Sheol and hell in the Old Testament

Below are all of the Bible passages from the New International Version where the Hebrew word “sheol” is found in the original Hebrew Bible text. The highlighted words found in yellow are the English translations for “sheol,” as found in the NIV. This is an exhaustive list. It is noteworthy that the NIV never translates “sheol” as “hell."  In contrast, the King James Version translates “sheol” as “hell” in roughly half of the instances where it appears in the Hebrew text. As for the Revised Standard and New American Standard versions, they don’t even bother translating the word into English. These two versions leave “sheol" untranslated, which although better than the KJV’s sometimes flawed and ambiguous renderings, still leaves the reader uncertain as to the word’s meaning. The NIV is the only translation that renders “sheol” into English in the most accurate, understandable and consistent manner.


NIV passages where the Hebrew word “sheol” is found: Commentary notes and remarks:
Genesis 37:35 All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. “No,” he said, “in mourning will I go down to the grave to my son.” So his father wept for him. Jacob, believing that his son Joseph is dead, mourns for him. Jacob dismisses attempts to console him, stating that he will die mourning, and that at the end of his life he will join his son in “sheol.
Genesis 42:38 But Jacob said, “My son will not go down there with you; his brother is dead and he is the only one left. If harm comes to him on the journey you are taking, you will bring my gray head down to the grave in sorrow." Jacob’s gray head (hair) is at risk of being brought down to “sheol.” Do immortal souls enter “hell” with shocks of gray hair?
Genesis 44:29 If you take this one from me too and harm comes to him, you will bring my gray head down to the grave in misery.’ 30 “So now, if the boy is not with us when I go back to your servant my father and if my father, whose life is closely bound up with the boy’s life, 31 sees that the boy isn’t there, he will die. Your servants will bring the gray head of our father down to the grave in sorrow. See above.
Numbers 16:30 But if the LORD brings about something totally new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them, with everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the grave, then you will know that these men have treated the LORD with contempt."

Numbers 16:33 They went down alive into the grave, with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they perished and were gone from the community.

KJV: the pit

Korah, Dathan and Abiram and their families go straight to “sheol” without dying: “They went down ALIVE into Sheol.” The fissure in the earth gave them a direct route straight into “sheol.” There was no need for angels to carry their departed souls into “sheol." The rebels found themselves in “sheol” while they were still alive. Also following the rebels into “sheol” were sundry items, such as their tents, their cooking utensils, etc., for the passage states “all of their possessions” went into “sheol."

Deuteronomy 32:22 For a fire has been kindled by my wrath, one that burns to the realm of death below. It will devour the earth and its harvests and set afire the foundations of the mountains. The KJV translates “tachtiy sheol” as “the lowest hell." Does this mean that there are different “levels” in Christendom’s traditional “hell”? A Roman Catholic might use this translation to support the doctrine of different levels of suffering in Purgatory, but Protestants using the KJV are left in a quandary, having to explain how their hell can have different levels.

A better solution would be to interpret “tachtiy sheol” as a reference to the roots of the mountains, seeing how the second half of this verse is a repetitive parallel of the first half. “Tachtiy sheol” (the lowest hell) is compared to “the foundations of the mountains.”

1 Samuel 2:6 “The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up. Typical Hebrew parallelism. Here “death” is paralleled with “sheol,” and “makes alive” is paralleled with “raises up.
2 Samuel 22:6 The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me. KJV: hell

David says that “the cords of sheol” coiled around him when Saul and his troops sought to capture him. Do those who believe in immortal souls understand that David (a man after God’s own heart) was one step away from their fire and brimstone “hell” while he tried to outrun Saul in the wilderness?

1 Kings 2:6 Deal with him according to your wisdom, but do not let his gray head go down to the grave in peace.

1 Kings 2:9 But now, do not consider him innocent. You are a man of wisdom; you will know what to do to him. Bring his gray head down to the grave in blood."

King David did not want Joab’s “head” to go to “sheol” “in peace,” therefore he instructed his son Solomon to see to it that Joab’s sins were met with justice. In short, Solomon was instructed to put Joab to death.  

Also see comments above for Genesis 42:38.

