[NOTE ON GENESIS 37:35. THE PRIMITIVE CONCEPTION OF SHEOL.—This is the first place in which the word occurs, and it is very important to trace, as far as we can, the earliest conception, or rather emotion, out of which it arose. “I will go down to my son mourning to Sheol,”—towards Sheol, or, on the way to Sheol,—the reference being to the decline of life terminating in that unknown state, place, or condition of being, so called. One thing is clear: it was not a state of not-being, if we may use so paradoxical an expression. Jacob was going to his son; he was still his son; there is yet a tie between him and his father; he is still spoken of as a personality; he is still regarded as having a being somehow, and somewhere. Compare 2 Sam. 12:23, אֲנִי הֹלֵךְ אֵלָיו, “I am going to him, but he shall not return to me.” The him and the me in this case, like the I and the my son in Genesis, are alike personal. In the earliest language, where all is hearty, such use of the pronoun could have been no unmeaning figure. The being of the one who has disappeared is no less real than that of the one who remains still seen, still found,5 to use the Shemitic term for existence, or out-being, as a known and visible state (see note, p. 273). The LXX have rendered it here εἰς ̔́Αδου, into Hades; the Vulgate, ad filium meum in infernum. It was not to his son in his grave, for Joseph had no grave. His body was supposed to be lying somewhere in the desert, or torn in pieces, or carried off, by the wild beasts (see Gen 37:33). To resolve it all into figurative expressions for the grave would be simply carrying our meaningless modern rhetoric into ancient forms of speech employed, in their first use, not for the reflex painting, but for the very utterance of emotional conceptions. However indefinite they may be, they are too mournfully real to admit of any such explanations. Looking at it steadily from this primitive standpoint, we are compelled to say, that an undoubting conviction of personal extinction at death, leaving nothing but a dismembered, decomposing body, now belonging to no one, would never have given rise to such language. The mere conception of the grave, as a place of burial, is too narrow for it. It, alone, would have destroyed the idea in its germ, rather than have given origin and expansion to it. The fact, too, that they had a well-known word for the grave, as a confined place of deposit for the body (אֲחֻזַּת קֶבֶר, a possession, or property, of a grave, see Gen. 23:9), shows that this other name, and this other conception, were not dependent upon it, nor derived from it.
The older lexicographers and commentators generally derived the word שְׁאוֹל (Sheol) from שָׁאַל (Sha–al), to ask, inquire, etc. This is a very easy derivation, so far as form is concerned; and why is it not correct? In any way the sense deduced will seem near, or far-fetched, according to our preconceptions in respect to that earliest view of extinct or continued being. Gesenius rejects it, maintaining that שְׁאוֹל is for שְׁעוֹל, and means cavity; hence a subterranean region, etc. He refers to שֹׁעַל, hollow of the hand, or fist, Is. 40:12; 1 Kings 20:10; Ezek. 13:19; and שׁוּעָל, the name for fox or jackal, who digs holes in the earth,—this being all that can be found of any other use of the supposed root from which comes this most ancient word, so full of some most solemn significance. There is a reference, also, to the German hölle, or the general term of the northern nations (Gothic, Scandinavian, Saxon), denoting hole, or cavity; though this is the very question, whether the northern conception is not a secondary one, connected with that later thought of penal confinement which was never separable from the Saxon hell,—a sense-limitation, in fact, of the more indefinite and more spiritual notion primarily presented by the Greek Hades, and which furnishes the true parallel to the early Hebrew Sheol. Fürst has the same view as Gesenius. To make שְׁאוֹל and שְׁעוֹל equivalents, etymologically, there is supposed to be an interchange of א and ע, a thing quite common in the later Syriac, but rare in the Hebrew, especially the earlier writings, and which would be cited as a mark recentioris Hebraismi, if the rationalistic argument, at any time, required it. The ע has ever kept its place most tenaciously in the Arabic, as shown by Robinson in the numerous proper names of places in which it remains unchanged to this day. So it was, doubtless, in the most early Shemitic, though in the Syriac it became afterwards much weakened through the antipathetic Greek and Roman influence upon that language, and so, frequently passed into the more easily pronounced א. It is improbable that this should have taken place in the most ancient stage of the language, or at the time of the first occurrence of this word in the biblical writings. Gesenius would give to שָׁאִל, too, the supposititious primary sense of digging, to make it the ground of the secondary idea of search or inquiry; but this is not the primary or predominant conception of שאל; it is always that of interrogation, like the Greek ἐρωτάω, or of demand, like αἰτέω, ever implying speech, instead of the positive act of search, such as is denoted by the Hebrew חקר, to explore. Subsequent lexicographers and commentators have generally followed Gesenius, who seems to pride himself upon this discovery (see ROBINSON: “Lex. N. Test.” on