Note on “Sheol”

In the recent study on Psalm 6, the usage of the term loav= (š®°ôl, sheol) was noted, being the first such occurrence in the Psalter as we have it. As this term will be encountered in other Psalms, and, indeed, is found relatively frequently in Old Testament poetry, I felt it was worth devoting a special study to it. The word loav= occurs 66 times in the Old Testament Scriptures, primarily in poetry (16 in the Psalms, 9 in Job, 9 in Proverbs, 10 in Isaiah, 5 in Ezekiel, and 5 in the Minor Prophets). The context of how it is used makes clear that it is a (poetic) term for the realm of death and the dead, occasionally used as a personification of death (and the grave) itself. However, in spite of this, the actual origins and derivation of loav= remain quite uncertain. It is clearly an ancient, traditional Hebrew word, and yet there are no clear parallels or cognate examples from other Semitic languages of the period (i.e. Akkadian, Ugaritic, etc).

Etymology

The most obvious association for loav= would be with the common root lav, which has the basic meaning “ask, inquire” (cf. Akkadian ša°¹lu, “ask, decide”, etc). Unfortunately, it is hard to see exactly how the word, as it is used in the Old Testament, might relate to this root. One suggestion is that it refers to the realm of death (or the “underworld”) as a “place of interrogation”, i.e. where the deceased is judged and called to account (examined). Another possibility is that it relates to the idea of “asking/inquiring of the dead”, i.e. necromancy and the consulting of spirits (of the dead). Admittedly, such a connection is quite speculative, and far from convincing.

Another conceivable derivation, and one adopted by a number of commentators today, is from the root huv I (vb ha*v* š¹°â), which indicates ruin, devastation, destruction—cf. the related nouns hY`a!v= (š®°iyyâ), /oav* (š¹°ôn)—the final lamed (l, l) being an example paragogic epenthesis (insertion of a letter at the end of a word to aid in pronunciation). According to this theory, loav= would fundamentally mean something like “(land) of ruin”, “desolate (land)”.

Less plausible attempts have been made over the years to connect the word with different ancient Semitic roots (real or putative), but none have achieved any real acceptance by scholars. For a good survey of this evidence, consult the major critical dictionaries such as the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (TDOT) and the Anchor Bible Dictionary (article “Dead, Abode of the”).

Old Testament Usage

While loav= occurs primarily in Old Testament poetry, there are a few instances in the historical books (8 total) where it is included as part of the traditional narrative. Most notably, there are four occurrences in the Joseph narratives, referring to the sorrow and misfortune that will accompany the aged Jacob when he dies (to meet his son[s] in the realm of death). In Gen 37:35 (following the reported death of Joseph), we read:

“And all his sons and all his daughters stood up to sigh (with) [i.e. console] him, and he refused to be (consol)ed, and said that ‘I will go down to my son mourning, (down) to Še’ol!’ And his father wept (for) him.” (cf. also Gen 42:38; 44:29, 31)

In Numbers 16:30, 33 (the episode of Korah’s rebellion), the emphasis is on the sudden destruction, from natural disaster (brought about by YHWH as punishment), which will befall the rebels and send them “down to Sheol”:

“But if YHWH (should) exercise creation (over the) created (thing), and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them (up)—and all the (ones who are) for them—and they go down living to Še’ol, then you will know that these men (have) despised YHWH!” (v. 30)

The contrast clearly is with the natural death most humans experience (v. 29). Similarly in 1 Kings 2:6, 9, there is a contrast between dying in peace and as the result of violence, etc. Thus, in all these instances, loav= is used in connection with the idea of a person dying under unusual or unfortunate circumstances.

Perhaps the oldest occurrence of loav=, in terms of the age of the preserved text, is in the so-called “Song of Moses” (Deut 32), dated by many commentators (on objective grounds) to perhaps the 12th-11th century B.C. (cf. my recent Saturday Series studies on the Song, esp. on vv. 15-25). The two bicolons (couplets) in verse 22 use the image of a blazing wildfire to illustrate the burning anger of God (YHWH) when he acts in judgment (on Israel, for violating the covenant):

For a fire has sparked in my nostril(s)
and burns until the depths of Še’ôl,
and it consumes the earth and its produce
and blazes (to) the base of the hills!