Job 7:9 As a cloud vanishes and is gone, so he who goes down to the grave does not return. 10 He will never come to his house again; his place will know him no more. Job repeats a sentiment that he earlier expressed when he lamented, “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither” (Job 1:21).
Job 11:7 Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty? 8 They are higher than the heavens-- what can you do? They are deeper than the depths of the grave -- what can you know? KJV: hell

 

NIV passages where “Sheol” is found: Commentary notes and remarks:
Job 14:13 If only you would hide me in the grave and conceal me till your anger has passed! If only you would set me a time and then remember me! Job preferred to hide in “sheol” rather than face God’s anger in the land of the living. Job’s preference would make no sense if the popular concept of “hell” was true, that is, that hell is a place of burning and eternal torments.
Job 17:13 If the only home I hope for is the grave, if I spread out my bed in darkness, 14 if I say to corruption, ’You are my father,’ and to the worm, ’My mother’ or ’My sister,’ 15 where then is my hope? Who can see any hope for me? 16 Will it go down to the gates of death? Will we descend together into the dust?" “Sheol” appears twice in these passages. The KJV translates them as “the grave” and “the pit.” Job compares “sheol” with a bed, and with darkness, where worms and dust are his close companions. This doesn’t sound like the popular concept of “hell,” where goblins and monsters torment the damned with fire and pitchforks, and where shrieks of agony can be heard from the parched tongues of the wicked. In contrast, Job’s “hell” sounds more like a hole in the ground where a dead body would be laid to rest.
Job 21:7 Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power? 13 They spend their years in prosperity and go down to the grave in peace.

Job 24:19 As heat and drought snatch away the melted snow, so the grave snatches away those who have sinned. 20 The womb forgets them, the worm feasts on them; evil men are no longer remembered but are broken like a tree.

Job comments that “sheol” is a place where worms feast on those who are “snatched away” to it.
Job 26:6 Death is naked before God; Destruction lies uncovered. KJV: hell
Psalm 6:4 Turn, O LORD, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love. 5 No one remembers you when he is dead. Who praises you from the grave? The psalmist remarks that in “sheol” no voices can be heard praising God. Those who are dead are no longer capable of remembering God.
Psalm 9:17 The wicked return to the grave, all the nations that forget God. KJV: hell

When were the wicked ever in hell before they died? Does not the passage describe the wicked “returning” to hell? If, however, “sheol” is a reference to “returning to the dust” from which we were formed, then “return” would make senses, since God told Adam in the beginning: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:19)

Psalm 16:8 I have set the LORD always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. 9 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, 10 because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. KJV: hell

The psalmist prophetically describes the death of the Messiah, how he would not be abandoned in “sheol.” The thought is further clarified with the parallelism: this Holy One would not see decay in “sheol.” The use of the word “decay” speaks of the existence of a body, which can decay and be eaten by worms.

Psalm 18:5 The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me. KJV: hell

Another Hebrew parallelism, where the “cords of sheol” and “the snares of death” describe one and the same thing. Also see comments above on 2 Samuel 22:6.

Psalm 30:3 O LORD, you brought me up from the grave; you spared me from going down into the pit.

Another psalm, most likely by David, where he thanks God for preserving his life when his enemies were closing in upon him, a time when death was close at hand. “Sheol” and “the pit” are paralleled, signifying that they are synonymous.
Psalm 31:17 Let me not be put to shame, O LORD, for I have cried out to you; but let the wicked be put to shame and lie silent in the grave. According to the psalmist, the wicked lie down in silence when they go to “sheol.” This is quite a contrast to the fate that mainstream Christianity says awaits the wicked when they enter “hell.”
Psalm 49:10 For all can see that wise men die; the foolish and the senseless alike perish and leave their wealth to others. 11 Their tombs will remain their houses forever, their dwellings for endless generations, though they had named lands after themselves. 12 But man, despite his riches, does not endure; he is like the beasts that perish. 14 Like sheep they are destined for the grave, and death will feed on them. The upright will rule over them in the morning; their forms will decay in the grave, far from their princely mansions. 15 But God will redeem my life from the grave; he will surely take me to himself. Selah According to the psalmist, the foolish and stupid person perishes just like the beasts. The tomb is described as their dwelling place for endless generations. Their “forms” will decay, and death will feed upon them like dead sheep. There is nothing in these verses that would hint that the dead are actually living and being tormented in an underworld. On the contrary, the fate of the stupid and foolish is similar to that of beasts. Thankfully there is hope for some, for in verse 15 there is a reference to the resurrection of the upright: “in the morning.”
Psalm 55:15 Let death take my enemies by surprise; let them go down alive to the grave, for evil finds lodging among them. KJV: hell

“Going down alive to sheol” appears to be a figure of speech referring to the suddenness of death that the psalmist hoped would come upon his enemies.

