Below is a research paper I wrote for my Bible as Literature class at Washington State University Vancouver. Yes that’s a state school.
The Afterlife According to the Hebrew Scriptures
In the Hebrew Scriptures, there is no mention of heaven and hell, or for that matter, a differentiated afterlife. Rather, in the Hebrew Scriptures, it mentions a place called Sheol, “…the underworld or abode of the dead. In the [Jewish] Bible, all deceased descended to Sheol; there is no concept of a separate heaven and hell” (Berlin 2004; p.2139). According to the Hebrew Scriptures, there is no differentiated heaven or hell. Rather, there is a place called Sheol where everyone goes when we die. This is important to note about the Hebrew Scriptures because Christians make heaven and hell as a major part of their theology, whereas Jew’s do not. Further, with the heaven and hell framework being what people see the most from Christianity, it would be beneficial to study what the contextual meaning of Sheol, the afterlife, in the Hebrew Scriptures is.
In the book of Genesis, chapters 27-50, the word Sheol shows up at 4 times. The word Sheol shows up in 37.35, 42.38, 44.29, and 44.31 in The New Oxford Annotated Study Bible. Sheol, according to the footnotes in the New Oxford Annotated Study Bible, on page 64 for 37.35, states that it is the underworld which people go to when they die – “the Hebrew bible does not recognize a differentiated heaven and hell.” Also in that footnote, it states that, “this afterlife was, at best, a shadowy existence”. Furthermore, Sheol, according to the New Interpreters Study Bible on page 836 in an excursus, it states: “Sheol, like death, is a complex power, with spatial, temporal, and metaphorical features.” I find it interesting in the narrative which goes from chapter 27-50, that the concept of an afterlife shows up in the first book of the Hebrew and Christian bible. This stands out because heaven and hell are an essential part of Christianity, it was being developed at the time of Jacob, Esau, Isaac, and Joseph. What I also find interesting about what the footnote from Genesis asserts, is that there was no difference yet between heaven and hell, we humans all went to the same place when we died. This is interesting because Christians have a differentiated heaven and hell.
Throughout the book of Psalms, it mentions Sheol a great deal of times in the passages and footnotes. In the book of Psalms it refers to Sheol as a place that is cut off from the presence of God, and no one there praises God because they are dust. According to the footnotes on page 1329 in The Jewish Study Bible (JSB), it states, “Soul reflects the inner being; the bible [Hebrew Scriptures] does not partake in the (Greek) notion of a bipartite being, comprised of body and soul.” The quote I just cited, could explain why Jews do not believe in heaven and hell, because they believe that when you die you go to one place. Christians believe our souls go to heaven when we die, and when Christ comes back we will have a bodily resurrection up to heaven. So not believing in the bipartite being, Jews seem not to believe in the resurrection or in the heaven-hell framework. Furthermore, in the footnotes from the JSB on page 1380 on Psalm 88 it states, “Sheol may represent the exile, which could potentially sever the connection between God and Israel.” This separation from God in Sheol may be a metaphor, in the Psalms, for the Jewish exile says one footnote. The exile separated the Israelites from God physically, sin separates from God spiritually, and Sheol separates from God due to death. In addition, “…and God works no miracles in Sheol! Moreover, those who live in Sheol offer no praise; no longer can they tell of God’s love and justice” (Harrelson 2003; p.831). Sheol can also be “a common symbol for dire sickness or troubles” (Berlin 2004; p.1413). So, either this is a place where people go when they die or it is a metaphor for death, exile, sin, separation from God, etc. Since Psalms are liturgical poetry, either Sheol is a metaphor for things like exile and death, or it is an actual spiritual place where we go when we die, or it may be both. In addition, “Throughout the book of Psalms, ‘Sheol’ and ‘death’ are metaphors for profound distress” (Harrelson 2003; p.836). Just like using the word heaven for good things like, ‘I am in heaven’ or using the word hell for bad things like ‘this place is hell on earth’. Sheol could be used the same why in the book of Psalms and other places of the bible as a literary device.
Sheol, like I have described, is a place where all people go when we die. We are not differentiated but equal when in Sheol. Further, Sheol is believed to be a place under the earth whereas heaven is believed to be above the earth. According to the footnotes on Samuel 2.6, in the Jewish Study Bible, it states, “…Sheol there is no retribution and all it inhabitants are equal, without regard to their former status or behavior in life.” I find this interesting because most Christians believe that in order to go to heaven you have to do good works, be saved, go to church, and be a good person, and if you do the opposite you go to hell. This is interesting because in the verses and footnotes I have looked at in the Jewish Study Bible it seems that God views all people as equal in death, since we are all separated from the presence of God in death due to God’s presence being housed in the Holy of Holies in the temple.
Jews do believe in the resurrection or the next world after the Second Temple period. Furthermore, there are verses in the scriptures that describe being lifted from Sheol, so that seems to be talking about a resurrection of some sorts. But in first Samuel from a footnote on 2.6, it states, “Raising up from Sheol does not refer to resurrection from death-a later belief as well-but to deliverance from near death (Berlin 2004; p.563)” Therefore, Sheol might not be a place where we go when we die but a metaphor about death or separation from God. However, in the footnotes for Hosea 13.14, it states, “The lord will save Israel even from Sheol, if Israel repents.” Here is what it says in the verse from Hosea: “From Sheol itself I will save them, Redeem them from very Death. Where, O Death, are your plagues? Your pestilence where, O Sheol? Revenge shall be far from My thoughts (Berlin 2004; p.1164).” So as you can see the verse from Hosea, it seems to be a heaven/hell system being formed during the time period of this verse from Hosea. From that explanation of the verse, it sounds like Jewish theology may be on its way to a differentiation system. Otherwise, it could be talking about deliverance from being away from God’s presence and back to being in the presence of God praising him.
