No Heaven or Hell, Only Sheʾol
Sheʾol: Grave, Death, or Underworld?
The Hebrew Bible does not offer a clear-cut depiction of what happens to a person upon death. Sheʾol (שְׁאוֹל), whose etymology is unclear, is the most common term used for where people go after they die. It connotes going down into the ground, but is it just a synonym in elevated language for the Hebrew word קֶבֶר (kever) “grave,” or does it imply something more, like entry into an underworld?
A good example of such ambiguity is when Jacob expresses his sadness for the untimely death of Joseph (as he understands the situation). Refusing to be consoled, he announces:
בראשית לז:לה כִּי אֵרֵד אֶל בְּנִי אָבֵל שְׁאֹלָה.
Gen 37:35 For I will go down mourning to my son in sheʾol.
What is Jacob expressing? Does he literally mean he will go down and see Joseph in the underworld, or does he simply mean this poetically, stating that he will be dead like his son when he lies in the grave?
In another example, after YHWH tells King Hezekiah that he will shortly die, Hezekiah composes a poem—the text refers to it as a letter—bemoaning his fate:
ישעיה לח:י אֲנִי אָמַרְתִּי בִּדְמִי יָמַי אֵלֵכָה בְּשַׁעֲרֵי שְׁאוֹל פֻּקַּדְתִּי יֶתֶר שְׁנוֹתָי.
Isa 38:10 I had thought: I must depart in the middle of my days; I have been consigned to the gates of sheʾol for the rest of my years.
While sheʾol could simply be elevated language for death, the reference to gates makes it sound like more than just a grave.
Alternative Terms: Similar Ambiguity
The same ambiguity appears when we look at two other terms sometimes used in parallel to sheʾol in poetic texts, and which also seem to connote grave:
- בּוֹר (bor)—A common Hebrew word for “pit.”
- שַׁחַת (shachat)—also seems to have the primary meaning of “pit” or “chasm.”
A good example of a text that employs all three terms is Psalm 30:
תהלים ל:ד יְ־הוָה הֶעֱלִיתָ מִן שְׁאוֹל נַפְשִׁי חִיִּיתַנִי (מיורדי) [מִיָּרְדִי] בוֹר... ל:י מַה בֶּצַע בְּדָמִי בְּרִדְתִּי אֶל שָׁחַת הֲיוֹדְךָ עָפָר הֲיַגִּיד אֲמִתֶּךָ.
Ps 30:4[*3] YHWH, You brought me up from sheʾol, preserved me from going down into the pit…. 30:10[*9] What is to be gained from my death, from my descent into the chasm? Can dust praise You? Can it declare Your faithfulness?
The psalmist is not thanking YHWH for being saved from falling into a literal pit but from death. Again it is unclear whether these terms are poetic references to a grave or an underworld.
A rather different term is אֲבַדּוֹן (abadon) “oblivion.” This term, from the root א.ב.ד “lost,” is the least common synonym, appearing only 6 times in the Hebrew Bible, mostly in Wisdom Literature. Abadon is the only one of the four terms that does not literally refer to the physical grave. Even so, it is used as a parallel to מָוֶת “death,” קֶבֶר “grave,” and sheʾol.
While the terms themselves don’t offer a clear picture of what happens after a person dies, we know from other texts that more than one belief existed about the existence of an afterlife.
On one hand, Ecclesiastes claims that people, like animals, simply end in dust:
קהלת ת:יט כִּי מִקְרֶה בְנֵי הָאָדָם וּמִקְרֶה הַבְּהֵמָה וּמִקְרֶה אֶחָד לָהֶם כְּמוֹת זֶה כֵּן מוֹת זֶה וְרוּחַ אֶחָד לַכֹּל וּמוֹתַר הָאָדָם מִן הַבְּהֵמָה אָיִן כִּי הַכֹּל הָבֶל. ג:כ הַכֹּל הוֹלֵךְ אֶל מָקוֹם אֶחָד הַכֹּל הָיָה מִן הֶעָפָר וְהַכֹּל שָׁב אֶל הֶעָפָר.
