Alice C. Linsley
A reader has asked for clarification on the difference between the Nilotic and Hellenistic views of death and the state of the dead. The Greek understanding is Hades, often translated "hell" in the Bible. Hades is the land of the dead, the underworld beyond the river Styx. It takes its name from the deity "Hades" who was believed to rule there.
In the Septuagint, the Greek term "ᾅδης" (Hades) is used for the Hebrew "שׁאול" (Sheol), but the concepts represent different cultural contexts. This contributes to the difficulty of translation, as demonstrated in these renderings of Isaiah 38:18.
New International Version
For the grave cannot praise you, death cannot sing your praise; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness.
Here the word "grave" doesn't convey a state of existence beyond the grave.
For hell shall not confess to thee, neither shall death praise thee: nor shall they that go down into the pit, look for thy truth.
The word "hell" is laden with Hellenistic notions about the underworld and evokes mental images from Dante's Inferno. Dante's hell represents beliefs typical of the Middle Ages, but his works do not align closely with biblical teaching on existence after death.
New American Standard
For Sheol cannot thank You, Death cannot praise You; Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your faithfulness.
Here the word "sheol" is preserved and the meaning aligns more closely with what Jesus taught about the dead in the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man. Lazarus rested in "the bosom of Abraham" and between Lazarus and the Rich Man there was a great fixed gulf which none could overcome (Matthew 5:29, 30; 18:9; Mark 9:42). Therefore, Sheol has two regions: the bosom of Abraham were the righteous dead rest in peace, and the region of fire (gehenna) were there is no peace.
The word "hell" appeared 77 times in Jerome's Vulgate Old Testament and 24 times in his New Testament. The commission that worked on the Authorized Bible (King James Version) recognized a cultural difference between the Semitic Sheol and the Hellenistic Hades. This is evident in the way that the King James Version uses the word "hell" in the Old Testament only 31 times, compared to Jerome's 77 times.
Etymology of Sheol
The word Sheol is likely derived from the ancient Egyptian word Sheut (šwt), meaning shadow. This is the origin of the idea that the underworld is a place of shadows. The Egyptians believed that something of the dead person continues as a shadow beyond the grave. Small statues or figurines of ancestors and deified rulers were painted black to portray their continued existence as shadows.
In Pre-dynastic times, rulers were buried in the sand in circular pan graves which were marked with decorated skulls of bulls, gazelles and goats. These have been found in cemeteries of Upper Egypt and Lower Nubia beginning in the Second Intermediate Period. (Source: Sudan, 2000–1000 B.C., Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art). The sand leached the moisture from the body in a natural process of mummification.
Because the desert was a place of burial, people feared to be there after dark when the shadows of the dead were believed to roam.
Kushite, Egyptian and Horite Hebrew rulers were never cremated, though this practice would prevail in some of the territories over which they came to rule. Later, the priests mummified the corpses of their rulers and placed them in elaborate tombs.
In Pre-dynastic times, the whole clan or tribe was embodied by the ruler, so great pains were taken to bury the ruler so that he would rise with the Sun, the emblem of the Creator. Being raised to life was reserved for royal persons who were expected to make intercessions for their people. The deified ancestors were venerated, not worshiped, an important distinction. The kings listed in the "begats" (Gen. 4 and 5) were venerated rulers.
Abraham's beliefs about resurrection would have corresponded to those of his ancestors. He lived long before the rabbis began speculating about the existence of the dead. By Jesus' time, a faction had arisen among the Jews that rejected belief in the resurrection of the dead, but according to St. Augustine "the Egyptians alone believe in the resurrection, as they carefully preserved their dead bodies." ("Death, burial, and rebirth in the religions of antiquity", Jon Davies, Routledge, 1999, p. 27)
The Egyptians were not alone in this belief. It was also the belief of the ancient Horite Hebrew from whom Abraham descended. So the Sadduccees were far from the belief of their Horite Hebrew ancestors because they expected one of their rulers to rise from the dead.
This belief is central to Messianic expectation and was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who died and rose from the dead on the third day. He is the Sun that rises with healing in His wings. Here we have a very ancient allusion to Horus as a falcon flying above the Sun, the emblem of his Father, as it makes its westward journey.
|Horus (top right) flying above Ra's solar boat|
Relief found at Anghor Wat (ancient Siam)
Related reading: The Bosom of Abraham; Did Abraham Believe Isaac to be Messiah?; Solar Imagery of the Proto-Gospel; When the Church Speaks of Death