February 13, 2005

Hell in Hebrew

John Ray is exploring the concept of Hell in the Bible. The short answer, as he points out, is: there is none. In fact, there really isn't even a word in modern Hebrew (let alone Biblical Hebrew) which expresses the concept of the Christian Hell. Considering how much Hebrew material (TV shows, movies, books, articles) comes from languages which do have words for this concept, it creates a quite a problem for translators. My impression is that (at least in TV shows and movies) the most common usage of the word is in the expression "go to Hell" - this, by convention, is translated: lekh l`azazel (לך לעזאזל) - go to `Azazel. But `Azazel doesn't mean Hell at all: it is the name of the cliff from which the sacrificial goat (scapegoat) was cast in ancient times as part of the process of atonement, on Yom Kipur:

וְנָתַן אַהֲרֹן עַל שְׁנֵי הַשְּׂעִירִם גֹּרָלוֹת
גּוֹרָל אֶחָד לַה' וְגוֹרָל אֶחָד לַעֲזָאזֵל
וְהִקְרִיב אַהֲרֹן אֶת הַשָּׂעִיר
אֲשֶׁר עָלָה עָלָיו הַגּוֹרָל לַה' וְעָשָׂהוּ חַטָּאת
וְהַשָּׂעִיר אֲשֶׁר עָלָה עָלָיו הַגּוֹרָל לַעֲזָאזֵל
יָעֳמַד חַי לִפְנֵי ה' לְכַפֵּר עָלָיו
לְשַׁלַּח אֹתוֹ לַעֲזָאזֵל הַמִּדְבָּרָה

V'natan aharon sh'ney has`irim goralot
Goral ehad l'H v'goral ehad la`azazel
V'hiqriv aharon et hasa`ir
Ashe `ala `alav hagoral l'H v`asahu hatat
V'hasa`ir asher `ala alav hagoral la`azazel
Ya`amad hay lifney H' l'khaper `alav
Lishalah oto la`azazel hamidbara

And Aaron cast lots on the two goats
One lot to the Lord, and one lot to Azazel
And Aaron sacrificed the goat
That the lot fell on to the Lord, and made it a sin offering
And the goat that the lot fell on it to Azazel
Will stand living before the Lord to atone for him
To send him to Azazel, into the desert

Leviticus 16:8-10

The word `Azazel comes from the words: `ez (עז) and azal (אזל). `Ez means goat (the vowel change e > a comes from normal vowel shortening due to it being the first word of a compound), and azal means 'lost', 'no more', or, in modern Hebrew, 'sold out'. So `azazel just means something like 'lost goat'. (Compound words, in Hebrew, are generally written separately, i.e. with a space between them, but occasionally place names coalesce into one word.)

The second word often used to translate 'Hell' is 'gey hinom' (גיא הינום) - this word is usually rendered into English as Gehenna. It, too, is the name of a real place - in fact, I've been there often, it's very beautiful. (So I guess you can say I've gone to Hell... and since I'll likely go there again, you can say I'm going to Hell.) Jerusalem is situated between two steep valleys, to the east is the Qidron (קידרון) Valley, and to the west is the Hinom (הינום) valley. Gey Hinom means simply 'valley of Hinom'. The two valleys meet to the south of Jerusalem, so the only way to enter the city on more-or-less level ground is from the north. (Here's a topograpic map.) Besides its literal meaning, Gey Hinom in Hebrew can refer to any terrible place (but not to a place where bad people go when they die). Its allegorical meaning comes from its history as a place were the Canaanites sacrificed their children to Ba`al:

 וּבָנוּ אֶת בָּמוֹת הַבַּעַל לִשְׂרֹף אֶת בְּנֵיהֶם בָּאֵשׁ עֹלוֹת לַבָּעַל

Uvanu et bamot haba`al lisrof et b'neyhem ba'esh `olot laba`al

And they built alters of Baal (the master) to burn their children in the fire, sacrifices to Baal

Jeremiah 19:5

John claims that this valley was Jerusalem's incinerator. I have never heard this explanation, and I don't know of any scriptural evidence for it, but it is not unlikely. The valleys around Jerusalem are hundreds of meters deep, and very steep. In the past, the city disposed of its garbage by simply throwing it into the valleys.

