Sheol in the Old Testament (part 1)

Most people’s understanding of what the Bible says about existence after death doesn’t go beyond a simple heaven and hell, so I expect that many of you are surprised to know that the Old Testament people didn’t exactly expect to go to either place.  They spoke about Sheol, and that is what I have been explaining in the last several blog entries.

The first time we see the word Sheol used is in the story of Jacob (Gen. 37:35, 42:38, 44:29,31). Moses records this story around 1500 BC. Jacob himself would have lived around 2000 BC. It would be a mistake to assume that either of these men are the inventors of the idea of Sheol. I wouldn’t even conclude that they were the first recipients of revelation about Sheol. We have no definitive idea of how mankind found out about Sheol. The use of the word by these men simply means they knew something about it. But what?

When Jacob finds out the false information that his son, Joseph, is dead, (Actually his brothers had sold him to slave traders); he goes into full-scale mourning. He suggests that his own grief is going to kill him and that he will go down to Sheol (usually translated as “grave” here) to his son. Since there is no body, Jacob doesn’t mean that he will be put into the family tomb with his son. He fully expects to be where his son already is. It is important to note that both Jacob and Joseph are among God’s chosen people. They are reserved for eternal life, even if that promise wasn’t entirely clear to them. Still, Sheol is the place where even the righteous expected to go in Old Testament times.

This is part of the reason why the concept of Sheol is so confounding to us today. We are used to thinking that the righteous go to heaven, and assume that this has always been true. Trying to stay true to this idea, translators have had to come up other ideas of what Sheol meant that didn’t describe a conscious, after death destiny. Hence they equate Sheol with the grave or a nebulous concept of death, whenever a righteous person uses the word. If you let yourself get past this bias, however, you will realize that most people in the Old Testament spoke of going to Sheol after their death and understood it to be a place of conscious existence. The promise of eternal life with God in the Old Testament is more often a reference to the resurrection of the body at Judgment Day.

As Jacob speaks about his death, he refers to going “down” to Sheol. This is reflective of where he believed Sheol to be. In ancient cosmology, Sheol was beneath the earth. The fact that the ancient people didn’t accurately understand the structure of the universe is not grounds for dismissing all of their ideas, but it does weigh on the degree of literalism we would attach to their words.

The fact that the Bible is the Word of God, does not mean that all the words in it are the Word of God. The Bible is not a running monologue where God speaks. Saying that the Bible is God’s Word means that God inspired the recording of these words and that the teachings of these words, sometimes through whole stories or even whole books accurately convey the truth.  Individuals within the stories may express their own understanding, even if that understanding is inaccurate. This is very different from some modern, liberal theories on the Bible that dismiss the Bible as being the product of human editing, cultural bias, and imagination. I am saying that the type of literature that each book of the bible is affects the degree of literalism with which you understand it and whether you can take a verse out of its context.

All we can say is this so far, Jacob’s family believed in a place where the dead went. They may or may not have had a proper understanding of where that was. God may not have given them information on Sheol’s location, and people like Jacob simply filled the void by referring to Sheol as being down.

We might assume that the knowledge of the Old Testament people, if accurate, always came in the form of revelation from God. While this is often true, we will see later that there is another more nefarious way information about Sheol could have come to the broader culture.

The idea of going “down” to Sheol could have also been created by many experiences other than revelation. The most obvious is lowering the body into a grave. Volcanic activity may have led others to assume that Sheol was in the middle of the earth.

The next reference to Sheol comes from the story of the rebellion against Moses by the sons of Korah, which is found in Numbers 16. In the story of the rebellion of Korah, God wanted to assert, for the whole population of Israel to see, that He is in charge and that Moses and Aaron are His representatives. Before it all was over Korah, two of his followers and their families were swallowed up by the ground and “went down alive to Sheol”. Fire also came from God and consumed 250 other men who had sided with the rebels. This judgment brought further rebellion against the leadership of Moses and a plague ended up taking the lives of 14,700 people before it was stopped.

The story illustrates a number of things. First, it is not beyond a God of love to also be a God of justice. God desires the well-being and salvation of people, but He does not tolerate rebellion and people trying to do things their own way. Second, this incident shows Sheol to be the destination of the condemned as well. While the bodies of Korah and his followers definitely went down, the location of their final destination is uncertain.

The next spot we find Sheol is in a monologue given by God in Deuteronomy 32. Earlier in chapter 32 Moses recounts the provocative nature of the behavior of the people of Israel toward God. In verse 20, God speaks Himself of His displeasure and His plans for discipline. Then in verse 22 God says,

For a fire had been kindled by my wrath, one that burns to the realm of Sheol below. It will devour the earth and its harvests and set afire the foundations of the mountains. (NIV, 1984)

Once again, the concept of down is interjected, this time by God. Where “below” refers to is unclear. What is added to this picture of Sheol is the idea of the “fire of God’s wrath”. This wrath currently was burning in Sheol, but would expand to judgment in this world. Given this description should Sheol then be seen as Hell? That would depend on what we understand by “Hell”. If Hell is the place of final, eternal judgment then the answer would be “no”, as we shall see. Also militating against such an interpretation is the fact that the chosen are also seen as going to Sheol.

Next Time: Is Sheol my destiny?

Author: tdwenig

Tom is the Senior Pastor of the Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer in Evansville, IN. He has served his congregation since 2000. He has a Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO

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