Michelle Dusty (Digital) Tomes Series: Hebrew Concepts of Hell

Article By: Michelle Belanger

Diagram of the Hebrew Sheol

The following is from the “Society of Biblical Archaeology Proceedings,” Volume 10, part 2 published by the Society of Biblical Archaeology in London on May 1, 1888. The specific article from whence these passages have been excerpted is entitled “Old Jewish Legends on Biblical Topics Part II: Legendary Description of Hell,” by Rev. A. Lowy. In his artile, the Rev. Lowy discusses the Hebrew concept of Sheol, often equated with the Christian notion of Hell. As he explores the origins and meanings of a number of Hebrew words that appear in the Old Testament, he reveals nuances and shades of meaning that may be lost on a casual reader of the Bible who only has access to the English translations of these words.

The Concept of Sheol pp. 333-334

“In the Anglican version of the Old Testament, the word ‘hell” occurs in thirty different passages, and this word has been defined as being synonymous with the grave, or with the resting place of the departed. In no instance does it mean a place for punishment of sinners. The revisers of the “Authorised Version,” apprehending perhaps that the word “hell” might be interpreted in a different and peculiarly doctrinal sense, have in most instances expunged this rendering and replaced it by the word sheol, or by one of the synonyms of sheol. It has been generally supposed that sheol means a pit. This may originally have been the case; but there can be no doubt that sheol implied something extremelt mysterious.

According to a common impression, which the Mosaic law sought to remove from the minds of the people, the denizens of the netherworld could be approached by the consulter of oboth, which the Engl

ish version, for want of a better term, renders by “familiar spirits.” A person anxious to lift the veil of coming events would betake himself to the professional communicant with the departed, who would then pretend to bring up the dead, or would cause a voice to arise from the earth and afford the deisred oracular information * (Isaia viii; see also I Samuel xxciii, 7, et seq.). The expulsion of wizards from the land of the Israelites appears likewise to have been connected with the forbidden practice of exorcism.

It may here also be noticed that oboth, the plural of ob, is mentioned in the Pentateuch as the proper name of a place (Numbers xxi, II, and xxxiii, 43 and 44). In these instances, oboth is reocrded together with other names of localities which were connected with idolatrous sanctuaries and deities. It may therefore be assumed that Oboth, as a proper name, signifies a place where the dead could be consulted.

*The Hebrew word jidoni, which the English version renders “wizard,” may be a compound of the words jada, “to know,” and

oneh, “the answer, or the answerer.” The final is employed to denote not only patronymics and gentilitial terms, but shows also that persons indicated by this termination belong to some particularised class of people.

Sheol Personified, p. 335:

“In the Hebrew Bible the word sheol is employed in two totally different ways. In the first place sheol is regarded as a huge and insatiable monster whose belly can never be filled; it takes a long and deep breath before it swallows up entire multitudes of those who pass from this earth into the realmsĀ  of complete isolation; it refuses to release from its clutches those who have become its prey, and in its cruelty it rivals the fierceness of human jealousy. In regard to its insatiability it is equal to the Abadon, a name which is supposed to signify perdition, but only in the sense of showing that persons had been lost to the companionship of their mortal surroundings, without a chance of recall.

Sheol combined with the notion of primeval chaos symbolised by water as it was thought to be submerged beneath the waves of the sea.

Generally, however, sheol is not personified, but is treated as a local habitation. According to the ancient propagators of folk-lore, it was situated in the depths of the earth, or below the earth. Its profundity could not be fathomed by man. No mortal, whether good or bad, could escape from its power. Those who had to undergo sorrows in this life, took down into sheol the inextinguishable remembrance of unrelieved anxieties (see, for example, Genesis xxxvii, 35). Men who misused the opportunities of their lives, and became, through misdeeds, weary of their existence, were speedily hurled down from the abode of their evil doings, and were drawn into the departure of the dying. At a future time I shall have to advert to the import part which the several references to the gates of the nether-world play in international folklore. In the interior of sheol, there were various gradations of depth, and there were special recesses which were called the “chamber of death” (Proverbs vii, 27).

