While several derivations for the Hebrew word sheʼohlʹ have been offered, apparently it is derived from the Hebrew verb sha·ʼalʹ, meaning “ask; request.” Regarding Sheol, in A Compendious Hebrew Lexicon, Samuel Pike stated that it is “the common receptacle or region of the dead; so called from the insatiability of the grave, which is as it were always asking or craving more.”
The Hebrew word sheʼohlʹ occurs 65 times in the Masoretic text. In the King James Version, it is translated 31 times as “hell,” 31 times as “grave,” and 3 times as “pit.” The Catholic Douay Version rendered the word 63 times as “hell,” once as “pit,” and once as “death.” In addition, at Isaiah 7:11 the Hebrew text originally read sheʼohlʹ, and it was rendered as “Hades” in the ancient Greek versions of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion, and as “hell” in the Douay Version.
There is no English word that conveys the precise sense of the Hebrew word sheʼohlʹ. Commenting on the use of the word “hell” in Bible translation, Collier’s Encyclopedia (1986, Vol. 12, p. 28) says: “Since Sheol in Old Testament times referred simply to the abode of the dead and suggested no moral distinctions, the word ‘hell,’ as understood today, is not a happy translation.” More recent versions transliterate the word into English as “Sheol.”
Regarding Sheol, the Encyclopædia Britannica (1971, Vol. 11, p. 276) noted: “Sheol was located somewhere ‘under’ the earth. . . . The state of the dead was one of neither pain nor pleasure. Neither reward for the righteous nor punishment for the wicked was associated with Sheol. The good and the bad alike, tyrants and saints, kings and orphans, Israelites and gentiles
While the Greek teaching of the immortality of the human soul infiltrated Jewish religious thinking in later centuries, the Bible record shows that Sheol refers to mankind’s common grave as a place where there is no consciousness. (Ec 9:4-6, 10) Those in Sheol neither praise God nor mention him. (Ps 6:4, 5; Isa 38:17-19) Yet it cannot be said that it simply represents ‘a condition of being separated from God,’ since the Scriptures render such a teaching untenable by showing that Sheol is “in front of” him, and that God is in effect “there.” (Pr 15:11; Ps 139:7, 8; Am 9:1, 2) For this reason Job, longing to be relieved of his suffering, prayed that he might go to Sheol and later be remembered by Jehovah and be called out from Sheol.
Throughout the inspired Scriptures, Sheol is continually associated with death and not life. (1Sa 2:6; 2Sa 22:6; Ps 18:4, 5; 49:7-10, 14, 15; 88:2-6; 89:48; Isa 28:15-18; also compare Ps 116:3, 7-10 with 2Co 4:13, 14.) It is spoken of as “the land of darkness” (Job 10:21) and a place of silence. (Ps 115:17) Abel apparently was the first one to go to Sheol, and since then countless millions of human dead have joined him in the dust of the ground.
On the day of Pentecost 33 C.E., the apostle Peter quoted from Psalm 16:10 and applied it to Christ Jesus. Luke, in quoting Peter’s words, used the Greek word haiʹdes, thereby showing that Sheol and Hades refer to the same thing, mankind’s common grave. (Ac 2:25-27, 29-32) During the Thousand Year Reign of Jesus Christ, Sheol, or Hades, is emptied and destroyed, through a resurrection of all of those in it.
Jonah and Sheol. In the account about Jonah, it is stated that “Jonah prayed to Jehovah his God from the inward parts of the fish and said: ‘Out of my distress I called out to Jehovah, and he proceeded to answer me. Out of the belly of Sheol I cried for help. You heard my voice.’” (Jon 2:1, 2) Therefore, Jonah was comparing the inside of the fish to Sheol. He was as good as dead inside the fish, but Jehovah brought up his life from the pit, or Sheol, by preserving him alive and having him disgorged.
Jesus compared Jonah’s being in the belly of the fish with what would happen in his own case, saying: “For just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish three days and three nights, so the Son of man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.” (Mt 12:40) Although Jesus did not here use the word “Sheol” (Hades), the apostle Peter did use the word “Hades” when referring to Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Regarding the word “Sheol,” Brynmor F. Price and Eugene A. Nida noted: “The word occurs often in the Psalms and in the book of Job to refer to the place to which all dead people go. It is represented as a dark place, in which there is no activity worthy of the name. There are no moral distinctions there, so ‘hell’ (KJV) is not a suitable translation, since that suggests a contrast with ‘heaven’ as the dwelling-place of the righteous after death. In a sense, ‘the grave’ in a generic sense is a near equivalent, except that Sheol is more a mass grave in which all the dead dwell together. . . . The use of this particular imagery may have been considered suitable here [in Jonah 2:2] in view of Jonah’s imprisonment in the interior of the fish.”