Sheol: The OT “Bad Place”?

Posted By on September 6, 2009

In the last post I sketched out how the OT does indeed contain the idea of some sort of afterlife with God beyond and external to Sheol for the righteous. In this post, we’ll look at the unrighteous who are left in Sheol. Does the OT have any sort of view of the afterlife for the unrighteous that approximates later NT ideas of hell?  The answer is “it depends” or “yes and no.”

First, since no one escapes the grave (Sheol) unless God raises them, Sheol is conceived of as never ending. The unrighteous who are not raised from Sheol are therefore in a never ending situation.

Second, Sheol for the unrighteous may indeed be a frightening place in Israelite thought depending on one factor: how did Israelites think of the Rephaim in Sheol?

The Rephaim are described as being in Sheol (Job 26:5-6; Prov 9:18) and are conceived of in two ways in the Hebrew Bible:  deceased great kings / rulers of old (e.g., Isa 14:9) and a giant clan (cf. Deut 2:11; 1 Chron 20:4). Outside the Hebrew Bible, the Rephaim are known in Ugaritic literature, but only as olden kings, not giants. For this reason, scholars typically look at the biblical Rephaim descriptions as coming from two divergent traditions. This is certainly possible, but it is also possible that the reason for the two types of descriptions is that the Israelites conceived of the Rephaim both ways, and those two ways are related.  In my view, it is possible to consider the Rephaim as a giant clan who produced notable rulers / kings in Canaan.  I don’t see a necessary incompatibility.

Given this notion, the Rephaim inhabitants of Sheol represented the ancient ruler-giant clans who were Israel’s great historica enemies. These enemies are specifically traced back to the Nephilim (compare Deut. 2:11 and Numbers 13:32-33). Adding 1 Chron 20:4 to that mix shows that the Rephaim were considered a giant clan that traced its roots back to the Nephilim.

The Nephilim are important in this equation because Second Temple Jewish texts (“intertestamental”) like 1 Enoch trace the origin of demons to the Nephilim. Without going into great detail, when a Nephilim giant was killed, the immaterial spirit of that Nephilim was considered a demon. This is the Second Temple explanation for the origin of demons. The disconnect here, though, is that the shedim of 1 Enoch were sentenced to roam the earth to harass humans. It is not clear they reside in the Abyss, but it does seem they can be there (but are not imprisoned there, like the original offending Watchers (sons of God) of Genesis 6 (they are imprisoned in all the OT, NT and 2nd temple Jewish traditions).

Here is the key point.  It may be that the Rephaim in Sheol were considered demonic as well as great warrior kings of old (six of one, half dozen of another) based on:

Ezekiel 32:21 (very literal): The gibborim (“mighty chiefs” in ESV) shall speak of them with their helpers out of the midst of Sheol; They have come down, they lie still, the uncircumcised, slain by the sword. The thing to note here is the term gibborim, which of course shows up in Genesis 6:4 in connection with the nephilim. Granted gibborim does NOT mean “giant” in general; the context must point that way. The point here is that gibborim could be viewed as the same as the Rephaim (synonyms) since the description of the gibborim that are in Sheol in Ezek 32 is basically the same as the warrior kings who are the Rephaim in Sheol in other passages. Since the Rephaim in Sheol can still be conceived of as dead giant clan kings, and since those dead Rephaim *may* be conceived as well as the departed spirits of those giants (which would be a parallel to the departed spirits of the nephilim being the demons), we could argue that the OT Sheol includes the idea that demonic spirits are in Sheol. This is not secure, but it is possible.  It would give us some sort of clue as to where later Second Temple and NT writers get some of their theology.

It should be noted that many commentators think the nephilim are in Sheol via Ezekiel 32.  There are often comments or textual notes on Ezek 32:27, where the “fallen” (n-p-l-m; nophelim) are in Sheol.  Some argue that the Hebrew there should be repointed as nephilim. I do not believe this is coherent since “fallen” (n-p-l-m) occurs in 32:22 where we read the “fallen” are “fallen by the sword.” It would make no sense to have “nephilim by the sword.” The same issue applies to 32:23 and 32:24.

So, what we have is that there is a possibility that an Israelite would have view Sheol with fear, not just because it meant death, but because the unrighteous would be forced to spend the afterlife with Israel’s ancient enemies, the giant clans of old, who were perhaps also conceived of as demons. This is possible, but not certain.

What about the element of fiery punishment? Well, if the above holds true, that wouldn’t be viewed as any sort of reward. There is also fire in Sheol according to Prov. 30:16. Job 31:12 *may* suggest there is fire in Sheol (cf. Abaddon in Job 26:6). (See also Psalm 140:8-10).  Granted, we do not have descriptions of sinners being burned in torment, but the essential elements are there. I think it is fair to say that the kernel elements of the fiery hell of the NT and Second Temple Judaism are present in the OT.

My conclusion is that it is incorrect to say that the OT does not have any sort of conept of a “bad” afterlife that resembles hell. That is an extreme conclusion that simply refuses to triangulate the range of OT material. It also goes too far to say that the concepts are identical between the testaments. There is a progression of the ideas from the OT to the NT.

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12 Responses to “Sheol: The OT “Bad Place”?”

  1. williamguice says:

    Thanks for these posts. One question for you…you wrote:

    “The Nephilim are important in this equation because Second Temple Jewish texts (”intertestamental”) like 1 Enoch trace the origin of demons to the Nephilim. Without going into great detail, when a Nephilim giant was killed, the immaterial spirit of that Nephilim was considered a demon. This is the Second Temple explanation for the origin of demons.”

