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Plowing through History from the Aleph to the Tav

Topics Definition of Hebrew Words

By Jeff A. Benner
שְׁאוֹל she'ol

The word she'ol is often understood as hell, the place of the damned or the underworld. How did the Ancient Hebrews perceive she'ol? As I have said before, in order to better understand a word it is essential to look at its root and other related words.

The verbal root sha'al is used almost 200 times and is usually translated as "asked" such as in the following passage.

"and I asked her and said..." Why do we ask questions? We are looking for information that is currently unknown to us. This word, "unknown," is the key to understanding the root sha'al and all the words derived from it. (Genesis 24:7)

The word she'eylah, a noun derived from sha'al is used in Job 6:8 where it is translated as a request. "O that I might have my request, and that God would grant my desire" (RSV). A request is to ask for something that is not possessed. As it is not possessed it is an unknown. How many times have we asked for something that we knew we needed but when we received it we found out it was not what we thought it would be. In other words, we thought we knew what we were missing but it turns out that what we were requesting was an unknown.

The word she'ol, also derived from sha'al, was understood as the place where one goes when they die. The question is, did they understand this to be simply the grave one is buried in or another place one goes after they die? This is a difficult question to answer as the Hebrew Bible never really defines she'ol. There is evidence however that they understood it to be more than just the grave. First, the word qever is the Hebrew word meaning grave and therefore it is possible that she'ol was understood as something other than the grave. Second, most scriptures using the word she'ol imply a place other than the grave. An example is Genesis 37:35 All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and said, "No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning." Thus his father wept for him (RSV). In this account Jacob believed his son Joseph had been eaten by a wild beast. As Joseph's body could not possibly be in a grave, Jacob knew that he would be with him somewhere - she'ol.

The Ancient Hebrews did not know where or even what she'ol was. To them it was an unknown place hence, the use of a word related to sha'al meaning "unknown." It should also be noted that the Ancient Hebrews never speculated on something unknown, it was simply not known and left at that. It is only the Greek mind that desires to know the unknown. It is our Greco-Roman western mindset that needs to know where and what she'ol is.

Strong's: #7585

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