Sheol by Shawna Dolansky

Although the existence of hell is a notable feature of the New Testament, the Hebrew Bible never describes a fiery place of eternal torment for sinners. In fact, as Ecclesiastes tells us over and over again:

The same fate comes to everyone:
to the righteous and to the wicked,
to the good and to the wicked,
to the clean and to the unclean,
to those who sacrifice and to those who do not sacrifice.
As with the good man, so also to the sinner;
as with those who swear an oath, so also those who fear oaths.
This is the injustice that is done under the sun:
the same fate comes to everyone.
Also the hearts of humans are full of evil;
delusion is in their hearts during their lives, and then they die.
(Eccl 9:2-3, NRSV)


What was the meaning of Sheol in preexilic Israel?

The word Sheol appears sixty-five times in the Hebrew Bible. Since it often seems to connote an underworld (Gen 42:38; Prov 9:18) or the depths of the earth (Deut 32:22; Amos 9:2), it is tempting to conflate it with later postexilic ideas about hell as a place of punishment, such as those that appear in the New Testament (e.g., Matt 11:23 // Luke 10:15; Luke 16:23; Rev 20:15). This conflation begins as early as the Septuagint (LXX) in which “Sheol” is translated from the Hebrew into Greek as “Hades.” However, along with other terms like the “Pit” (e.g., Job 33), and “Abaddon” (e.g., Job 26:6; Ps 88:11; this word later appears as the name of the angel of death in Rev 9:11), Sheol is a place that holds all of the dead (see Gen 37:35; 1Sam 2:6; Isa 28:15) without judgment or torment.

Sheol is referred to as “the chambers of death” (Prov 7:27) and seems to connect the physical grave with an underground abode of the dead. For example, in Num 16:30-34, rebels are swallowed by the earth and brought down alive to Sheol. It is sometimes described as watery (Job 26:5-6; Ps 69:15) or muddy (Ps 40:3; Ps 69:3). The term can also be used metaphorically to connote a place of shadowy afterlife existence or even an insatiable (Hab 2:5), harsh (Song 8:6) power that can destroy the living (Isa 5:14).

Even with all these references, it is difficult to know exactly how the ancient Israelites conceptualized this abode of the dead. In 1Sam 28, a necromancer calls up the dead prophet Samuel from beneath the earth to prophesy to King Saul, which suggests that Israelites believed in some sort of continued afterlife existence. Grave goods and tomb installations in Iron Age Judah show us that the dead were fed and sustained by the living. In fact, scholars connect the biblical insistence that land can never be sold with the existence of family graves, making it important for descendants to maintain, and probably venerate, their ancestors on the family land. We also find several terms in the Bible that are related to words in Ugaritic that refer to the dead in the context of their veneration. For example, a ritual feast known as a mrzh that took place in ancient Canaan was held by the living to honor and share food with the dead; the same term comes out in Hebrew as a marzeah ritual, mentioned in Jer 16:5; Amos 6:7; Ps 106:28 as a reference to sacrifices of the dead. Similarly, in the Ugaritic literature we have terms cognate to biblical Rephaim, such as in Isa 14:9; Isa 26:14; and Ps 88:11, where the Ugaritic cognate term refers to a line of dead kings and heroes. Also, although the term usually means “God,” Elohim can be used to refer to the dead, as for example in Isa 8:19-21, and the cognate term is used similarly in Ugaritic texts. This suggests some similarities in Israel with known beliefs about the afterlife from ancient Canaan.

In the Hebrew Bible, the term Sheol is most often associated with the negative implications of death: the inevitability of it (Ps 89:48), being cut off from the living and from God (Job 24:19; Ps 6:5), and being sent to a place of weakness and rot (Isa 14:10-11) and of no return (Job 7:9). Other than a few references in late texts (Isa 26:19; Dan 12:2; and a metaphorical reference in Ezek 37), there is no conception of a future resurrection in the Hebrew Bible; death is considered final. Given the sense throughout the Hebrew Bible of the inevitability and finality of death, fleeting references to God’s ability to both send one to Sheol and to redeem one from there are best understood as poetic expressions of God’s ultimate power over life and death (e.g., 1Sam 2:6; Hos 13:14).

While there is not any prolonged description of life after death in the Hebrew Bible, the number and variety of uses of the term Sheol in the Hebrew Bible, along with evidence from archaeology and comparative literature, demonstrates a widespread belief in some sort of dark and dreaded shadowy postmortem existence.

Shawna Dolansky, "Sheol", n.p. [cited 27 Sep 2022]. Online:


Shawna Dolansky

Shawna Dolansky
Associate Professor, Carleton University

Shawna Dolansky is Associate Professor of Religion and Humanities in the College of the Humanities at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She is the author of two books and numerous articles on the Bible and ancient Near Eastern religions. Her current research focuses on gender and sexuality in the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East.

A state of being that, in the Bible, combined ritual and moral purity. Certain actions, like touching a corpse, made a person unclean.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

The stage of development during which humans used iron weapons; in the ancient Near East, approx. 1200 to 500 B.C.E.