    In your view is this the only explanation from the Second Temple Period of demons? Are any attributed to The Fall? Or do the Nephilim come from The Fall?



  2. MSH says:

    @williamguice: In Second temple Judaism the nephilim come from the union of the human women and the Watchers (a 2T jewish term used for “sons of God”); it is therefore the same as the biblical version. The nephilim offspring of these unions were giants, and 1 Enoch describes God sending other angels to destroy them. When they were killed, their spirits (also called Watchers, after their fathers as it were) are also called shedim (“demons”). Neither the nephilim nor the Watchers are connected with the Fall in Eden in these texts (or the OT).

  3. Sylvain says:

    I’m still not convinced that the hope expressed by the Old Testament saints wasn’t exclusively the resurrection. It would have been interresting to go through the meaning of the words ”soul” and ”spirit” in the hebrew sriptures, as well as passages such as Ecc 9:4-10, Ps 22:29, 78:50, Is 55:3, Ez 13:19, 18:4 just to name a few. Also to take a look at the episode of Saul and the witch of Endor (which is the one OT passage that really keeps me from accepting conditional immortality, since the apparition is called Samuel four times in the text). The dualist view still leave me wondering about one thing concerning the nephilims. If man has an immortal soul, it is assumed that it is created directly by God at conception (created with a defect it would seem, but that’s another can of worms); but when the sons of God came to the daughters of man, where did the spiritual aspect of the giants come from (what would become the demons)? Was it also created by God? I’m looking forward to your insight.

  4. MSH says:

    @Sylvain: is resurrection an insufficient hope? :-) If they were raised by God, doesn’t it stand to reason (and doesn’t the language reflect) that they would be with God. And since God is eternal, that means eternal life. Not sure what the problem is.

    If it matters to you, you cannot get a trichotomist view of anthropology from the OT (there is no separate body, soul, and spirit, since spirit and soul are words used interchangeably and in parallel in the OT).

  5. Sylvain says:

    Resurrection is fine with me (great actually), I’m just trying to figure out what the Bible teach. What kind of resurrection? If one goes to non-existence at death, the hope of the resurrection is a great one indeed; but if an immortal soul enjoys some sort of ”bliss” in an afterlife, the resurrection of the body becomes almost irrelevent (at most, it’s icing on the cake). Right now, I’m not commited to any view, I try to analyse the data to the best of my abilities. I would still like to know your opinion on the episode with Saul and the witch, as well as your answer to my question reguarding the origin of the spiritual, immortal aspect of the nephilim (what became the demons). Thanks for your time.

  6. stringbox says:

    Could you point me to a paper or post, anything about the view of the soul/spirit through the OT/NT? I’ve always been puzzled by Hebrews 4:12 use of “soul and of spirit”. I understand what the verse is saying, but don’t understand what is meant specifically by soul and spirit in the big picture. I’ve heard that some of that view of man (soul, mind, etc) was part of the greek culture? that they were putting extra divisions in there or something? And how would a definition of ‘spirit’ correlate to the part in 2 Kings. “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.”?

    Glancing at some commentary, my guess is that spirit often refers to an ‘aspect’ or ‘character’ of a person and the soul is the core self of a person or ‘mind’. Is that about right?

  7. MSH says:

    @stringbox: I think this will be the topic after baptism.

  8. birdy says:

    Mike as you know I admire your work but am wondering about you thinking “There is also fire in Sheol according to Prov 30:16.” What? Is there some Hebrew that got translated incorrectly here that we don’t know about? Most translations render these words of Agur roughly as (v.15-16)

    “A bloodsucking worm has two daughters.
    They cry out, ‘Give! Give!’
    “Three things are never satisfied.
    Four things never say, ‘Enough!’
    16 The first is the grave.
    The second is a woman who can’t have a baby.
    The third is land. It never gets enough water.
    And the fourth is fire. It never says, ‘Enough!’

    Could you please point out the connect between ‘fire’ and ‘the grave’ here as I don’t see it AT ALL, thanks.


    • MSH says:

      The elements following Sheol could all be descriptions of Sheol (or separate enumerations); weak, but possible.

  9. […] here (in the Polel) of Leviathan, also occurs in that theme in Isaiah 14:9 of the rousing of the Rephaim in Sheol. In that passage the ‘rousing’ is to ‘greet’ Helel ben Shachar [aka: Lucifer], cast out of […]

  10. james says:

    Hi Michael,

    You note that some OT passages seem to state that fire exists in sheol. And of course there are other passages in the OT that describe darkness as being a part of the conditions in sheol too. Presumably it is safe to that, for this reason, the Jewish intertestamental literature describes sheol (and also gehenna) as having both fire and darkness it. I was just wondering if you think it can be known whether the authors of the intertestamental literature took the fire and darkness as literal and, if so, how did they reconcile the (seemingly) obvious contradiction of having a place that was both fire and also a place of darkness? If they did see it as literal did they ascribe some kind of supernatural quality to the fire? (I guess, if they did, they’d reason that God has the power to create any type of fire He wants – even one that does not emit light, and that we have a precedent for a supernatural fire back in Exodus with the burning bush incident where the fire of God’s presence acts abnormally since it doesn’t burn the bush to ashes like an earthly fire would) Or is it simply unknown how the authors understood the fire and darkness and, therefore, unknown how the OT and NT authors understood it too?

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