From Ecclesiastes 9.2, “Everything [comes to them] as [it comes] to all; [there is] one occurrence for the righteous and for the wicked, for the good, and for the pure, and for the unclean, and for he who sacrifices, and for he who does not sacrifice; like the good, so is the sinner; he who swears is like him who fears an oath (Berlin 2004; p. 1617).” The footnotes for Ecclesiastes 9, states, “In this instance the theme is death as the…fate for all humans, regardless of behavior, power, or ability (Berlin 2004; p.1617).” Like I have stated, Sheol seems to be a place where all people go whether good or bad. Therefore, it seems Jews do not believe in heaven or hell because multiple places in the bible state this very thing. It is very interesting that Christians created a different view of Sheol (heaven and hell) due to the fact that the heaven and hell framework does not really show up at all in the Hebrew bible. I agree with the Hebrew view of Sheol because it shows that God cares for all people equally, and he wants us to have an equal fate. I believe he wants us to have equal fate due to the fact that God wants all of his children he created in his image to be with him forever, or why would he have created us. With Sheol being a place where all people are equal, “in Sheol, the netherworld, the place where all dead reside, no labor, reward, emotion or thought is possible” (Berlin 2004; p.1617) for the reason that all are dead and not in the presence of God. Hence, no one gets the reward of heaven over another. Instead we all share the same fate and reward.
“But unlike the Egyptians, who were obsessed with life after death, as their elaborate tombs demonstrate, the ancient Israelites give us scant information about it” (Coogan 2008; p.105). As you can tell from a cursory reading of the Hebrew Scriptures there is really no doctrine of the afterlife or resurrection to speak of. “Only relatively late in the biblical period, partly in effort to resolve the problem of inconsistent divine justice in this life, did Jews begin to develop a more elaborate set of” doctrines about life after death, which the place was “a place of reward for the just and punishment for the wicked.” So, that framework led to the differentiated heaven-hell frame work Christians and Muslims have today (Coogan 2008; p.105). All of that happened after Second Temple Judaism.
In Song of Songs (or The Song of Solomon) 8.6, in the New Oxford Annotated Study Bible, it states, “Set me as a seal upon the heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is as strong as death, passion fierce as the grave.” In the Catholic Study Bible the verse reads as, “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is as strong as death, longing is fierce as Sheol”. According to the Catholic Study Bible footnotes on Song of Songs 8.6, it states, “In the human experience, death and Sheol are inevitable, unrelenting; in the end they triumph. Love, which is just as certain of its victory, matches its strength against the natural enemies of life.” This love could possibly be God being victorious over death, over darkness (Sheol). Also, according to the footnotes on this verse in The New Oxford Annotated Study Bible, it states, “Love is as strong as death. Not stronger. Their struggle to possess the same object (the loved one) is illustrated in the rivalry between their counterparts, passion (more precisely, “jealously”) and the grave (Heb. “Sheol”, the abode of the dead).” Thus, this passage from The Song of Solomon in chapter 8 may be an illustration showing the power love has over darkness and death. I believe this verse in Song of Solomon 8.6 is describing about how much power love has over Sheol and that they are equal in the power they have on people. So I believe this is showing the battle between love and death, between light and darkness. It is also showing that love is always stronger than death. Thus, in regards to this verse, it seems, Sheol is being used as a literary device for darkness or death.
As my thesis statement states: ‘I believe that according to the Hebrew Scriptures that there is no differentiated heaven or hell, rather there is a place called Sheol where everyone goes when we die.’ Throughout this paper I used different books of the Bible and passages to illustrate the different meanings of Sheol. The overall meaning of Sheol is the underworld or abode of the dead. Sheol is used metaphorically, temporally, spatially, and spiritually throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Some Christian Bibles translate the word Sheol as hell. In closing, based on the JPS Tanakh translation of the Hebrew Bible, there seems to be no differentiated heaven or hell, rather we all go to the same place and share the same fate. Finally, without a differentiated heaven and hell in the Hebrew Bible it makes me wonder where Christians got the view of heaven and hell since the Jews, who they broke off from, did not believe in it.
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Publication Society Tanakh translation. New York: Oxford University Press.
Collins, J. J., Getty, M. A., & Senior, D. (2011). The Catholic study Bible: The new American
Bible (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
Coogan, M. D. (2008). Chapter 10: Poetry and Dissent. In The Old Testament: A very short
introduction (p. 105). New York, New York: Oxford University Press.
“Genesis”. Coogan, M. D., Brettler, M. Z., Newsom, C. A., & Perkins, P. (2010). The new Oxford
annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version : with the Apocrypha : an ecumenical study Bible (4th ed.). Oxford [England: Oxford University Press.
“Song of Songs”. Coogan, M. D., Brettler, M. Z., Newsom, C. A., & Perkins, P. (2010). The new
Oxford annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version : with the Apocrypha : an ecumenical study Bible (4th ed.). Oxford [England: Oxford University Press.
Harrelson, W. J. (2003). The new interpreter’s study Bible: New Revised Standard Version
with the Apocrypha. Nashville, Tenn: Abingdon Press.