Friday, December 2, 2011

Sheol and the Second Death

Alice C. Linsley

It is significant that the Medieval view of Purgatory is not required to be believed. The concept of a holding place for the dead is very ancient, going back to the Nilotic Hebrew as early as 2000 BC. It is found in the Pyramid Texts and the Coffin texts. The Hebrew word Sheol comes from the ancient Egyptian word Sheut (šwt), meaning shadow. The Egyptians believed that something of the dead person continues as a shadow beyond death. Small figurines called "Shabti" were painted black and placed in the graves to portray the continued existence of the deceased in shadow. Each figurine was inscribed with a prayer. A famous example is Utterance 472 from the Coffin Texts which dates from c. 2143-2040 BC.

The Egyptians also believed in bodily resurrection. St. Augustine noted that the Egyptians took great care in the burial of their dead and never practiced cremation, as in the religions that seek to escape material existence. Their greatest fear was the "second death" which apparently occurs when the body and the spirit as a unit are not restored to life in the resurrection. On Holy Saturday did Jesus descend to Hell, Hades, or Sheol? If to Sheol, He would have greeted the penitent thief "this day."

What is 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.

Douay-Rheims Version
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 where 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.

Another explanation links adēs, hades to the root aeidēs, meaning invisible. This explanation of the Venerable Theophylact (Commentary on Luke's Gospel, see footnote on p. 213) aligns more closely with the original concept found among the early Hebrew priests (long before Judaism).

Etymology of Sheol

The word Sheol, as it relates to the ancient Egyptian word Sheut (šwt), means place of shadows. This is the origin of the idea that the underworld is a place of shadows. More research needs to be done on the burial practices of the Horite Hebrew, an ancient ruler-priest caste.

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.

Egyptian, Hebrew, and Kushite rulers were never cremated, though this practice would prevail in some of the territories over which they ruled. Around 2600 BC, the priests of the Nile began to mummify the bodies of their deceased rulers and placed them in elaborate tombs.

Among the early Hebrew, the whole population was represented 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. The Sadducees were far from the belief of their 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 Angkor Wat (ancient Siam)

The Apostle Paul explains that those who die with Christ in baptism will rise in Him on the Last Day. These will not die the "second death" of which John speaks in Revelation 2:11 - "Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death."

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

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