translated as God being angry with Moses because of the people's behavior. However, if the verb is translated as referring to “transmigrating” instead of “being angry” it may be read as “YHVH will cause me to transmigrate for your sake.” In fact, some Kabbalists believed that the soul of Moses is reincarnated every generation to help the people endure their exile from the Holy Land.
A Matter of Interpretation
A verse from II Samuel reads: “[A] nd God doesn't take a Nefesh [soul/life], but devises means that none of us will be banished” (14:14). In addition to the previous example, Kabbalists also use this excerpt from the Bible as a proof text for the existence of transmigration. There are a number of similar verses in Ecclesiastes that Kabbalists perceive as proof as well.
It is easy to see how Kabbalists would read Ecclesiastes 1:9 as referring to transmigration: “That which was will be, that which was done is that which will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”
Biblical stories that seem unrelated to the essential themes and narrative flow of the text are often interpreted by Kabbalists as teachings related to reincarnation. This is also the case when an inordinate amount of detail is given concerning what appears to be a minor point.