the word Hades). Of the older mode of derivation he says: “Prior de etymo conjectura vix memoratu digna est.” By some it would be regarded as betraying a deficiency in Hebrew learning to think of supporting an etymology so contemptuously rejected. And yet it has claims that should not be lightly given up, especially as they are so intimately connected with the important inquiry in respect to the first conception of those who first used the word. “Was this, primarily, a thought of locality, however wide or narrow it may have been, or did the space-notion, which undoubtedly prevailed afterwards, come from an earlier thought, or state of soul rather, more closely allied to feeling than to any positive idea? This conception of locality in the earth came in very early; it grew naturally from something before it; but was it first of all? Lowth, Herder, etc., are, doubtless, correct in the representations they give of the Hebrew Sheol, as an imagined subterranean residence of the dead, and this is confirmed by later expressions we find in the Psalms and elsewhere, such as “going down to the pit” (compare יוֹרְדֵי בוֹר and similar language, Ps. 28:1; 30:4; 88:5; Is. 14:19; 38:10, etc.); yet still there is the best of reasons for believing that what may be called the emotional or ejaculatory conception was earlier than this, and that the local was the form it took when it passed from an emotion to a speculative thought. From what source, then, in this earlier stage, could the name more naturally have come than from the primitive significance of that word שאל, which, in the Arabic ساُل, and everywhere in the Shemitic family, has this one old sense of appealing interrogation,—first, simple inquiry, secondly, the idea of demand? The error of the older etymologists, then, consisted, not in making it from שאל, but in connecting it with this secondary idea, and so referring it to Sheol itself as demanding, instead of the mourning, sighing survivors asking after the dead. They supposed it was called Sheol from its rapacity, or unsatiableness, ever claiming its victims,—a thought, indeed, common in the early language of mourning, but having too much of tropical artifice to be the very earliest. It belongs to that later stage in which language is employed, retroactively, to awaken or intensify emotion, instead of being its gushing, irrepressible utterance. In support of this view, the text constantly cited, as the standard one, was Prov. 30:16, שְׁאוֹל–לֹא שָׂבְעָה לֹא אָמְרָה הוֹן, Sheol that is never satisfied, that never says, enough. See the old commentary of Martin Geier on the book of Proverbs. Corresponding to this is the manner in which Homer speaks of Hades, and its vast population:
κλυτὰ ἔθνεα νεκρῶν.
So the dramatic poets represent it as rapacious, carrying off its victims like a ferocious animal (see the “Medea” of EURIPIDES, 1108), inexorable, νηλεής, pitiless, ever demanding, but hearing no prayer in return. Hence it had settled into the classical phrase rapax Orcus (see CATULLUS, ii. 28, 29). But this, whatever form might be given to it, was not the first thought that would arise in the mind respecting the state of the departed. Instead of such an objective attribute of Hades, or Sheol, as a place demanding to be filled, it was rather the subjective feeling of inquiring wonder at the phenomenon of death, at the thought of the one who had disappeared, and of that inexplicable state into which even the imagination failed to follow him. Shadowy as all such language is, it is only the stronger evidence of that feeling of continued being which holds on so firmly through it all, as though in spite of the positive appearances of sense testifying to the departure, or the negative testimony arising from the failure of the eye to pierce the darkness (whence the Greek Hades, the unseen), or of the ear to gather any report from the silence into which the dead had gone. See remarks in the note before referred to, p. 273, on the idea of death as a state, a state of being, the antithesis, not of being, but of the active life “beneath the sun.” Now the idea of extinction, of absolute not-being, of a total loss of individual personality, would have excluded all questioning; it would never have made such words as Hades, or Sheol, according to either conception, whether of inquiry or of locality, whether as denoting a state or a place, whether as demanding or as interrogated, whether as addressed to the unseen, or to the voiceless and unheard. The man was gone, but where? According to a most ancient and touching custom, they thrice most solemnly invoked his name, but no answer came back. Their belief in his continued being was shown by the voice that went after him, though no responding voice was returned to the living ear. שְׁאוֹל (the infinitive used as a noun), to ask, to inquire anxiously; he had gone to the land thus denoted, that “undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returned.” The key-text here is Job 14:10: “Man dies, and wastes away; he giveth up the ghost (יִגְוַע הָאָדָם, yighwah ha–adam, man sighs, or gasps for breath), and where is he?” יְאַיֹּוֹ, weayyo, O, where is he? See Zach. 1:5: The fathers! אַיֵּה־הֵם, where are they? Compare also Job 7:21, and other places of a similar kind, all showing how natural is the connection between the wailing, questioning weayyo, and the word Sheol so immediately suggested by it.
