In the Hebrew Bible, Sheol (שאול) is the "abode of the dead," the "underworld," "the common grave of mankind" or "pit." It is said to be the destination of both the righteous and the unrighteous dead, as described in Book of Job (3:11-19). "Sheol" is also depicted as a comfortless place beneath the earth, beyond gates, where both slave and king, pious and wicked must go after death to sleep in silence and oblivion in the dust (Isa. 38:18; Ps. 6:5, 88:3-12; Job 7:7-10, 3:11-19; Gen. 2:7, 3:19).
The concept of Sheol seems to have originated from the ancient Sumerian view that after one dies, no matter how benevolent or malevolent he or she was in life, one is destined to eat dirt to survive in the afterlife. Sheol is sometimes compared to Hades, the gloomy, twilight afterlife of Greek mythology. In fact, Jews used the word "Hades" for "Sheol" when they translated their scriptures into Greek (see Septuagint). The New Testament (written in Greek) also uses "Hades" to mean the abode of the dead. Western Christians, who do not share a concept of "Hades" with the Eastern Orthodox, have traditionally translated "Sheol" (and "Hades") as "Hell." Unlike hell, however, Sheol is not associated with Satan.
By the first century, Jews had come to believe that those in Sheol awaited the resurrection of the body either in comfort or in torment. This belief is reflected in the later Jewish concept of a fiery Gehenna, which contrasts with Sheol.
No agreement exists on the root of the word "Sheol" although various etymologies have been proposed. Three possible candidates for its linguistic origin are: first, the word may be derived from the Hebrew root SHA'AL, meaning "to ask, to interrogate, to question." Second, it may have emerged as an Assyrian-Babylonian loan-word, "SHU'ALU," meaning "the gathering place for the dead." Finally, it could have evolved from Assyrian "SHILU," meaning "a chamber." In these cases, it is likely that the concept of Sheol was influenced by the neighboring beliefs of the Assyrians and Babylonians, who had similar ideas of an underworld.
Origins and Development of the Concept
The ancient Hebrews were not preoccupied with life after death in deliberate contrast to their Egyptian neighbors, whose own quest for immortality resulted in their elaborate Pyramid construction projects. Instead, the ancient Hebrews' view of the afterlife was a rather bleak place, similar to the descriptions of the afterlife held by the Assyrians. Indeed, the Jewish Encyclopedia states:
[I]t is certain that most of the ideas covered by the Hebrew "Sheol" are expressed also in the Assyro-Babylonian descriptions of the state of the dead, found in the myths concerning Ishtar's descent into Hades, concerning Nergal and Ereshkigal (see Jensen in Schrader, "K. B." vi., part 1, pp. 74-79) and in the Gilgamesh epic (tablets ii. and xii.; comp. also Craig, "Religious Texts," i. 79; King, Magic," No. 53).
Biblical passages describe Sheol as a place of "nothingness," "a pit" (Isa. 38:18, Ps. 6:5 and Job 7:7-10) in contrast to the perpetual fires of Gehenna (hell) that developed in later Judaism. James Tabor explains the early Jewish views of the afterlife as follows:
The ancient Hebrews had no idea of an immortal soul living a full and vital life beyond death, nor of any resurrection or return from death. Human beings, like the beasts of the field, are made of "dust of the earth," and at death they return to that dust (Gen. 2:7; 3:19). The Hebrew word nephesh, traditionally translated "living soul" but more properly understood as "living creature," is the same word used for all breathing creatures and refers to nothing immortal...All the dead go down to Sheol, and there they lie in sleep together–whether good or evil, rich or poor, slave or free (Job 3:11-19). It is described as a region "dark and deep," "the Pit," and "the land of forgetfulness," cut off from both God and human life above (Ps. 6:5; 88:3-12). Though in some texts Yahweh's power can reach down to Sheol (Ps. 139:8), the dominant idea is that the dead are abandoned forever. This idea of Sheol is negative in contrast to the world of life and light above, but there is no idea of judgment or of reward and punishment. If one faces extreme circumstances of suffering in the realm of the living above, as did Job, it can even be seen as a welcome relief from pain–see the third chapter of Job. But basically it is a kind of "nothingness," an existence that is barely existence at all, in which a "shadow" or "shade" of the former self survives (Ps. 88:10).
