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In last week’s sidra, after Joseph’s steward accuses Benjamin of stealing his master’s goblet and tells the brothers that they will be free to leave Egypt but that Benjamin must stay as Joseph’s slave, they return to confront Joseph to appeal for mercy. Then Judah comes to Benjamin’s rescue and his speech continues into today’s portion. Judah attempts to paint a pitiful picture of the brothers’ father, who now would be bereft of his two youngest sons, and quotes Jacob’s lament at the possibility of losing Benjamin:
If you take this one from me, too, and he meets with disaster, you will send my white head down to Sheol in sorrow. (44:29)
Judah is paraphrasing Jacob’s earlier objection to Benjamin’s accompanying the brothers on their second trip to Egypt to buy grain. When Reuben told Jacob that the Egyptian lord had warned the brothers that they must return with Benjamin or else they would be counted as spies and Simeon would remain imprisoned, Jacob had responded:
If [Benjamin] meets with disaster on the journey you are taking, you will send my white head down to Sheol in grief. (42:38)
We’ve heard of a place called “Sheol” only once before these two times—again by Jacob. When Jacob learned of Joseph’s supposed death, he referred to Sheol:
…No, I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol. (37:35)
So what’s this place “Sheol”? The word “Sheol” (always rendered as a proper noun) is an interesting word. It’s found in a large number of additional places in the Bible (sixty-five times, actually). Sheol appears to be under the earth (Num. 16:31–33; Isa. 7:11; Ezek. 31:14; Ps. 86:13), deeply below (Deut. 32:22; Isa. 57:9), and at the farthest remove from heaven (Amos 9:2; Job 11:8). In Jonah it’s the fish’s stomach: “…Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and You heard my voice” (Jon. 2:2). Other uses of the word imply an area viewed as being divided into compartments: “Her house is the way to Sheol descending to the chambers of death.” (Prov. 7:27) and possessing “farthest corners” (Isa. 14:15; Ezek. 32:23). Biblical usage implies that Sheol is the place where those who have died are congregated, a usage similar to the Greek concept of Hades. Thus, the woman of Endor calls up Samuel from Sheol at Saul’s behest (1 Sam. 28:3 ff.). Some translations render Sheol as “Hell” but this interpretation is completely incorrect.
Looking at the various places where the word is used may tell us a little more about its meaning, and indeed, a little about the ancient Hebrews’ belief in an afterlife. The etymology of the word is uncertain. It’s possible that “shilu” (= a sort of chamber) could be an Assyrian source of the Hebrew word, but Nahum Sarna has written that the word has no cognates in neighboring languages. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, its synonyms are “pit,” “destruction,” or perhaps “abyss.” As the Encyclopedia Judaica states, “it is certain that most of the ideas covered by the Hebrew ‘Sheol’ are expressed also in the Assyro-Babylonian descriptions of the state of the dead, found in the myths concerning Ishtar’s descent into Hades…”
The question arises whether the biblical concept is borrowed from the Assyrians or is an independent development from elements common to both and found in many primitive religions. Though most of the passages in which mention is made of Sheol or its synonyms are of exilic or post-exilic times, the latter view, according to which the biblical concept of Sheol represents an independent evolution, is the more probable. It reverts to primitive animistic conceits. The soul remains connected with the body in the grave (as in dreams): the dead buried in family graves continue to have communion (comp. Jer. 31:15). Sheol is practically a family grave on a large scale. Graves were protected by gates and bolts; therefore Sheol was likewise similarly guarded. The separate compartments are devised for the separate clans, septs, and families, national and blood distinctions continuing in effect after death. That Sheol is described as subterranean is but an application of the custom of hewing out of the rocks passages, leading downward, for burial purposes.1
Whether the concept of Sheol implies belief in an afterlife is an open question. Some biblical passages seem to allude to such a belief. Jacob would mourn for Joseph there, as Gen. 37:35 states; in Ezekiel warriors “went down to Sheol with their weapons of war” (Ezek. 32:27), but sometimes there may even be communication between worlds, as when those in Sheol rejoice at the enemy’s defeat: “Sheol below is excited over you to meet you when you come; it arouses for you the spirits of the dead, all the leaders of the earth; it raises all the kings of the nations from their thrones” (Isa. 14:9). But on occasion people can return from Sheol. “YHWH kills, and makes alive; He brings down to Sheol, and brings up” (1 Sam. 2:6), and “I shall ransom them from the power of Sheol, I shall redeem them from death.” (Hos. 13:14), to cite two examples.
That Sheol was considered as a place of “nothingness” in all biblical references is illustrated by the comments of James Tabor, University of North Carolina at Charlotte:
The ancient Hebrews had no idea of an immortal soul living a full and vital life beyond death, nor of any resurrection or return from death. Human beings, like the beasts of the field, are made of “dust of the earth,” and at death they return to that dust (Gen. 2:7; 3:19). The Hebrew word nephesh, traditionally translated “living soul” but more properly understood as “living creature,” is the same word used for all breathing creatures and refers to nothing immortal. All the dead go down to Sheol, and there they lie in sleep together—whether good or evil, rich or poor, slave or free (Job 3:11–19)… This idea of Sheol is negative in contrast to the world of life and light above, but there is no idea of judgment or of reward and punishment… basically it is a kind of “nothingness,” an existence that is barely existence at all, in which a “shadow” or “shade” of the former self survives (Ps. 88:10).2
There is a remnant of a Sheol reference in our current liturgy. The second berakha of the Amidah refers to the dead as “sleepers in the dust,” an allusion to Ps. 30:9 (30:10 HT), which reads, “What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to Sheol? Shall the dust praise Thee? …”
Remember as you read the Bible in translation that in many JPS versions the word “Sheol” may be translated in a number of ways. These translations do a disservice to the Hebrew text and mask the true sense of the Hebrew.
1. Encyclopedia Judaica, 1906, S:283
2. James D. Tabor, What the Bible says about Death, Afterlife, and the Future, http://www.religiousstudies.uncc.edu/jdtabor/future.html
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