Christian Leadership Center



Old Testament Word Studies




"The Grave, Death, Danger, Hell"



The noun  she'ol  is one of the designations for the realm of the dead that is peculiar to Hebrew, appearing only as a loanword in Aramaic and Ethiopic.  The suggestions for its etymology are fascinating, but none of them have proven convincing; be that as it may, the various categories of meaning are derived from the usage of the word anyway.  The problem with the usage of this word is that in a number of places in poetry where the word occurs, it is not always easy to know which of the categories was intended.



The etymology of this word has been a problem from the beginning of philological studies.  The following are some of the more compelling suggestions.  One suggestion is that the word is derived from a Hebrew root, primarily the verb sha'al, "to ask, require."  The connection would be that people inquire of the dead, trying to bring someone up from "the place of inquiry."

Another connects the word to a root  sha'ah, "to be desolate, devastated."  

Other proposals have tried to connect the noun to words in the different Semitic languages.  One is the Akkadian word shu'alu, meaning "ghost-ward."  Another is  Akkadian shu'aru, the name of the place of the god Tammuz (Dumuzi) in the underworld (the letters "r" and "l" easily interchange in Oriental languages).



The word occurs some 66 times in the Bible; most of its usages are in Psalms, Proverbs and Job.  The uses fall into four general categories of meaning, the grave, death, extreme danger, and the realm of the departed of Hell.


The Grave

Perhaps the most common use of the word in the Old Testament is for the grave.  Here we find the following examples:

In Genesis 37:35 Jacob laments Joseph's apparent death by saying, "I will go down to Sheol in mourning."  He has his own death in mind, and because it is a place he will go, the grave is the meaning. 

Ezekiel 32:27 uses the noun for the place where the bodies of the soldiers are placed: "Do they not lie with the other un-circumcised warriors who have died in the faith, who went down to the grave with their weapons of war, whose swords were placed under their heads?"

Isaiah 38:18 has another use of the word for grave in a fairly frequent kind of expression: the king motivated God to answer his prayer and restore him to health by saying "the grave cannot praise you."  He used the word she'ol figuratively, as a metonymy of subject, stating the container but meaning the contents.  In other words, if God did not rescue Hezekiah, he would be dead and in the grave and unable to praise God for saving his life.

So there are sufficient examples for a category of meaning of the grave.



Closely related to the nuance of the grave is the abstract meaning of "death."  In fact, the word is often found in poetic parallelism with the regular word for "death," mot.

Proverbs 5:5 speaks of the danger of going to an adulterous woman, warning, "Her feet go down to death, her steps lead straight to she'ol."   Psalm 18:5 [6] also has this parasynonymous usage: "The cords of she'ol coiled around me, the snares of death confronted me."

Another word that is used in parallel constructions with our word is "dust."  Speaking of Job's hope, one of the friends says, "Will it go down to the gates of she'ol?  Will we descend together into the dust?"   The word she'ol could mean either "death" or "the grave" in a verse like this.   Perhaps a more convincing sample is Psalm 89:49, which says, "What man can live and not see death, or save himself from the power of she'ol?" 


Extreme Danger

There are also a few examples where the word is used for extreme danger, the kind of danger that is life-threatening, in which the person would have died if God had not intervened.  So we read in Psalm 30:3[4] how David praised God for not letting him die in the plague: "O Yahweh, you brought me up from she'ol, you spared me from going down to the pit."  David did not die, so he was not brought up from the grave, or from death--but from such a dangerous place that he would have died if God had not prevented it. 

Likewise Jonah praised God, saying, "From the depths of she'ol I called for help, and you listened to my cry" (Jon. 2:2).  If Jonah had been dead, or in the grave, he could not have cried for help.  The fact that Jonah is a type of Christ's resurrection in the Bible does not require that Jonah was raised from the dead.  He was as good as dead in the belly of the fish, and so our word is used to describe that life-ending situation.


The Realm of Departed Spirits

The fourth category of meaning is that of the underworld, the place where the spirits of the dead reside, or what we call Hell or Hades.   This too is located in the biblical passages as "down," just as the grave is "down" or "below" (see Isa. 14:11;  Job 11:8 for a couple of samples). 

Numbers 16:30-33 may have this category of meaning in reference to Korah's men who were swallowed up by the earth; the text says "they went down alive into she'ol."  More convincing is the passage in Isaiah 14 that taunts the wicked king's descent to Hell: "she'ol below is all astir to meet you at your coming; it rouses the spirits of the departed to greet you--all those who were leaders in the world" (v. 9).  Even if one argues that this is a clever bit of imaginative writing by Isaiah, it still uses the word for a place to which the spirits descend.  Psalm 88:5[6] elaborates on the condition there: it is a place where they are cut off from fellowship with God--"whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care."  It is a place where death will be their shepherd; but the upright will rule over them in the morning (Ps. 49:14[15]).

Psalm 139:8 should probably be placed here as well.  David does not expect to go to she'ol--he is speaking hypothetically, using a merism, to affirm that there is no place he could go to get away from the presence of the LORD.  He says, "If I ascend to the heavens, you are there; if I spread out my bed in she'ol, you are there also."  He would not mean death or the grave here because the emphasis of the passage is that God would be present with him wherever he went.

It is clear from the usage of this category that the only spirits that will be in this horrible place separated from God are the spirits of the ungodly, those who never came to faith in the LORD.  In all the passages where the righteous are said to go to Sheol, the usage indicates either the grave, or death, or a dangerous place.  But when human spirits descend to the realm of the dead, meaning Hell, they are usually contrasted in the text with the righteous who are received in glory.  It is most likely that when the Old Testament believers died, their spirits went to be with the LORD and their bodies were laid to rest in the grave, only to be re-united at the end of the age in the great resurrection.  The evidence of 2 Corinthians 5 indicates that when people go to be with the LORD, they receive a temporary body to house the spirit, which will be replaced with the resurrected body ultimately.  Verses that are marshaled to teach that Old Testament saints went to a place not far from Hell until Christ released them are not convincing because they all have better interpretations.  And Jesus' story about the rich man and Lazarus who each died and went to his place is just that, a story, and not a teaching on the precise location of the believer and unbeliever after death, or that they could see each other.       For further clarification of the idea that only the unrighteous went to this realm of departed spirits, as well as a good discussion on death and the afterlife in the Old Testament, see the little book by Alexander Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946), p. 173, and chapter III especially).


The Greek Translation

The Old Greek version most often translates she'ol with the word hades.  Liddell and Scott define this as the proper noun "Hades," or "the netherworld," or "the grave," or "death," or "the place of departed spirits."  So it seems to have pretty much the same range of meanings as the Hebrew term.  But the Greek translation does not really help us, for it simply uses hades for the translation and leaves us to decide again which of the meanings fits the context.  Only in Proverbs 23:14 does the Greek use thanatos, "death," for the translation.   The New Testament, of course, uses hades frequently, but not in all the categories of meaning, not for the grave or for extreme danger.



Except for those who remain alive at the coming of the Lord, she'ol is inevitable.  The righteous will die and go to the grave where their bodies will decay, even though their spirits will go to be with the Lord.  This was true of Old Testament believers; it is true of us as well. 

But as for the wicked, the ungodly, when they die their bodies will go to the grave and their spirits will go to Hell.  At the day of resurrection they will be resurrected as well, but to stand judgment.  Then, in the end, Hades and death will be cast into the Lake of Fire as part of the second death.     

Whenever the word she'ol appears in a passage, one of these four basic meanings applies.  If the passage is speaking about the righteous, then only the first three categories are options.