The Meaning Of The Word Sheol As Shown By Parallels In Poetic Texts -- By: R. Laird Harris
BETS 4:4 (Dec 1961) p. 129
The Meaning Of The Word
Sheol As Shown By Parallels In Poetic Texts
: The meaning of the word Sheol is important both in Old Testament theology and cosmology. It is usually said, e.g. in the ISBE, Brown, Driver and Briggs Hebrew Lexicon, Hastings Bible Dictionary, etc., that Sheol is the place of departed spirits. Inasmuch as Sheol is often located as “down” in the Old Testament, the Hebrew cosmology is said to include a subterranean gloomy place like the Babylonian netherworld or Greek Hades. As both righteous and wicked go to Sheol, a two-compartment theory has been advocated with Christ delivering those in the better compartment on the occasion of his descent to hell and ascent to heaven referred to in Ephesians 4:8 and 1 Peter 3:20.
With all of this the writer has long been dissatisfied. I do not believe that Ephesians 4:8 refers to a descent to hell. It merely argues that the one giving gifts to men is the one who descended from heaven to the earth beneath (not lower parts of the earth) and then reascended. The verse quotes from Psalm 68:18 which tells in highly figurative language of God’s victory over his foes. Paul interprets this of the victory of Christ over death, identifying the God who ascended with Christ who first descended in His incarnation.
Nor do I think that 1 Peter 3:20 teaches a descent of Christ to hell. I am satisfied with the exegesis that holds that it refers to a previous preaching in Noah’s day. The argument of Peter touches on Noah’s deliverance as a type of baptism. Noah’s generation perished. They are the souls in prison. But they were warned by Christ who by the Spirit speaking through Noah preached to those sinners while the ark was preparing. Christ did not Himself go to the prison to preach to them. By the Spirit, He had preached to those souls who are now in prison. Christ did not descend to hell. Indeed, He told the thief that He was going to paradise—a place which Paul equates with the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2 f.)
Then did all men go to Sheol and what is Sheol? For some time I had thought and taught that Sheol in the early books merely meant “grave” and that in the course of time through the progress of revelation it came to mean in Proverbs, Isaiah, and Ezekiel a place of punishment for the wicked. This is the view expressed by Alexander Heidel in a very helpful excursus on this subject in The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (Chicago, 1946) pp. 170-207. More recent study, especially of passages where the word Sheol is used in po...
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