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June 21, 2010

“I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning,” Jacob declares upon receiving Joseph’s torn and bloody robes. But what is Sheol? Is it heaven? Hell? A euphemistic term for the grave? Where does it fit within Christian theology? Is there anyone there now?

Sheol (שאול, which has a glottal stop between the “sheh” and the “ol”, for “She’ol”) is, it would appear, a proper underworld. I’ll back this more in a moment, but first we need to address something. She’ol may not be anything but an incorrect idea. We, as Christians, commonly assume that the Old Testament patriarchs had good theology. Certainly it would be hard to accuse them on that point in a number of areas. It’s less clear, though, that they had all-around good theology. Joseph, for instance, claims to use divination in Genesis 44. This practice will later fall under extreme bans, but Joseph does not appear to think it improper. There’s no reason to think that Joseph’s father has any clearer an idea about the afterlife than his son does about divination.

In an earlier essay I discussed how we might usefully ask questions about an afterlife. My first category was filtration. Who ends up in the afterlife, and how is that decided?

Sheol appears to be unfiltered. It is certainly not morally filtered. Jacob, as already described, assumes he is going there. In fact, this claim is repeated four times in the Joseph story, sometimes by Jacob, and sometimes by his sons (Genesis 37:35, Genesis 42:38, Genesis 44:29, and Genesis 44:31). Psalms 6, 16, and 30 all seem to assume that the natural destination of the speaker is Sheol, and the speaker is singing Psalms to God, so it is hard to imagine that they are thought to be on the wrong side of things. But Sheol is also the destination of the wicked. In Numbers 16 a number of men challenge Moses and Aaron, and the earth cracks open and they “go down alive into Sheol”. David, on his deathbed, accuses Joab of heinous crimes (1 Kings 2), and instructs Solomon to make sure that Joab does not “go down to Sheol in peace”. This suggests that Sheol takes the wicked and the righteous, but is not itself a punishment, unless David is feeling exceptionally vindictive.

In fact, Sheol is nearly synonymous with death. This can be seen most clearly in poetic pairings, where the same thing is said twice in slightly different ways. 1 Samuel 2:6 pairs killing and making alive with a “down to Sheol” and “raises up” to life line. 2 Samuel 22:6 pairs “the cords of Sheol” with “the snares of death”. Despite my desire to examine each instance individually to make the point clear it seems sufficient to simply list the remaining examples: Psalms 6:5, 49:14, 89:48, and 116:3, Proverbs 5:5, 7:27, and 9:18, Song of Solomon 8:6, Isaiah 28:15-18 and 38:18, Hosea 13:14, and Habakkuk 2:5. To die, for most of the Old Testament, is to go down to Sheol.

What about my second question, permeability? Clearly the living can die and enter Sheol. The reference to the earth swallowing people alive, sending them to Sheol, suggests that dying isn’t necessarily a prerequisite as much as a description of the action of going to Sheol. Coming back from Sheol, though, is harder. In 1 Samuel 28 Samuel briefly returns from his resting place, which is presumably Sheol. He doesn’t stay, and without the action of the necromancer who brought him up (an action he is not happy with) the story seems to imply that he returns to Sheol. Sheol, of course, is completely permeable to God. The dead are occasionally raised in the Old Testament, and this indicates that God is able to pluck souls from Sheol and return them to their bodies.

What, then, is Sheol like? What are the dead in Sheol like? Samuel’s appearance post-death is one useful indicator. He is described as an old man wrapped in a cloak (and apparently recognizable), and a god. This last term may sound odd, but it is attributed to a very scared necromancer, whose concept of divine beings may not align with our own. After all, many people at that time would have expected divine beings to exist in large numbers and of varying powers. So whatever Samuel is he’s still recognizable, which is apparently expected. He’s also, unexpectedly it seems, terrifying. This question of what is expected and what is not is important. As mentioned earlier Sheol may be a misconception. We are trying to get a handle on what Sheol is thought to be, which may or may not conform to reality.

Some other verses give us information, although not very much (these verses include ones that speak of death, a place called Abbadon, often paired with Sheol, and the rapha, the shades of the dead). Job 26:5 seems to place Sheol under the water, presumably the sea. This stands in contrast to its usual location under the earth, one strong enough that Ezekiel often speaks of “the world below” (also present once in Job, 40:13). Interestingly, Ezekiel seems to think of this as a very real world, with ruined cities (26:20), beasts, and the trees of long-gone Eden (31:16). Psalms 88 and 115 both assert that the dead do not praise God, while 88, 107, and 143 place the dead in (possibly metaphorical) darkness (as does Job 17:13). Psalm 13 compares death to sleep, although the exact nature of the comparison is unclear. Isaiah 38:18 appears to attribute no action or thought to the dead, while Job 17:14 seems to make no differentiation between “the pit” and physical death, as it continues its poetic point by talking about worms, which are not noted for eating spirits. Ecclesiastes has a reasonably long section on death, perhaps best summed up in the beginning of Chapter 9, where the dead are said not even to know anything. Ecclesiastes 3:21 makes an interesting claim, that we do not know if the spirit of a human goes upwards and the spirit of an animal downwards. This would seem to reference an idea now lost.