Eccl 3:19 For in respect of the fate of man and the fate of beast, they have one and the same fate: as the one dies so dies the other, and both have the same lifebreath; man has no superiority over beast, since both amount to nothing. 3:20 Both go to the same place; both came from dust, and both return to dust.
Later, Ecclesiastes 9:5 claims וְהַמֵּתִים אֵינָם יוֹדְעִים מְאוּמָה “the dead do not know anything,” and that none of their personality, consciousness, or connection to the world continue after their death:
קהלת ט:ו גַּם אַהֲבָתָם גַּם שִׂנְאָתָם גַּם קִנְאָתָם כְּבָר אָבָדָה וְחֵלֶק אֵין לָהֶם עוֹד לְעוֹלָם בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר נַעֲשָׂה תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ.... ט:י כֹּל אֲשֶׁר תִּמְצָא יָדְךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת בְּכֹחֲךָ עֲשֵׂה כִּי אֵין מַעֲשֶׂה וְחֶשְׁבּוֹן וְדַעַת וְחָכְמָה בִּשְׁאוֹל אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה הֹלֵךְ שָׁמָּה.
Eccl 9:6 Their loves, their hates, their jealousies have long since perished; and they have no more share till the end of time in all that goes on under the sun…. 9:10 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 sheʾol, where you are going.
On the other hand, many biblical texts accept that the dead know things, and several texts mention necromancers called אֹבֹת ʾobot and יִדְּעֹנִים yidʿonim, who can call on the dead and ask them questions. 1 Samuel 28, for example, tells the story of King Saul asking just such a necromancer to call up Samuel so he can ask him a question. Samuel appears to her as he appeared when alive, an old man wrapped in a mantle (v. 14), and his first statement to Saul is (v. 15) לָמָּה הִרְגַּזְתַּנִי לְהַעֲלוֹת אֹתִי “why have you disturbed me and brought me up?”
When Saul explains that he wants to know if the Philistines will win the battle the next day, Samuel launches into a diatribe about Saul’s sinfulness, that ends with:
שמואל א כח:יט ...וּמָחָר אַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ עִמִּי גַּם אֶת מַחֲנֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל יִתֵּן יְ־הוָה בְּיַד פְּלִשְׁתִּים.
1 Sam 28:19 …Tomorrow your sons and you will be with me; and YHWH will also deliver the Israelite forces into the hands of the Philistines.
Clearly Samuel knows quite a lot. Notably, despite Samuel’s description of Saul’s sinfulness, Saul and his sons will all be in the same “place” as Samuel when they die, continuing their existence in an “alive-ish” state in the underworld.
Everyone Goes to Sheʾol
Whether people simply go to the grave upon death or whether they enter some kind of underworld, the Hebrew Bible consistently imagines that the same fate is in store for everybody, the righteous and wicked alike. Perhaps the starkest example of this appears in the prophetic curses of Israel’s enemies, which emphasize how these “great” kings and conquerors end up in sheʾol, like everybody else. For example, Isaiah expresses his wrath against the king of Babylon, whose life will be cut short by the sword:
ישעיה יד:ט שְׁאוֹל מִתַּחַת רָגְזָה לְךָ לִקְרַאת בּוֹאֶךָ עוֹרֵר לְךָ רְפָאִים כָּל עַתּוּדֵי אָרֶץ הֵקִים מִכִּסְאוֹתָם כֹּל מַלְכֵי גוֹיִם. יד:י כֻּלָּם יַעֲנוּ וְיֹאמְרוּ אֵלֶיךָ גַּם אַתָּה חֻלֵּיתָ כָמוֹנוּ אֵלֵינוּ נִמְשָׁלְתָּ. יד:יא הוּרַד שְׁאוֹל גְּאוֹנֶךָ הֶמְיַת נְבָלֶיךָ תַּחְתֶּיךָ יֻצַּע רִמָּה וּמְכַסֶּיךָ תּוֹלֵעָה.... יא:יג וְאַתָּה אָמַרְתָּ בִלְבָבְךָ הַשָּׁמַיִם אֶעֱלֶה מִמַּעַל לְכוֹכְבֵי אֵל אָרִים כִּסְאִי... יד:טו אַךְ אֶל שְׁאוֹל תּוּרָד אֶל יַרְכְּתֵי בוֹר.