The disappearance of Enoch from the earth was stranger than that of the ordinary death, but gave rise to the same feeling of inquiry, only in a more intensive degree. “He was not found,” οὐχ εὑρίσκετο, says the LXX, and this gives the real meaning of the Hebrew אֵינֶכּוּ, not denoting non-existence, for that would be directly contrary to what follows, but that he was nowhere to be found on earth.
Thus regarded, it is easy to see how the idea of some locality would soon attach itself to the primitive emotional conception, and in time become so predominant that the older germ of thought, that was in the etymology, would almost wholly disappear. Still the spirit of the word, its geist or ghost, to use the more emphatic German or Saxon, long haunts it after the conception has changed so as to receive into it more of the local and definite. Trench has shown how tenacious is this root-sense of old words, preserving them, like some guardian genius, from misusage and misapplication, ages after it has ceased to be directly conceptual, or to be known at all, except to the antiquarian philologist. Thus, although the cavernous or subterranean idea had become prominent in the Psalms and elsewhere, this old spirit of the word still hovers about it in all such passages; we still seem to hear the sighing weayyo; there yet lingers in the car the plaintive sheolah, denoting the intense looking into the world unknown, the anxious listening to which no answering voice is returned.
That Sheol, in its primary sense, did not mean the grave, and in fact had no etymological association with it, is shown by the fact, already mentioned, that there was a distinct word for the latter, of still earlier occurrence in the Scriptures, common in all the Shemitic languages, and presenting the definite primary conception of digging, or excavation (קבר, kbr, krb, גרב ,כרב, grb, grub, grav). There was no room here for expansion into the greater thought. The Egyptian embalming, too, to one who attentively considers it, will appear still less favorable. It was a dry and rigid memorial of death, far less suggestive of continued being, somehow and somewhere, than the flowing of the body into nature through decomposition in the grave, or its dispersion by fire into the prime elements of its organization. In the supposed case, however, of Joseph’s torn and dismembered corpse, there was nothing from any of these sources to aid the conception. Yet Jacob held on to it: I will go mourning to my son, אֶל בְּנִי, not עַל, or אֶל for עַל, on account of my son, as some would take it.6 Had Joseph been lying by the side of his mother in the field near Bethlehem Ephratah, or with Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebekah, in the cave of Machpelah, or in some Egyptian sarcophagus, embalmed with costliest spices and wrapped in aromatic linen, the idea of his unbroken personality would have been no more vivid, Joseph himself (his very ipse) would have been no nearer, or more real, to the mourning father, than as he thought of his body lying mangled in the wilderness, or borne by rapacious birds to the supposed four corners of the earth. I will go to my son mourning, sheolah (שְׁאֹלָה, with ה of direction), Sheol-ward,—on the way to the unknown land.
This view of Sheol is strongly corroborated by the parallel etymology, and the parallel connection of ideas we find in the origin and use of the Greek Hades. Some would seek its primary meaning elsewhere, but it is clearly Greek, and no derivation is more obvious than the one given long ago, and which would make this word ̔́Αιδης (Homeric ’Αΐδης, with the mild aspirate) from α privative and ἰδεῖν to see. We have the very word as an adjective, with this meaning of invisible or unseen, HESIOD: “Shield of Hercules,” 477. It denotes, then, the unseen world, carrying the idea of disappearance, and yet of continued being in some state unknown. The analogy between it and the Hebrew word is perfect. So is the parallelism, all the more striking, we may say, from the fact that in the two languages the appeal is to two different senses. In the one, it is the eye peering into the dark; in the other, it is the ear intently listening to the silence. Both give rise to the same question: Where is he? whither has he gone? and both seem to imply with equal emphasis that the one unseen and unheard yet really is. Sometimes a derivative from the same root, and of the same combination, is joined with Hades to make the meaning intensive, as in the “Ajax” of SOPHOCLES, 607:
τὸν ἀπότροπον ἀΐδηλον ̔́Αιδαν—
The awful, unseen Hades.