Shorthand title for the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures fabled to have been completed by 70 translators (LXX is 70 rendered in roman numerals).

one who uses magic to summon the dead

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Relating to the period in Judean history following the Babylonian exile (587–539 B.C.E.), also known as the Persian period, during which the exiles were allowed to return to Judea and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

after death

The period of Israelite and Judean history before the Babylonian exile, from circa 1000 B.C.E. until 586 B.C.E.

The act of relating a prophecy, or inspired message.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

related to the city of Ugarit

A state of being ritually unacceptable and therefore excluded from proximity to holy objects or use in religious observance. According to the book of Levticus, some unclean things can be purified and become clean, whereas other are permanently unclean.

Gen 42:38

38But he said, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he alone is left. If harm should come to him on the journey that you are to make ... View more

Prov 9:18

18But they do not know that the dead are there,
that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.

Deut 32:22

22For a fire is kindled by my anger,
and burns to the depths of Sheol;
it devours the earth and its increase,
and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.

Amos 9:2

2Though they dig into Sheol,
from there shall my hand take them;
though they climb up to heaven,
from there I will bring them down.

Matt 11:23

23And you, Capernaum,
will you be exalted to heaven?
No, you will be brought down to Hades.
For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it wou ... View more

Luke 10:15

15And you, Capernaum,
will you be exalted to heaven?
No, you will be brought down to Hades.

Luke 16:23

23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.

Rev 20:15

15and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

Job 33

Elihu Rebukes Job
1“But now, hear my speech, O Job,
and listen to all my words.2See, I open my mouth;
the tongue in my mouth speaks.3My words declare the uprigh ... View more

Job 26:6

6Sheol is naked before God,
and Abaddon has no covering.

Ps 88:11

11Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?

Rev 9:11

11They have as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit; his name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he is called Apollyon.

Gen 37:35

35All his sons and all his daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus h ... View more

1Sam 2:6

6The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.

Isa 28:15

15Because you have said, “We have made a covenant with death,
and with Sheol we have an agreement;
when the overwhelming scourge passes through
it will not come ... View more

Prov 7:27

27Her house is the way to Sheol,
going down to the chambers of death.

Num 16:30-34

30But if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up, with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, ... View more

Job 26:5-6

5The shades below tremble,
the waters and their inhabitants.6Sheol is naked before God,
and Abaddon has no covering.

Ps 69:15

15Do not let the flood sweep over me,
or the deep swallow me up,
or the Pit close its mouth over me.

Ps 40:3

3He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord.

Ps 69:3

3I am weary with my crying;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God.

Hab 2:5

5Moreover, wealth is treacherous;
the arrogant do not endure.
They open their throats wide as Sheol;
like Death they never have enough.
They gather all nations ... View more

Song 8:6

6Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging ... View more

Isa 5:14

14Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetite
and opened its mouth beyond measure;
the nobility of Jerusalem and her multitude go down,
her throng and all who exu ... View more

1Sam 28

1In those days the Philistines gathered their forces for war, to fight against Israel. Achish said to David, “You know, of course, that you and your men are to ... View more

Jer 16:5

5For thus says the Lord: Do not enter the house of mourning, or go to lament, or bemoan them; for I have taken away my peace from this people, says the Lord, my ... View more

Amos 6:7

7Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile,
and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

Ps 106:28

28Then they attached themselves to the Baal of Peor,
and ate sacrifices offered to the dead;

Isa 14:9

9Sheol beneath is stirred up
to meet you when you come;
it rouses the shades to greet you,
all who were leaders of the earth;
it raises from their thrones
all w ... View more

Isa 26:14

14The dead do not live;
shades do not rise—
because you have punished and destroyed them,
and wiped out all memory of them.

Ps 88:11

11Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?

Isa 8:19-21

19Now if people say to you, “Consult the ghosts and the familiar spirits that chirp and mutter; should not a people consult their gods, the dead on behalf of th ... View more

Ps 89:48

48Who can live and never see death?
Who can escape the power of Sheol? Selah

Job 24:19

19Drought and heat snatch away the snow waters;
so does Sheol those who have sinned.

Ps 6:5

5For in death there is no remembrance of you;
in Sheol who can give you praise?

Isa 14:10-11

10All of them will speak
and say to you:
“You too have become as weak as we!
You have become like us!”11Your pomp is brought down to Sheol,
and the sound of you ... View more

Job 7:9

9As the cloud fades and vanishes,
so those who go down to Sheol do not come up;

Isa 26:19

19Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise.
O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a radiant dew,
and the earth will give birth t ... View more

Dan 12:2

2Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

Ezek 37

The Valley of Dry Bones
1The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was fu ... View more

1Sam 2:6

6The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.

Hos 13:14

14Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol?
Shall I redeem them from Death?
O Death, where are your plagues?
O Sheol, where is your destruction?
Compassion i ... View more

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