Isa 14:9 Sheʾol below was astir to greet your coming, rousing for you the shades of all earth’s chieftains, raising from their thrones all the kings of nations. 14:10 All speak up and say to you, “So you have been stricken as we were, you have become like us! 14:11 Your pomp is brought down to sheʾol, and the strains of your lutes! Worms are to be your bed, maggots your blanket!”… 14:13 Once you thought in your heart, “I will climb to the sky; higher than the stars of God I will set my throne…” 14:15 Instead, you are brought down to sheʾol, to the bottom of the pit.
Ezekiel sends a similar message to the Pharaoh of Egypt (Ezek 31:15-17; 32:21-28), who is analogized to a great tree, under whose shade others live, and whose arrogance YHWH will cure by knocking it down and sending it to the depths of the netherworld:
יחזקאל לא:טז מִקּוֹל מַפַּלְתּוֹ הִרְעַשְׁתִּי גוֹיִם בְּהוֹרִדִי אֹתוֹ שְׁאוֹלָה אֶת יוֹרְדֵי בוֹר... לא:יח אֶל מִי דָמִיתָ כָּכָה בְּכָבוֹד וּבְגֹדֶל בַּעֲצֵי עֵדֶן וְהוּרַדְתָּ אֶת עֲצֵי עֵדֶן אֶל אֶרֶץ תַּחְתִּית בְּתוֹךְ עֲרֵלִים תִּשְׁכַּב אֶת חַלְלֵי חֶרֶב הוּא פַרְעֹה וְכָל הֲמוֹנֹה נְאֻם אֲדֹנָי יְ־הוִה.
Ezek 31:16 I made the nations quake at the sound of its fall, when I cast it down to sheʾol, with those who go down to the pit… 31:18 Which among the trees of Eden was like you in glory and in greatness? Now you shall be brought down with the trees of Eden to the world below; you shall lie among the uncircumcised, with those who are killed by the sword. This is Pharaoh and all his horde, says the Lord YHWH. (NRSV, with adjustments)
The message of these texts is that everyone goes to sheʾol. Jacob will join Joseph in sheʾol, and Saul will join Samuel, but the wicked kings of Babylon and Egypt will be there as well. The mighty and the meek, righteous and wicked, all end up the same way. Death is the great equalizer.
Death Is Bad
The biblical texts referencing sheʾol generally depict it as undesirable. While it may be that everyone dies, death is a bad thing. This negative view of death stands behind the use of sheʾol and its synonyms as a frightening rhetorical trope in many biblical texts. For example, Job describes how he only has death to look forward to, and describes sheʾol as dark, dusty, and full of maggots (a good description of a grave):
איוב יז:יג אִם אֲקַוֶּה שְׁאוֹל בֵּיתִי בַּחֹשֶׁךְ רִפַּדְתִּי יְצוּעָי. יז:יד לַשַּׁחַת קָרָאתִי אָבִי אָתָּה אִמִּי וַאֲחֹתִי לָרִמָּה. יז:טו וְאַיֵּה אֵפוֹ תִקְוָתִי וְתִקְוָתִי מִי יְשׁוּרֶנָּה. יז:טז בַּדֵּי שְׁאֹל תֵּרַדְנָה אִם יַחַד עַל עָפָר נָחַת.
Job 17:13 If I must look forward to sheʾol as my home, and make my bed in the dark place, 17:14 Say to the chasm, “You are my father,” to the maggots, “Mother, Sister.” 17:15 Where, then, is my hope? Who can see hope for me? 17:16 Will it descend to sheʾol? Shall we go down together to the dust?