Psalm 86:13 For great is your love toward me; you have delivered me from the depths of the grave. KJV: the lowest hell

Question: When was David ever delivered out of anything closely resembling Christianity’s traditional “hell”?  See notes on Deuteronomy 32:22.

Psalm 88:3 For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near the grave. 4 I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like a man without strength. 5 I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care. 6 You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths... 10 Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do those who are dead rise up and praise you? Selah  11 Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction? 12 Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion? “Sheol” is compared to “the pit.” This word “pit” is the same word that is used in Genesis 37:20 with respect to the place that Joseph’s brothers had planned to throw his corpse after they killed him.

The dead in Psalm 88 are described as lying in the grave. The dead are also described as being unconscious of God and His works — incapable of praising Him.

Psalm 89:47 Remember how fleeting is my life. For what futility you have created all men!  48 What man can live and not see death, or save himself from the power of the grave? The psalmist makes no distinction between the righteous and evil men with regards to “sheol.” According to him, all men are destined for “sheol.”
NIV passages where “Sheol” is found: Commentary notes and remarks:
Psalm 116:3 The cords of death entangled me, the anguish of the grave came upon me; I was overcome by trouble and sorrow. KJV: hell

See comments on 2 Samuel 22:6.
Psalm 139:8 7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?  8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. KJV: hell

Poetic language places the spirit of God everywhere. There is no place that one can hide from the eyes of God. In this passage “sheol” is compared to a bed — a place where one can lie down.

Psalm 141:7 They will say, "As one plows and breaks up the earth, so our bones have been scattered at the mouth of the grave." 8 But my eyes are fixed on you, O Sovereign LORD; in you I take refuge -- do not give me over to death. The bones of men are described as being plowed up and found scattered at the entrance (or mouth) of “sheol.”
Proverbs 1:11 If they say, “Come along with us; let’s lie in wait for someone’s blood, let’s waylay some harmless soul; 12 let’s swallow them alive, like the grave, and whole, like those who go down to the pit; “Sheol” is paralleled/compared with a pit. See comments on Psalm 30:3 and Psalm 88:3.
Proverbs 5:3 For the lips of an adulteress drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil; 4 but in the end she is bitter as gall, sharp as a double-edged sword. 5 Her feet go down to death; her steps lead straight to the grave. KJV: hell

In verse 5 “sheol” is paralleled with “death”.

Proverbs 7:27 [The adultress...] Her house is a highway to the grave, leading down to the chambers of death. KJV: hell

“Sheol” is paralleled with “the chambers of death”.

Proverbs 9:16 [The woman Folly says...] “Let all who are simple come in here!” she says to those who lack judgment. 18 But little do they know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of the grave. KJV: hell
Proverbs 15:11 Death and Destruction lie open before the LORD -- how much more the hearts of men! KJV: hell
Proverbs 15:24 The path of life leads upward for the wise to keep him from going down to the grave. KJV: hell

Proverbs 23:13 Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die. 14 Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death.

KJV: hell
Proverbs 30:15 There are three things that are never satisfied, four that never say, ’Enough!’: 16 the grave, the barren womb, land, which is never satisfied with water, and fire, which never says, ’Enough!’
Ecclesiastes 9:2 All share a common destiny -- the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. As it is with the good man, so with the sinner; as it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them. 3 This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of men, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead. 4 Anyone who is among the living has hope -- even a live dog is better off than a dead lion! 5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten. 6 Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.  10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. Solomon is considered the author of Ecclesiastes, and viewed as one of the wisest men who have ever lived. In these verses, this man of wisdom shares what he knows about the death state. He says that the dead know nothing, and that their emotions (hate, jealousy, love) will vanish when they die. Solomon also encourages the living to work enthusiastically while they still have breath, for in “sheol” there is no work or planning, no knowledge, nor wisdom. Solomon makes no distinction between the righteous and the wicked when it comes to the death state — they all go to one place: “sheol.”

Song of Solomon 8:6 Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.

