Philip S. Johnston discusses the various beliefs concerning Sheol/Hades in the Bible and related literature.

Philip S. Johnston

Philip S. Johnston, Shades of Sheol: Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament (Leicester: Apollos, 2002), 75–77

Philip S. Johnston
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Sheol is a place of no return (Job 16:22), a place of captivity with gates (Is. 38:10) and bars (Jonah 2:6). The ‘cords of Sheol’ may also suggest captivity (Pss. 18:5; 116:3), but more probably evoke hunting. Job’s wish to be hidden temporarily in Sheol (14:13; cf. 18-22) initially seems to question this finality, but the wish is hypothetical, an attempt to move beyond his perceived impasse with God, and does not quality the general picture.

Existence in Sheol is very sketchily drawn. It is a place of darkness (Job 10:21; Ps. 88:6; cf. 143:3; Lam. 3:6; Sirach 22:11), of inactivity and silence (Pss 94:17; 115:17). Only two prophetic oracles portray any form of activity. In one of the denizens of Sheol must be roused to greet a newcomer, and they then describe themselves as weak (Is. 14:9f.). In the other, the long dead declaim that others ‘have come down, they lie still’ (Ezek. 32:21). These texts simply confirm that inactivity is the norm.

Death, and implicitly Sheol, is the great leveller of all, small or great, slave or free (Job 3:13-19). However, the prophetic texts just noted portray former leaders sitting on thrones or lying with their armies in Sheol. Some scholars suggest that these texts preserve disparate views of the underworld. But the difference is more apparent than real, since enfeebled existence hardly permits meaningful social distinctions, and the prophetic texts actually stress equality in death rather than perpetuation of hierarchy. Isaiah 14 describes the downfall of a mighty king to the level of other deceased rulers, probably including his former vassals. And Ezekiel 32 notes that a similar underworld fate befell several groups who were all uncircumcised, violent and killed in battle. The ‘fallen warriors of long ago in the middle of the list (v. 27) fit the description, and therefore their apparently different status is curious. But with a slight emendation, the fallen warriors meet the same fate as the other reprehensible groups, which gives a more satisfactory reading in context. The oracle then stresses similar notoriety in life and common destiny in death.

These two prophetic passages are sometimes thought to imply different compartments within Sheol, with the king of Babylon consigned to ‘the depths of the pit’ (Is. 14:15) and the Assyrians to ‘the uttermost parts of the Pit’ (Ezek. 32:23). But this is not necessarily a worse fate. In the former case the fallen king clearly joins others in Sheol, and in the latter Assyria is ‘there’ in Sheol like all the other groups (Elam, Mashech and Tubal, Edom, etc.). In later, intertestamental literature, Sheol/Hades was divided into separate compartments for the righteous and the wicked, and 1 Enoch 22 specifies three or four separate compartments. However, the Old Testament texts do not assert this.

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