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She'ol (// SHEE-ohl or // SHEE-əl; Hebrew שְׁאוֹל Šʾôl), translated as "grave", "pit", or "abode of the dead", is the Hebrew term for the place of the dead, the common grave of humans, or underworld of the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures. It is a place of darkness to which all the dead go, both the righteous and the unrighteous, regardless of the moral choices made in life, a place of stillness and darkness cut off from life and from God.
The inhabitants of Sheol were the "shades" (rephaim), entities without personality or strength. Under some circumstances they are thought to able to be contacted by the living, as the Witch of Endor contacts the shade of Samuel for Saul, but such practices are forbidden (Deuteronomy 18:10). While the Old Testament writings describe Sheol as the permanent place of the dead, in the Second Temple period (roughly 500 BCE-70 CE) a more diverse set of ideas developed: in some texts, Sheol is considered to be the home of both the righteous and the wicked, separated into respective compartments; in others, it was considered a place of punishment, meant for the wicked dead alone. When the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek in ancient Alexandria around 200 BC the word "Hades" (the Greek underworld) was substituted for Sheol, and this is reflected in the New Testament where Hades is both the underworld of the dead and the personification of the evil it represents.
According to Herbert C. Brichtothe, writing in Reform Judaism's Hebrew Union College Annual, the family tomb is the central concept in understanding biblical views of the afterlife. Brichtothe states that it is "not mere sentimental respect for the physical remains that is...the motivation for the practice, but rather an assumed connection between proper sepulture and the condition of happiness of the deceased in the afterlife". According to Brichtothe, the early Israelites apparently believed that the graves of family, or tribe, united into one, and that this unified collectivity is to what the Biblical Hebrew term Sheol refers, the common Grave of humans. Although not well defined in the Tanakh, Sheol in this view was a subterranean underworld where the souls of the dead went after the body died. The Babylonians had a similar underworld called Aralu, and the Greeks had one known as Hades. For biblical references to Sheol see Genesis 42:38, Isaiah 14:11, Psalm 141:7, Daniel 12:2, Proverbs 7:27 and Job 10:21,22, and 17:16, among others. According to Brichtothe, other Biblical names for Sheol were: Abaddon (ruin), found in Psalm 88:11, Job 28:22 and Proverbs 15:11; Bor (the pit), found in Isaiah 14:15, 24:22, Ezekiel 26:20; and Shakhat (corruption), found in Isaiah 38:17, Ezekiel 28:8.
The traditional biblical interpretations explain that Sheol is a grim and desolated land below, occupied by the dead who continue their colorless existence irrespective of their earthly conduct. Contrary to this exposition however, the Hebrew Bible supports the descriptions of Sheol which suggest that it is something more than just a place. In terms of sheer numbers the amount of anthropomorphic descriptions is significant. Sheol is either portrayed by means of human qualities (ערום, Job 26:6;קשה , Canticles 8:6) or attributed with the elements of human anatomy: womb (בטן, Jonah 2:3), hand (יד, Psalms 49:15; 89:48; Hosea 13:14) or throat (נפש, Isaiah 5,14) and mouth (פה, Psalms 141:7; Isaiah 5:14). In addition, Psalm 49:16 praises Elohim who is said to ransom one’s soul from the hand of Sheol, Proverbs 27:20 acknowledges Sheol’s insatiability whereas Isaiah 5:14 depicts Sheol as a gargantuan monster. In sum, the verbs connected with Sheol can be divided into two sub-groups. The first one refers to the relation between Sheol, Yahveh and men: Sheol does not praise (ידה) Yahveh but Yahveh can ransom (פדה) from the hand of Sheol whereas men can make a deal (עשה חזה) with Sheol and one’s soul (nephesh) can escape (מלט) from Sheol’s hand. The second one comprises of verbs which present Sheol as a devouring monster: Sheol enlarges (רחב נפש) her throat, swallows (בלע) but cannot satiate (שבע). Moreover, the doubtful etymology of the word along with the fact that she’ol is never preceded by a definite article suggests its foreign origins. Some additional support for this hypothesis comes from the ancient Near Eastern literary materials. For example, the Akkadian plates mention the name shuwalu or suwala in reference to a deity responsible for ruling the abode of the dead. As such it might have been borrowed by the Hebrews and incorporated into their early belief system.