Hebrew word of uncertain etymology (see Sheol, Critical View), synonym of "bor" (pit), "abaddon" and "shaḥat" (pit or destruction), and perhaps also of "tehom" (abyss).—Biblical Data:
It connotes the place where those that had died were believed to be congregated. Jacob, refusing to be comforted at the supposed death of Joseph, exclaims: "I shall go down to my son a mourner unto Sheol" (Gen. xxxvii. 36, Hebr.; comp. ib. xlii. 38; xliv. 29, 31). Sheol is underneath the earth (Isa. vii. 11, lvii. 9; Ezek. xxxi. 14; Ps. lxxxvi. 13; Ecclus. [Sirach] li. 6; comp. Enoch, xvii. 6, "toward the setting of the sun"); hence it is designated as (Deut. xxxii. 22; Ps. lxxxvi. 13) or (Ps. lxxxviii. 7; Lam. iii. 55; Ezek. xxvi. 20, xxxii. 24). It is very deep (Prov. ix. 18; Isa. lvii. 9); and it marks the point at the greatest possible distance from heaven (Job xi. 8; Amos ix. 2; Ps. cxxxix. 8). The dead descend or are made to go down into it; the revived ascend or are brought and lifted up from it (I Sam. ii. 6; Job vii. 9; Ps. xxx. 4; Isa. xiv. 11, 15). Sometimes the living are hurled into Sheol before they would naturally have been claimed by it (Prov. i. 12; Num. xvi. 33; Ps. lv. 16, lxiii. 10), in which cases the earth is described as "opening her mouth" (Num. xvi. 30). Sheol is spoken of as a land (Job x. 21, 22); but ordinarily it is a place with gates (ib. xvii. 16, xxxviii. 17; Isa. xxxviii. 10; Ps. ix. 14), and seems to have been viewed as divided into compartments (Prov. vii. 27), with "farthest corners" (Isa. xiv. 15; Ezek. xxxii. 23, Hebr.; R. V. "uttermost parts of the pit"), one beneath the other (see
God's rulership over it is recognized (Amos ix. 2; Hos. xiii. 14; Deut. xxxii. 22; I Sam. ii. 6 [Isa. vii. 11?]; Prov. xv. 11). Hence He has the power to save the pious therefrom (Ps. xvi. 10, xlix. 16, the text of which latter passage, however, is recognized as corrupt). Yet Sheol is never satiated (Prov. xxx. 20); she "makes wide her soul," i.e., increases her desire (Isa. v. 14) and capacity. In these passages Sheol is personified; it is described also as a pasture for sheep with death as the shepherd (Ps. xlix. 15). From Sheol Samuel is cited by the witch of
The word "Sheol" was for some time regarded as an Assyro-Babylonian loan-word, "Shu'alu," having the assumed meaning "the place whither the dead are cited or bidden," or "the place where the dead are ingathered." Delitzsch, who in his earlier works advanced this view, has now abandoned it; at least in his dictionary the word is not given. The non-existence of "Shu'alu" has been all along maintained by Jensen ("Kosmologie," p. 223), and recently again by Zimmern (in Schrader," K. A. T." 3d ed., p. 636, note 4) even against Jastrow's explanation (in "Am. Jour. Semit. Lang." xiv. 165-170) that "sha'al" = "to consult an oracle," or "to cite the dead" for this purpose, whence the name of the place where the dead are. The connection between the Hebrew "Sheol" and the Assyro - Babylonian "shillan" (west), which Jensen proposed instead (in "Zeitschrift für Assyriologie," v. 131, xv. 243), does not appear to be acceptable. Zimmern (l.c.) suggests "shilu" (= "a sort of chamber") as the proper Assyrian source of the Hebrew word. On the other hand, it is certain that most of the ideas covered by the Hebrew "Sheol" are expressed also in the Assyro-Babylonian descriptions of the state of the dead, found in the myths concerning Ishtar's descent into Hades, concerning Nergal and Ereshkigal (see Jensen in Schrader, "K. B." vi., part 1, pp. 74-79) and in the Gilgamesh epic (tablets ii. and xii.; comp. also Craig, "Religious Texts," i. 79; King, Magic," No. 53).
This realm of the dead is in the earth ("erẓitu" = ; comp. Job, x. 21, 22), the gateway being in the west. It is the "land without return." It is a dark place filled with dust (see Sheol, Biblical Data); but it contains a palace for the divine ruler of this shadow-realm (comp. Job xviii. 13, 14). Seven gates guard successively the approach to this land, at the first of which is a watchman. A stream of water flows through Sheol (comp. Enoch, xvii. 6, xxii. 9; Luke xvi. 24; Ps. xviii. 5; II Sam. xxii. 5).Origin of Biblical Concept.
The question arises whether the Biblical concept is borrowed from the Assyrians or is an independent development from elements common to both and found in many primitive religions. Though most of the passages in which mention is made of Sheol or its synonyms are of exilic or post-exilic times, the latter view, according to which the Biblical concept of Sheol represents an independent evolution, is the more probable. It reverts to primitive animistic conceits. With the body in the grave remains connected the soul (as in dreams): the dead buried in family graves continue to have communion (comp. Jer. xxxi. 15). Sheol is practically a family grave on a large scale. Graves were protected by gates and bolts; therefore Sheol was likewise similarly guarded. The separate compartments are devised for the separate clans, septs, and families, national and blood distinctions continuing in effect after death. That Sheol is described as subterranean is but an application of the custom of hewing out of the rocks passages, leading downward, for burial purposes.
- Stade, Ueber die A. T. Vorstellungen vom Zustande nach dem Tode, Leipsic, 1877;
- idem, Gesch. des Volkes Israel, i. 418 et seq.;
- idem, Biblische Theologie des A. T. pp. 183 et seq., Tübingen, 1905;
- F. Schwally, Das Leben nach dem Tode, Giessen, 1892;
- A. Bertholet, Die Israelitischen Vorstellungen vom Zustande nach dem Tode, Freiburg, 1899;
- G. Beer, Der Biblische Hades, Tübingen, 1902;
- idem, in Guthe, Kurzes Bibelwörterbuch, s.v. Hölle;
- Zimmern, in K. A. T. 3d ed., ii. 641, 642, Berlin, 1903 (where the Assyrian literature is given).