1. The Name
2. The Abode of the Dead
(1) Not a State of Unconsciousness
(2) Not Removed from God's Jurisdiction
(3) Relation to Immortality
3. Post-canonical Period
1. The Name:
This word is often translated in the King James Version "grave" (e.g. Ge 37:35; 1Sa 2:6; Job 7:9; 14:13; Ps 6:5; 49:14; Isa 14:11, etc.) or "hell" (e.g. De 32:22; Ps 9:17; 18:5; Isa 14:9; Am 9:2, etc.); in 3 places by "pit" (Nu 16:30,33; Job 17:16). It means really the unseen world, the state or abode of the dead, and is the equivalent of the Greek Haides, by which word it is translated in Septuagint. The English Revisers have acted somewhat inconsistently in leaving "grave" or "pit" in the historical books and putting "Sheol" in the margin, while substituting "Sheol" in the poetical writings, and putting "grave" in the margin ("hell" is retained in Isa 14:1-32). Compare their "Preface." The American Revisers more properly use "Sheol" throughout. The etymology of the word is uncertain. A favorite derivation is from sha'al, "to ask" (compare Pr 1:12; 27:20; 30:15-16; Isa 5:14; Hab 2:5); others prefer the sha'al, "to be hollow." The Babylonians are said to have a similar word Sualu, though this is questioned by some.
2. The Abode of the Dead:
Into Sheol, when life is ended, the dead are gathered in their tribes and families. Hence, the expression frequently occurring in the Pentateuch, "to be gathered to one's people," "to go to one's fathers," etc. (Ge 15:15; 25:8,17; 49:33; Nu 20:24,28; 31:2; De 32:50; 34:5). It is figured as an under-world (Isa 44:23; Eze 26:20, etc.), and is described by other terms, as "the pit" (Job 33:24; Ps 28:1; 30:3; Pr 1:12; Isa 38:18, etc.), ABADDON (which see) or Destruction (Job 26:6; 28:22; Pr 15:11), the place of "silence" (Ps 94:17; 115:17), "the land of darkness and the shadow of death" (Job 10:21 f). It is, as the antithesis of the living condition, the synonym for everything that is gloomy, inert, insubstantial (the abode of Rephaim, "shades," Job 26:5;, Pr 2:18; 21:16; Isa 14:9; 26:14). It is a "land of forgetfulness," where God's "wonders" are unknown (Ps 88:10-12). There is no remembrance or praise of God (Ps 6:5; 88:12; 115:17, etc.). In its darkness, stillness, powerlessness, lack of knowledge and inactivity, it is a true abode of death (see DEATH); hence, is regarded by the living with shrinking, horror and dismay (Ps 39:13; Isa 38:17-19), though to the weary and troubled it may present the aspect of a welcome rest or sleep (Job 3:17-22; 14:12 f). The Greek idea of Hades was not dissimilar.
(1) Not a State of Unconsciousness.
Yet it would be a mistake to infer, because of these strong and sometimes poetically heightened contrasts to the world of the living, that Sheol was conceived of as absolutely a place without consciousness, or some dim remembrance of the world above. This is not the case. Necromancy rested on the idea that there was some communication between the world above and the world below (De 18:11); a Samuel could be summoned from the dead (1Sa 28:11-15); Sheol from beneath was stirred at the descent of the king of Babylon (Isa 14:9 ff). The state is rather that of slumbrous semi-consciousness and enfeebled existence from which in a partial way the spirit might temporarily be aroused. Such conceptions, it need hardly be said, did not rest on revelation, but were rather the natural ideas formed of the future state, in contrast with life in the body, in the absence of revelation.
(2) Not Removed from God's Jurisdiction.
It would be yet more erroneous to speak with Dr. Charles (Eschatology, 35 ff) of Sheol as a region "quite independent of Yahwe, and outside the sphere of His rule." "Sheol is naked before God," says Job, "and Abaddon hath no covering" (Job 26:6). "If I make my bed in Sheol," says the Psalmist, "behold thou art there" (Ps 139:8). The wrath of Yahweh burns unto the lowest Sheol (De 32:22). As a rule there is little sense of moral distinctions in the Old Testament representations of Sheol, yet possibly these are not altogether wanting (on the above and others points in theology of Sheol).
(3) Relation to Immortality.
To apprehend fully the Old Testament conception of Sheol one must view it in its relation to the idea of death as something unnatural and abnormal for man; a result of sin. The believer's hope for the future, so far as this had place, was not prolonged existence in Sheol, but deliverance from it and restoration to new life in God's presence (Job 14:13-15; 19:25-27; Ps 16:10-11; 17:15; 49:15; 73:24-26; see IMMORTALITY ; ESCHATOLOGY OF THE OLD TESTAMENT; RESURRECTION). Dr. Charles probably goes too far in thinking of Sheol in Ps 49:1-20 and Ps 73:1-28 as "the future abode of the wicked only; heaven as that of the righteous" (op. cit., 74); but different destinies are clearly indicated.
3. Post-canonical Period:
There is no doubt, at all events, that in the postcanonical Jewish literature (the Apocrypha and apocalyptic writings) a very considerable development is manifest in the idea of Sheol. Distinction between good and bad in Israel is emphasized; Sheol becomes for certain classes an intermediate state between death and resurrection; for the wicked and for Gentiles it is nearly a synonym for Gehenna (hell). For the various views, with relevant literature on the whole subject, see ESCHATOLOGY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT; also DEATH; HADES; HELL, etc.