“Sheol” is paralleled with “death”.
Isaiah 5:13 Therefore my people will go into exile for lack of understanding; their men of rank will die of hunger and their masses will be parched with thirst. 14 Therefore the grave enlarges its appetite and opens its mouth without limit; into it will descend their nobles and masses with all their brawlers and revelers. KJV: hell
NIV passages where “Sheol” is found: Commentary notes and remarks:
Isaiah 14:4 You will take up this taunt against the king of Babylon: How the oppressor has come to an end! How his fury has ended!  8 Even the pine trees and the cedars of Lebanon exult over you and say, “Now that you have been laid low, no woodsman comes to cut us down. 9 The grave 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; it makes them rise from their thrones -- all those who were kings over the nations. 10 They will all respond, they will say to you, “You also have become weak, as we are; you have become like us.” 11 All your pomp has been brought down to the grave, along with the noise of your harps; maggots are spread out beneath you and worms cover you. 13 You said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. 14 I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.” 15 But you are brought down to the grave, to the depths of the pit. The inconsistency of the KJV can be seen in these verses. Although “sheol” appears three times in verses 9, 11 and 15, the KJV translates the word as “hell” in verses 9 and 15, and once as “the grave” in verse 11. “Why the inconsistency?”

In these verses, a taunting proverb is spoken against the king of Babylon whose sinful pride would soon be judged by God. In this taunt we find trees speaking (vs. 8), and many dead monarchs who are already in “sheol.” They are described as asleep on their thrones, awakening to welcome the king on the day of his death. (vs. 9-10).

Although this passage is the most picturesque image of “sheol” that one comes across in the Old Testament, the sudden dramatic imagery that we find should make us cautious. If one were to take the figures and their actions literally, we would conclude that there is life in “sheol.” However, to take these verses literally we would also have to conclude that dead kings have thrones in “sheol” and that trees can speak! Moreover, the dead king who is “welcomed” by his peers is at the same time resting upon a bed of maggots, covered with a blanket of worms.

Isaiah 28:15 You boast, “We have entered into a covenant with death, with the grave we have made an agreement. When an overwhelming scourge sweeps by, it cannot touch us, for we have made a lie our refuge and falsehood our hiding place.” 17 I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line; hail will sweep away your refuge, the lie, and water will overflow your hiding place. 18 Your covenant with death will be annulled; your agreement with the grave will not stand. When the overwhelming scourge sweeps by, you will be beaten down by it. KJV: hell
Isaiah 38:9 A writing of Hezekiah king of Judah after his illness and recovery: 10 I said, “In the prime of my life must I go through the gates of death and be robbed of the rest of my years?" King Hezekiah was a righteous king, one who “did what was right in the eyes of the LORD” (2 Kings 18:1-3). Yet this righteous king knew that if he did not recover from his illness he would enter “sheol” upon his death.
Isaiah 38:18 For the grave cannot praise you, death cannot sing your praise; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness. 19 The living, the living -- they praise you, as I am doing today; According to King Hezekiah, no one in “sheol” is capable of praising God. Those who are dead and in “sheol” no longer possess feelings of hope and joy. It is only the living who can praise God.
Isaiah 57:8 Behind your doors and your doorposts you have put your pagan symbols. Forsaking me, you uncovered your bed, you climbed into it and opened it wide; you made a pact with those whose beds you love, and you looked on their nakedness. 9 You went to Molech with olive oil and increased your perfumes. You sent your ambassadors far away; you descended to the grave itself! KJV: hell
Ezekiel 31:3 Consider Assyria, once a cedar in Lebanon, with beautiful branches overshadowing the forest; it towered on high, its top above the thick foliage. 10 “’Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: Because it towered on high, lifting its top above the thick foliage, and because it was proud of its height, 11 I handed it over to the ruler of the nations, for him to deal with according to its wickedness. I cast it aside, 14 Therefore no other trees by the waters are ever to tower proudly on high, lifting their tops above the thick foliage. No other trees so well-watered are ever to reach such a height; they are all destined for death, for the earth below, among mortal men, with those who go down to the pit 15 “’This is what the Sovereign LORD says: On the day it was brought down to the grave I covered the deep springs with mourning for it; I held back its streams, and its abundant waters were restrained. Because of it I clothed Lebanon with gloom, and all the trees of the field withered away. 16 I made the nations tremble at the sound of its fall when I brought it down to the grave with those who go down to the pit. Then all the trees of Eden, the choicest and best of Lebanon, all the trees that were well-watered, were consoled in the earth below. 17 Those who lived in its shade, its allies among the nations, had also gone down to the grave with it, joining those killed by the sword. In these passages the king of Egypt is warned that his fate will be similar to that of the king of Assyria. Assyria is compared to a very tall cedar tree that grew above all of its neighbors. But the pride of Assyria became too great. As a consequence, God promises that the tree will fall and that the stream that gave it life will be dried up.

