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Monday, September 30, 2019

M³ The (Hebrew) Underworld

Jacob and Joseph die at the end of Genesis. Sorry, spoilers. We have an interesting passage at the end where Jacob dies, where he “breathed his last, and was gathered to his people,” (Gen 49:33). His people are not his family. They were already gathered around him in life, so what is going on with this description?

Curiously, during this whole adventure with Joseph, a new word appears in Genesis, most often used by Jacob himself: Sheol. The word is always capitalized, like a proper place noun, but this is no physical place. Sheol is the Jewish underworld, where all spirits go. The concept of heaven and hell has not come about, yet. At this point in time, there is only the underworld where all spirits go.
Sheol appears with no fanfare or expectation, but the casual use to it indicates, much like Jacob’s multiple wives, that this is something accepted, at least at the time of the writing. The audience has no need for a description or story regarding Sheol’s origins, it is simply the place where spirits go, a perfectly natural idea, even though it was not previously explored.
Very little is specified about this place, but for the fact that almost every time Jacob or his sons mention it, it is always in the phrase “with sorrow to Sheol,” (Gen 42:38, 44:29, 44:31). So this may not be hell, but it’s not heaven, either. Now, it could very possibly be that the death is what is sorrowful since at Jacob’s death it states that he was gathered by his people.
So while not happy, it may not be sad except in relation to the fact that Jacob will be separated from his living family. Regardless, this is a huge cosmological shift. For the first time in the Bible, we have the idea that the spirit survives the body and will go on to another destination. Previous to this people simply die, and the only solace someone can have is that their family line might survive them in a great legacy, which was the initial promise God made to Abraham.

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