By the time of Jesus, however, many Jews had come to believe in a future resurrection of the dead. The dead in Sheol were said to await the resurrection either in comfort or in torment.
Sheol in the Bible
Numerous Biblical passages discuss the nature and characteristics of Sheol. It is shown to be literally under the ground when the ground opens up under the household of Korah and the people go down living into Sheol (Num. 16:31-33).
According to Biblical accounts, Sheol is never satiated (Prov. 30:20) and she "makes wide her throat" (Isa. 5:14). "The king of Babylon shall be "brought down to Sheol, to the depths of the Pit." (Isa. 14:15)
However, the Bible also states that those in Sheol are not beyond redemption for Yahweh's power can still save them (Ps. 139:8). Such sentiments are expressed in the following passages:
- "The breakers of death surged round about me; the menacing floods terrified me. The cords of Sheol tightened; the snares of death lay in wait for me. In my distress I called out: Lord! I cried out to my God. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry to him reached his ears." (Ps. 18:5-7)
- "Your love for me is great; you have rescued me from the depths of Sheol." (Ps. 86:13)
- "...Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, And You heard my voice." (Jon. 2:2)
Sheol and Gehenna
The concept of eternal punishment does not occur in the Hebrew Bible, which uses the term Sheol to designate a bleak subterranean region where the dead, good and bad alike, subsist only as impotent shadows. When Hellenistic Jewish scribes rendered the Bible into Greek, they used the word Hades to translate Sheol, bringing a whole new mythological association to the idea of posthumous existence. In ancient Greek myth, Hades, named after the gloomy deity who ruled over it, was originally similar to the Hebrew Sheol, a dark underground realm in which all the dead, regardless of individual merit, were indiscriminately housed.
However, following the period of the Babylonian Exile (sixth century B.C.E.), the Jews began to embrace a more punitive view of hell, which was known as Gehenna. This word derived from Gei Hinnom (the valley of Hinnom described in Josh. 15:8, 18:16; 2 Kings 23:10; Jer. 7:31; Neh. 11:30), a place where children were sacrificed to the Canaanite god Moloch, and where fires were kept burning to consume the corpses and rotting garbage.
Book of Enoch
The Book of Enoch records Enoch's vision of the cosmos. The author describes Sheol as divided into four sections: in the fist section, the faithful saints blissfully await judgment day, in the second section, the moderately-good await their reward, in the third section, the wicked are punished and await their judgment at the resurrection (see Gehenna), and in the last section, the wicked who do not even warrant resurrection are tormented.
- Emil G. Hirsch, “Sheol,” Jewish Encyclopedia. Retrieved August 29, 2007.
- Jewish views of the afterlife changed following the Babylonian exile, due to the influence of Zoroastrianism.
- James Tabor, "What the Bible says about Death, Afterlife, and the Future," The Jewish Roman World of Jesus. Retrieved August 29, 2007.
- Stephen L. Harris, Understanding the Bible, 6th ed. (McGraw Hill, 2002, ISBN 0767429168), 436.
- Balfour, Walter. Inquiry Into the Scriptural Import of the Words Sheol, Hades, Tartarus and Gehenna: All Translated Hell. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2003. ISBN 978-0766159464
- Harris, Stephen L. Understanding the Bible, 6th ed. McGraw-Hill, 2002. ISBN 0767429168
- Johnston, Philip S. Shades of Sheol: Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament. Apollos, 2002. ISBN 978-0830826872
- Turner, Alice K. The History of Hell. Harvest Books, 1995. ISBN 978-0156001373
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