On the day that this mighty tree falls, it will be brought down to “sheol.” In addition, its tree “neighbors" are described as going to “sheol,” along with all those who have been killed by the sword.

These verses reveal the inconsistency and whimsical manner with which the King James translators render “sheol” into English. "Sheol” occurs in verses 15, 16, and 17, but only in verse 15 do the translators render “sheol” as “the grave.” In verses 16 and 17, the KJV translators decided to use the word “hell."

Ezekiel 32:18 “Son of man, wail for the hordes of Egypt and consign to the earth below both her and the daughters of mighty nations, with those who go down to the pit.  19 Say to them, ’Are you more favored than others? Go down and be laid among the uncircumcised.’  21 From within the grave the mighty leaders will say of Egypt and her allies, ’They have come down and they lie with the uncircumcised, with those killed by the sword.’ 22 “Assyria is there with her whole army; she is surrounded by the graves of all her slain, all who have fallen by the sword. 23 Their graves are in the depths of the pit and her army lies around her grave. All who had spread terror in the land of the living are slain, fallen by the sword. 24 “Elam is there, with all her hordes around her grave. All of them are slain, fallen by the sword. All who had spread terror in the land of the living went down uncircumcised to the earth below. They bear their shame with those who go down to the pit. 25 A bed is made for her among the slain, with all her hordes around her grave. All of them are uncircumcised, killed by the sword. Because their terror had spread in the land of the living, they bear their shame with those who go down to the pit; they are laid among the slain. 26 “Meshech and Tubal are there, with all their hordes around their graves. All of them are uncircumcised, killed by the sword because they spread their terror in the land of the living. 27 Do they not lie with the other uncircumcised warriors who have fallen, who went down to the grave with their weapons of war, whose swords were placed under their heads? The punishment for their sins rested on their bones, though the terror of these warriors had stalked through the land of the living. Here we find more poetic language from the pen of Ezekiel. The prophet is instructed to speak to Egypt and her “daughters” and inform them that they are destined to “sheol.” Here “sheol” is described as the place where the uncircumcised are laid, perhaps a reference to the Assyrian army, which had fallen by the sword and is likewise to be found in “sheol.” Assyria’s spot in “sheol” is described as a “bed” (verse 25).

In verse 21 one hears the voices of the mighty leaders who are dead in “sheol.” They pronounce a muted welcome to Egypt and her allies. The use of the words “bed”, “laid”, “lain” in these verses portray a picture of sleeping bodies, not immaterial immortal souls writhing in a traditional “hell” of fire and brimstone.

The KJV translates “sheol” in verses 21 and 27 as “hell."  In verse 27, “weapons of war” descend into “sheol” and find their rest beneath the skulls and bones of the dead.

Hosea 13:14 “I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death. Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction? More Hebrew parallelisms associating “sheol” with death.

Amos 9:2 Though they dig down to the depths of the grave, from there my hand will take them. Though they climb up to the heavens, from there I will bring them down.

KJV: hell

Jonah 2:2 He said: “In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry. 5 The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. 6 To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you brought my life up from the pit, O LORD my God.

KJV: belly of hell

After being tossed overboard, Jonah found himself in “sheol.” From “sheol” he cried out to the LORD to save him. Instead of describing “sheol” as a place of eternal torments for the wicked, Jonah’s description of “sheol” sounds more like the bottom of the ocean to which he sank, or like the insides of the belly of the great fish that swallowed him.

Habakkuk 2:5 Indeed, wine betrays him; he is arrogant and never at rest. Because he is as greedy as the grave and like death is never satisfied, he gathers to himself all the nations and takes captive all the peoples. KJV: hell

Copyright 2003 byiiPhilip P. Kapustaii