What Hebrew Word in the Old Testament Literally Means A Place of Eternal Punishment?
Premise: If God has decreed that all of humanity who are not “saved” will be punished eternally in some place called “hell,” it would be logical, reasonable and just to expect God to warn humanity of such a fate from the very outset. Fundamental Christian belief is that the original writings of the Bible were inerrant, divine and infallible, and that it was and is God’s primary means of communication to mankind. The Old Testament is believed to cover the first 4000 years of mankind’s history (based upon generally accepted biblical chronology within fundamental Christianity). Therefore, it would be logical and reasonable to assume that God has placed a warning about this possibility of eternal punishment in hell in the Old Testament and it would be reasonable to assume that this would be occur at the very beginning of man’s existence. We should find this warning early on in the Bible and since the Old Testament is primarily written in Hebrew, there must be a Hebrew word describing this fate and place in the Old Testament.
Question: If indeed God warned mankind about “hell” then we should be able to find the Hebrew word in the Old Testament that means a place of eternal punishment. The simple question is -- What Hebrew word would this be?
Answer: I learned a new word not too long ago. That word was sciolism (sigh-o-lism). It means superficial. The sciolistic (superficial) answer to our question would have to be “sheol.” There is no other possibility. If you open up a Strong’s Concordance and look up the word “hell,” you will find that “hell” appears in 31 verses in the Old Testament in the King James Bible. In every single case, the Hebrew word translated as “hell” is “sheol,” number H7585 in the Strong’s numbering system. There is no other Hebrew word translated as hell so it would appear that this is the word that we are looking for. But is it?
I am not sure if the Hebrew fonts will show up for all of you but here is what you find when you look up sheol in Strong’s Concordance.
H7585 lwaf laf she'ô?l she'ô?l sheh-ole', sheh-ole'
From H7592; hades or the world of the dead (as if a subterranian retreat), including its accessories and inmates: - grave, hell, pit.
First we have the Strong’s number that identifies this word. Then we have the Hebrew word itself followed by the pronunciation. We are then told that this word is a derivative of Hebrew word H7592 (Shawal if we look it up.) Then for some reason, Strong’s throws in the Greek word hades which is the Greek word used to translate the Hebrew word sheol. I am assuming that Strong’s includes hades to show that it is the Greek equivalent. We will see great similarities between these words when we discuss hades in a later article.
The next part is the most important because it is here that we find the true definition of sheol. Strong’s tells us that the Hebrew word “sheol” actually means the “world of the dead.” Please note that there is no mention of eternal punishment nor is this defined as a place where only the unrighteous, unholy, and evil go. It is simply the world or place of the dead regardless of one’s character, morality, etc. Finally Strong’s tells us that sheol is translated in the King James Bible three different ways, “ grave, hell, and pit.”
Using the King James Concordance in the free E-Sword program available on the internet, we find out that the Hebrew word “sheol” actually appears 65 times in the Old Testament. It is translated as hell 31 times, grave 30 times, pit 3 times and grave’s once.
Grave and pit seem very similar but there is sure a lot of difference between the fundamental version of hell and either grave or pit. In Psalm 9:17 the translators of the King James Bible have no problem placing the wicked in hell. However in Genesis 37:35 Jacob talks about departing this life and going to sheol so in this verse we read grave. In Psalm 88:3 David talks about his life coming to an end and him going to sheol. Again, the translators used grave in this verse because we certainly can’t have King David going to hell. This shows the difficulties the translators had with this word, sheol, and how they jumped back and forth from hell to grave. I would suggest that the confusion could have been avoided if they had simply stuck to the definition that Strong’s provides. The confusion is evident when we look at other translations of the Bible. The New KJV translators dropped 12 references to hell in the Old Testament. In fact, the New International Version translators dropped every reference to hell in the O.T. as did both the American and Revised Standard Versions. Many don’t know it but there are several Bible translations that do not mention hell in the Old Testament and some versions don’t mention hell at all, in either the Old or New Testaments.
Perhaps the most significant non-use of hell is in the 1917 Jewish Publication Society Bible which would be called the TaNaKh and would contain what Christians call the Old Testament. This is the Bible that many in Judaism would use. Hell NEVER appears in this version. It would seem that the Hebrew scholars who translated the JPS Bible didn’t think hell was a viable or proper translation for “sheol.”
What have Christian biblical scholars said in times past?
Dr. George Campbell, Scottish minister, theologian and Professor of Divinity stated, “Sheol signifies the state of the dead, in general, without regard to the goodness or badness of the persons, their happiness or misery.”
Dr. William Allen, president of Bowdoin College stated “the term sheol itself does not seem to mean anything more that the state of the dead in their dark abode.”
Dr. Fribairn of the College of Glasgow said “Beyond doubt, sheol like Hades, is regarded as the abode of the dead after death, alike of the good and the bad.”
These views are confirmed by Rev. Dr. Isaac M. Wise, rabbi from Cincinnati who stated, “That the ancient Hebrews had no knowledge of Hell is evident from the fact that their language has no term for it.” (Rabbi Wise goes on to talk about Gehenna which we will deal with in a subsequent segment.)
You may be surprised to know that on January 21st, 1878, the N.Y. Times newspaper actually published a summary of a sermon by Rev. James Pullman preached at the Church of Our Saviour located at 57th Street and 80th Avenue in New York stating exactly what I am sharing with you in this brief article concerning sheol.
The fact is the translators could have saved themselves a lot of trouble and spared readers of the Bible a lot of confusion if they had simply stayed with the true meaning of sheol, i.e. the place of the dead without regard to goodness or otherwise.
I want to end this segment by going back to the Strong’s Concordance. In it we were told that the root word for sheol is H7592 which happens to be “shawal.” Strong’s tell us that this is a primitive root that literally means to inquire, request or demand. The Etymological Dictionary of The Hebrew Language by Ernest Klein and published by the University of Haifa says shawal means to ask, inquire or intreat, clearly confirming Strong’s Concordance.
Why would the Hebrew people use a derivative of shawal, with those meanings, to define the act of dying? It actually makes perfect sense. In Genesis 3:19 God tells Adam that he (physically) came from the dust and he will return to the dust. We have the saying “ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” In essence, when we die, be we holy or unholy, righteous or unrighteous, however you want to define that, the earth asks or, perhaps better, demands that our bodies be returned from whence they came. The “earth” cares not whether we were good or evil when this demand is issued and the Hebrews used a word, “sheol,” that carried that meaning when it came to dying. Whether you were the most wicked person or King David, you entered “sheol,” the state of death and your body returned to where it came from. The bottom line is this - the only word translated as hell in the Old Testament has nothing to do with a place of eternal punishment. There is no word for “hell” as a place of eternal torment in ancient Hebrew. Now shouldn’t that throw a monkey wrench into the theology of an eternal place of torment? Apparently God didn't tell anyone including the writers of the Old Testament that they could end up in "hell" as defined today by fundamental Christianity and others.
Or maybe we need to reconsider what we have been taught about “hell/sheol!”
Blessings, shalom, namaste