|The gateway to Sheol|
In the Garden of Eden God reveals the icy fact that doing wrong leads to death. The revelation that there is something after death is made only a few chapters farther into the story of mankind. Interestingly, this piece of information is spoken of (by the ancient patriarch Jacob) as though it is common knowledge, something that's been known for a while.
You may remember the story: Jacob's children were jealous of his favorite son Joseph, so they sold him to slave traders and ripped up Joseph's famous "coat of many colors," soaking it in goat blood. Jacob was given that as evidence that "a wild animal has devoured him! Joseph is surely torn to pieces!"
That is the situation when Jacob says this, for the first time in the Bible, about a place called Sheol:
He refused to be consoled. And he said, “No, I shall go down to my son to Sheol, mourning.” And his father wept for him.(Book of Genesis 37.35 New Revised Standard Version)
For the Hebrews, Sheol was the place you go when you die. As they interacted with their God over the years, they gradually learned some details about this place, although giving a grand tour of Sheol never seemed to be high on God's to-do list.
What Sheol is notIt's important to know that there are two ways that Sheol is mistranslated in some Bibles. One is to render it as "hell." The old King James Version tells us for instance that the guests of Folly, "knoweth not that the dead are there; and that her guests are in the depths of hell," (Book of Proverbs 9.18 KJV). But Sheol, as we'll see, was nothing like the dreadful fiery place that "hell" conjures up in our minds today.
Another incorrect translation of Sheol is "the grave." This one is understandable because sometimes the Scriptures will say something like, "Your pride is brought down to Sheol, and the sound of your harps; maggots are your bed beneath you, and worms are your covering," (Book of Isaiah 14.11). But even in the first place it's mentioned, Sheol can't mean just a grave. At this point in the story, Jacob believes his beloved son Joseph is torn to shreds in the wilderness, unburied and his bones scattered. Yet he is sure, despite this, that Joseph is in Sheol, where Jacob will eventually join him: "I shall go down to my son, to Sheol."
A grave is to Sheol what the front door is to a house. Graves are "the gates of Sheol," which you can be "summoned to go through," (Isaiah 38.10, LEB).
|Dark, dusty, silent|
Photo by Kecko
You existed in Sheol as a repha, which was very similar to what we would call a "ghost" -- a disembodied spirit (Job 26.5, Psalms 88.10, Isaiah 14.9, etc.). Modern Bibles translate this word as "shades" or "phantoms." On at least one occasion a necromancer was apparently able to bring Samuel the Prophet's repha up from Sheol at the request of the Israelite King Saul, (1st Book of Samuel 28.8-19).
At first people thought of Sheol as dark (Job 17.13), dusty (Job 17.16), a quiet place (Psalms 115.17 and 31.17) where not a lot happens (Book of Ecclesiastes 9.10), and you were pretty much cut off from God (Psalms 6.5, Isaiah 38.18). But they realized fairly soon that nobody is ever cut off from God: "Sheol and Destruction are open to the LORD, how much more the hearts of the children of men!" (Book of Proverbs 15.11).
As time went on the later prophets revealed that Sheol wasn't quite the quiet, do-nothing place the Israelites had assumed. Both Isaiah (Isaiah 14.3 - 20) and Ezekiel (Ezekiel 32.21 - 32) describe a louder and more active Sheol, with Kings welcoming other Kings to the underworld and whatnot.
Years ago some scholars would brush all this off as just "poetic descriptions of the grave," and even now the occasional preacher will claim that that's all Sheol is. But honestly, there are 65 mentions of Sheol in the scriptures, and many more passages using synonyms. Taken together, there is no way it can just refer to the local cemetery. As John Cooper says in his book Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting, a standard work on the scriptural view of the afterlife:
In fact, there is virtual consensus that the Israelites did believe in some sort of ethereal existence after death in a place called Sheol... As far as I know, the general description is undisputed among Old Testament scholars.
(Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Duelism - Monism Debate, pp. 52 - 53)
One for all?The interesting thing is that everybody goes to the same place in the Hebrew scriptures. Job actually rhapsodizes about it. Nowhere do the Old Testament mention different destinations for the good and the bad. We are told that Sheol has "chambers" (Proverbs 7.27) but no clue what they're for. But as we get down to the Book of Daniel, and the subject of resurrection comes to the fore, we do get a hint that the life you lived matters in the afterlife: "At that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever," (Daniel 12.2 - 3).
* * *
In the next installment of this series we'll get into what Jesus himself taught about life after death and before resurrection, and how it all ties together with what we talked about today.