Other examples from early poetry, preserved in the context of the traditional (historical) narrative are: 1 Samuel 2:6 (Song of Hannah) and 2 Samuel 22:6 (Song of David). The first of these follows closely the idea of God’s judgment (in its violent aspect) and power over the created order (life and death), as expressed in the Song of Moses and the episode of Numbers 16 (cf. above); indeed the statement in 1 Sam 2:6 echoes that of Deut 32:39b. In the Song of David (2 Sam 22:6), loav= is clearly used as a colorful (hyperbolic) reference to the violent turmoil and (destructive) danger the poet (David) faces; note the parallelism in the bicola of vv. 5-6, which is both synonymous (second line [in italics] stating and intesifying the imagery of the first)—

“For the breaking (wave)s of death surrounded me,
the torrents of Beliyya’al struck me with fear;
the twisting (cord)s of Še’ol swirled around me,
the ensaring (trap)s of death hit (right) in front of me.

but also chiastic:

    • waves of death
      • torrents of Beliyya’al
      • swirling bonds/pains of Še’ol
    • snares of death

When we turn to the remainder of occurrences in Old Testament poetry, we may divide these as follows: (a) Psalms and the book of Job, (b) Wisdom literature (Proverbs), and (c) in the Prophets.

(a) Psalms and the book of Job

The word loav= occurs 16 times in the Psalms, and 9 times in the poetic dialogues of Job. Much of this poetry appears to be quite early, and/or preserving genuinely archaic features. The data from the Psalms may be summarized as follows:

    • as a general (poetic) term for the realm of the dead
    • in the context of suffering/misfortune leading or drawing a person to death
    • imagery related to the fate of the wicked

This largely confirms the usage and range of meaning indicated above. With regard to the first point, laov= as a basic poetic term for death and the realm of the dead, this is more or less present throughout; perhaps the clearest examples would be in 6:6[5]; 49:15[14]; 139:8; 141:7 (cf. also Song 8:6). However, in many of the Psalms, the idea is connected with suffering and distress facing the Psalmist, by which his very life is in danger and on the verge of death (88:4[3], etc). Whether this should be taken literally or figuratively, it is part of the motif of a hope for deliverance which is integral to those Psalms (cf. the study on Psalm 6). In Psalm 49:16[15] and 89:49[48], we read of the “hand [dy`] of Š®°ôl“, referring to its power to grasp/keep hold of the dead, or to bring a person down into the grave. A similar anthropomorphic image involves Š®°ôl as one who devours (49:15[14]), possessing a wide mouth (hP#, 141:7) along with a ravenous appetite. This sort of personification of death and the grave was common to Ancient Near Eastern (religious) thought, and the idiom was retained in Israelite tradition and poetry (cf. on Psalm 5:10[9] in my recent study). A more objective image was that of a deep pit (30:4[3]; 86:13), or ropes/bonds which hold the deceased tight (18:6[5]; 116:3). With regard to death and the grave (i.e. loav=) as the fate of the wicked, sometimes indicating an unnatural or violent death (as in Num 16:30ff, etc), this is expressed clearly in 9:18[17]; 31:18[17]; 49:15[14]; 55:16[15].

In the book of Job, laov= tends to be used more figuratively as an image of deep darkness (i.e. characteristic of the realm of death)—11:3; 14:13; 17:13. However, the basic association with the actual death of a person, and fate of the grave, is also very much present, as fits the general narrative context of Job’s suffering (7:9f; 17:13, 16; 21:13). The association with the fate of the wicked, mentioned in examples above, is also seen in 24:19. Of special interest is Job 26:5-6, where there is evidence of a more precise concept of the realm of death as a “netherworld” located under the earth. Here loav= is paired with the term /oDb^a& (¦»addôn, cf. Prov 15:11; 27:20; and also Job 28:22; 31:12; Ps 88:12), probably meant to indicate the decay and destruction characteristic of the grave.