These claims cannot all be neatly harmonized. Claims appear to range from vast underworlds, populated, perhaps even with cities, to a “when you die you’re just dead” approach, to one that assumes that the dead are actively participating in some form of learning that the living can access via mediums. These may represent multiple views about death which would be expected if none of them are expressly taught. Real prophetic discussion of afterlives falls within the area deliberately left beyond this essay – resurrection of the dead. However, all of these afterlives are grim. Even the world beneath comes across as a shadow world, a punishment to be inflicted upon the wicked.

This makes two fairly specific points. First, the founders of Jewish monotheism did not invent a religion to save them from the terror of death. The religion that they believed in still said that death was terrible and final. They had other examples to draw on. Egypt was a regional superpower, and Egyptians believed in a happy afterlife. But She’ol is not a happy place. Death remained as foreboding as ever up until the late prophets at least, with the extremely rare exception of someone like Elijah, carried directly into God’s presence.

Second, there is no way to claim that the patriarchs, judges, kings, and prophets who believed that She’ol was what lay beyond death were at all interested in the brand of religion sometimes termed “fire insurance”. This is worth exploring somewhat further than this bald and obvious statement. Two aspects of the preacher-on-the-street fire insurance model stand out, and are sometimes incorporated into better frameworks. First, there’s a focus on the afterlife. What religion is primarily about, in this model, is making sure you don’t go to Hell. Second is the emphasis on intellectual assent to particular propositions. Judgment, in this model, occurs primarily on the basis of believing in God, defined mostly as believing that there is a God and some specific details about Him.

Faith, for the early Jews, simply cannot look like this. If there is no judgment, no choice of final destination, everything that faith involves happens in this world. It cannot be about leaving the world behind, and it cannot be a thing which one can do without much change in one’s lifestyle. Intellectual acknowledgement of Yahweh does not mean very much when there will not be a test at the end. Instead, God must be engaged so that He will act now.

These thoughts are still rather rudimentary, but it seems worth remembering them when we seek to determine the shape of faith. After all, Satan’s challenge to God in the opening of Job is that Job is faithful only because God bribes him. How would our faith look if we, like those who came before, believed only in She’ol? Is our faith dependent on bribes? And what does it look like to have faith, to engage in hard actions, to suffer for them, but to do so without believing that you, personally, will be paid back for your trouble?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. June 21, 2010 12:42 pm

    Question: Where/When does the Jewish notion of the resurrection come in? I know (at least according to N. T. Wright) this is a Jewish idea, not just something new that Christianity added.

  2. Eric permalink
    June 21, 2010 2:00 pm

    Daniel 12:3 would be the first unambiguous reference I know of. The idea is much more common in the intertestamental literature, both mainstream and weird. Of course, this is one reason why the date of the composition of Daniel is often pushed back to the time of the Maccabees.

  3. June 25, 2010 3:23 pm

    Thanks for the book comments, I love the historical discussions here! Also love the title of the blog, clever :) Will keep reading, thanks for getting in touch in the blogger community!

  4. prin permalink
    June 25, 2010 11:48 pm

    Ok, now that I’m here, finally, my timing is perfect. A little girl who died of cancer this week’s middle name was Shoal, and I was all, “Who would name their kid hell? That’s horrible!” but the spelling is different. Slightly. So it must mean something different.

    Apologies for the triviality of my first comment. :D

  5. prin permalink
    June 25, 2010 11:48 pm

    p.s. I love how you were driven to write about this topic on my birthday. How warm and fuzzy. :D

  6. Ben permalink
    June 26, 2010 10:14 am

    Nice article! I especially like the contrast between the fuzzy and dreary sheol and the well-developed and rather happy Egyptian afterlife (happy, at least, for those who don’t get Devoured).

  7. Ray permalink
    June 28, 2010 11:50 am

    Hey Eric,

    The set-up of the whole article was worth it alone for the questions you raise in the last paragraph. If my only hope was walking with God in this life, would I still be a Christian? That’s something to think about. Though Paul said he would have chosen to be cursed for the sake of his fellow Jews, even he says that if Christ died in vain (the eternal hope being a sham), that [Christians] would be the most miserable of all people because they’re hoping in the lie of the resurrection.

    How much do we love God and love walking with Him? Indeed, would we still do it if this life was all there is?


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