For Job, death and its inevitable physical consequences are horrid.
Saved from an Early Death
In Psalm 88, the speaker tries to convince God to deliver him from imminent death by describing how terrible it is to be dead, which brings about a total loss of life’s vigor and power:
תהלים פח:ד כִּי שָׂבְעָה בְרָעוֹת נַפְשִׁי וְחַיַּי לִשְׁאוֹל הִגִּיעוּ. פח:ה נֶחְשַׁבְתִּי עִם יוֹרְדֵי בוֹר הָיִיתִי כְּגֶבֶר אֵין אֱיָל. פח:ו בַּמֵּתִים חָפְשִׁי כְּמוֹ חֲלָלִים שֹׁכְבֵי קֶבֶר אֲשֶׁר לֹא זְכַרְתָּם עוֹד וְהֵמָּה מִיָּדְךָ נִגְזָרוּ. פח:ז שַׁתַּנִי בְּבוֹר תַּחְתִּיּוֹת בְּמַחֲשַׁכִּים בִּמְצֹלוֹת.
Ps 88:4 For I am sated with misfortune; I am at the brink of sheʾol. 88:5 I am numbered with those who go down to the pit; I am a helpless man 88:6 abandoned among the dead, like bodies lying in the grave of whom You are mindful no more, and who are cut off from Your care. 88:7 You have put me at the bottom of the pit, in the darkest places, in the depths.
The text continues by noting how, righteous or wicked, God has no relationship with the dead:
תהלים פח:יא הֲלַמֵּתִים תַּעֲשֶׂה פֶּלֶא אִם רְפָאִים יָקוּמוּ יוֹדוּךָ סֶּלָה. פח:יב הַיְסֻפַּר בַּקֶּבֶר חַסְדֶּךָ אֱמוּנָתְךָ בָּאֲבַדּוֹן. פח:יג הֲיִוָּדַע בַּחֹשֶׁךְ פִּלְאֶךָ וְצִדְקָתְךָ בְּאֶרֶץ נְשִׁיָּה.
Ps 88:11 Do You work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise to praise You? Selah. 88:12 Is Your faithful care recounted in the grave, Your constancy in the place of oblivion? 88:13 Are Your wonders made known in the darkness, Your beneficent deeds in the land of unconsciousness?
Death/grave/sheʾol is frightening and ungodly. Despite its inevitability and universality, death is a bad thing that should be avoided for as long as possible. The goal in the Hebrew Bible is to live a long life and hold off entry into sheʾol until death comes inevitably, בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה at a ripe old age.
Rhetorical Usage to Encourage Righteousness
The threat of an early death (and entrance into sheʾol) is used for the rhetorical purpose of encouraging readers/hearers to act righteously and avoid sin. Perhaps the most famous such passage appears in the story of Datan and Abiram, who rebel against Moses’ authority. In response, Moses sets up a test whether they will die a natural death or:
במדבר כט:ל וְאִם בְּרִיאָה יִבְרָא יְ־הוָה וּפָצְתָה הָאֲדָמָה אֶת פִּיהָ וּבָלְעָה אֹתָם וְאֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר לָהֶם וְיָרְדוּ חַיִּים שְׁאֹלָה וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי נִאֲצוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים הָאֵלֶּה אֶת יְ־הוָה.
Num 16:30 But if YHWH brings about something unheard-of, so that the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into sheʾol, you shall know that these men have spurned YHWH.