(b) Wisdom literature (Proverbs)

The word laov= occurs 9 times in Proverbs (also once in Ecclesiastes [9:10]); however one dates the various Proverbs, they certainly utilize much ancient (poetic) imagery to make an ethical point. We have, for example, the motif of Death/Sheol as a ravenous, devouring person (1:12; 27:20; 30:16), used to illustrate human greed and wickedness, etc. Indeed, abandoning the way of wisdom, and taking the way of sin and folly instead, leads to Š®°ôl (5:5; 7:27; 9:18)—another adaptation of traditional imagery involving Š®°ôl and the fate of the wicked (cf. above). There is also a wisdom-variation of the Psalmist’s plea for deliverance from death (cf. examples above), with the exhortation to avoid the fate of Š®°ôl by adopting the course of wisdom and prudence (15:24; 23:14). The maxim in Eccl 9:10 is similar to the Psalmist’s statement in 6:6[5].

(c) The Prophetic Oracles (esp. Isaiah and Ezekiel)

There are 20 occurrences of loav= in the Prophetic writings—10 in Isaiah, 5 in Ezekiel, and another 5 in the Minor Prophets (Hosea, Amos, Jonah, Habakkuk). The references in Ezekiel (31:15-17; 32:21, 27) are interesting in that they likely represent the most recent occurrences in the Old Testament, perhaps reflecting the intentional use of older (archaic) imagery.

In Isaiah 5:14 we find again the traditional image of the wide mouth and devouring appetite of Death/Sheol; whereas in 7:11 (cf. also 57:9) it is simply the depth of it (in contrast with the height of heaven) that is emphasized. Š®°ôl features in two noteworthy nation-oracles: against Babylon (chap. 14 [vv. 9, 11, 15]) and against Jerusalem itself (chap. 28 [vv. 15, 18]). In 14:9ff we have another example of Š®°ôl as the fate of the wicked; while in 28:15ff this is played on in the opposite sense—the people of Jerusalem believe they will be able to avoid the fate of death and destruction. Isa 38:10ff simply utilizes loav= in the basic sense as the realm of death, the sentiment expressed in v. 18 being similar to that of Psalm 6:6[5].

The traditional imagery of the depth of Š®°ôl, and its devouring appetite, occur again in Amos 9:2 and Habakkuk 2:5. Two other references in the Minor Prophets are especially noteworthy:

    • The opening of the poem in Jonah 2:2-9, very much of a kind with many Psalms in which the protagonist asks YHWH for deliverance from the danger and distress he faces (cf. above):
      “I called out to YHWH from (the things) pressing on me, and he answered me;
      from the belly of Še’ol I (call)ed for help, and You heard my voice.”
    • In Hosea 13:14, the word occurs twice, in parallel couplets, which form a declaration (or question) by YHWH, the interpretation of which, in context, continues to be debated. Reading the first couplet as a declaration, we have:
      “From the hand of Še’ol I will pay to release them,
      from death I will redeem them (as my kin)—
      where (are) your deadly (blow)s, Death?
      where your destroying (power), Še’ol?
      —(their) gasping (for sorrow) is hid from my eyes.”
      Paul makes use of the second couplet in 1 Cor 15:55.

LXX and influence on the New Testament

In the Greek Septuagint (LXX), laov= is translated by a%|dh$ (hád¢s), a word used almost exclusively for that purpose in the LXX. It is often transliterated in English as “Hades”, while the common translation “Hell” is quite inappropriate. In my view, it is better to translate literally as “(the) Unseen (place, i.e. of the dead)”, especially since the realm of the dead is the basic meaning, in context, for Hebrew laov=. The label “unseen” is also appropriate for the characteristic of the realm of the dead as a dark, shadowy place beneath the earth.

