She’ol (שְׁאוֹל Šəʾōl), in the Hebrew Bible, is a place of darkness to which all the dead go, both the righteous and the unrighteous, regardless of the moral choices made in life, a place of stillness and darkness cut off from life and from God. The inhabitants of Sheol are the “shades” (rephaim), entities without personality or strength. Under some circumstances they are thought to be able to be contacted by the living, as the Witch of Endor contacts the shade of Samuel for Saul, but such practices are forbidden (Deuteronomy 18:10).
While the Hebrew Bible describes Sheol as the permanent place of the dead, in the Second Temple period (roughly 500 BC – 70 AD) a more diverse set of ideas developed. In some texts, Sheol is considered to be the home of both the righteous and the wicked, separated into respective compartments; in others, it was considered a place of punishment, meant for the wicked dead alone, and is equated with Gehenna in the Talmud. When the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek in ancient Alexandria around 200 BC, the word “Hades” (the Greek underworld) was substituted for Sheol. This is reflected in the New Testament where Hades is both the underworld of the dead and the personification of it.
According to Herbert C. Brichto, writing in Hebrew Union College Annual, the family tomb is the central concept in understanding biblical views of the afterlife. Brichto states that it is “not mere sentimental respect for the physical remains that is…the motivation for the practice, but rather an assumed connection between proper sepulture and the condition of happiness of the deceased in the afterlife”.
According to Brichto, the early Israelites apparently believed that the graves of family, or tribe, united into one and that this, unified collectively, is to what the Biblical Hebrew term Sheol refers: the common grave of humans. Although not well defined in the Tanakh, Sheol in this view was a subterranean underworld where the souls of the dead went after the body died. The Babylonians had a similar underworld called Aralu and the Greeks had one known as Hades. According to Brichto, other biblical names for Sheol were: Abaddon (ruin), found in Psalm 88:11, Job 28:22 and Proverbs 15:11; Bor (the pit), found in Isaiah 14:15, 24:22, Ezekiel 26:20; and Shakhat (corruption), found in Isaiah 38:17, Ezekiel 28:8.
The Tanakh has few references to existence after death. The notion of resurrection of the dead appears in two late biblical sources, Daniel 12 and Isaiah 25–26.
Personification in the Hebrew Bible
Wojciech Kosior has argued that “Sheol” in the Hebrew Bible refers to an underworld deity.
Some additional support for this hypothesis comes from the ancient Near Eastern literary materials. For example, the Akkadian plates mention the name shuwalu or suwala in reference to a deity responsible for ruling the abode of the dead. As such it might have been borrowed by the Hebrews and incorporated into their early belief system. What is more, some scholars argue that Sheol understood anthropomorphically fits the semantic complex of the other ancient Near Eastern death deities such as Nergal, Ereshkigal or Mot.
- Rainwater 1990, p. 819
Sheol … is the OT word for the underworld or unseen world of the dead where departed spirits go … It was a place of stillness, darkness…
- Longenecker 2003, p. 188
- Knobel 2011, pp. 205–06
- Longenecker 2003, p. 189
- Eruvin 19a:16
- The Hebrew Union College Annual is an annual peer-reviewed academic journal in the field of Jewish and historical studies. It was established in 1924 and is published by the Hebrew Union College.
- Brichto 1973, pp. 1-54.
- Brichto 1973, p. 8.
- Life After Death – My Jewish Learning. Retrieved 10 July 2014.
- Kosior, Wojciech (2014). “The Underworld or its Ruler? Some Remarks on the Concept of Sheol in the Hebrew Bible”. Polish Journal of Biblical Research. 13 (1–2 (25–26)): 35–36. Retrieved 16 June 2014.
- P.S. Johnston, Shades of Sheol. Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament, Illinois 2002, p. 78. See also: L.B. Paton, The Hebrew Idea of the Future Life. III. Babylonian Influence in the Doctrine of Sheol, “The Biblical World”, Vol. 35, No. 3, Chicago 1910, p. 160.
- H. M. Barstad, Sheol, in: K. van der Toom, B. Becking, P.W. van der Horst (eds.), Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, 2nd ed., Leiden, Boston, Köln, 1999, pp. 768–70.
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