When the earth swallows the men up, and they disappear into sheʾol, the rest of the Israelites run away, afraid the same fate awaits them. Isaiah uses this imagery of death literally swallowing one up, in his rebuke of those wealthy Jerusalemites, who spend all day in drunken parties and pay no attention to the poor:
ישעיה ה:יג לָכֵן גָּלָה עַמִּי מִבְּלִי דָעַת וּכְבוֹדוֹ מְתֵי רָעָב וַהֲמוֹנוֹ צִחֵה צָמָא. ה:יד לָכֵן הִרְחִיבָה שְּׁאוֹל נַפְשָׁהּ וּפָעֲרָה פִיהָ לִבְלִי חֹק וְיָרַד הֲדָרָהּ וַהֲמוֹנָהּ וּשְׁאוֹנָהּ וְעָלֵז בָּהּ.
Isa 5:13 Assuredly, My people will suffer exile for not giving heed, its multitude victims of hunger and its masses parched with thirst. 5:14 Assuredly, sheʾol has opened wide its gullet and parted its jaws in a measureless gape; and down into it shall go, that splendor and tumult, that din and revelry.
Death itself, described in frightening terms, is the threat. The reward, in contrast, is long and blessed life.
The Problem of Reward and Punishment
The book of Deuteronomy states:
דברים ל:יט הַעִידֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת הָאָרֶץ הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ.
Deut 30:19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live.
Deuteronomy’s many references to specific blessings and curses make it clear that all take place during the person’s lifetime. Rain, prosperity, children and a long life are the blessings; drought, war, pestilence, and early death are the curses.
Saving You from Sheʾol?
The book of Proverbs distinguishes between bad behavior, that leads you to sheʾol, and good behavior that allows you to avoid it. For example, Proverbs 9 describes a “foolish woman” (אֵשֶׁת כְּסִילוּת) announcing to passersby, in an attempted seduction:
משלי ט:יז מַיִם גְּנוּבִים יִמְתָּקוּ וְלֶחֶם סְתָרִים יִנְעָם. ט:יח וְלֹא יָדַע כִּי רְפָאִים שָׁם בְּעִמְקֵי שְׁאוֹל קְרֻאֶיהָ.
Prov 9:17 “Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten furtively is tasty.” 9:18 He does not know that the shades are there, that her guests are in the depths of sheʾol.
In contrast, good teachings lead to a long and prosperous life,
משלי טו:כד אֹרַח חַיִּים לְמַעְלָה לְמַשְׂכִּיל לְמַעַן סוּר מִשְּׁאוֹל מָטָּה.
Prov 15:24 For an intelligent man the path of life leads upward, in order to avoid sheʾol below.
Of course, Proverbs does not mean that the righteous person can avoid death altogether, only that the righteous will experience a long full life, have lots of children, and their memory will endure for a long time.
What About After Death?
The idea that death and whatever comes along with it make no distinction between good and bad people greatly frustrated the Hellenistic period author of Ecclesiastes:
קהלת ב:יד הֶחָכָם עֵינָיו בְּרֹאשׁוֹ וְהַכְּסִיל בַּחֹשֶׁךְ הוֹלֵךְ וְיָדַעְתִּי גַם אָנִי שֶׁמִּקְרֶה אֶחָד יִקְרֶה אֶת כֻּלָּם. ב:טו וְאָמַרְתִּי אֲנִי בְּלִבִּי כְּמִקְרֵה הַכְּסִיל גַּם אֲנִי יִקְרֵנִי וְלָמָּה חָכַמְתִּי אֲנִי אָז יוֹתֵר...
Eccl 2:14 A wise man has his eyes in his head, whereas a fool walks in darkness. but I also realized that the same fate awaits them both. 2:15 So I reflected: “The fate of the fool is also destined for me; to what advantage, then, have I been wise?”…
In this period, distinctions begin to be made about what happens to good and bad people after they die. This change may be a consequence of interaction with non-Israelite worldviews—Hellenistic, Persian, Egyptian, Babylonian are all options—or a natural development from older Israelite/Judahite ideas, or some complex combination of factors. In any case, the seeds for what eventually develop into full-blown concepts of reward and punishment in the afterlife are planted in Second Temple apocalyptic literature.
