Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Biblical Studies, Religion
This study sets out to redefine the concept of the biblical netherworld designated שְׁאוֹל, by focusing on the specific contexts within which it is mentioned as well as on the contexts of its semantic equivalents in the Bible. In the course of this study former views are reviewed and modifications suggested on the basis of different interpretations and in the light of new comparative material.
In Chapter I previously proposed etymologies of שְׁאוֹל are surveyed and their linguistic and semantic adequacy critically evaluated. This study proposes a semantic development leading from Hebrew/Aramaic שְׁוֹל- 'to inquire' > 'to call to account' > and probably 'to punish' as relevant.
Chapter 2 examines the contexts in which the semantic equivalents of Sheol appear. It is demonstrated that the contexts of בּוֺר - 'pit', a semantic equivalent of Sheol, always imply the realm of divine punishment, while שָׁ֫חַת - 'pit', another semantic equivalent of Sheol, appears in a similar context in all but one instance. This chapter further indicates the similarities between the biblical vocable חַוֹת - 'the realm of death', which parallels Sheol, and its Ugaritic counterpart Mȏt. These two concepts share a number of physical attributes. The suggestions conveyed by these attributes, however, are basically different. In Ugaritic literature they symbolize the intrinsic aggressiveness of the realm of Mȏt, but in biblical literature they serve to convey divine retributive judgement, thus raising a natural power onto an ethical plane. In the case of yet another semantic equivalent of Sheol, צרע - 'netherworld', there are a number of similarities between the biblical and extrabiblical concepts. Its range of meaning, however, in comparison to biblical Sheol, seems to be both wider and more neutral. While generally having negative denotations, it may appear in neutral and even once in a positive context . Sheol, on the other hand, is attested to in a negative context only, implying divine wrath and judgement.
In Chapter 3 an examination of the contexts in which Sheol proper appears indicates that it is almost exclusively associated with unnatural death. Such a death, implying divine judgement, is further suggested by a literary use of ordeal terminology derived from Babylonian sources. The relationship of this terminology to the biblical אוף - 'catastrophe' has been discussed in an excursus and its Babylonian affinities indicated.
Chapter 4 deals with the descriptive details of Sheol and points out their paucity and vagueness in comparison with extra-biblical accounts of the netherworld. It is shown that most of the physical features of Sheol - cords, snares and fetters - may be explained as conveying the idea of inescapability of divine judgement.
Chapter 5 deals with the ancient Near Eastern notion of 'evil death' as distinguished from natural death, and indicates the relationship between such a death and the denizens of Sheol. The discussion focuses particularly on two groups _ Rephaim and Belial. The former are considered in the light of Ugaritic texts. While in both Ugaritic and biblical texts Rephaim are heroic figures, in the Bible the attitude to them seems to be negative and a polemic vein against a belief in their power may be detected. Part of the explanation for this may be suggested by hints of an ancient myth recounting the unsuccessful rebellion of the Sons of El, among whom the Rephaim may have been numbered. A second group of the dwellers of Sheol are the Belial. This designation is transferred by metonomy from the name of the underworld river to a special category of transgressors - the Belial. These are violators of the basic norms of ethical behavior of Israelite society. These norms are stipulated in the covenant between the Israelite and his fellow man. As a violator of these norms, the Belial merits an 'evil death', and since he cannot be pardoned, he will never rise from Sheol.
The conclusion reached by this study is that the most formative influence on the concept of Sheol on the Bible was the view of God as the divine judge. It was this notion that prescribed the limits of the borrowings from neighboring cultures, entirely precluding a profusion of elements incompatible with the concept of ethical judgement. And it was this notion that accounts for the restriction of descriptive detail of Sheol in the Bible to a bare minimum. The emphasis is on a situation rather than on a locale, the situation of a person under judgement in a place of judgement suggested by the etymology of Sheol - Place of judgement.
Rosenburg, Ruth, "The Concept of Biblical Sheol within the context of Ancient near Eastern Beliefs" (1981). Open Access Dissertations and Theses. Paper 7586.
McMaster University Library