Finally, there is the word: sh'ol (שאול). I have never seen this word used to translate the word 'Hell'. I don't know much about this place: it has no theological significance in Judaism. As far as I can tell, it is deep, dark, underground place. But it is not the place where souls go when they die, and it is definitely not a place of exile from God:

אָנָה אֵלֵךְ מֵרוּחֶךָ וְאָנָה מִפָּנֶיךָ אֶבְרָח
אִם אֶסַּק שָׁמַיִם שָׁם אָתָּה וְאַצִּיעָה שְּׁאוֹל הִנֶּךָּ
אֶשָּׂא כַנְפֵי שָׁחַר אֶשְׁכְּנָה בְּאַחֲרִית יָם
גַּם שָׁם יָדְךָ תַנְחֵנִי  וְתֹאחֲזֵנִי יְמִינֶךָ

Ana elekh meruhekha v'ana mipaneykha evrah
Im esaq shamayim sham ata v'asi`a sh'ol hineka
esa' kanfey shahar eshk'na b'aharit yam
gam sham yadkha tahteni v'tohazeni y'minekha

Where will I go from your spirit, and where will I flee from your countenance?
If I rise up to the heavens you are there [go up], if I lie down in Sheol I behold you [go down]
If I lift up wings of morning [go to the east], if I dwell across the sea [go to the west]
Even there your hand is under me, your right [hand] holds me

Psalms 139:7-10

So what do Jews believe about the afterlife? It's late, and I have to go to sleep. I hope to address the question in a future post.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at February 13, 2005 02:12 AM
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The reason you won't find any biblical references to Hell is that there aren't any to be found. The concept of Heaven and Hell was created by the Pharisees, perhaps as a way to explain the injustices in this world, which will be rectified in the world to come. The Sadducees, an opposing sect of this period, did not believe in the concept and denied the immortality of the soul and its resurrection. If you would curse a charcter in the Bible, say King Saul, by telling him to go to hell, he would have no idea what you are talking about.

Posted by: Rachel at February 13, 2005 02:50 AM Permalink

"Sheol" is rendered "Hades" throughout the Septuagint. When "Hades" is used in the NT, the readers understand this to be same as "Sheol (read: Hades)" in the OT. "Hades" in the NT is often translated into English as "Hell" ("Death" is also frequently seen to translate "Hades"). This was the basis for the KJV translation of "Sheol" as "Hell" in most cases: The Greek traslation was rendered that way, and so the Hebrew original was, too.

Posted by: Daniel at February 13, 2005 05:37 AM Permalink

There are also no explicit descriptions of "hell" in the Qu'ran-- there are oblique and scarce references to Jahim, a kind of fire, and Jehenna an open pit for the burial of the war dead. The concept of hell seems to have been developed by later islamic commentaries.

Posted by: jinnderella at February 13, 2005 07:18 AM Permalink

David, does homo sapiens need hell for some reason? Is that why we keep making it up?

Posted by: jinnderella at February 13, 2005 07:26 AM Permalink

Rachel: I don't know who made up the concept of Hell historically, but it never became a mainstream Jewish concept.

Jinnderella: Judaism never had a Hell and still doesn't. Sheol in the Bible is a geographical place with no theological significance.

I hope to talk about this more later.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at February 13, 2005 09:14 AM Permalink

Then the Jews are very special indeed-- the Greeks had hell-- don't most religions incorporate some version?

Posted by: jinnderella at February 13, 2005 03:56 PM Permalink

As a child, I was always struck by how cheap life often seemed in the Biblical stories - with the deaths of kings and other important figures glossed over in a line or two. A brief description of the burial, perhaps a summation of the character's moral worth in the eyes of God, and that was that.

Contrast this with the all-importance attributed to Christ's death in the New Testament ; it seems that, at some point, life had become much more valuable. So it's no wonder that the human soul became 'worthy' of a stylized Heaven and Hell.

Of course the influence of the pagan Elysian Fields and Tartarus can not be discounted.

Posted by: Melnorme at February 13, 2005 04:10 PM Permalink

Melnorme: I hope to get to it, but the various Jewish alternatives make the soul no less worthy than Heaven and Hell.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at February 13, 2005 04:23 PM Permalink

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