Enoch and the Separation of Good and Wicked after Death
Beginning in the late 3rd / early 2nd century B.C.E., Jewish apocalyptic literature begins to flourish. These texts lament the sorry state of the world and speak about future times when a supernatural event will effect major change.
Many of these apocalypses offer accounts of people journeying through the spaces of the dead, led by a tour guide. As Jewish literature, such stories in-and-of themselves were novel—the format was borrowed from Hellenistic works on tours of Hades—and the reader gets to experience these tours just as they would in person; they are told to travel or look in a particular direction, and the text describes the landscapes in vivid detail to make the readers feel like they are really there.
A key text in this genre, and likely the earliest, is in the book of 1 Enoch, in “The Book of the Watchers” section, which forms chs.1–36. It is dated to the late 3rd / early 2nd B.C.E., and fragments of the work have been found in Qumran among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
In chapter 22, after Enoch is shown the place where the angels who rebelled against God are burned for eternity, he is taken to a mountain in the west—a motif replacing the underworld of sheʾol, and likely taken from Babylonian mythology—where he sees four deep and wide rooms.
Enoch asks Raphael what they are for, and he is told they are waiting rooms for the dead. Enoch is then curious why there are four rooms if they are all serving the same purpose. Raphael’s answer highlights the sea-change in thinking about what happens to the righteous and the wicked after death:
1 Enoch 22:9 …These three [places] were made in order that they might separate the spirits of the dead….
Before explaining why they need three rooms for the [sinning] dead, Raphael first explains about the fourth room, which is for the righteous:
1 Enoch 22:9 …And thus the souls of the righteous have been separated; this is the spring of water [and] on it [is] the light.
Now he turns back to the three places and explains that each is for a different kind of sinner. The first cave is for the worst sinners, who are waiting for God’s judgment and eternal punishment:
1 Enoch 22:10 Likewise [a place] has been created for sinners when they die and are buried in the earth and judgment has not come upon them during their life. 22:11 And here their souls will be separated for this great torment, until the great day of judgment and punishment and torment for those who curse forever, and of vengeance on their souls, and there he will bind them forever….
The second is for people who have been murdered, so they can ensure justice is served:
1 Enoch 22:12 And thus [a place] has been separated for the souls of those who complain and give information about [their] destruction, when they were killed in the days of the sinners.
The third group are sinners again, but not especially bad ones:
1 Enoch 22:13 Thus [a place] has been created for the souls of men who are not righteous, but sinners, accomplished in wrongdoing, and with the wrongdoers will be their lot. But their souls will not be killed on the day of judgment, nor will they rise from here.
1 Enoch makes a sharp contrast between specific categories of the wicked and the righteous. This paved the way for later apocalypses which would take readers on detailed journeys to hell.
From Rhetorical Threats to Proto-Hell
Like the biblical texts, the book of Enoch uses descriptions of death and afterlife as rhetorical tools to emphasize the value of living a righteous life and avoiding sinful behavior. But the shift from threats of early death to threats of quality of afterlife is the first step toward reframing the concept of divine judgment to include what happens after a person dies.
From here there is a still a long road before we get to Jewish Gehenna or Christian Hell, but the move from biblical sheʾol to Enoch’s four-chambered mountain is evidence that by the 2nd century B.C.E. the first steps along this path had been taken.
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September 20, 2021
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Prof. Meghan Henning is the Associate Professor of Christian Origins at the University of Dayton. She holds a Masters degree in Biblical Studies from Yale Divinity School, and a doctorate in New Testament from Emory University. Henning is the author of Educating Early Christians through the Rhetoric of Hell (Mohr Siebeck) on the pedagogical function of Hell and Hell Hath No Fury: Gender, Disability and the Invention of Damned Bodies in Early Christianity (Yale), which examines hell through the lenses of gender and disability studies. She is the recipient of grants and awards from the Jacob K. Javits foundation, the Society of Biblical Literature, Yale Divinity School, and Emory University and has appeared in a documentary for the National Geographic Channel and on CNN.
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