The abode of the dead in Hebrew thought. Sheol was thought to be deep within the earth (Psalms 88:6;
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;
Psalms 18:5). Sheol is sometimes personified as a hungry beast (Proverbs 27:20;
Habakkuk 2:5) with an open mouth and an insatiable appetite. Sheol is described as a place of dust (Psalms 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 (Psalms 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 (Psalms 6:5;
Psalms 88:12), no thought (Ecclesiastes 9:10), no speech (Psalms 31:17;
Psalms 94:17), especially no words of praise (Psalms 6:5;
Psalms 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 (Psalms 116:3), weakness (Isaiah 14:10), helplessness (Psalms 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 (Psalms 49:10-12;
Ezekiel 31:16). Only once does the Old Testament speak of Sheol specifically as the abode of the wicked (Psalms 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 (Psalms 55:15;
Numbers 16:30,Numbers 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;
Though the overall picture of Sheol is grim, the Old Testament nevertheless affirms that God is there (Psalms 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 (Psalms 16:10;
Job 33:18,Job 33:28-30). In the majority of these passages a restoration to physical life is clearly intended, though several (for example
Psalms 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.