Bible Review 4:1, February 1988


Ancient Israel’s changing vision of the world beyond

By Bernhard Lang

The earliest Hebrew understanding of the cosmos grew out of prevailing Mesopotamian and Canaanite mythology. Even before the time of the Hebrews, ancient Semites pictured the world as a three-tiered structure: an upper realm of the gods (heaven), a middle world given by the gods to humans (earth) and a lower domain consisting of a great cave far below the surface of the earth (the netherworld or Sheol). While the gods inhabited heaven, and humans during life inhabited earth, Sheol housed both the dead and the infernal gods.

Although the ancients envisioned Sheol as a dark and silent place, we should not think of it as hell. A deity called Mot, “Death,” reigned there and ruled over both the dead and the infernal gods.

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