Theodore J. Lewis discusses Sheol in the Bible and related literature; there is evidence for belief of a conscious existence among the Israelites after death.

Theodore J. Lewis

Theodore J. Lewis, "Dead, Abode of the," in The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, 6 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 2:101-5, Logos ed.

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Theodore J. Lewis
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B. Sheol in the Hebrew Bible

1. Depiction of the Place Sheol. We have few descriptive details of Sheol in comparison to the elaborate depictions of the underworld found in Egyptian and Mesopotamiam literature (Rosenberg 1980: 166–67). One thinks immediately of the Egyptian “guide books” for the dead in the underworld (dat/duat), which lead the dead through various gates, portals, and caverns. The Mesopotamian story about the descent of Isthar into the netherworld describes the entrants’ journey to “the land of no return” (māt la târi), which is a place “bereft of light where their sustenance is dust and their food is clay.” Gates and guardian gatekeepers are common to both traditions. For a discussion of the various names for the underworld in Mesopotamia, see Tallqvist (1934).

Sheol is typically depicted as a place to which one “goes down” (yrd; e.g., Num 16:30; Job 7:9; Isa 57:9; cf. Isa 29:4; Ps 88:3–4; KTU 1.161.21–22;–25; CAD A2: 216 s.v. arādu). It represents the lowest place imaginable (Deut 32:22; Isa 7:11) often used in contrast with the highest heavens (Amos 9:2; Ps 139:8; Job 11:8). To emphasize further the depth of Sheol we also find šĕʾôl, as well as ʾereṣ and bôr (see C below), modified by taḥtı̂t/taḥtiyyôt (e.g., Deut 32:32; Ps 86:13; Ezek 31:14–18), usually translated “the lowest parts of the underworld.” Sheol is often associated with various water images (Tromp 1969: 59–66). The best example of this imagery can be found in Jonah 2:3–6, which couples šĕʾôl with numerous terms for the chaotic waters including Sea (yām/yammı̂m), River (nāhār), breakers (mišbārı̂m), waves (gallîm), waters (mayîm), and the deep (tĕhôm) (see Cross 1983: 159–67). Rosenberg (1980: 102–69) has noted the stereotypical fixed formulas employed in such passages (e.g., Jonah 2:3–6; Pss 42:8; 69:2–3, 15–16; 88:7–8). Building on the analysis of the river ordeal by McCarter (1973: 403–12) and Frymer-Kensky (1977), Rosenberg proposed that the water imagery has more to say about divine judgment than about an actual description of the locale of šĕʾôl. Rosenberg’s contributions to understanding the forensic context of šĕʾôl are many. Yet the crossing of water as part of one’s travel to the underworld is too persistent in the ANE not to be underlying the imagery of biblical Sheol to some degree, even if the water imagery is used primarily in forensic contexts. Compare ḫubur in Akkadian (CAD Ḫ, 219), which is a designation for both the place of the river ordeal and the netherworld.

The gates of Sheol are mentioned several times in the Hebrew Bible (Isa 38:10; Pss 9:14—Eng 9:13; 107:18; Job 38:17; cf. Jer 15:7). As mentioned above, gates and guardian gatekeepers are prominent in the Egyptian and Mesopotamian conceptions of the netherworld. The same concept continues in later Jewish (Wis 16:13; 3 Macc. 5:51) and Christian (Matt 16:18; cf. Rev 1:18) literature. Similarly, Jonah 2:7—Eng 2:6 describes the “bars” (bĕrı̂ḥı̂m) of the underworld (cf. Job 38:10; the common translation “bars of Sheol” in Job 17:16 [cf. RSV] is doubtful). Both of these images have to do with the imprisoning power of Sheol and its impassable nature, which prevents escape. Compare Job 7:9, yôrēd šĕʾôl lōʾ yaʿaleh, “he who goes down to Sheol does not come up” and the Akkadian description of the netherworld as māt la târi, “the land of no return.” See also BELIAL. Compare also the ropes and snares of Sheol/Death (2 Sam 22:6 = Ps 18:5–6—Eng 18:4–5).

Darkness is a key characteristic of netherworlds (Held 1973: 179 n. 53), and this holds true for Sheol as well. It occurs in parallelism with ḥōšek, “darkness” (Job 17:13; cf. Lam 3:6; Job 18:18) as does ʾereṣ, “underworld” (Pss 88:13; 143:3). One of the etymologies proposed above would see šĕʾôl as the place where one engages in necromancy. If this etymology is valid, it would be significant to note that necromantic rituals regularly took place at night (1 Sam 28:8; Isa 45:18–19; 65:4), the time during which it was thought appropriate to consult those who live in darkness (Lewis 1989: 12, 114, 142–43, 160). Sheol is also characterized by dust (Job 17:16; 21:26; Ps 7:6–Eng Ps 7:5; cf. Gen 3:19) and quite often silence (Pss 31:17–18; 94:17; 115:17; Isa 47:5; cf. Allegro 1968: 82–84; Ps 28:1).

Sheol is intimately connected with the grave, although the degree to which it is identified with the grave has been debated. On one extreme we have those who see the grave behind every reference to Sheol, while on the other extreme Sheol and the grave are kept totally separate. An example of the former view is that of Harris, who has repeatedly emphasized (1961, 1980, 1986) that Sheol always means simply “grave” and never “underworld.” The problem, notes Harris (1980: 892), “is the theological one.” “Does the OT teach, in contradiction to the NT, that all men after death go to a dark and dismal place where the dead know nothing and are cut off from God?” The fact that “both good men (Jacob, Gen 37:35) and bad men (Korah, Dathan, etc., Num 16:30) go there” presents insurmountable difficulties. If Sheol does not mean simply “grave,” asserts Harris, then all we are left with is the early Church’s inadequate notion of a limbus patrum (1986: 59; 1980: 892). The weakness of Harris’ view is his lack of any appreciation for the solidarity and shared legacy which the biblical authors had in common with their ANE environment (Harris does not cite any extrabiblical literature from either Mesopotamia, Ugarit, or Egypt). There are other ways of addressing the difficulties which lie behind the question of who goes down to Sheol (see B.3 below).

Of a less extreme nature is Pedersen (1926: 461–62), who asserts that Sheol is the netherworld, but:

The ideas of the grave and of Sheol cannot be separated … The dead are at the same time in the grave and in Sheol … Sheol is the entirety into which all graves are merged … Sheol should be the sum of the graves … The “Ur”-grave we might call Sheol … Where there is grave, there is Sheol, and where there is Sheol, there is grave.

Heidel (1949: 170–91) also demonstrates how Sheol refers to the underworld as well as the grave.

An example of the other end of the spectrum is Rosenberg (1980: 168–69), who argues that Pedersen and others have been too influenced by the extrabiblical material which describes the grave as forming “a veritable continuum with the underworld.” “The concept of the grave and of Sheol or its semantic equivalents,” remarks Rosenberg, “were consistently kept apart … no concept of ‘Ur’ grave is attested in the Bible.” Sheol in this view is simply the underworld.

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