Posted by: religionthink | May 18, 2007

The Terror of the Warriors Was in the Land of the Living: Thoughts on Sheol.

The Terror of the Warriors Was in the Land of the Living: Thoughts on Sheol.

Hell to the Jewish mind is altogether different then the views popular among the evangelical Christians. To obtain a better understanding of this most horrible dimension it is important to note that the Jewish “Tofet” lasts not for eternity as the Christian but after a time some of the condemned are brought to the Gates of Eden. Below we will explore some texts and ideas of the underworld. The first examples are those that may have been influence by Greeks, Romans, and later Christianity. The next will be from earlier texts that have not. What we will find is that no specific doctrine exists amoung Jewish theology.

The most modern view can be found in an essay by Shlomo Yaffe and Yanki Tauber:

While there are numerous stations in a soul’s journey, these can generally be grouped into four general phases:

i) the wholly spiritual existence of the soul before it enters the body;

ii) physical life;

iii) post-physical life in Gan Eden (the “Garden of Eden,” also called “Heaven” and “Paradise”);

iv) the “World to Come” (Olam HaBa) that follows the resurrection of the dead.”1

The first view we find in the Babyloian Talmud:

“Nay; even Resh Lakish admits that the sinners descend into hell; but our father Abraham, seeing that they are circumcised, rescues them. R. Jeremiah ben Elazar said again. “Hell has three gates: One in the desert, one in the sea, and one in Jerusalem.” “In the desert,” as it is written [Numbers xvi. 33]: “And they went down, they, and all they that appertained to them, alive into the pit (Sheol-Gehenna).” “In the sea,” as it is written [Jonah ii. 3]: “Out of the depth of the grave have I cried, and thou hast heard my voice.” “And one in Jerusalem,” as it is written [Isaiah xxxi. 9]: “Who hath a fire in Zion, and a furnace in Jerusalem.” And the disciples of R. Ishmael taught, that by a fire in Zion is meant Gehenna, and by the furnace in Jerusalem is meant the gate of Gehenna.R. Jehoshua, ben Levi said, that hell has seven names, viz.: Sheol, Abadon, Baar Shachath, Bor Sheon, Tit Hayavon, Tzalmoveth, and Eretz Hathachthith ”2

In short there is said to be three types of transgressions that one would commit to end up in such a dimension. The first one would be the denial of God, second, those who deny the divine authority of the law, and lastly, those who reject the resurrection of the dead. In passing the last, perhaps was to sure up a theological belief. Not all get out for some are consumed eventually altogether. 3

The second, found in the book of Enoch, another description is told:

“I saw the spirits of the children of men who were dead, and their voice went forth to heaven and made suit. Then I asked Raphael the angel who was with me, and I said unto him: ‘This spirit–whose is it whose voice goeth forth and maketh suit?’ Then I asked regarding it, and regarding all the hollow places: ‘Why as one separated from the other?’. And he answered me and said unto me: ‘These three have been made that the spirits of the dead might be separated. And such a division has been made for the spirits of the righteous, in which there as the bright spring of water. And such has been made for sinners when they die and are buried in the earth and judgment has not been executed on them in their lifetime. Here their spirits shall be set apart in this great pain till the great day of judgment and punishment and torment of those who curse for ever, and retribution for their spirits. There He shall bind them for ever. And such a division has been made for the spirits of those who make their suit, who make disclosures concerning their destruction, when they were slain in the days of the sinners. Such has been made for the spirits of men who were not righteous but sinners, who were complete in transgression, and of the transgressors. they shall be companions: but their spirits shall not be slain in the day of judgment nor shall they be raised from thence. Then I blessed the Lord of glory and said: ‘Blessed be my Lord, the Lord of righteousness, who ruleth for ever.”4

A third example come to us from Rabbi Joshua son of Levi. Rabbi Joshua contributed to such views. In a vision, after he was denied by one angel, he found a second angel could not go either. After much hardship he was finally able to observe hell and its different parts.

“He saw compartments ten miles in length and five in width and they were full of mountains of fire and consuming the sinners. And in one compartment he saw ten nations from the heathens, and Absalom, the son of David presides over them…”5

After reading such accounts it would be interesting to note the influences these writings had on Dante.

A different kind of hell was to those of the past. Although it is clear that there is destruction in the grave but is not with great detail.

