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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary


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The abode of the dead in Hebrew thought. Sheol was thought to be deep within the earth (Psalm 88:6; Ezekiel 26:20; Ezekiel 31:14-15; Amos 9:2 ) and was entered by crossing a river (Job 33:18 ). Sheol is pictured as a city with gates (Isaiah 38:10 ), a place of ruins (Ezekiel 26:20 ), or a trap (2 Samuel 22:6; Psalm 18:5 ). Sheol is sometimes personified as a hungry beast (Proverbs 27:20; Isaiah 5:14; Habakkuk 2:5 ) with an open mouth and an insatiable appetite. Sheol is described as a place of dust (Psalm 30:9; Job 17:16 ) and of gloom and darkness (Job 10:21 ).

The Hebrews conceived of the individual as a unity of body and spirit. Thus it was impossible for the dead whose bodies had decayed (Psalm 49:14 ) to experience more than a marginal existence. Various terms are used by English translators to describe the residents of Sheol (Job 26:5; Isaiah 14:9 ), including shades (NRSV, REB), spirits of the dead (TEV), or simply, the dead (KJV). The dead experience no remembrance (Psalm 6:5; Psalm 88:12 ), no thought (Ecclesiastes 9:10 ), no speech (Psalm 31:17; Psalm 94:17 ), especially no words of praise (Psalm 6:5; Psalm 30:9 ), and no work (Ecclesiastes 9:10 ). Such existence is fittingly described as sleep (Isaiah 14:9 ). For the dead Sheol is a place of pain and distress (Psalm 116:3 ), weakness (Isaiah 14:10 ), helplessness (Psalm 88:4 ); hopelessness (Isaiah 38:10 ), and destruction (Isaiah 38:17 ).

Sheol was regarded as the abode of all the dead, both righteous and wicked (Job 30:23 ). It was, in fact, regarded as a consolation that none escaped death (Psalm 49:10-12; Ezekiel 31:16 ). Only once does the Old Testament speak of Sheol specifically as the abode of the wicked (Psalm 9:17 ). Some earthly distinctions were regarded as continuing in Sheol. Thus kings have thrones (Isaiah 14:9 ); and warriors possess weapons and shields (Ezekiel 32:27 ). Here the biblical writers possibly mocked the views of their neighbors. Ezekiel 32:18-30 pictures the dead as grouped by nation with the crucial distinction between the circumcised and uncircumcised continuing in the grave.

To go to Sheol alive was regarded as a punishment for exceptional wickedness (Psalm 55:15; Numbers 16:30 ,Numbers 16:30,16:33 where the earth swallowed Korah and his band alive). Job 24:19 speaks of Sheol snatching sinners. The righteous, wise, and well-disciplined could avoid a premature move to Sheol ( Proverbs 15:24; Proverbs 23:14 ).

Though the overall picture of Sheol is grim, the Old Testament nevertheless affirms that God is there (Psalm 139:8; Proverbs 15:11 ) or that it is impossible to hide from God in Sheol (Job 26:6; Amos 9:2 ). The Old Testament also affirms that God has power over Sheol and is capable of ransoming souls from its depths (Psalm 16:10; Psalm 30:3; Psalm 49:15; Psalm 86:13; Job 33:18 ,Job 33:18,33:28-30 ). In the majority of these passages a restoration to physical life is clearly intended, though several (for example Psalm 49:15 with its image of God's receiving the one ransomed from Sheol) point the way toward the Christian understanding of afterlife with God. See Death; Eschatology; Future Hope; Hell .

Chris Church

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Sheol'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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