Good to be back blogging on the NB. I lost my laptop for a week and posting was spotty. But thanks the Geek Squad at BestBuy, I’m back in business.
By now you’ve had plenty of time to read through the file I posted with all the occurrences of Sheol. You should have noticed that, for the most part, it has a negative feel, either because certain occurrences speak of the grave and people don’t like to die (!) or it’s the place the wicked are headed to. But you should also have noticed that, on occasion, the righteous are said to be headed to Sheol (e.g., Jacob: Gen 37:35; 42:38; 44:31). This in fact is what steers many scholars (probably most) to see Sheol as either the grave or some sort of reference to a place “in the earth” that everyone goes to. This latter element is, of course, part of the three-tiered cosmology of ancient Israel and other ANE peoples. Sheol is “bad” because the wicked are there; Sheol isn’t “bad” because the righteous are there, too.
While it’s clear that the dead go to the grave/Sheol and therefore reside in Sheol (whatever that is), it seems that the questions of eternal paradise or eternal punishment are not addressed in the OT text. After all, there’s no real clear passage that speaks of Sheol being anything like heaven, and it’s never really described like we’d think of hell.
Well, not so fast on both counts.
Let’s take the “heaven” idea first. The notion that the cumulative occurrences of Sheol prove that the OT has no idea of an eternal heaven is misguided. The reason is the assumption that studying the occurrences of Sheol is the right strategy or trajectory for delving into the issue of whether the OT teaches there is a blissful afterlife. It isn’t.
There are definite hints that there is something beyond Sheol for the righteous. Normally, according to Job 7:9, no one comes up out of Sheol (“As the cloud fades and vanishes, so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up”). But the Lord can accomplish this per 1 Samuel 2:6 (“The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up”). “Raises up” is a literal translation and the verb here is NOT the one typically used for physical deliverance, and so the idea of coming “up” out of Sheol (which was conceived of as under the earth) appears to be in view. This “upward” language is interesting in light of Prov 15:24, where we read: “The path of life leads upward for the prudent, that he may turn away from Sheol beneath.” The “upward” idea is clearly contrasted with Sheol, which is “below” in Israelite cosmology. The text could be read in two ways: that the righteous never go to Sheol, which doesn’t seem correct in view of other passages, or that the righteous wind up “up there” (opposite Sheol) after death at some point (and death = Sheol). The second option is consistent with the idea that everyone goes to Sheol but the righteous don’t stay there.
This is important since many try to argue that all that is in view is deliverance from physical harm that would bring death (and hence a trip to Sheol). Psalm 30:3 also seems to clearly suggest that the Lord can remove someone from Sheol and raise them out of the place of the dead: “O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.” Psalm 49:15 echoes the same thought: “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.” What’s interesting about this verse is the idea of being “received” by God — which would make little sense if the point was merely protection from harm in this life. The Hebrew word here for “receive” can also mean “taken,” and so the idea may also be removal from Sheol.
So, the references to Sheol itself can include the notion of being removed from Sheol, at least for the righteous. But there is more. Some scholars fail to look outside the passages that have the word Sheol in them, and that omission leads to poor conclusions.
Building on the idea of the righteous escaping from Sheol at the pleasure of the Lord, we read in Psalm 73:
23 Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
The language of being “received to glory” is noteworthy (it is the same word as in Psalm 49:15). Some would argue that the meaning is that God will honor the person in question, and that “glory” does not refer to the presence of God. That position is made more difficult by what follows: “Whom have I in the heavens but you?” Yes, this could be an appeal like “what other god do I have but you?” but it’s obvious that God was thought to dwell in the heavens — and so that may be where the person in question will be “received.” The “holding of the hand” deserves some attention, since “upholding” is elsewhere associated with the presence of God: “But you have upheld me because of my integrity, and set me in your presence forever.” The notion of the Lord being the “portion” of the psalmist “forever” is important as well. “Portion” is a very important and familiar word to any who have read my work on the divine council. It is the word for “allotted inheritance.” That God is perceived to be the inheritance of the righteous psalmist is the flip side of the idea that Yahweh has his own portion (inheritance) which is Israel, his people. The idea is that there is a personal eschatology (being with the Lord forever) with the national eschatology that springs out of the OT worldview of Israel as a divine inheritance. The “portion” language is echoed in Psalm 16:5 (“The Lord is my chosen portion and cup; you hold my lot”). Elsewhere in the same psalm (vv. 10-11) the psalmist says: “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Clearly the psalmist expected that the righteous to be with the Lord and not remain in Sheol (cf. “the holy” — and the word is not qadesh, the normal word for holy — it is chasid — a synonym for the righteous).
In my judgment, and without belaboring the data, a good case can be presented that the OT does indeed teach that the righteous do not remain in Sheol but are with the Lord. Since God was thought to have no end in Israelite theology, any existence with him for the righteous would be eternal.
Next up: Sheol for the unrighteous.