Most students in my introductory Biblical Studies classes were not aware that ancient Hebrews had no developed belief in afterlife. On the same day that I found the sinner by casting lots, I used the poem in Jonah 2 to introduce students to Sheol.
Interestingly, Jonah does not jump into the sea but makes the sailors throw him overboard. Note that a big fish swallows him (1:17). There were no whales in the Mediterranean, and there was not even a word for whale in Hebrew. Also note that Jonah was in the fish for three days before he began to pray. This prophet was REALLY stubborn: “Then Jonah prayed to the LORD from the belly of the fish, saying, ‘I called to the LORD out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice’” (Jonah 2:1). Hebrew poetry often uses synonymous parallelism, where the second line of a poem restates the first line in different words. Being in the belly of the fish was like being in Sheol (also called “the Pit”: 2:6). But what was Sheol/the Pit?
Instead of merely explaining Sheol to students, I had them get into groups of three and look up a series of passages that mention Sheol. When they saw for themselves the descriptions of Sheol, they became much more engaged in discussing what they discovered. Here is the exercise I gave to them. Be aware that some group members may be confused at first because they have a Bible that translates Sheol as “the grave.”
What in the World is Sheol? (Interpreting Biblical Literature, p. 112)
Look up the verses listed below and read what they say about Sheol (also called “the Pit”).
- Numbers 16:30;
- Psalms 6:4–5; 30:9; 88:3–6, 10–12; 89:48; 94:17; 115:17;
- Job 3:13, 17–19; 7:9–10; 10:20–21; 16:22;
- Ecclesiastes 9:2–6, 10;
- Isaiah 5:14; 14:9; 26:14;
- Jonah 2:2, 6.
Group Questions to discuss:
- Where is Sheol located?
- What words are used to describe Sheol? (What is it like?)
- Who goes to Sheol?
- How does the concept of Sheol differ from beliefs about heaven and hell?
Some students become troubled to learn that ancient Hebrews did not believe in an afterlife but thought that everyone—both the good and the bad—went to Sheol when they died. Soon thereafter, I had students read other biblical passages that illustrate the Hebrew belief that people experienced God’s blessings during their life, not after death. Concepts of heaven and hell developed much later. The Sheol exercise introduces students to the fact that the beliefs of ancient Hebrews developed slowly. One does not find fully developed Christian theology in the Old Testament.
Be ready for pushback from students whose beliefs about biblical inspiration mandate that everything in the Bible must be totally consistent with comments made elsewhere in the Bible. But when my students actually read the Bible for class assignments, they saw for themselves such developments of belief. As odd as it may sound, studying the Bible in a systematic way can initially be disorienting for Christian students. Over the course of a semester, however, most became comfortable with the concept of the Bible being a collection of documents written over centuries to address different historical circumstances. Knowing more about historical and cultural context makes a huge difference in understanding what biblical passages meant for ancient audiences.