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Here also were housed the Rephaim, whose remembrance is enshrouded in ancient myths of the Hebrews and the Phoenicians. Once objects of terror on earth, they now served as a representation [p. 336] of irrevocable feebleness. The ancients who handed down to posterity the traditions of sheol undoubtedly were guided by a consideration of the structure of sepulchres as existing in their own lands. Persons, though of low degree, who had attained to opulence, were found desirous of perpetuating their memory by the erection of chambered tombs hewn in the rocks, as may be gathered from a scathing rebuke which Shebna, an unworthy upstart, received in the time of Isaiah for his vain attempt to immortalise himself in his own grave (Isaiah xxii, 16-18).

The nether-world is also designated zalmaveth, which is described as being entered by terrifying gates. The term zalmaveth is considered to be divisble into two words: zel (shadow), maveth (death). It is more likely that this word was pronouncedĀ zalmuth, and that although the current rendering is widely accepted and rests on a large number of lexical authorities, the original word meant nothing else but “impenetrable darkness.” In this signification it is frequently associated with the word chosherh, which means a compartively lesser degree of gloom. Zalmuth would then convey the idea that the departed repose in a region os such impenetrable obscurity as could not be dispelled by any glare of light.

Gehenna and the Valley of Hinnom, pp. 338-339:
In Jewish writings “hell” was termed Gehinnom (Gehenna). This name, as is generally supposed, has been derived from notices of the Valley of Hinnom which occur in various historical and prophetic books of the Bible (for example, in II Kings, xxiii, 15), as originally designating a locality where the adorers of the idol Moloch burnt their children, or “made their children pass through the fire.” The Valley of Hinnom formed an immense burial place (Jeremiah xix, 2) and was contiguous to the Holy City. Commencing at the west of the Jaffa Gate, it passed along the N.W. of Jerusalem, reached the Tombs of the Kings, and with a precipitous descent of nearly 700 feet below its starting point, it joined in the south the Valley of Jehoshaphat, and terminated at the Well of Job. In this Valley of Hinnom the Moloch temple seems to have occupied a spot called Tofeth, which is explained as signifying a place for the burning of human remains. Sheol, or the nether-world, received therefore as a synonym the word Tofeth, which was also pronounced Tofteh (Isaiah XXX, 33). Such a locality was well adapted to serve as a new basis for the legends of hell.

The situation of Gehinnom is a subject upon which the popular traditions differ very conspicuously. Some find its site beneath the earth or within the bowels of the earth; some place it above the firmament while others are of opinion that it is beyond the “dark mountains.” The “dark mountains” form a special cycle of folk-lore, and it seems possible to note the region in which they were an object of terror. In ancient Jewish traditions it is stated that when Alexander the Great invaded Africa, his march was impeded by the thick impenetrable darkness of these mythical mountains. The old fathers of folk-lore were therefore well justified in placing Gehinnom in a region which was inaccessible to man’s exploration. Allusions to these dark mountains occur not only in the Talmud (see for instance Talmid, fol. 32b), but also in other literature, for example in the poetic folk-lore of the Syrians.

There are seven habitations in Hell. Their names are Sheol, Abadon, Zalmaveth, Erez-tachtith (lowermost earth), Neshijah (oblivion), Gehinnom (Gehenna) and Dumah (silence). Dumah is held to be a synonymous substitute for Chazar-maveth (court of death). It received this designation as indicating the enclosure where the spirits of the departed assemble.”

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An interesting note to my readers: Dumah later becomes identified as an angel, sometimes heavenly, sometimes fallen. In his landmark work, “The Dictionary of Angels,” Gustav Davidson identifies Dumah as the “angel of silence.” He further points out that Dumah appears by name in the Babylonian descent of Ishtar as a guardian of the 14th gate of the Underworld.

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