Where are the Dead –
According to the Bible?
Following the Flood many ancient Saints come and go as God’s purpose unfolds. Each in his own time “died” – Haran, Terah, Sarah, Abraham. When we come to the account about Rebekah there is a phrase which some understand to be a case of survival after death. Genesis 35:18 in the King James Version reads: ‘And it came to pass, as her soul (שפנ) was in departing, (for she had died) that she called his name…’ This would almost give the impression after she died she gave her son his name. It has been argued that if “her soul was in departing” it must be “departing” from some other location. If we use the rule that the word “soul” means either a living creature or the life of a creature this verse would mean, “her life was in departing. ”And so, many translations render this idea: NJB: “breathed her last”; MOF: “as her life went out”; NEB: “last breath.” (Also, LB, AT)
The New International Version has it correctly, ‘As she breathed her last–for she was dying–she named her son.’ Since the root meaning of both nephesh (שפנ) and psyche (ψυχη) is “breath” this may be reflected in this verse. (Compare Job 27:3; 31:39; 34:14; Ezekiel 37:6 and KJV margin)
SHEOL (HADES). Another new word makes its first appearance after Rebekah’s death. It is found in Genesis 37:35. It is to occur three more times in Genesis. (Genesis 42:38; 44:29, 31) This verse reads in the King James Version: ‘I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning.’ The word “grave” here is the Hebrew הלאש or Sheol. In the Jewish Greek Septuagint it is αδης, or Hades from which is derived the word “hell.” Jerome’s Fourth Century Latin Vulgate uses in·fer'num. Nothing better illustrates the need for a consistent translation which faithfully renders the same original word with a similar English word.
The above would indicate this word Sheol or Hades means “grave.”
Sheol occurs 65 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Greek Hades occurs 100 times in the Jewish Greek Septuagint. The King James Version used three words to render Sheol, two (hell, grave) equally (each 31 times) and “pit” three times. This alone would seem to indicate “hell” means the “grave.”
A Compendious Hebrew Lexicon, Samuel Pike: "the common receptacle or region of the dead; so called from the insatiability of the grave, which is as it were always asking or craving more." (Cambridge, 1811, p. 148)
Collier's Encyclopedia (1986, Vol. 12, p. 28): "Since Sheol in Old Testament times referred simply to the abode of the dead and suggested no moral distinctions, the word 'hell,' as understood today, is not a happy translation."
Encyclopaedia Britannica (1971, Vol. 11, p. 276): "Sheol was located somewhere 'under' the earth… The state of the dead was one of neither pain nor pleasure.
Neither reward for the righteous nor punishment for the wicked was associated with Sheol. The good and the bad alike, tyrants and saints, kings and orphans, Israelites and gentiles-all slept together without awareness of one another."
Brynmor F. Price and Eugene A. Nida noted: "The word occurs often in the Psalms and in the book of Job to refer to the place to which all dead people go. It is represented as a dark place, in which there is no activity worthy of the name. There are no moral distinctions there, so 'hell' (KJV) is not a suitable translation, since that suggests a contrast with 'heaven' as the dwelling-place of the righteous after death. In a sense, 'the grave' in a generic sense is a near equivalent, except that Sheol is more a mass grave in which all the dead dwell together… The use of this particular imagery may have been considered suitable here [in Jonah 2:2] in view of Jonah's imprisonment in the interior of the fish." [A Translators Handbook on the Book of Jonah, 1978, p. 37.]
The Dictionary of New Testament Theology, “At the resurrection Hades must give up its dead again (Revelation 20:13). So it is not an eternal but only a temporary place or state. According to Acts 2:27, 31 and Luke 16:23, 26, all the dead are in Hades.” (Vol 2, page 207)
When Peter gives his Pentecostal speech, Luke has him using Hades in Acts 2:25-27 quoting one occurrence of Sheol from Psalm 16:10 regarding the Messiah. Thus, the two words mean the same. (Compare “hell” in the KJV of Acts 2:25-27) According to Peter Jesus Christ went to “hell” or Hades (Sheol) until his resurrection the Third Day.
There are two particular occurrences of Sheol (Hades) in the Hebrew Scriptures that give us the most information about the place of the dead. The first is thought by some to be from the pen of Moses though the events may have occurred around 1,600 BC. It is Job 14:12-15. We will quote it twice: the first from the Jewish Tanakh version: ‘So man lies down never to rise; he will awake only when the heavens are no more, only to be aroused from his sleep. O that you [Yahweh] would hide me in Sheol (הלאש), conceal me until Your anger passes, set me a fixed time to attend to me. If a man dies, can he live again? All the time of my service I wait until my replacement comes. You would call and I would answer You.’ Secondly, from the Septuagint (Bagster), ‘And man that has lain down in death shall certainly not rise again till the heaven be dissolved, and they shall not awake from their sleep. For oh that thou hadst kept me in the grave (αδη – KJV: “hell”) and hadst hidden me until thy wrath should cease, and thou shouldest set me a time in which thou wouldest remember me! For if a man should die, shall he live again, having accomplished the days of his life? I will wait till I exist again.’