“This is the portion of the wicked with God, and the heritage that oppressors receive from the Almighty: If their children are multiplied, it is for the sword; and their offspring have not enough to eat. Those who survive them the pestilence buries, and their widows make no lamentation. Though they heap up silver like dust, and pile up clothing like clay— they may pile it up, but the just will wear it, and the innocent will divide the silver. They build their houses like nests, like booths made by sentinels of the vineyard. They go to bed with wealth, but will do so no more; they open their eyes, and it is gone. Terrors overtake them like a flood; in the night a whirlwind carries them off. The east wind lifts them up and they are gone; it sweeps them out of their place. It hurls at them without pity; they flee from its power in headlong flight. It claps its hands at them, and hisses at them from its place.” (Job 27:13-23 NRSV)

The Psalms and laments are filled with images of death and the pit. Ezekiel 32:27 discusses the fate of warriors in Sheol. Below as another example we view one who feels betrayed. Here references to Shoel, the pit, and being forgotten by the deity are used to describe the place of death.

“O Lord, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence, let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry. For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help, like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves. (Selah) You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a thing of horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape; my eye grows dim through sorrow. Every day I call on you, O Lord; I spread out my hands to you. Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise up to praise you? (Selah) Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon? Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness? But I, O Lord, cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me? Wretched and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am desperate. Your wrath has swept over me; your dread assaults destroy me. They surround me like a flood all day long; from all sides they close in on me. You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness.” (Psa 88:1-18 NRSV)

Thirdly, I would like to use a text that is not Jewish at all but comes from a distant history far removed that at times many forget that it compares with Jewish themes of the underworld and gives us a glimpse of the idea of the after life in the Ancient Near East in general. That text is the epic of Gilgamesh.

In a short summery, for those not so familiar, Gilgamesh was thought to be two thirds God and one third human. He conquers all, and experiences mostly all things then becomes board. That is until Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s soon to be rival, comes out of the forest and is domesticated by a harlot. It is in this text one views the struggles of the nomadic life style with that of the civilized. In the end they become best of friends, so much so that when Enkidu dies Gilgamesh is disillusioned by his death. He sets out to find life everlasting. Below we have the most beautiful description of Gilgamesh travels through the pains of loosing a friend and death.

“The scorpion-being spoke to Gilgamesh, saying:
“Go on, Gilgamesh, fear not!
The Mashu mountains I give to you freely (!),
the mountains, the ranges, you may traverse …
In safety may your feet carry you.
The gate of the mountain …”
As soon as Gilgamesh heard this
he heeded the utterances of the scorpion-being.
Along the Road of the Sun L he journeyed–
one league he traveled …,
dense was the darkness, light there was none.
Neither what lies ahead nor behind does it allow him to see.
Two leagues he traveled …,
dense was the darkness, light there was none,
neither what lies ahead nor behind does it allow him to see.
Four leagues he traveled …,
dense was the darkness, light there was none,
neither what lies ahead nor behind does it allow him to see.
Five leagues he traveled …,
dense was the darkness, light there was none,
neither what lies ahead nor behind does it allow him to see.
Six leagues he traveled …,
dense was the darkness, light there was none,
neither what lies ahead nor behind does it allow him to see.
Seven leagues he traveled ..
dense was the darkness, light there was none,
neither what lies ahead nor behind does it allow him to see.
Eight leagues he traveled and cried out (!),
dense was the darkness, light there was none,
neither what lies ahead nor behind does it allow him to see.
Nine leagues he traveled … the North Wind.
It licked at his face,
dense was the darkness, light there was none,
neither what lies ahead nor behind does it allow him to see.
en leagues he traveled …
… is near,
… four leagues.
Eleven leagues he traveled and came out before the sun(rise).
Twelve leagues he traveled and it grew brilliant.
…it bears lapis lazuli as foliage,
bearing fruit, a delight to look upon.”

As we come to a conclusion we can see the stark difference between view that were influenced and those that were not. It seems that after the Babylonian Exile the dimensions of haven and hell, named angels, and other ideas appear in the texts. However before that it appears that one would be as dust in the ground until the day when Yahweh, out of his own will chose to resurrect the bones of dust that lay piled, and forgotten in the earth. It is topic of many writings hoping the deity did not forget our human state in death.

1.” What Happens after we die?” [URL=][/URL]

2. Babyloian Talmud Book 2 Tract Erubin-7

3. Rappoport, Angelo. Ancient Israel Myths and Legends Vol. I. Gresham publishing Company, London 1995. pg. 130-131.

4. Book of Enoch 22:5-14

5. Ancient Israel Myths and Legends Vol. I 130-131.

6. Kovacs, Maureen Gallery. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Tablet 9.

*This essay was written by the author of


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