From this use has come the adjective ἀΐδιος, rendered eternal, but having this meaning from the association of ideas (the Hadean, the everlasting), since it is not etymologically connected with αἰών (see Jude 6, δεσμοῖς ἀϊδίοις, where the two conceptions seem to unite). In truth, there is a close connection between these two sets of words (’Αΐδης and αἰών, עוֹלָם and שאול), one ever suggesting the other,—“the things that are seen are temporal (belong to time), the things that are unseen are eternal.” Hence we have in Greek the same idiom, in respect to Hades, that we have in Hebrew in relation to Olam (עוֹלָם), the counterpart of αἰών. Thus, in the former language we have the expressions, οἶκος ̔́Αιδου—δόμος ̔́Αιδου, etc., corresponding exactly to the Hebrew בֵּית עוֹלָם, the house of eternity, poorly rendered his long home, Eccles. 12:5. Compare the οἰκίαν αἰώνιον, the “house eternal,” 2 Cor. 5:1. Compare also XENOPHON’SAgesilaus, at the close, where it is said of the Spartan king, τὴν ἀΐδιον οἴκησιν κατηγάγετο, “he was brought back, like one who had been away, to his eternal home.” Sec, too, a very remarkable passage, DIODORUS SICULUS, lib. i. Gen 51, respecting the belief of the most ancient Egyptians: “The habitations of the living they call inns, or lodging-places, καταλύσεις, since we dwell in them so short a time, but those of the dead they style οἴκους ἀϊδίους, everlasting abodes, as residing in them forever, τὸν ἄπειρον ἀιῶνα.” See also PAREAU: De Jobi Notitiis, etc., on the early Arabian belief, p. 27.
Why should not Jacob have had the idea as well as these most ancient Egyptians? That his thought was more indefinite, that it had less of circumstance and locality, less imagery every way, than the Greek and Egyptian fancy gave it, only proves its higher purity as a divine hope, a sublime act of faith, rather than a poetical picturing, or a speculative dogma. The less it assumed to know, or even to imagine, showed its stronger trust in the unseen world as an assured reality, but dependent solely for its clearer revelation on the unseen God. The faith was all the stronger, the less the aid it received from the sense or the imagination. It was grounded on the surer rock of the “everlasting covenant” made with the fathers, though in it not a word was said directly of a future life. “The days of the years of my pil grimage,” says Jacob. He was “a sojourner upon earth as his fathers before him.” The language has no meaning except as pointing to a home, an ἀΐδιον οἴκησιν, an eternal habitation; whether in Sheol, or through Sheol, was not known. It was enough that it was a return unto God, “his people’s dwelling-place (מָעוֹן לָנוּ, see Ps. 90:1) in all generations.” It was, in some way, a “living unto him,” however they might disappear from earth and time; for “he is not the God of the dead.” His covenant was an assurance of the continued being of those with whom it was made. “Because he lived they should, live also.” “Art thou not from everlasting, Jehovah, my God, my Holy One? we shall not (wholly) die.” “Thou wilt lay us up in Sheol; thou wilt call and we will answer; thou wilt have regard to the work of thy hands.” The pure doctrine of a personal God, and a belief in human extinction, have never since been found conjoined. Can we believe it of the lofty theism of the patriarchal ages?
Hades, like Sheol, had its two conceptual stages, first of state, and afterwards of locality. To the Greek word, however, there was added a third idea. It came to denote, also, a power; and so was used for the supposed king of the dead, ’Αΐδης, ̓́Αις, ’Αϊδωνεύς,—ἄναξ ἐνέρων (Iliad, 20:61); and this personification appears again in the later Scripture, 1 Cor. 15:55, O Hades, where is thy victory? and in Rev. 6:8, 20:13, 14, where Hades becomes limited to Gehenna, and its general power, as keeper of souls, is abolished.—T. L.]