These words above help determine what Sheol or Hades is. It is a place of hiding, of concealment, of sleep, of non-existence. From this “hell” is not a place of torment for the godly man Job would not have asked his Maker to “hide” him there. Job infers he expects to “rise” at God’s “call.” (Compare John 5:28) In Greek the phrase “not rise again” is a negative which employs anaste which must be the root for anastasis, “resurrection.” Bagster’s rendering of the Greek phrase palin genomai as “exist again” is very similar to that of the Nazarene sixteen centuries later: ‘In the re-creation (palin-genesia) when the Son of Man sits down upon his glorious throne…’ (Matthew 19:28)
Five centuries after Job, King Solomon uses the word Sheol in Ecclesiastes indicating the same vein of thinking: ‘For he who is reckoned among the living has something to look forward to–even a live dog is better than a dead lion–since the living know they will die. But the dead know nothing. … Whatever it is in your power to do, do with all your might. For there is no action, no reasoning, no learning, no wisdom in Sheol (לואש or αδη), where you are going.’ (Ecclesiastes 9:4, 5, 10 Tanakh; KJV: “grave”) Solomon agrees with Moses (or, Job) that Sheol or Hades is the Grave in which the dead are unconscious.
In agreement with this understand of Sheol are the words of Psalm 146:1-4: ‘My soul (ψυχη) praise the Lord. While I live20 will I praise the Lord: I will sing to my God as long as I exist. Trust now in princes, nor in the children of men, in whom there is no safety. His breath shall go forth, and he shall return to his earth; in that day all his thoughts shall perish.’ (Ps 145:1-4 LXX, Bagster) So, death in Sheol is a state of non-existence, the opposite of life as a soul; buried in the “earth” and without “thought.”
|20||WHILE I LIVE. The Jewish Tanakh also uses the phrase “while I exist.”|
A concordance or computer search will reveal the meaning of Sheol (Hades / hell) in its various occurrences. They are according to Bible books: Genesis (4x), Numbers (2x), Deuteronomy (1x), 1 Samuel (1x), 2 Samuel (1x), 1 Kings (2x), Job (8x), Psalms (16x), Proverbs (9x), Ecclesiastes (1x), Canticles (1x), Isaiah (10x), Ezekiel (5x), Hosea (2x), Amos (1x), Jonah (1x), Habakkuk (1x). A total of 58 times in the Jewish Hebrew Scriptures. When viewed this way one can see the subject does not occur that often and is completely missing from most of the 66 books of the Old Testament. By considering these occurrences we note parallel synonyms related to the word Sheol: death, down, deep, concealed, darkness, dust, destruction, silence, pit, low, bones, expands, maggots, worms, and dig into. Is it fair to state that these describe the grave?
There are metaphorical uses of Sheol in poetic contexts which some have literalized. Consider four of these. Canticles or Song of Songs (Canticles 8:6) reads: ‘Place me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; because love is as strong as death is, insistence on exclusive devotion is as unyielding as Sheol is. Its blazings are the blazings of a fire, the flame of Jah.’ NWT) Some may be tempted to see a “fire” within Sheol but the metaphor of “fire” may refer to the type of love or passion between the two lovers of the song. Here Sheol is paralleled with “death.”
Another case is Isaiah 14:9, ‘Even Sheol underneath has become agitated at you in order to meet you on coming in. At you it has awakened those impotent in death.’ (NWT) This is rendered “hell” by the King James Version and the phrase “impotent in death” is variously rendered “shades” or “ghosts.” To some it is taken literally while many others view it as poetic metaphor. Judging from what the Bible teaches in the other six dozen occurrences this verse would have to be viewed metaphorically.
Ezekiel 32:21, 27 indulges in similar metaphor: ‘The foremost men of the mighty ones will speak out of the midst of Sheol even to him, with his helpers. They will certainly go down; they must lie down as the uncircumcised, slain by the sword. … And will they not lie down with mighty ones, falling from among the uncircumcised, who have gone down to Sheol with their weapons of war? And they will put their swords under their heads, and their errors will come to be upon their bones, because mighty ones were a terror in the land of those alive.’ The context parallels Sheol with “the land of the living.” Certainly archeology has dug up the “bones” of ancient warriors buried in their graves still possessed of their swords and breastplates.
Jonah 2:2 has the prophet calling out to God from Sheol: ‘Out of the belly of Sheol I cried for help. You heard my voice.’ (NWT) If we take this too literally “hell” is still a place where one can call to God and be heard and is no hotter than the belly of a “great fish.” Most would see this metamorphically like saying, “out of the clutches of death…” Jesus himself alludes to the experience of Jonah and compares it to the three days he would spend in “the heart of the earth,” or Hades. (Matthew 12:39)
Nazarene Commentary 2000©
Mark Heber Miller
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