This word a%|dh$ occurs 10 times in the New Testament. In the book of Revelation (1:18; 6:8; 20:13-14), it is virtually synonymous with “death” (qa/nato$). Acts 2:31 simply comes via the citation of Psalm 16:10 (v. 27), where a%|dh$ = loav= as the grave in which bodies decay. The occurrence in the saying of Jesus (“Q” [Matt 11:23; Lk 10:15]) also draws upon traditional imagery, though with a contrast between Heaven above and Š®°ôl below (cf. Isa 7:11). Only in two instances do we find a more decidedly negative aspect and connotation of the term, perhaps a bit more akin to the idea of “hell” in English:

    • In Jesus’ words to Peter in Matt 16:18, he states that “the gates of a%|dh$ will not have strength against it”—that is, against his e)kklhsi/a, i.e. believers, those called out to join together as his followers. This could be taken to refer to the powers of evil, etc, though it could just as easily be understood in the more traditional sense of Hades/Sheol as the realm of death—i.e. that Jesus’ disciples will have power over death, and the kind of illness, etc, that brings people to the point of death.
    • A sense of a%|dh$ closer to our conception of “hell” is found in Lk 16:23, within the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. However, even here, the term need not mean anything more than the place of the dead. The best way to view the scene described by Jesus, in my view, is that both men are in the Unseen realm (i.e. Hades)—i.e. both are dead—but within this realm there is a great separation. The Rich Man is in torment, while Lazarus enjoys (apparently) a more pleasant existence in “Abraham’s lap”. Even so, it is likely that a%|dh$ here draws upon one traditional aspect of loav= mentioned above—as signifying the fate of the wicked. It is this aspect that gave rise to our standard conception of “hell”, and the use of that word, however inappropriate, to translate both a%|dh$ and loav=.

Conclusion

The evidence examined above demonstrates, rather conclusively, I think, the basic range of meaning for the word loav= in the Old Testament, even if its fundamental (original) meaning and derivation remain uncertain. This may be summarized as follows:

    1. It refers generally to death and the realm of the dead, i.e. where the dead reside—both for the grave in the narrower sense, and in the wider sense of a dark, shadowy place of existence (for the dead) beneath the earth.
    2. This foreboding aspect, along with the universality of death, led to imagery emphasizing the all-consuming power of Š®°ôl, and the force by which it grabs hold of people. Sometimes, but not always, this was expressed by way of mythological personification—Death/Sheol as a person—a common ancient mode of expression, especially in poetry, which was preserved in the Old Testament.
    3. Quite often, the word loav= was used specifically in association with death (and the danger of death) experienced in the midst of suffering and misfortune of various kinds (including violence).
    4. As an extension of this, wicked and violent persons were seen especially as belonging to Š®°ôl, which also would be their fate—perhaps through an unnatural or violent death brought about by God’s judgment.
Note on loav= and the Afterlife

One striking fact, which many Jews and Christians today are bound to find troubling, is that, in all these references to Death and Š®°ôl in the Old Testament, there are precious few examples which indicate a specific belief in an afterlife. The references to Š®°ôl, insofar as they describe an afterlife at all, do not go much beyond the basic ancient Near Eastern concept of a dark, shadowy place where the dead have only a limited sort of existence. Even passages which refer to God delivering one up from Š®°ôl (e.g. Psalm 16:10; 49:16[15]; Hos 13:14) do not indicate anything like the idea of resurrection or promise of a future life in heaven; for the most part, they simply refer to deliverance from death in the present. The righteous person, loyal to YHWH, is being pulled down into Š®°ôl, in danger of death, and is saved by God—at least, that is the idea, expectation, and hope expressed in such passages. It is only in later Israelite and Jewish tradition that we find more clearly a belief in the resurrection of the dead, along with a blessed life in heaven (with God) for the righteous. Daniel 12:2, however one dates the book of Daniel, would seem to represent the earliest certain example. By the first centuries B.C./A.D., the belief was quite widespread, enough so that, in the 1st century A.D., the Sadducean denial of resurrection was worthy of comment (Mark 12:18 par; Acts 23:8; Josephus Antiquities 18.16). Earlier evidence for belief in actual resurrection from the dead is ambiguous at best; commentators would cite examples such as Hos 6:1-3; Isa 26:19; Ezek 37:13-14—these refer primarily, in context, to national restoration, but may draw upon a more basic idea of bodily resurrection. Hope for the possibility of personal immortality—dwelling with God in Heaven—without experiencing death at all, may have been present in early Israelite thought as well (cf. Psalm 16:10, etc, and the examples of Enoch & Elijah).